In British Columbia we have the privilege to have numerous healthy Kokanee Fisheries throughout the province. These landlocked Sockeye fish not only provide an excellent sport angling experience but they are fantastic table fare too! To become a successful Kokanee angler you must first understand Kokanee habitat, life cycle, and the behaviour of these fish. Even in some of the most abundance of Kokanee waters experienced anglers can have difficulties catching them. Many anglers believe that fishing for Kokanee is similar to fishing for trout, even though some of the traditional methods and terminal tackle are similar; fishing for Kokanee is much different.
In North America Kokanee are found throughout the far western regions of Canada and the USA. These chrome beauties are a popular sport fish in BC, only second to Rainbow Trout. The average size of Kokanee in BC ranges from 7 to 10 inches, but can reach over 20 inches in healthy ideal Kokanee fisheries. They are a fragile fish that require a well balanced water system of numerous contributing factors to survive. They do not handle catch and release well and their mortality rate is high even when handled and released the correct way. It is encouraged to limit fishing for Kokanee to the casual appetite for table fare and not to just fill a freezer. Releasing the fish while they are still in the water is the best way to help with their survival rate when not being harvested.
Life Cycle & Habitat
Kokanee feed on plankton, but mainly on Zooplankton (very small aquatic animals). They filter Zooplankton from the water by using numerous fine combs on their gills, called gill rakers. The word Kokanee comes from the Kootenay First Nation word meaning “red fish”. The Kokanee’s red flesh is caused by the carotenes found in the skeletal structures of the Zooplankton that they eat. Zooplankton is light sensitive and will only move up in the water coloumn during low light periods. As the day gets brighter they will go deeper and the Kokanee will follow. Kokanee at times will also feed on other forage such as small insects, larvae, plants and sometimes shrimp.
Depending on the Kokanee strain they can live between 4 to 7 years. Majority of Kokanee spawn on their 4th year and like salmon they die off after the spawn. From August to December mature Kokanee make their way into streams and lake shores to spawn. During the spawn the fish transform in appearance from their nickel silver colour to green and red, very similar to Sockeye Salmon. You can tell the difference between the males from the females due to the male’s long jaws, large teeth and hooked snout (The Kype).
Water Temp & Preferred Depths
Kokanee inhabit mainly in the mid depths of the open water. They prefer water with temperatures below 54F degrees within the water column. Water temp is very important to a Kokanee’s life cycle and survival. Temperatures over 55 degrees can be harmful to these fish and can even be lethal. The Kokanee’s biology works best between 50F-54F. This temp provides the most efficient growth for feeding and less amount of energy is consumed for their daily survival. This is why when angling for Kokanee finding the right water temp within the water coloumn will help you locate more fish.
During spring Kokanee cruise the shallow waters next to the shorelines as it provides preferred water temperatures and forage small enough to feed upon.
In the warmer months Kokanee will be suspended within the thermocline of the lake. The thermocline is a narrow band in the lake in which the warmer surface water and deeper colder water meets. This area is also usually enriched with dissolved oxygen, which is also vital for any type of fish. On the warmer summer days positioning your presentation within or just above the thermocline will increase your results.
Finding the thermocline can be somewhat difficult if your boat is not equipped with the correct electronics. Try increasing the sensitivity level of your sonar and look for any consistent disturbance within the water depths. There are also affordable angler thermometers on the market that you can lower into the water and find the different temperature levels. When all else fails, just keep adjusting your depth of presentation until you start to get action. Take the average depth of the fish that you are seeing on the sonar and have that as your initial target depth.
As the warmer months start to come to an end and autumn approaches the mature Kokanee prepare for spawn. They will start to move into the shallower waters to start the process. During this time of year it is best to not target these fish. If fishing the waters avoid the shallow waters, creek mouths and gravel inlets as this is where the adult spawning Kokanee will be found. As mentioned before, these fish have a high mortality rate when caught and released.
Trolling for Kokanee
By far the most effective way to target this fish is by trolling. Fly fishing can be successful in the spring while Kokanee are cruising the shorelines, but majority of the open water season trolling is the most productive approach. Trolling also allows you to cover a large amount of water in a short period of time. Use your electronics to discover the schools of fish and correct trolling depths (as mentioned above).
Trolling Speeds & Presentation
Being alert to trolling speeds is vital when fishing for Kokanee. Slower trolling will produce the best results. Speeds from 1mph to 1.5mph are usually most effective. If having challenges slowing down your boat enough you can drag a drift sock or bucket behind the boat to help slow it down. Kokanee are also forage for bigger fish such a Rainbow Trout, Lake Trout, and Burbot. Due to this, Kokanee are programmed to flee from larger fish. Fast aggressive flashers or dodgers moving through the water can present as a threat to Kokanee causing them to take off.
Kokanee are a curious fish and they want to know what is going on within their environment. They are aggressive in manner and want to control what is going on. They are attracted to certain vibrations and then to colours. Colours, contrast and objects that don’t exist naturally in their environment will tend to attract Kokanee as long as they don’t feel threaten by it.
When trolling for Kokanee your goal should be to position your presentation at a targeted depth to obtain two reactions; an attraction and a striking reaction. Kokanee have three primary characteristics that they use to detect sound. The first two are the inner ears and a lateral line on each side of the fish. The third is a long air bladder that is much longer than most freshwater fish. They use these three sounds detecting characteristics to find where the sound is coming from. The air bladder is used primarily to pick up on long distance (far away) sounds and the inner ear and lateral lines are used to pick up on short distance (near) sounds.
The tackle used to create an attraction response is items like dodgers and flashers. This setup is the most important part of your presentation. The dodgers and flashers create displacement within the water; this then creates a sound wave that the Kokanee will be attracted to through their air bladder. The speed and size of the dodger or flasher will determine the size of wave that is created.
