How to Catch Kokanee
Kokanee Fishing Techniques
Fishing for Kokanee Salmon has never been more popular. Every week thousands of fishermen target this highly prized fish in the Western lakes and reservoirs. The techniques for catching kokanee have also been refined as more guides and professionals seek them and as big money kokanee derbies gain in popularity. These chapters present an accumulation of material from three of the top kokanee fishermen in North America:
Phillip Johnson - author, kokanee researcher and founder of Kokanee Power, a non profit kokanee restoration organization.
Vance Staplin - Guide and manufacturer of kokanee lures and attractors.
Wayne Douma - Guide and top winner of kokanee derbies.
We will address kokanee techniques in several sections.
Most kokanee are taken on small lures or bugs trolled either by themselves or behind a
kokanee dodger. Kokanee are attackers. Some large solitary fish are very territorial. They
will attack strange intruders as long as they believe they have the advantage. If kokanee feel
they are outnumbered they will stay away from your lures. In some bodies of water you will find
kokanee tightly schooled. In others they will be found
almost one by one.
Kokanee are unlike any other fish. They are primarily plankton feeders, and also feed on tiny
mysis shrimp. Since they do not readily feed on minnows, lures or standard bait, kokanee must
be targeted specifically. Larger kokanee are very territorial. Kokanee are attackers. What
triggers this attack seems to be the right style of lure in the right color for the moment. Corn and
scent seem to be the final key to triggering an attack.
The material presented here will give you some proven guidelines to follow for taking kokanee.
However, kokanee can be very unpredictable. What works one day may not work the next. If your marking fish and not catching them don't be afraid to experiment. Good Luck!
2. Downriggers, Rods, Reels and Fishfinders
Rods and Reels
This is a personal preference. Most fishermen choose rods in the 7 to 7 1/2 foot range, either light action fiberglass or graphite with a sensitive tip tapering to a more powerful butt. Level-wind reels are preferred.
Buy the ones with the best drags you can find. The Kokanee will not wear your drags out.
Lowering your luresdown the downrigger will. A worn drag soon gets herky-jerky. This will pull
your line out of thesensitive downrigger release clip you'll need to catch kokanee. A bad drag
will drive you crazy,and cost you lots of fishing time. Spinning reels are not popular with the
experts. In the handsof an inexperienced angler a spinning reel can cause excessive line twist
while fighting a fishand can cost you fish. Since no casting is involved in this fishery a
level-wind reel is quicklymastered by all. Most kokanee fishermen will use line in eight to ten
pound test both for mainline and leader. Green colored line is preferred. On rare occasions
(in extremely clear lakes) the experts will will go down to six- and even four-pound leaders, but only if absolutely necessary. Be careful of the new "no stretch" lines. They can create too much pull on a kokanee's soft mouth.
Electronic Fish Finders
This is an absolute must for serious lake trolling, and especially so for chasing kokanee. This may be painful to hear, but many fish finder models do not work well for kokanee. What you need in a fishfinder for kokanee is lots of power and pixels. The power is necessary for your fish finder to shoot a wide cone. The wider the cone, the more area under your boat you can read. If you purchase an inexpensive fish finder ($150 to $300 range) they usually come with an 18 degree cone. This is fine for shallow water bass fishing. But when you set your fish finder to read between 20 to 100 feet of water an 18 degree cone at 20 feet will only read a 6.36 foot circle, at 40 feet a 12 foot circle and a 100ft a 32 foot circle. Wider cones are preferred so that you can see kokanee that may only be twenty to thirty feet down. Furuno has available a 48.6 degree cone. This powerful cone reads a circle 17 feet wide at 20 feet, 34.5 feet wide at 40 feet ,and 86 feet wide at 100 feet. It is critical to know if you are passing over kokanee, and if they are not biting your lures. The more area you can see under your boat will enable you to make the decisions on what to use and what to change. You must have power and pixels to get the electronic information you need. The detailed pixels will allow you to distinguish kokanee blips from king salmon and rainbows. Fish finders cannot read through air. Most fish have air bladders. The locator beam put out by your fish finder passes through water but cannot pass through air. Fish finders read the air bladder of a fish, and the image is bounced back to you. For their size kokanee have very large, cylindrical air bladders that run the entire length of their body cavity. The air bladder on a king salmon is long and thin because it is partially atrophied or collapsed. It is a longer broken up image on your fishfinder. Rainbows have larger bladders but a completely different shape than a king or kokanee. A better fish finder can accurately read and consistently distinguish between the electronic image of a kokanee, king or rainbow. Once you get used to it you can selectively target kokanee and not waste your time with other species.
