By Randy Castello
My Twenty Cents Worth (2-cents per tip) or 10 Kokanee Tips
I mulled this over for some time and thought that I would share some of my kokanee knowledge. First kokanee eat plankton. Their gills are specifically designed to filter plankton out of the water. Of all the kokanee that I have caught in my, I won’t say how many years of fishing for them. I have never found anything more than green goo (chironomids) in their stomachs. So, how does one catch them? You dazzle them, piss them off, and invade their territory or whatever it takes to get a reaction bite out of them (kind of like what I remember of dating). I know that kokanee can be caught by chumming with some concoction of feed eggs and then dropping a single salmon egg to the correct depth. But I figure the kokanee is just trying to eliminate a competitor’s egg and not looking for a five-star dining experience. So how does one catch a kokanee?
By attracting them with scent, low frequency vibrations or both and then dragging some flashy or irritating hardware in front of their noses. I troll small dodgers or swing blades followed with some small spinning, oscillating, vibrating or flashy offering. My theory is that, as the swing blade, dodger or gang-troll travels through the water they transmit low frequency vibrations or noise. The low frequency vibrations travel for long distances in the water. The dodger is like a billboard to the fish “The world’s biggest plankton bloom, just 100 more tail waggles.
Curiosity gets the best of the kokanee and it heads in the direction of the noise. When it gets there all it sees is this irritant in the form of your lure. The fish is cranky now, it just swam out of its way and all it sees is your lure”. Kind of like driving most of the way across the country chasing well weathered “The Thing” or “Wall Drug” billboards, getting there and finding out that the attraction and it’s restrooms closed 10 minutes before you got there. That aside; the fisherman is hoping for one of two things at this point.
First is that the fish sees your lure/attractor combination as a form of competition and figures that it will eat the lure before the competition does or secondly, that it just plain pisses the fish off so he lashes out and strikes the lure. Ok so much for my views on kokanee fishing, now what?
Downriggers rule for kokanee fishing but I often fish lead line. My approach is a bit different with a phased setup that goes something like this:
On an empty reel with the same capacity as the reel you plan to fish the lead line on, tape the end of the lead line to the spool and load 3 colors of lead line + a few feet. Cut the lead line saving the balance of the filler spool.
Remove the lead core from a foot or so of the loose end of the lead line on the reel. Using a double-uni knot, tie 20# braid of your choice to the end of the stripped lead line. Then fill the spool with the 20# braid.
The PIA part; you will need 2 empty spools or a second reel the same type and size. The goal is to load the braid/lead line combo on your working reel braid first. When using the same reel or a reel with the same capacity as the reel temporarily holding the lead line/braid combo it is easy you just transfer reel to reel. Otherwise, you have to transfer to a spool, then to another empty spool and then back on to the original reel.
The reel is now loaded with 3 colors of lead line on top of the braid. Strip the lead core out of a couple feet of the lead line. Using your favorite braid to mono (or in this case, favorite stripped lead line to mono) knot, tie on a 60’ 6-12# fluorocarbon top shot.
That’s basically it. I use the lead line setup almost exclusively for kokanee so I just attach a small Comstock snap to the end of the fluorocarbon top shot to make changing dodgers easier. My reasoning for running only 3 colors of lead line is that at 0.8-1.4 mph 3 colors is all you need. In fact; using this approach I have snagged the bottom in 70 of water with just 3 colors of lead line, no backing in the water so just the lead line and the top-shot. Running just 3 colors of lead line with braid backing allows you to load a fair amount backing on standard bait casting reels with the bonus of reducing the extra weight of additional colors of lead line.
On our boat leader length varies based on the type of lure. As a general rule for spinner combinations, flies and hoochie type of lures I use a 8-10” leader. For lures that have their own action I run a 12-24” sometimes longer leader. My reasoning is that a kokanee lure needs some sort of wiggle. The short leader allows the dodger action to telegraph to the lure. The further from the dodger you get the less snap at the lure. Spoons, Brad’s Cut Plugs, and plugs and similar lures will do their own dance without hindering the dodger action too much.
“So what color are you using today?” I am often asked what color is the hot color for the day. I will tell people the color that worked for me on any given day but often do it with a disclaimer. In my opinion depth, water turbidity, time of day and the dodger-lure combination all have an impact on lure color. Chartreuse, pink, purple, orange are always a solid choice. Be prepared to experiment and mix things up until you figure out the color of the day. A good starting point is to use painted dodgers early on or on overcast cloudy days and metallic finishes on sunny or bright days. Kokanee in certain lakes will prefer a given color but if you cycle through the 4 colors previously noted it is likely that you will be able to dial it in. An additional thought; use interchangeable spinner clevises and a leader set up that allows you to change out spinner blades and/or Mack’s Smile blades as required.
