Hooked on Kokanee!

Fishing expert Todd Martin explains some deadly trolling tactics for B.C.'s land-locked Salmon!

My Kokanee Addiction:
Story and Photos by: Todd Martin

Pursuing kokanee is like assembling a puzzle, where every day, the pieces change shape and color. It can drive you mad, but the rewards for unlocking their daily preferences are worth it. Kokanee are a tailor made fish for the trolling inclined, family oriented angler. They are plentiful, hit lures well and are very tasty. Kokanee are land-locked sockeye salmon, and because of this lineage, are better fighters than similar sized rainbow trout. Their antics wreak havoc once you get them close to the boat. Their bright, silver sides make them a very attractive game fish and their tendency to school up can provide very productive time on the water. All these attributes combine to create the kokanee addiction.

- Kokanee are a great family fishery. This limit of five was caught
by the author in two hours!

Ask any avid kokanee angler and they’ll agree fishing for kokanee can be both frustrating and productive, in the same afternoon. They are a nice alternative from rainbow trout. Rainbows will tend to hug the shallow, shoreline portions of a lake in pursuit of minnows and insects. Kokanee will patrol the deeper sections of a lake feeding almost exclusively on zoo-plankton. Often the best time to fish for kokanee is when rainbow trout fishing slows down due to the summer doldrums. An experienced kokanee angler can go from zero fish in the boat to a full limit in an hour if you find aggressive feeders. If I am taking newbies or kids out for a day of trolling, I will usually visit a lake that holds kokanee. Once you find them, you can get non-stop action that keeps everyone happy. A kokanee bite is not a half-hearted tap-tap. They more often slam your trolled lures with reckless abandon.

Attributes of Kokanee:

To productively fish for kokanee in B.C., you need to understand what makes them tick. They have several attributes that can be exploited. You need to be constantly thinking about these, especially if your offerings are merely swimming through the water and not being eaten. Kokanee feed almost exclusively on zoo-plankton, which are a collection of small to microscopic organisms. Zoo-plankton often congregate in a narrow band of the water column, and this is where you will find the kokanee.

Zoo-plankton are light sensitive and will move throughout the water column, dependent on the amount of sunlight. Early and late in the day, or if overcast, they will be shallower. During mid-day or in bright sunshine, they will be deeper. You need to constantly monitor your fish-finder to locate the schools of kokanee as conditions change throughout the day.

Kokanee are aggressive, territorial and curious to a fault. They have an instinct to chase or eat something before a rival does it for them. This is why they hit trolled lures so well. The flash and vibration from lures combined with dodgers and trolled willow leaf lake trolls through a school of kokanee can simply drive them wild. Double headers are common when kokanee fishing as they race to attack the intruding object.

Kokanee have a preference for much colder water than rainbow trout. You can often find them in band of water that provides temperatures in the 50ºF – 54ºF range. This is why you find kokanee in the middle, deeper portions of the lakes they inhabit. Typical depths ranges for Kokanee are 20 – 50 feet deep, but you may have to chase them even deeper. During the summer doldrums when the thermocline layer develops in most lakes, you will find kokanee suspended at or slightly below this layer, which is where the warm surface water meets the deeper colder water.

Fishing Equipment:

There are some key differences in fishing equipment required for kokanee, as opposed to rainbow trout. The number one priority of a serious kokanee angler is to outfit your boat with the best fish-finding electronics you can afford. You need to be able to accurately detect the schools of kokanee at depth, and if you have a sensitive unit you may be able to pick up the thermocline layer when it develops in the summer. If you are fishing 15 feet above them, you will not get much action.

The second key piece of equipment is a down rigger. Once you have detected that the fish are holding at a certain depth you need to be able to get your lures down to that depth quickly and with precision. If kokanee are cruising at 45 feet, get your downrigger ball down to 40 – 42 feet. Always troll slightly above the fish. Fish look up much better than down. Scotty has the best equipment you can buy whether you want a manual unit for a small boat or an electric unit for easy retrieval in deeper water. I use a Scotty model 1101 with an eight pound ball and it’s more than enough for fishing B.C.’s bigger Kokanee lakes.

An alternative to get your gear down to the kokanee kitchen is using lead core line. It’s a cost effective, basic system that I still use often. I often prefer lead line trolling for fewer hassles. Most lead core lines sink at a rate of five feet per color, so if you want to reach 25 feet in depth, let out five colors of lead line. I load it on a large arbour fly reel and attach that to a limber downrigger rod for kokanee trolling fun.

Shock absorption is another aspect of kokanee angling that you must be familiar with. Kokanee have a soft mouth, are famous for coming to the boat quickly, and fighting hard in close quarters combat. This is when you lose fish and why some kind of suppression is needed to keep you hooked up. Dedicated kokanee anglers use an in-line rubber snubber or piece of surgical tubing as a shock absorber. Most rod manufacturers offer soft rod actions specifically for kokanee. Soft action means over half of the rod will flex, not just the tip. Now the rod becomes the snubber. Think of it as trolling with a noodle opposed to a broom handle. My favorite kokanee rod is the Lamiglas CG70DR. It’s a light seven foot rod with the soft action characteristics that make fighting kokanee pure joy.

Terminal Tackle:

Of course you can use whatever trout set-up you have to go trolling for kokanee, but, if you get the addiction like I have, you’ll want kokanee specific gear to improve your success rate. There is no need for heavy line. Six to ten pound test is more than enough. Keep the terminal tackle as light as possible to enjoy the fight of these feisty land-locked salmon.

