As we say good bye to our summer boating weather you may find yourself wondering, “do I winterize or do I find something to fish for?” Either way, you should probably winterize your boat, motor, and trailer, but let’s talk trolling for winter kokanee.
Winter kokanee in Washington State? Sure, so go ahead and winterize, but keep the keys handy. Find your gloves and earmuffs and make a thermos of steaming hot coffee because there are kokanee opportunities to be had. Both Western Washington and the Eastside have winter kokanee lakes.
Kokanee are the non-anadromous form of sockeye salmon. Basically, by choice or otherwise, kokanee are landlocked sockeye salmon. Kokanee are native to many Pacific Northwest lakes and have been introduced to a number of lakes across the United States.
The life cycle is of particular interest to winter kokanee anglers. Although there are exceptions, kokanee typically live 3-4 years before they spawn and die. For the dedicated winter kokanee angler that means that there are 2-3, maybe even 4-year kokanee available during the chilly months.
Winter kokanee fishing is a little different than our spring and summer fisheries. Most winter kokanee fishing is done in deeper water. Kokanee prefer water that is 50-56 degrees. In part, they are more active in this zone because it is rich in oxygen boosting energy to chase down their next meal. Each lake varies, but finding “the zone’” is important during winter kokanee fishing. One way is to keep your eyes glued to your fish finder and look for fish. This is where the best fish finder/chart plotter you can afford is your friend. When you find fish, mark the spot, and pretty soon you’ll have a winter kokanee map. With it you can amaze your guest fishermen and go right to where they are. They’ll think you are the “Koke-Wisperer”, maybe a kokanee-shaman or something… You can also use a Fish Hawk Digital Gauge or the Vexilar Deptherm to graph out the water temperature at depth.
Winter kokanee fishing is more of a love thing, there is rarely a hot bite. Each lake has a winter fishery sweet spot depth. Generally, in Western Washington it is 30-60’, and Eastern Washington 40-200’ deep. Each lake, especially on the westside, seems to have a brief period each day where the kokanee will put on the feed bag and go on the bite outside of your usual grind it out depth.
Kokanee are filter feeders, and the bulk of their calories come from plankton blooms. There are windows any given day where there is a bloom or hatch, and the kokanee will briefly leave their comfort zone to feed. Because the bite may be 2:06-2:23 at 43’ it is best to choose your winter kokanee lake close to home and learn it. Especially when winter kokanee fishing, keep a detailed fishing log.
Both summer and winter fish are a noble opponent. They often make short runs, jump, and go bonkers at the net. Summer fish are more aggressive, but winter kokanee take more finesse to get them in the net. After plating, smoking, or chowder-izing hundreds of kokanee, both the summer and the winter fish are excellent table fare, but the winter fish are outstanding for whole or fillet pan-frys and grilling.
The following list includes winter kokanee lakes that I am familiar with, and is focused on trolling. I am sure there are other winter kokanee lakes available. My westside lakes were originally selected because they are open all year and they have deeper basins that may hold fish. Both the westside and the eastside winter kokanee lakes are listed by my preference. My preference is based on success, proximity to home, and the potential for a trophy fish.
Lake Roosevelt – Nothing in Eastern Washington is close to home, and to be honest, as I get older, I don’t like hauling the boat over the pass in the winter anymore. That said, I love fishing Lake Roosevelt, so with the right forecast we may head that direction. I’m sure kokanee are available throughout the lake, but we usually fish out of Spring Canyon and focus on the dam area, but we also fish the lower 5 or 6 miles. I typically start at about 40’, but may fish 100+ deep as required. Because there is the potential to hook a 3+ pounder, I typically up my leader to 20-pound fluorocarbon.
Lake Chelan – It is a great winter kokanee lake, offering pretty consistent fishing. The winter kokanee fishery is concentrated between Manson, maybe the Narrows, up to 25 Mile Creek. There is enough kokanee in the Wapato Point area to keep you on the water if, or should I say when, the weather kicks up. The winter fishery at Chelan is a deep fishery, you can expect to run your gear 80-200’ deep. Watch the weather!
Before I get to the westside lakes, let’s discuss winter boating safety/etiquette. Carry chains for both your tow vehicle and for at least 1 axle on the trailer. Bring a couple sand bags and a shovel. A liberal application of sand can be a lifesaver. At the ramp, assess the situation before you back down a long icy ramp. Take the time to chain up your tow vehicle if required. Thought being; although once your tires hit the water you’ll have traction, the area between the top of the ramp and the water could be icy. You don’t want to jackknife ½ way down the ramp. It would put a damper on your kokanee plans. Once the trailer is wet you may have to let the rig sit in the water for a bit to thaw and let the boat float free. Be safe on the boat, you don’t want to slip and end up sharing the lake with your aquatic rival.
