Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Kokanee, BC's Silver Underdog

Kokanee, BC's Silver Underdog
Story by Trevor Shpeley
Photos by Rod Hennig
and Trevor Shpeley

Let's get this out of the way right off the start. I eat kokanee. I practice catch and release 95 percent of the time for other species but when I fish for kokanee, I keep whatever I catch regardless of size until I have as much as I need or I reach my limit at which point I stop fishing. The reason for this is twofold; kokanee do not handle catch and release fishing very well and have a very high mortality rate even when handled properly. Secondly, kokanee are prolific breeders and will quickly overpopulate in the absence of large predator fish and you can end up with a lake full of fully mature, very small fish so I limit my kokanee fishing to a level consistent with my occasional desire for a kokanee dinner and never fish just to fill my freezer. Now that that's off my chest, here's a few techniques you can use to catch a few of these delicious freshwater sockeye salmon for yourself.

Kokanee are found all the way down the western part of North America from Alaska to Northern California and from Japan to Siberia on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. They handle artificial stocking well and are found naturally in many coastal lakes wherever they are, or were once connected to the ocean. They mostly feed on plankton which gives the flesh of the kokanee it's wonderful red colour, rich taste and high omega3 fatty acid content. A freshly caught summer kokanee is streamlined and bright as a new nickle and they don't develop their trademark red and green colour and humped back until the fall spawning ritual is ready to begin. Lately, the Freshwater Fisheries Society has begun stocking selected lakes with triploid kokanee. These sterile fish don't waste any energy on reproductive considerations and can grow much larger than their fertile cousins. 20-inch tripoid kokanee are not uncommon in lakes where they are established. Check http://www.gofishbc.com for stocking information.

Although most of the food kokanee eat is nearly microscopic which they consume by straining the plankton through their distinctively long gill-rakers, that isn't the case all of the time. At certain times of the year kokanee will feed on small insect larvae such as mayfly nymphs and chironomids and at all times, kokanee can be stimulated to strike with a combination of flash and vibration which triggers an aggression response in the fish rather than a purely hunger motivated reaction. By understanding the koanee's seasonal cycles and instinctual triggers you can maximize your fish catching and minimize the amount of time you spend dragging heavy gear around the lake.

Kent Cameron in his excellent book, The Kokanee Obsession, delves deep into the subject of water temperature and seasonal changes and how they affect the kokanee and consequently, the likelihood of you catching one with any given method at any specific time of year. Luckily for us given the amount of space we have here to talk about it, you don't really have to know too much technical detail in order to be a successful kokanee fisherman. There are however some important points you need to know in order to find the fish which in this case is 90 percent of the battle.

The first and most important point you need to concern yourself with is temperature. Kokanee prefer a fairly narrow band of between 50 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit. This band moves around the lake according to the seasons and most of the time this where you will find the fish.

In the spring, starting shortly after ice-off, this preferred zone is found in fairly shallow water around the edges of the lake. The fish will school up and cruise the shoals in search of whatever food is small and slow enough for them to catch. For me this is the most fun time of the year to fish for kokanee; it's when they are most easily caught by methods that don't involve cumbersome weights and lures that flash and vibrate like a Las Vegas slot machine. Spring is the best time for the neophyte freshwater-salmon fisherman to get into fish.

Summer is when the fish disperse throughout the lake searching out the plankton that make up the bulk of their food source. As the season warms up, so does the water and the thermocline, (which is the the border between the warm surface water and the cold of the depths), moves deeper, so do the fish. If you want to catch kokanee in the summer, finding the thermocline is essential. Some of the better fish-finders will clearly show the thermocline as a line of interference where the dense cold water and the warmer surface currents meet. If your finder shows that layer to be at 50 feet, that's where you want your terminal gear to be. If good electronics are out of your budget, not to worry, just buy a fisherman’s thermometer which can be lowered down on a string so you can determine where the temperature starts to drop radically over the process of several readings. Remember kokanee want whenever possible to be in that narrow 50-55 degree band of ideal water. A few extra minutes spent determining the proper depth can save you a lot of fruitless hours on the water.

In the fall the kokanee begin to change their physiology in anticipation of the spawn. They change from bright silver to cherry red for the males and a pinkish hue for the females. They also develop a humped back and the males grow a ferocious hooked jaw. When the fish have progressed to this point it's time to leave them alone to finish natures cycle but in the months before the spawning season gets into full swing the fish are available and still table-worthy. Fall fish are very aggressive and are striking out of anger more than a desire to feed. This is when you want to bring out the larger lures and target the fish where they are schooling up near creek mouths and gravel beaches. Remember not to target fish that are too far into their reproductive cycle, it's not worth it to you from a table standpoint and it's detrimental to the survival of the fishery.

In the winter the fish become almost dormant and spend most of their time suspended in the deep water column awaiting spring. Ice fishers will do well during the hard water season once they have located fish by slow jigging with bait. Never use fin-fish for bait in BC lakes, it's illegal and will kill the lake. Maggots and mealworms on small Swedish pimples or other small jigging spoons work very well.

How do you catch them?
That's right, I said fly-fishing. When most people think about fishing for kokanee they think downriggers, large weights and strings of flashers that look like they came off the outside of a used-car dealership. That doesn't have to be the case all of the time. In the spring when the fish are cruising the shorelines, you can fish for them using traditional fly-fishing methods. Small nymphs worked slowly near the bottom will bring you strikes and a chironomid under an indicator can be positively deadly. Remember at this time of year the fish are hungry and actively looking for food, try to imitate the small insects they are feeding on. A quick shore-side biopsy on a fish you are keeping will tell you all you need to know about how to catch more.