The old reliable of B.C. kokanee fishing set-ups is the willow leaf lake troll with a wedding ring spinner and worm tipped hook. This still works great, but there have been some gear advancement’s that will lighten the load. Small four inch long dodgers have now become the preferred attractant device over the willow leaf. They are smaller versions of salmon flashers that sway from side to side, rather than spin like a flasher. These dodgers are easy to use, and come in hundreds of styles and colors. Attach your lure with an 18 – 24 inch leader behind the dodger and you are ready to go.

Dodgers attract kokanee in three ways. They provide a visual flash; they provide vibrations which fish can sense, and they give your trolled lure a surging action that drives kokanee insane. They are designed to trigger both the curiosity and competitive nature of kokanee. Some of my preferred dodgers are from Luhr-Jensen, Mack’s Lure, Crystal Basin Tackle and Shasta Tackle. The Shasta Tackle sling-blade dodger is my favorite as you can shape it to get more or less surging action on your lure. Don’t forget the Gibbs/Delta Willow Leaf. They still work and often you will see kokanee pro’s run them off the downrigger ball as a pure attractant to lure fish in.

Lures for kokanee are as diverse as the candy isle in the grocery store. Think small and shiny. Red, pink, orange, purple and silver lures all work well. Kokanee feeding habits and moods change in a heartbeat, so what worked yesterday may not produce today. Have a wide variety of lures in different colors and sizes to experiment as needed. One key factor that increases success is to match the color of your lure to your dodger.

- Think smal, bright and shiny when selecting lures. This Kokanee
took a Luhr-Jensen Needelfish lure.

Some of my favorite kokanee lures are the Luhr-Jensen Needlefish, Gibbs/Delta FST, Lucky Bug bingo-bug and Tomic Wee-Tad. For a new spin on an old standby, try the Kokanee Pro Wedding Ring by Mack’s Lure. In recent years, hoochies have been found to be effective for kokanee. Their dangling tentacles become ever more enticing when trolled behind a surging dodger. Shasta Tackle, Vance’s, Mack’s Lure and numerous others manufacture these smaller kokanee hoochies that are my new go-to lure at any kokanee lake.

Trolling Tactics:

Forget the shoreline; you’re not trolling for trout. Fire up your fish finder, head for open water, and watch for the schools of kokanee. A good trolling starting depth would be 25 feet. In spring the fish will be shallower and in mid-summer they will be deeper. You need to be where that comfortable band of 50ºF – 54ºF water temperature is, and this is in the deeper central parts a lake. It’s completely different thinking from trolling for trout, so you need to hit the reboot button on your tactics.

I’ll often troll with two rods when searching for fish on a new lake. One with a lure at 20 feet and the other with a hoochie at 30 feet. You need to be constantly experimenting with color combinations and depths to locate the fish. Troll as slow as you can to start and change speeds if you are not getting action. I find a faster trolling speed is the ticket if the fish are inactive. If you need to slow your boat or need help triggering the bite, chart a zig-zag pattern. Kokanee are notoriously curious and will often follow your presentation for several minutes transfixed by your shiny offerings. A sudden turn or change of speed frequently triggers a voracious strike.

Look for other boats and watch what they do. Remember, kokanee will school up and move about the lake in nomadic herds in constant search of plankton. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice at the boat launch. The locals know where the hot spots are. Give everyone plenty of room and enjoy the camaraderie. If you get some action and it stops, you’ve lost the school. Turn around and head in the opposite direction and try to reconnect with them. Being a successful kokanee angler requires constant effort. You always need to be thinking about location, depth, water temperature, lure color and trolling speed.

Tricks of the Trade:

Supplemental baits and scents often entice kokanee into feeding. Scent attractant technology has gone wild in the past few years. Companies like Pro-Cure create odoriferous sticky gel’s that have UV glow particles embedded within. It’s just another tool in the toolbox. My preferred scents are the shrimp / krill, herring and kokanee special. I was a skeptic for years about scent. Now I would never troll a kokanee hoochie without first applying a generous portion of Pro-Cure krill super gel before dropping it in the water. Tipping your lure with a bit of worm or corn can often make the difference between a skunk and a productive outing. Try Pautzke Fire Corn for a competitive advantage.

When you have a kokanee on the line, relax, hum a few bars of Kum-Ba-Yah and begin a slow, steady retrieve. Resist the urge to set the hook. Once kokanee begin their top water aerobatics, hooks pull out of their mouth with annoying regularity. Set your drag a couple clicks lighter than when trolling for trout. This helps your hook to land ratio. Most kokanee will come right to the boat, and then begin their struggle within two net lengths. This is where you will lose your fair share. When you do, utter a quiet curse, and get your line back in the water right away.

B.C’s Best Kokanee Lakes:

Kokanee are found in most regions of our province. In the Vancouver coastal region, Alouette, Chilliwack and Kawkawa lakes are very productive. In the Thompson-Okanagan, try Monte, Stump, Kalamalka and Okanagan Lakes. In the Cariboo, Deka, Bridge, Horse, Timothy and Chimney lakes are all good producers. In the Kootenays, drop your line in the Arrow and Kootenay lakes. There are plenty of others. A good place to start is to check the gofishbc.com website and find out where the FFSBC is stocking kokanee.

Now you have most of the pieces for the kokanee puzzle. All you need to do is get on the water and properly assemble them. Focus on combining several attractant strategies at the proper depth and you’ll draw them in like moths to a flame. When you do, you’ll be hooked, and catch the kokanee addiction.

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Author Bio: Todd Martin is a well known outdoor writer and angler who lives and writes about the wild splendor of British Columbia, Canada. Todd resides in Maple Ridge and specializes salt water and fresh water fishing for Salmon, Trout, Char and Kokanee. Visit him at www.martinoutdoors.ca

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