Down-rigging for Spring Kokanee

Peering over the gunnel of a 24-foot Wooldridge, the high snow-capped peaks towered over the cold blue of Lake Chelan, Washington. Whitecaps broke and lapped at the shoreline as high gusts blew a fine spray off the top like dust from a table. Five of us cast shifty glances, kicked gravel, and hoped someone else would make the call; either go for it or go home. With reluctant agreement, we filed aboard the vessel with tempered enthusiasm. There were no alternatives. It was too early in the spring to fish most other waters, due either to regulations or incredibly cold or high water. With nothing to lose, except maybe our lunch from being tossed by the swells, we seized an opportunity to probe the depths for one of the west’s intriguing adipose fins.

As spring rolls in, the days lengthen, flowers bloom, the temperature rises, and the fishing bug bites. For trout anglers like myself, spring can be downright frustrating as the river fisheries are either not open yet, or the spring runoff makes them unsafe and plain unfishable. But an alternative fishery has captured the interest of many across the northwestern U.S. and British Columbia, Canada; trolling for kokanee.

Kokanee Facts

Kokanee are landlocked sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) that occur naturally in Lakes Washington and Sammamish, Washington State, and have been artificially propagated and planted in lakes across the western U.S. Many reservoirs behind hydropower and flood/irrigation storage dams provide quality kokanee fisheries. Kokanee are adaptable to lake level fluctuations due to their planktonic feeding behavior where typical benthic food sources may be scarce. Like anadromous sockeye, kokanee sport a beautiful, chrome sheen in open water, but turn dark red with an olive head, develop a gnarly kype chocked full of teeth, and battle their way up lake tributaries each August to spawn.

The kokanee open water life stage is similar to that of ocean-going, pelagic sockeye. They feed almost exclusively on zooplankton, straining it from the water through their gill rakers. Kokanee are not structure-oriented, rather schooling, suspended at particular depths rich with zooplankton. Other food items include small plants, insects, and freshwater shrimp.

Given this feeding behavior, kokanee can occur quite deep in lakes and reservoirs, sometimes hundreds of feet down. Therefore, finding and then reaching kokanee are paramount to success, requiring quality sonar and downriggers. 

Rigging Up

Pitching in the waves, rigging up the rods and downriggers, the sonar blew up with a school of kokanee between 150 – 200 feet below. Suddenly, the queasiness from bobbing through the troughs vanished into the optimistic chaos of lining out dodgers and sinking downriggers. With four downriggers we set four different depths encompassing the school. 

Kokanee rigs can include passive lures, such as spinners with little action, or active lures, such as spoons with full body movement. These lures clearly do not imitate zooplankton, but kokanee exhibit aggressive behavior, chasing and attacking non-threatening critters that enter their space. Color can be a major factor in triggering aggressive reactions. The most recommended colors for kokanee are chartreuse, hot pink, and red, and glow on the dark finishes. Check out Mack’s Lures for some solid options.

Fishing deep requires bling to grab attention. Therefore, dodgers are a must. When fishing passive lures, the dodger should be set about 2.5 feet above passive lures, and about 4 feet above active lures to ensure the dodger doesn’t affect the action of the lure. Dodger sizes between 4 – 5.5 inches are small enough to be non-threatening, but large enough to provide adequate flash and action. Rig the dodger on heavy monofilament or fluorocarbon with barrel swivels on either end to avoid line twist. Check out the dodger selection at Rocky Mountain Tackle.

Picking a Fight

With our rigs at depth, we began the hours of trolling, using a small kicker at idle and a trolling motor to hold course. Speed between 0.5 and 1.5 miles per hour is about right depending on conditions. We maintained about 1 mile per hour as water temperature was quite cold. The first school didn’t pan out, but we were into kokanee. It was a matter of time. 

The first strike was a learning experience. The light bounce of the medium power, fast action rod required for clipped into the downrigger and handling the dodger was barely discernable above the typical bobbing among the waves. With a quick pop to pull the line form the downrigger clip, the fight was on. 

Rumor has it that kokanee are hard-fighting fish, but their size range is about 8 -17 inches, with some lakes producing bigger fish than others. On Lake Chelan, kokanee generally squeak into the low teens. Landing kokanee is a tricky business. Reeling with steady speed, the feeling of the fight over the wobble of the dodger was clear by the rapid head shakes, but the weight of the fish was hard to tell. This was particularly true for fish under about 12 inches. 

We lost a lot of fish, and quickly learned to be on the ball with grabbing bitten rods, and maintaining a good retrieval speed without being too aggressive. And when that flash of chrome pops up behind the dodger, it’s a race to the net.

Trolling can be a monotonous effort unless all variables align perfectly. Trolling over a school of kokanee without a strike can be frustrating, but no worries. These fish can follow a lure for miles before finally choosing to strike. Sometimes, the constant rhythm of the dodger and lure action is just not enough to make them commit, but making turns with the boat, or pulling and releasing the downrigger line can change the speed or action of the dodger and lure abruptly, just enough to entice the strike. And a slow day can turn around in a moment’s notice.

There are at least 78 lakes offering kokanee fishing between Washington and Montana, but its surprisingly difficult to query all of them. However, there is a kokanee fishing forum that can provide state-specific information if you are searching for a hot lake. And now is the time. (See below for a spreadsheet that you can download).

Even if the kokanee are small, you will be hard pressed to find a tastier freshwater fish. The bright red fillets can be seared to perfection and covered with a honey mustard and parsley sauce, or lightly browned to a splendid crisp in the oven with a little butter, garlic, and salt; no need to skin or scale. Don’t’ have the boat or the downriggers to be successful? No worries. Captain Brad Wagner of Bobber Down Guide Service out of Wenatchee, Washington, will hook you up. So, what are you waiting for? Spend a relaxing day on the water with friends and family, and pack your ice box with some of the best inland salmon to be had in North America. 

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About Brad Trumbo

Brad Trumbo lives in southeast Washington State serving the public as a fish and wildlife biologist. Hunting, fly fishing, and writing are his passions. In his spare time, Brad volunteers with Blue Mountain Pheasants Forever, builds custom fly rods, and pens tales of his outdoor pursuits.