Kokanee, The Red Fish

AS FEATURED IN THE APRIL ISSUE OF THE MACK ATTACK MAGAZINE. SUBSCRIBE FOR FREE.


I've been going over my fishing notes, figuring out what makes Kokanee attack lures. They strike a lure for basic reasons of hunger, reaction, anger, spawn and territorial behavior. Salmon are attracted to the lure by degree of action, smell, noise, water displacement, size, color and visibility. A primary understanding of this will allow you to be successful under all conditions on any water for the fish commercial fishermen called Blue Back and American First Nations call Kokanee, the Red Fish.

There are few natural stocks of Kokanee and most have originated from hatcheries.  Kokanee require much less time in hatcheries to reach a suitable size for planting than species like rainbow trout. Allowing increased production provides greater benefit to the numbers available to the angler and increased efficiency to fisheries' operations. This accounts for the growing increase of Kokanee waters and stocking projects available today.

Hatchery sourced fish display of mixture of all the genetics of their species. Anglers should also be aware that Kokanee have a one- to seven-year life span. The biological rule is they trend to source, i.e. two-year cycle source parents have mostly two-year cycle offspring. Most four-year cycle fish, because of their size, are preferred for hatchery production. Generally speaking, fish stocks can, and do, produce all life spans and sizes with trends representing the source. Kokanee, with good food and proper environmental conditions, can become trophies, legends and giants close to 10 pounds!

Food resource is next in determining the quality, size and maturity of Kokanee. Environmental stability is critical for both food and survival of this keystone species of salmon. Algae negatively affects food production, destroys oxygen levels, reduces food resource and chemically pollutes fish stocks, especially sensitive species like Kokanee. Planktons, "tiny, microscopic organisms," provide the life diet for this salmon. Algae, a plant mater, feeds on nitrates provided either naturally or by pollution, which depletes this food resource for planktons. As algae blooms grow, they increase water temperature, reduce both sunlight and oxygen required for all aquatic life, and warms water beyond normal temperatures, destroying conditions that maintain all fish stocks.

Temperature is the most critical environmental standard for prolific Kokanee fisheries. Natural lakes provide a great stability, but with spawning, they can overproduce numbers and result in smaller sized Kokanee. Notably, reservoirs have the greatest environmental changes and can cause extreme loss in numbers of fish available to anglers. Morbidity from temperature accounts for the largest percentage of Kokanee loss in all waters. Ideal temperature for Kokanee is 42 to 54 degrees Fahrenheit. Current studies show that even adult fish are not able to recover from catch and release and will die when surface temperatures reach 70 degrees. Winter draw down in reservoirs has adverse effects as the temperature stability is compromised, causing notable losses. Predation from other fish also has a negative effect on the numbers that reach a mature size. Populations can, and do, survive in viable numbers on most waters, but angler harvest and water management practices inherently have the greatest effect on the quality and numbers in Kokanee stocks.

It is very important to note that food resource and temperature stability are the differences between a 10-incher and a 10-pound giant. These two environs do not account for stimuli needed in action, smell, noise, water displacement, color and visibility in the most successful offerings used to capture this salmon. Attention to these details may well be the difference between the finest salmon dinner you will ever enjoy or a cup of veggie soup. My heroes would rather clean fish at the dock than dazzle with lavish stories. So I won’t expound further with Latin terms or a more aggressive lesson in physiology. Now, on to the more serious details on equipment, attraction and presentation.

Equipment choices are critical, after all you never know when a fish of a life time will volunteer for a trip in your boat. Topping the list is a quality sonar or fish finder. Kokanee anglers must know the precise depth, speed and location of the salmon to be successful. Be sure to read the instruction manual and be familiar with operating and reading the unit. The depth cursor is a handy feature to average the depth of fish and being able to see the exact depth of your downrigger ball is also paramount to ensure proper presentation. Rainbow usually print in open water as a ladder of fish arcs. Kokanee, in open or deep water, will print as a group of closely scattered dashes. I hope these tips help you to understand what you see on the locator. One final item: "fish finders do not lie. If you're not seeing fish, it is because they are not there, so go look for fish at another location.

