Let’s Kick Some Kokanee Butt!
Written By: Cal Kellogg, March 12, 2012
From a fisheries management perspective, over the past 25 years no stocking program has generated as much excitement within the Golden State fishing scene as the wide spread introduction of kokanee salmon into northern and central state reservoirs. Indeed this excitement has spawned a myriad of new businesses focused on making anglers more effect when it comes to consistently hooking these diminutive battlers.
Several times every year anglers approach me with the same basic question, “How do I go about catching kokanee?” Well the first thing you need is a boat capable of trolling at speeds from 1 to 2 miles per hour and a quality sonar unit. You can catch trout and bass from the bank, but kokanee are open water fish that require cool temperatures in order to survive. As a result bank anglers have virtually no chance of hooking kokanee, except on the rare occasion when they get one accidentally while casting a spoon or spinner when the surface temperature is cold.
Since kokanee prefer a temperature of 50 to 59 degrees they spend most of the late spring, summer and early fall holding in water from 30 to 100 or more feet deep. In order to hook these deep holding fish you’ve got to get you lures down to them. There are two widely accepted means of accomplishing this goal.
The first is employing a leadcore line. For the uninitiated, leadcore is just what its name implies. It is a woven line with a pliable lead core. Every 10 feet of the line sports a different color. At kokanee trolling speeds leadcore will pull a lure down about 5 feet per color, so that by counting colors an angler will have a pretty good idea how deep their offering is working. For depths up to about 45 feet leadcore is pretty effective, yet the downside is that the line is heavy and requires correspondingly heavy tackle. This combination of heavy line and stout tackle generally overpowers the fight of even the feistiest kokanee.
A more effective and more sporting option is the use of downriggers. In their simplest form a downrigger is a spool filled with cable attached to a short arm with a pulling connected to its tip. The cable travels off the spool, through the pulley and a heavy 6 to 10 pound weight is snapped to the end of the cable. A downrigger release, a device reminiscent of a clothespin, trails off the weight. To use the downrigger you free spool a lure out a few yards behind the boat and then snap the line from your rod into the release. After that the downrigger weight is lowered to the desired depth. When a deep holding kokanee takes the lure the line pulls out of the release and you are left to fight the fish on your rod with out the interference of attached weight.
Simple portable crank operated downriggers are highly effective and won’t put a big dent in your allowance. For the utmost in speed and convenience electric downriggers are available. If money is not a big consideration these units are well worth the added investment.
These days downriggers are so affordable and accessible I’m not going to discuss the tackle used for fishing with leadcore line. Instead lets take a look at the ideal rod and reel combination for downrigger fishing. My philosophy is to use the lightest tackle possible in order to get the maximum enjoyment while fighting the fish.
For most freshwater and saltwater fishing I recommend using a fast action rod, but for kokanee the most effective and efficient rod will feature a soft slow parabolic action. Kokanee are savage little sluggers that have an exceedingly soft mouth. A soft action rod helps to cushion the fight and results in fewer lost fish.
The rod should be teamed with a high speed level wind reel capable of holding at least 200 yards of 6 pound test monofilament. A smooth drag is critical to success. Kokanee have a nasty habit of making a final slashing run right behind the boat. If your drag sticks in this situation you can kiss you kokanee dinner goodbye. Some anglers use line as light as 4 pound test while others use line as heavy as 12 pound test. Kokanee are not line shy, so what line weigh you use isn’t a really big issue. I prefer 6 pound believing that it is a good compromise between strength and fine diameter.
Okay you’ve got a boat equipped with all the proper toys and a nice light action downrigger rod. What about lures? This is where kokanee fishing really gets fun. Kokanee are aggressive, but they are also fickle. They will readily strike small spoons, spinners, flies and hooks adorned with brightly painted resin known as “bugs”. A few kokanee anglers make use of flasher blades in certain situations. On the other hand virtually all kokanee anglers rely heavily on 3 to 6 inch dodgers to both add action to their lures and to attract ‘kokes into the spread with the vibrations they emit.
When using lures such as flies and bugs that have no built in action, you want your lures riding within 14 inches of the dodger such that they derive action from it. Lures such as spinners and spoons that have their own action can either be rigged close to the dodger or as far away as 48 inches. The distance to rig lures that have built in action behind a dodger represents a controversial issue within kokanee fishing circles. I like to put them from 24 to 36 inches back, but the best approach is to answer the question yourself through experimentation.
Lure and dodger color is often very important and kokanee being the fickle souls that they are change their preference from day to day and even from hour to hour. Whatever style and color of lure you decide to use it is important to tip it with a piece of shoe peg corn. No one is certain why you need to use corn. Some say it adds a pleasant smell to the lure. Others contend that it gives the salmon a target to strike.
Many veteran kokanee angles treat their corn with Pro-Cure Kokanee Magic powder. This product toughens the corn and adds strike inducing amino acids to it. Beyond that you’ll want to fill several small containers with corn and add a different scent to each one. Some days they want shrimp flavored corn other days they prefer anise. Anise, krill, shrimp, herring, sardine, garlic and night crawler scents are all proven performers.