Downriggers are an absolute must for successful kokanee fishing. On light tackle kokanee are spectacular fighters. To enjoy this fight downriggers are a must. You can purchase dependable hand crank downriggers from as little as $80 dollars to the fancier electric models ranging from $300 to $800 dollars. There is
very little pleasure trolling for kokanee with a tuna rod, lead, a three foot long tandem
flasher blade combination and a lure tipped with bait. With this type of heavy tackle
all enjoyment of fighting a fish is lost. In fact the rod required to haul all this junk
around is so stout that most often the angler does not observe the initial strike
and trolls a hooked fish around for hours. Eventually they reel up a drowned, dead
fish. With a downrigger, not only are you placing your baited lure at the precise depth
where you are marking fish but upon a strike the downrigger release clip pops your
line free allowing you to freely fight your fish on light tackle. Since you are trolling
extremely slow for kokanee a four, six or eight pound trolling ball is all you will need. Be sure to
use enough weight to make your downrigger cable run straight up and down while trolling. If your cable is running back at any kind of angle you will not be trolling the depth you are reading. Finned or rudder type downrigger balls are popular. Be sure your weight is vinyl or powder coated. Bare lead should be avoided because it can react electrically with your downrigger wire and spook fish. Black downrigger weights are the most common but some fishermen feel they get more strikes using with red colored weights. The release used on your downrigger is also important. Kokanee have soft fleshy mouths and hit very light. Most typical downrigger releases have too much tension for kokanee. You need a release that can be consistently be adjusted as light as 1/2 lb of release tension.
Electricity on Your Downrigger Wire
Flowing from your boat down your downrigger cable is an invisible electrical current.
If the voltage is just right it will attract kokanee to your lures. If it is too high or too
low you will repel kokanee. Kokanee are extremely sensitive to these electric
charges and most experts now use a black box to regulate the charge on the
downrigger wire. Every serious kokanee fisherman should measure the amount of
electrical charge his boat puts out through the downrigger cables. To do this you will
need an volt meter capable of reading from zero to one volt. With your boat in the water
and the downrigger lowered a few feet into the water, clip the meter's positive lead to your
downrigger cable and the negative lead to your battery or a ground point on the boat. If you
measure over 7/10ths of a volt or below 4/10ths positive you are repelling fish. The ideal voltage
for kokanee is about .65 volts although some fishermen will run a little lower (.60) and get good
results. For a complete discussion on how to test your boat and correct for voltage that is too
high or too low go to the Black Box section on this website and click on Chapter 3 describing
how to test your boat.Another important step is to insulate your downrigger ball from your
downrigger cable. This should be done in addition to vinyl coating your lead. Lead downrigger
weights can frequently contain tin or other metals that can cause an electrical reaction with
your downrigger wire. The result is a repellant electrical charge right where you don't want it. Insulating the ball
from your wire with a nylon snap (Scotty #1009) or a piece of heavy monofilament will help see that you have a neutral electrical zone around your ball.
3. Lures and Attractors
There are hundreds of kokanee lures on the market. Some of them are fished by themselves and a lot of them are fished behind a dodger or multi bladed attractors.
Some of the most popular lures are:
Mac Lures Wedding Ring
The Pro-Troll Kokanee Killer
The Tomic Wee Tad Plug
Luhr Jensen Needlefish
Luhr Jensen Midge Wobblers
Vance's Sockeye Slammer
Vance's Kokanee Bugs
Lee's Fire Fly Bugs
Uncle Larry's Copper Pops Spinner
Popular dodgers and flashers used ahead of kokanee lures include:
Vance's Kokanee Dodgers
Pro-Troll ProChip 4 flashers
Seps Pro Dodgers
Luhr Jensen Dodgers
Shasta Tackle Sling Blade
Popular multi bladed attractors include:
R&K Spinner Blades
Luhr Jensen Blades
Little Slim Willies
Dave Davies Trolls
In the early morning to midday kokanee seem to have a preference for greens and chartreuse. Later, when good light is on the water, the best colors are bright red, pink, and hot orange. Silver chrome has also become a very popular color. Many fishermen will add fishscale or other holographic tape to their lures or dodgers. This material picks up sunlight and literally explodes into a rainbow of colors. If you are marking kokanee and not getting hit, changing colors, lure styles or scents can often make the difference. Some lures are made in "Glow in the Dark" colors. These prove exceptional in early morning and low light conditions such as deep depths.
The Pro-Troll Kokanee Killer and the Wee Tad Plug have two rigging advantages for kokanee. On both of these, the lure will slide up your leader and the kokanee will not be able to use the lure for leverage to tear the hooks out of its soft mouth. Avoid using lures where the leader ties directly to the lure and the hooks are attached directly to the lure's body. Kokanee are tremendous head shakers and love to roll up on your lure and line. A lure that stays in a kokanee's mouth will provide a tremendous amount of leverage for tearing hooks out. Most anglers will tell you they lose at least 50% of the big kokanee they hook. Rigid hooks mounted in lures are frequently the problem. Free floating double rigged hooks behind kokanee lures seem to have an advantage. #2 to #4 red or gold Gamakatsu octopus style hooks or equivalents work very well. Approximately 1/4 inch distance between the bend of the top hook and the eye of the trailing hook is best.