Finally, and as a courtesy; at the end of your time on the lake load your boat and slowly pull out of the water just enough to clear the water. Stop and let the rig drain or drip-dry, this will minimize ice buildup on the lower 1/3 of the ramp.
Western Washington Winter Kokanee Lakes
Lake Washington – Although not exactly close to home, Lake Washington is my favorite westside winter kokanee lake. Our largest westside kokanee was a 3.13# 18” fish. We have caught many 1# plus and a few 2# kokanee in Lake Washington. To protect juvenile and migrating sockeye salmon there is an 8 – 18” slot limit for kokanee on in Lake Washington. A standard sockeye drill works, but consider stepping up your speed and gear selection. Most of our larger Lake Washington kokanee were taken on hoochies and 8” flashers. The eyes have it; what am I talking about? Who knows why but most of our large Lake Washington kokanee were bamboozled by a lure with eyes. If Lake Washington were closer to home, I’d be fishing it every day that I possibly could.
Lake Cavanaugh – Lake Cavanaugh is an odd duck, easy kokanee limits for fish 10 – 18” kokanee during the spring, summer and fall, but when winter comes around it seems that every kokanee you catch is a chrome 8 – 12” fish. My nonscientific guess is that the majority of the kokanee in Cavanaugh spawn at 4 years and the winter sport catch are primarily 3-year kokanee. Most winter kokanee in Lake Cavanaugh will be caught over the deep pocket just east of the islands.
Lake Samish - Samish is really close to home with the typical winter kokanee bite being later in the day. It is a great lake for “breakfast and chores are done, let’s go fishing”. The lake includes a large basin with a smaller connected lake at the north end. When fishing winter kokanee on Lake Samish, most of our fish are caught in one of two areas. The first is along the west shoreline just west of the WDFW launch. The second is generally in the center, maybe favoring the north shore/center of the small lake. Your trolling speed is critical, plan on fishing .8-1.0 mph with lots of “S” turns. Oddly, we have caught a fair number of Samish winter kokanee pulling small minnow type baits for cutthroat, but standard kokanee gear is a better starting point.
Lake Stevens – We don’t fish winter kokanee on Lake Stevens often, but it does host a winter fishery. There may be local secrets, but in our experience Lake Stevens winter kokanee are a hit or a miss. Most of our winter kokanee were caught along the bay at the northwest side of the lake. Typical kokanee gear with a pinch of nightcrawler or worm seems to have an edge over tuna corn.
Yale Lake – Yale is a great kokanee lake and is open year-round. There are winter challenges if you decide to make the trip. The wind can produce some crazy short chop, so make sure that you check the forecast before you hitch up the trailer. We haven’t had a problem but I’m pretty sure that the reservoir water levels are down November-February. The Yale Park launch should be open but other ramps may have restrictions. Finally, there could be hazardous floating debris/flotsam. Boat with caution, and if it’s choppy, slow way down. The winter kokanee fishery should be concentrated by the dam or across the lake from Speelya Creek. In my experience, if fishing less than 30-40’, run really long setbacks or use lead line rigs.
OK, you have some idea which way you’re headed in your kokanee quest, now what? I don’t really change overall tactics when fishing winter kokanee. The usual kokanee drill; a small dodger, lure with tuna corn is a great place to start. Make sure you have your favorite scents, maybe a container of worms, and additional leader onboard. Not always, but occasionally, you will need to increase your leader length. When trolling for winter kokanee, you will want to stay under 1.0 MPH. I probably do more “S” turns or engage the “Hunt” mode on my iTroll more often during our winter kokanee adventures. Our dodger box has more dodgers in it than most, but during the winter kokanee fishery my go to dodgers are painted, copper, or even dark metalflake. Using either double spinner rigs or flies behind the dodger seem to consistently produce kokanee during the winter fishery. After you hook your cold weather prize, gently fight the fish, and, as with any kokanee fishery, a long handle net will increase your actual catch verses hook up statistics.
I know that it will be cooler out, maybe even freezing, and the lake temperature should be down as well. But make sure you still care for your catch. Bleed them and keep them on ice, or, even better, in a slurry in your cooler; you’ll want to preserve the quality of your hard-earned prize.
Winterize or not, keep your kokanee gear handy. The above is just a starting point. Choose a lake, learn it, and you’ll soon be the local expert! Trolling for Washington State winter kokanee can be frustrating. With the closure of most of our winter salmon fisheries, a bit of frustration will quickly become an addiction. Enjoy your winter kokanee adventure, but with the potential for rainy, slick roads, be sure to use extra caution towing your boat to and from your new favorite winter activity.