There are many different types of trolling rods that are suitable for this adventure with salmon. Ultra-light rods are popular, but may not be the complete answer for Kokanee angling. Oh, yes "you can use an ultra-light trolling rod and be successful using a basic lure with long line or downrigger presentations. Ultra-lights are rated for lighter action and lure weights of ¼ to ¾ ounce, which doesn’t include weights from dodgers or trolls, and the water resistance these rigs produce. The soft mouth of this fish further compounds problems in maintaining hook ups. Fish after fish can be lost due to line slack when the rod is incapable of maintaining proper tension on the setup. Matching the recommended rods, action and lure weight to trolling setups is a step toward the solution to increase your catch rate. Rods rated from ¾ to 1 ounce in medium action, with a fast taper and soft tip, are excellent for the presentations used in trolling for Kokanee.

Most often, a good quality level wind is desired, but consideration to a line counter style reel is valued with downriggers and long line presentations for precise trolling. Main running lines are generally a match to the presentation used and 10 pound test is often preferred. Kokanee are not line or leader shy but color defines their world and clear line is best. Ponder the line diameter, larger line size translates to more water resistance or drag when trolling, so thin diameter line is a plus for main trolling line. Planning and purpose should be given to rod, reel and line for any complete and effective angling presentation. This is especially true for Kokanee, as precise depth presentations are critical to success.

Attractors are available in many sizes and styles for Kokanee angling. Basic groups are flashers (rotate in a circle), dodgers (side to side action) and inline trolls (spinner blades). These are some favorites you won’t want to leave at the dock: the Sling Blade™ and the Double D™ Dodger. Both made in the U.S. with stainless steel, they give the best flash and optimum weight for the perfect presentations. The Sling Blade™ is best at speeds of 1 to 3.5 mph and can be tuned by slightly increasing the length-wise bend. The Double D™ Dodger is not recommended for tuning and performs best at speeds of 1 to 2 ½ mph. The Double D™ has five attachment points that allows the dodger to swim out from under the boat, thus giving superior offerings for spooked or shallow fish, and work excellent as a side planer when fishing multiple rods. Different attachment points also causes the Double D™ to have slightly different actions for perfecting presentations. The Double D™ and the Sling Blade™ come in several fish attracting sizes and colors to match water conditions and fish preference. Remember, the golden rule for dodgers and flashers is your leader length; "longer leaders will result in slower action, shorter leaders put out a faster action and heavier leaders benefit from increased lure action.

Smile Blades® are versatile in size, flash, and vibration, and will enhance any lure or bait. Better  yet, they come in great colors,  including the three new UV colors: "copper, lemon lime and purple haze Preferred sizes for Kokanee are 0.8-, 1.1-, 1.5- or 1.9-inches. As a reminder, rig these with a small bead placed on your leader first so they will spin properly. Smile Blades® can be changed easily on leader rigs and trying different sizes or colors is highly recommended for success. Smile Blades® spin at much slower speeds than metal blades and effective speeds are effective at speeds as slow as 1/4 miles per hour. Kokanee can't resist a Smile Blade®.

Lures are the hope that every fisherman has at the end of their string. Kokanee offerings range from ¼ to 6 inches in effective sizes. Lures have five categories: top water (floating lures), jigs (Rock Dancer®), crank baits (Wiggle Hoochie™), spoons (Sonic Baitfish™, Cripplure™, Hum Dinger®) and plastic baits (hoochies or squids). Thus far, I haven’t caught a Kokanee with a top water lure but anything is possible (and it's on my bucket list). Organizing your lures by category will help in selection of effective presentations and give you versatility, which is key to success.