In the past people have flamed me for using corn as a kokanee bait. They say that it doesn’t pass through the stomach and kills the fish. My response is that it is not the corn that kills my kokanee, it is a hot skillet! That said corn is my go-to hook bait for kokanee fishing. I make tuna corn using Steam Crisp Green Giant White Shoepeg corn. The process is simple but needs to be done in advance. First using a small strainer drain the corn in the refrigerator a few hours to overnight. Next drain a tin or two of canned tuna saving the liquid, either water or oil pack works. Now would be a good time to make a tuna salad sandwich or two… Let the corn marinate in the tuna juice for a few hours to overnight and then drain again. The resulting “Tuna Corn” will be the base for your hook baits. You can enhance it with Garlic Slam-Ola powder, a variety of scents and even dye it as needed but plain Tuna Corn is a kokanee killer just as it is.
Most of my kokanee setups are 2 hook rigs. Typically, I tip each hook with 1 kernel of corn. It is important to run the hook through the top of the kernel not the cut end. The corn will stay on the hook and milk scent better. The leftover corn can be refrozen multiple times. I usually retire it only if it is freezer burnt or mushy.
Many times, early AM kokanee are on the surface and the depth is kind of mute. We have caught many kokanee with the gear out but before I got the line clipped into the downrigger clip. That said depth can vary depending on both the time of the year and time of the day. Generally, later in the day, go deeper and as spring and summer transition into fall run deeper. That is the general rule, a better plan is to watch your meter and chase meter marks. We have caught hundreds of fish, especially kokanee chasing meter marks. With some level of accuracy, I can even call out a bite!
So, you hooked the elusive silver bullet now what? First of all, plan on loosing as many as you hook. I know that sounds like a stretch and something must be wrong on my boat. There I agree with you, but its’s not our technique it’s the skipper! Our technique is solid but between drive-bys and short releases you’re not going to put every fish in the box that shows interest in your offering. There are some things you can do to increase your chances of landing your slimy opponent.
Although I am seriously guilty of not sharpening or replacing my kokanee lure hooks, sharp hooks will greatly increase your success rate. Also, whether fishing a lead line rig or off your downriggers use a purpose-built parabolic kokanee rod. Kokanee can be quite squirrely when hooked and a forgiving rod will help absorb any surprises. Kokanee typically go berserk when they are just out of range of the net. If they do, keep calm and let them think they are in charge. Ease up on your reeling, maybe even lower your rod tip a bit to take some of the pressure off the fish. Eventually the fish will sort of lay sideways or calm down and that is when you slide the net under the fish.
Speaking about netting the fish. A little patience and finesse will go a long way towards assuring that your kokanee makes it into the ice chest. It is best to use a long handled lightweight knotless net. Kokanee will often roll when you put them in the net. Your sharp barbed hooks will find their way into an uncoated net and can be difficult to remove so try to get the hook free from the fish as soon as you can. We dump the fish from the net directly into our kokanee ice chest.
Kokanee are very tasty creatures but more so than just about any other fish they must be taken care of as soon as possible. Immediately after catching a kokanee, it needs to be bled and iced. Our fish go from the net into the ice chest and then we cut or break the gill rakers to bleed the fish. Our ice chest, otherwise known as our kokanee-kooler has a bag or two of ice in it and a bit of water. In borrowing a cold beer trick, if it’s hot out toss some rock salt on top of the ice. Science aside, the salt lowers the melting point of the ice. Adding salt makes for a much colder water/ice slurry and does a great job of cooling your fish or beer down. Use a clicker to keep track of your cold, subzero catch. No more trying to count cold slimy kokanee. Never put your kokanee on a stringer and drag it around the lake. During kokanee season the surface temperature of the lake could be 50-80 degrees. It won’t take long at those temperatures to turn your prize catch into something less than edible.
A few words on organization. Although at times the rest of my life seems like it is in shambles, my kokanee catching machine and gear are organized. When kokanee fishing it is likely that you’ll cycle through a lot of gear. It is helpful if you start out organized. Maybe have a divided box or folder for your flashers and dodgers. You can keep your pre-tied lures on foam noodles, foam leader boards or in sandwich bags. Try to be disciplined about putting the lures away as you cycle through them. In the end, your kokanee trip will be more pleasant and you won’t have to remove a hook from your dogs’ paw, kid’s heinie or the webbing between your flip-flopped toes. Keeping organized will also help you cycle gear quickly as you try to keep pace with the changing conditions.
Lastly, although there many approaches to catching kokanee. It seems that each lake has its own secrets. Learn your home lake and the learned confidence will follow you to anywhere you decide to chase kokanee. The basics will be the same with only slight adjustments to depth, color or lure selection. Learning your home lake will help to assure that your aquatic travels are productive.
To wrap this up, in reading this although hopefully you found it entertaining you will be better equipped to pursue the elusive kokanee with some level of confidence. Good luck and for an encore my next article should be a “Ten Step Program for Kokaholics”.