Short distance (near) sounds that draw the Kokanee in for a striking reaction is created by the lure. Lures such as wedding bands, spinners and small spoons like needle fish all create the shorter sounds that help the Kokanee zone in for the strike.
Creating a presentation that creates both of these types of sounds that complement each other is the goal. The dodger or flasher will attract the fish and the lure will entice the bite!
Understanding Colour and Light Conditions
Just as important to creating the right sounds to attract Kokanee, the right colour of the presentation is essential. The sound will attract the Kokanee to your setup from far away distances and colour plays an important role in short distance attraction. For near by attraction Kokanee also use their eyes and field of vision to determine shape, contrast and colour. Using sounds and colours that stand out from the rest of the underwater environment will help stimulate the Kokanee’s attention.
The importance of colour under the water is really about the contrast of how the fish sees your presentation. This is why understanding how colours shift and change under water is important. The deeper your setup is presented in the water, the less light there is to reflect the colours. For example, the colour red will dissipate within 10 to 20 feet of water depending on clarity. Colours will start to turn into shades of grey the deeper they are presented. Different colours will retain their colours and contrast depending on the light wave lengths needed to reflect. Water clarity and light levels contribute to how deep the colours will reflect within the water column. Red, Orange and Yellow will disappear first in that order. Then Purple, green and blue. So if you were fishing within 65 feet of water you would want to use blue over red as the blue would present more contrast and colour to the fish, were red would be faded out due to the lack of light. Matching up the colour of the dodger and lures to the depth in which you are fishing will also increase the attraction of your presentation.
Glow and UV Lures
When Kokanee fishing there will be times that you will be fishing up to 100 feet deep. At this point all ordinary colours have dissipated and it is difficult for the fish to find your presentation. In the past few years the use of Glow lures has been very popular. These lures easily stand out in the depths and provide a vivid source of contrast which attracts the fish.
UV lures are fluorescent in colour and they require much less light to hold their colour and contrast underwater. For example; an ordinary red lure would lose it’s colour within 20 feet of water, but a fluorescent UV red lure would retain it’s colour up to 40 feet. (Depending on water clarity). So choosing lures that are marked UV or Fluorescent will help your setup stand out that much more.
Tackle & Fishing Techniques
There are numerous types of available Kokanee tackle on the market and it is hard to list them all. As noted above, always think of your presentation in a two part setup. The dodger or flasher that creates the far away attraction and the lure that creates the nearby attraction to seal the deal.
In your tackle box it is good to have a variety of Dodgers and Flashers of various sizes and colours. The traditional “gang troll or cow bell” flashers will produce well followed with a wedding ring lure when the fish are scattered. However this “pop gear” is heavy and there has been much advancements in Kokanee tackle that allow an ultra light fishing option. Using small dodgers between 3 to 5 inches long followed with a small presentations such as a Kokanee Hoochie, small spoons like a Humdinger produce excellent when the fish are schooled up. No matter which presentation you are using a rubber snubber is important when you are not using a Ultra Light Kokanee rod, as Kokanee have very soft mouths. The snubber will help reduce the amount of fish that will rip off the lure and will also prevent damage to the fish’s mouth. Fishing rods that are made specifically for Kokanee fishing do not require these snubbers as the action on the rod is super light and allow for maximum flexibility allowing to absorb the fish’s fight without ripping out the hook.
Keep adjusting leader lengths to find the length that works the best. In the spring Kokanee tend to like longer leaders, where in the summer shorter leaders produce well as there is more action. The closer the lure is to the dodger the more darting action will be given to the lure. Kokanee, like Sockeye Salmon like the colour red! Sometimes changing out hooks and adding a red hook to the lure will produce more hits. For more information on leader lengths and dodgers for Kokanee check out our Basics of Kokanee Dodgers Video & Article.
Bait & Scent: Bait can help increase bites as it provides scent that the Kokanee will target to. Scent will not attract Kokanee from a far distance, but it will increase the nearby attraction once the fish has seen your presentation. Bait will also help reduce the “human smell” from the lure which does repel fish. Good baits to use when Kokanee fishing is live Pink Maggots, Power Bait Gulp synthetic maggots, Fire Corn and cured & dyed white shoepeg corn. Some of the most popular Pro- Cure scents for Kokanee are Kokanee Special, Krill, Shrimp and Bloody Tuna Garlic.
Trolling tips: Always troll in a way that will give your presentation an erratic action such as ‘S’ patterns. Trolling in a straight line does not produce well. When trolling in large curves the movement of the boat creates sporadic action to your presentations in the water. As you turn right, the inside right line will slow and sink deeper; the left line will speed up and move up in the water. These various speeds and movements will tempt the Kokanee to strike. Clicking the motor from drive into neutral and allowing the lures to sink, and then back into drive bringing them back up again can also produce strikes.
Downriggers can be a Kokanee angler’s best friend as it allows you to target exact depths in the lake. If you don’t have access to a downrigger be sure to have a various collection of weights between ½ to 4 ounces. When using online weight make sure to count how many feet is out; this way when you are successful at catching fish you can repeat the pattern and depth.
The rod of choice should be a light action rod with lots of play. The flex in the rod helps keep the Kokanee from ripping off, similar to how the rubber snubber works. The main line can be a light test braid or monofilament in the 8-10lbs test diameter.
Kokanee fishing can sometimes be challenging but once you get your presentation just right to the conditions you will have a lot of fun bringing them into the boat. Some days will be much easier than others but keep applying the methods listed above and you will have consistent results. You can find Kokanee stocking reports in BC by checking out www.gofishbc.com. Don’t forget to share your Kokanee fishing pictures on the BC Fishn Facebook page!