For your information, a quick side note about hook size and color: using larger hooks increases the hook gap, hooking fish better and ultimately puts more fish in the boat. Using too small of a hook or treble often does not penetrate deep enough, and is the primary reason to losing fish during the fight. Inactive fish side swipe the lure, hooking them on the lip or face, generally outside the mouth. Active fish will bite, taking the lure or hooks inside the mouth. Hook size is relative to fish size, and if you’re losing fish, try a different sized hook.

Kokanee respond paramount to color, size, vibration, action, smell and speed in presentations. The color of your offering is the most important piece of this puzzle. Kokanee prefer fluorescent or bright colors over most natural colors. UV colors further enhance color and help improve appearance in the blue/green spectrum that aquatic life visualizes. This works much like a neon does for drawing attention from us. Attention given to the dodger and/or flasher and the lure are critical factors for any presentation. Flash color is a big factor in attracting fish and, yes, silver is a color. Note here that chrome, silver and stainless material affect the intensity and brightness of the flash. Stainless is preferred because of its light weight and superior flash in dodgers and flashers. As a rule, brighter solid colors work well from the surface to about 20 feet of water and complex or multi colors work best from 20 to 60 feet of water. My favorite colors for deep water are blues, glows and darker pinks. A personal favorite is Fire Tiger and Fire Tiger Glow early in the spring. Adding bait to the hooks is another sure method and adding color can make even bigger differences in the number of hook ups. Here’s an idea: replace the hooks on your rig with a Glo® Hook. The very best presentations have details and color always works.

Size rules apply here and is important and very effective with squid presentations ranging from 1.5 to 3 inches. The profile or size of the squid lure is decisive for time of year and time of day with differences noted at as little as ¼ inch. Active Kokanee will take a large profile lure when feeding and a small profile lure when inactive. Inline spinners like the Smile Blade® produce both flash, vibration and profile to aid in attracting fish to this offering. Again different sizes should be part of your arsenal.

Smell, given thru bait or scent, enhances any presentation. Maggots (real or artificial), shoe peg corn, earthworms and a variety of scent products are preferred baits for Kokanee.

Action is another critical factor, as it incites feeding behaviors and instinctive strikes. Differing degrees of action can be imparted to the lure using dodgers and/or flashers, crank bait style lures and spoons. Speed kills, for sure, when triggering Kokanee. Faster presentations are often key because they increase lure and attractor actions. Most often, speed becomes the effective and preferred key during the warm summer months, but is critical year round. Consider this: Kokanee, like all fish, move away from, or out from under, the boat. This is apparent when fish are shallow or spooked from a motor, sonar noise, boat traffic or unstable weather. Keeping the lure in front of them is the game.

Compounding this is the consideration that Kokanee feed, strike and move on a horizontal plane. They rarely move more than 2 feet vertically to chase or bite a lure. Adding a black box for electrolysis will aid in condensing active fish at the depth of the downrigger ball with the lure. Thus, precise depth presentations are most critical to success. Speeds of 1 mph to 6 mph will get the job done, but the speed is often determined and limited by the presentation. Dodger presentations do not work well with higher speeds because of water resistance and loss of action. Whereas lures like spoons or crank baits fished alone will produce at higher speed.

Kokanee are followers of current like all salmon. Natural lakes have an up and down welling of these currents, and fish will often be at depths of 100 feet of water or greater. Reservoir impoundments have currents on or near the river channel. Deep open water is a preferred Kokanee habitat, so begin looking in these areas for fish and note the proximity to these structure keys. This might not be the entire story, but it gives anglers a start on where and how to look for fish.

Well, that's enough for now. Remember, lifting people up in life is better than pushing people below your place in the world. Now get out there and catch a bunch and if you should see my boss tell him or her I’m working hard. I’ll see you at the lake!

AS FEATURED IN THE APRIL ISSUE OF THE MACK ATTACK MAGAZINE. SUBSCRIBE FOR FREE.