When you get kokanee on top of the water prior to netting they usually go crazy. They will start to roll up on your line. When a kokanee is exhausted and lying on top on its side it is perfectly OK to skim him across the surface of the water into your net. However, when a kokanee is on top and going wild, quickly lower your rod tip and get the fish to go under and start swimming again. If you attempt to horse a kokanee when it's on the surface going ballistic you will almost always tear the hook out, even with the two hook rig.
Some lakes seem very color oriented. Greens and chartreuse may work well from first light until around 11:00 AM. when the sun is well up on the water. At this time if the bite slows down try the hot orange, bright reds, bright pink or pearl pink lures. Some lakes do not exhibit color patterns with light changes and more daily experimentation is required. Sometimes a color change can trigger action just because its different than what the fish have been seeing. In recent years a number of fishermen have had good luck fishing mid day with copper and pink or gold and pink lures. Vance Staplin likes copper under these conditions. He also drops the lures further back from his downrigger. Instead of his normal drop back of 10 to 15 feet he will go 30 feet or more when the sun is high.
Dodgers and multi blade attractors can often make the difference between catch and no catch. Dodgers are run in front of your lures and multi blade attractors are usually run off your downrigger cannonballs. Dodgers are flat metal blades that rotate in a side to side movement. These blades are not designed to spin completely over. If this happens you are trolling too fast. Multi blade attractors have blades that spin and appear like a school of kokanee. Most fishermen will not attach attractors to their fishing line but will attach them to the cannon balls. Combinations of silver, and silver and brass blades work well tied in tandem. The sequence of flasher tandems can be up to eight to ten feet long. When these are run from the cannonball your downrigger release must then be attached
on the downrigger cable two or three feet above the ball. Pull out enough leader so that your lure ends up two to five feet behind your flasher blades. When fishing this way it is very important to lower your downrigger ball very slowly in to the water. If you lower it too fast the drag from the flasher tandem will cause it to rise upwards and tangle your lure line.
Its more fun to land fish without a dodger on your line. However, the use of a dodger will usually help catch more fish. Some days the kokanee bite so well a dodger is not necessary. If you are consistently marking fish without getting bit on plain lures, add dodgers. If that doesn't work try adding tandem flasher blades off each downrigger ball. The best kokanee dodgers are four to five inches long with chrome or dimpled finishes. Wee Tads and Apexes are usually run 30 inches behind a dodger to allow the lure to swim freely. A shorter leader will greatly restrict lure action. Bugs and flies are usually tied 10 to 12 inches behind the dodger.
Most experts will not use more than two downriggers in the water at once with one or two rods on each downrigger. More than two downriggers with four to eight lures, dodgers and tandem flashers may serve to attract kokanee but there is a limit. Too many lures and attractors can confuse the kokanee and they cannot focus on attacking a lure. When these fish attack they exert a tremendous amount of energy, but their burst of pursuit only lasts for a few seconds. The kokanee may simply get confused, tired and quit. You may be getting dozens of "almost" bites each day and never know it. It's best not to try fishing too many rods at once.
4. Use of Corn and Scents
Most serious kokanee fisherman know that nothing works as well for kokanee as White Shoe Peg Corn. Shoe Peg Corn is a specialty strain of gourmet white corn grown in the Midwest in very limited quantities. It is not only white (a definite kokanee preference) but it is a firm, crisp, kernel that holds onto a hook well. The kernels are long and slender and very uniform. Depending on rain and irrigation, the seasonal yield of shoe peg corn can really vary. In some years it's in very short supply. No bait seems to work as well as shoe peg corn, and for this reason the serious kokanee fishermen should stock up on it while it's available. Green Giant packages it in 15-ounce cans, but it is available in other brands too. When you find it purchase a good supply. Once you run out you may not be able to locate any until the following season. Only take out enough corn to last you a few weeks. The rest can be placed in a glass jar in its own juice and frozen until you need more.
The kernels of corn should be mounted on the hook so that the open end of the
kernel points away from the hook and leader (see photo). The perfect placement of
the kernels takes practice, and it does improve the bite. There are thousands of
kernels of corn in a 15-ounce can, so it is very inexpensive bait to use. Practice
rigging your lures at home so you can have it mastered by time you're on the water.
Most fishermen will use just one kernel of corn on each hook but sometimes two on
one or the other hook can be effective as an alternate.