Later as the fish spread out and trolling becomes more productive there is still no need to put away the fly-rod. If the fish are still close to the surface then a line with a ten foot sinktip and a long leader is the way to go. Tie on traditional kokanee lures and a Mylar mini-gang troll and find the fish. As the fish move deeper, a one or two ounce weight will get you down to them.

Last fall in anticipation of this article I decided I needed to experience some 'real' gear trolling and since my flotilla consists of a fly-fishing punt, an inflatable raft and a float tube, I enlisted the help of BC Outdoors forum member, Larry Martin (although you may know him better as Platypus). Larry grew up fishing for salmon around Port Alberni in a time when not catching fish meant a lean table that evening so he learned how to read water and find fish early.

Larry and I decided to fish Monte Lake near Falkland which as you know by watching BC Outdoors Sport Fishing, has been stocked with Triploid kokanee and is producing large fish in good numbers. Unfortunately for us we picked a blustery late fall day when the fish had already gone dormant for the season and our day on the water was somewhat less productive than we had anticipated. It was however a great day for learning trolling techniques from an expert.

The first thing you need to know about trolling for kokanee, after you have found the thermocline of course, is that you want to troll slowly, very slowly. Kokanee are not the top of the food chain in many of the lakes they inhabit and even when they are, they retain genetic programming which forces them to flee when they anticipate an attack from a larger fish. If you are dragging around a large dodger or a string of seven inch gang-troll blades at high speed, the fish are likely to perceive this as a threat and will avoid you and your lure like the plague. Troll just fast enough that you get a slow steady spin from your flashers.

Back in the day, if you were trolling for kokanee you likely had an ounce or two of lead weight in front of a six foot metal gang-troll followed shortly behind by a Wedding Ring spinner capped with a mealworm or a couple of maggots. That still works, in fact it works very well but it produces a lot of drag on your line and sometimes you will reel-in to check your bait only to find a very dead, very small kokanee that you were unaware you had been dragging around the lake for who-knows how long.

To avoid this, a downrigger can be a useful addition to your trolling arsenal. You don't need to get the electric, automatic, digital version, just a lead ball on a wire and a reel to wind it on is perfect. Downriggers allow you to run at exactly the depth you wish and when properly set, even a small fish will release your line from the weight leaving you to finish the fight on light terminal gear. Another way to go is with light Mylar flashers and gang-trolls. These have a fraction of the drag and sacrifice none of the action or flash of their metal cousins. They resemble a series of bent pieces of paper on a string but they work great and weigh almost nothing.

When it comes to terminal gear there are a couple of things to keep in mind. The first and most important is smell. Kokanee are extremely sensitive to smell and strong odors on your hands will greatly reduce your catch. Many fishermen wear rubber gloves when handling their tackle and at the very least you should wash your hands before touching any of it. Sunscreen, bug repellent, smoke and food smells such as oranges and bananas should never get anywhere near your gear. If fishing with bait is permissible, try one of the commercial scents that are available to help mask your human odor. The second vital factor is size. If you are fishing a lake that has smaller fish, use small lures, likewise if you are fishing for the big tripoids, you can use spoons, plugs and spinners up to three inches in length. Wedding Ring spinners can be quite long but the spinner blades are small and smaller fish will take them.

Larry likes to troll with a lure called the Tumbler which was developed by Rick Wood for drift fishing rivers. They are easy to make for yourself, just take a snap swivel and attach a hook and two small spinner blades. The spinner blades can be a combination of colours and one should be about half the size of the other. Put the blades on the snap with both convex sides facing each other. When rigged a couple of feet behind a hookless spoon or small dodger, the Tumbler will spin one way, then the other. Larry uses this simple little lure often and does very well with it. The unpredictable wobbling motion seems to drive the kokanee crazy and will trigger strikes on otherwise slow days.

To handle your vibration and flash needs, try the Luhr Jenson Trout and Kokanee Dodger; Dee's Diamond Flashers; Macks Double D Dodger in the 4.4 inch size and the Shasta Sling Blade. For multi-bladed flashers, some good ones to start with would be the Mack Fash-Lite; Luhr Jenson's Beer Can Lake Troll, School-O-Minnows or the Slim Willie and Little Slim Willie.

When trolling, you can divide the terminal gear into three categories, plugs, spinners and spoons. A few plugs to try are the Yakima Bait Company Flatfish in various colours in sizes f2-f4; Tomic Wee Tad Plug or the Luhr Jenson Kwikfish. A good start on your spoon collection would include Luhr Jenson Krockodile Needlefish or Kokanee King; Mepps Bantam Syclops and Little Wolf; Pro-Troll Kokanee Killer and the Gibbs Delta FST. For spinners, pick up some Macks Wedding Rings; Mepps Aglia and Spinflex or the Luhr Jenson Clearwater Flash.

Vertical jigging can be a very effective method, especially in the early season or through the ice. Pick a depth where you think the fish might be and methodically work your way up and down the water column until you get strikes. Colour is important when jigging as is scent and bait (where allowed). The tried and true maggot or mealworm are the gold standard here in BC but some of the new artificial baits such as those offered by Berkely Fishing's PowerBait work very well. I'm partial to the one-inch PowerBait White Grub myself but there are dozens of different types out there, follow the manufacturers suggested use and you can't go too wrong. Likewise with scents, as long as it covers your human smell with something appetizing it is doing it's job.

Kokanee are just too tasty for their own good. They are also a spectacular looking fish and sometimes easy to hook when you understand their cycles and motivations. Go out and catch a few for yourself but remember, they are a finite resource so limit your fishing to what you need and never take more than you plan to eat right away, there is a special kind of bad karma reserved for those who have freezers full of dried-out fish back home and are out catching and keeping more!

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