Fish scents can also help. Many experts will not be without it. The four most common scents used for kokanee are Herring Oil, Shrimp/Prawn oil, Fresh Water Shrimp Oil and Squid Oil. ProCure makes all of these scents and is well proven with kokanee. Some fishermen mix these scents with anise oil to get a combination scent. To scent your corn drain off the corn's liquid and put some corn in a small plastic bag like a ziplock. Add the scent and mix the corn around to get it exposed to all the scent. Be careful not to contaminate one scent with others.
5. Time Of Day
Many kokanee anglers believe the best bite for kokanee is in the morning, and
they literally quit biting after 9:00 AM. Most experts disagree. They can catch
kokanee all day long. You can mark kokanee at 20 to 25 feet first thing in the
morning, and if the boating pressure is light the fish will stay within a five to ten
foot band of the original depth all day long. Excessive boating pressure puts
kokanee down. You may start the day at 20 feet but by mid day the fish often will
have moved down to 60 feet or more to get away from all the commotion. If you
drop to 60 feet, you will catch them again. Wind on the water seems to be another
factor in mid day fishing. If the surface is white water heavily roiled by wind the
fish will often stay near the surface. However, if the water is calm and the sun is
high, they will usually go deep.
Kokanee will bite all day long. However they do have bite periods when they will bite exceptionally well. The solunar tables which tell what days and what times fishing is best often tell the story. They are based on lunar phases of the moon and tides. Weekdays are often better kokanee fishing days than weekends. The excessive weekend boat traffic, both from fishing boats and recreational boats creates such a din that the kokanee fishing is usually poor during the day light hours. The jet ski traffic is especially damaging to your catch ratio. If you are pretty much stuck with fishing weekends, being on the water in the dark and ready to fish at first legal light is probably your best strategy. As the boating pressure increases you will note the kokanee will get deeper and deeper.
6. Trolling Patterns
Trolling speed is critical. Most experts use a good boat speed indicator. Often the indicators built into fish finders are not accurate. Indicators like the Acctrol that hang over the side of the boat are better. They will start trolling at 1.2 miles per hour. They may then vary this speed from as slow as .9 mph to as high as 1.4 mph. Finding the right speed is key in consistently catching kokanee. Fine tuning the speed will vary on a day to day basis. Once you find the magic speed try to duplicate it on every trolling pass. Motor rpm alone is not an accurate indicator because your speed changes trolling with the wind or against it, and with changing lake currents. Knowing your speed and maintaining it is critical.
Vance Staplin believes speed is more important than any other factor in taking kokanee. Trolling too fast is the most common mistake he sees fishermen make. He says, "A light wobble on your kokanee lure is all you want especially if you are using a dodger". This generally means you should troll very slow. Wayne Douma likes to vary his speed when he is marking fish and they won't strike. He normally trolls at 1.2 MPH. To change the pattern he will speed up abruptly to 1.4 for about five seconds and then back off to .9 MPH. This will sometimes entice a strike. When trolling an established kokanee area, watch for kokanee on your fish finder. However, you may be catching fish without marking any. This is because fish are being attracted towards your lures and attack your bait without ever passing through the cone your fish finder is reading.
If you are not marking fish and not getting bit you should move. When establishing a troll pattern in a cove or off a particular stretch of shoreline make mental notes of the distance and land marks. If you are consistently getting bit on each pass, try to duplicate the path on each subsequent pass. Remember to check your trolling speed in both directions. It may be critical to getting bit.
Phillip Johnson documented that his kokanee strikes more than doubled when trolling perpendicular to the sun rather then parallel to its course. When trolling perpendicular to the sun the dodgers
and flashers are reflecting much more light and therefore much more flash. Flash
definitely attracts kokanee. When possible Phil tried to always troll perpendicular to the
sun, This assures him the maximum amount of reflection coming off his dodgers, lures
and flashers. From 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM when the sun is at the peak of its arc, trolling
direction makes little difference. But in the morning and afternoon, trolling perpendicular
to the sun's path will definitely produce more strikes.
When kokanee find an area that has plenty of plankton or micro shrimp to feed on, plus
ideal water temperature they will stay in the same area for weeks. If those conditions
change they will abruptly move. If you can find these plankton and shrimp areas you will
find kokanee. Often you can get reliable information on the recent kokanee patterns
from local bait and tackle shops. If you can't, just start running large sweeping patterns until you find the fish. Also, look for concentrations of boats fishing kokanee.
Kokanee are most comfortable in water in the low to mid 50 degree temperature range but often come up to water temperatures as warm as 70 degrees to feed. In the early spring when the water is colder than 50 degrees, troll in the shallow grassy areas that are 10 to 20 feet deep and obtain full sunlight all day. These waters warm more quickly and will attract kokanee. As the season progresses and the open water temperature increases, the kokanee will move out of the shallows.