PINE — Kokanee are almost the perfect freshwater fish: abundant, not too difficult to catch and great table fare.
For these landlocked sockeye salmon, freshwater lakes becomes their ocean, with most fish spending three years lakeside, though some may spend as short as two and others up to four years before returning to streams to spawn and die. Kokanee are primarily zooplankton feeders, giving them the pink-orange coloration and an almost ocean-borne salmon taste. While you may need a boat to catch them, almost any meekly powered craft will do, and specialized gear isn’t necessary.
The fish’s only negative: You may have to travel a bit to catch them, as Magic Valley waters are kokanee-deficient.
Where to find
“Good populations of kokanee can be found in the reservoirs of Lucky Peak, Arrowrock, Anderson Ranch, Deadwood Reservoir in Valley County, Ririe Reservoir and Island Park Reservoir,” said Doug Megargle, Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s regional fisheries manager for the Magic Valley region. “While there used to be a self-sustaining kokanee population in Salmon Falls reservoir, they seem to have become overwhelmed by all the increase in piscivorous (fish-eating) predators we have established in Salmon Falls over the years: walleye, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass and the occasional excess steelhead we’ve put in the reservoir.”
Fish and Game kept stocking kokanee for a few years there but finally quit as kokanee just weren’t showing up in anglers’ catches, he said.
The agency has been stocking kokanee in American Falls Reservoir to try to establish a fishery there.
But for Magic Valley anglers, the closest, best kokanee fishery is Anderson Ranch Reservoir.
No matter what body of water you are fishing, the tactics are much the same: Slowly troll your lure, usually a spinner, behind a set of flashers or a dodger.
Flashers imitate a school of fish, while dodgers imitate a single fish. By far the most popular lure is the wedding ring spinner, with either a single or double hook, sweetened with a kernel of corn or a salmon egg on each hook.
However, when the fish are on the bite, they seem to strike any spinner or small spoon.
A kokanee’s preferred water temperature is 52 to 55 degrees, meaning in midsummer you’ll have to use some weight to get down to the deeper, colder water. While specialized gear such as downriggers or trolling reels equipped with leaded core line make it easier to get to your lure down to depth, specialized gear is not necessary.
With a standard spinning or casting rod, attach a 2- to 3-ounce trolling weight, then your flashers or dodger, and finally your lure. Many a kokanee angler also uses “rubber-snubbers” which act as a shock absorber. Kokanee have notoriously soft mouths, and an overzealous hook setting can pull the lure right from their mouths.
Just as their oceangoing siblings, kokanee will stage in coves and bays before ascending streams to spawn, and July and early August are the perfect time to catch them.
By far the best kokanee fishing is within the first four hours of the day; start by trolling at 30 feet or so, going progressively deeper until you begin hooking fish. If you have a fish finder and downriggers, you have an advantage in knowing exactly what depth and where the fish are staging.
Here is a tip I learned from a veteran Lake Chelan, Washington, kokanee fisherman. Rather than attach your flashers to each individual rod, attach the flashers to the downrigger weight itself. The flashers will function as they normally would, but without the weight of the flashers your fishing rod will better telegraph the lightly biting kokanee. Also, it helps to use a slight zigzag pattern rather than troll in a straight line, as this will cause your lures to vary slightly in their depth and result in more strikes.
One experienced kokanee angler willing to share some tips was Andy Barry of Twin Falls, who regularly fishes Anderson Ranch Reservoir.
“I put in at the Curlew boat ramp and usually fish where Fall Creek enters the reservoir, not far from Fall Creek Resort,” Barry said. “Fish will congregate in the main channel, just off the cove; in a normal year you might have to go to 90 feet to find fish, while this year there is so much water, you can pick up fish at 30 feet.”
Barry’s favorite lure is a wedding ring spinner or kokanee killer with double hooks.
“On the first hook,” he said, “I usually will bait with a corn or a salmon egg; on the second, a hot-pink synthetic mousy-grub (maggot).”
Another spot worth trying is the mouth of Lime Creek, near the town of Pine.
My favorite Anderson Ranch lure is a luminous yellow Tasmanian devil spoon, trolled behind a single hammered flasher. A bonus to Anderson Ranch Reservoir is the generous 25-fish daily bag limit, and the possibility of hooking a landlocked coho or fall Chinook salmon.
Boom and bust
“Kokanee are notorious for being abundant one year and scarce the next,” Megargle said. “Rangeland and forest fires can lay surrounding hillsides bare, and all the debris after spring runoff can plug the spawning gravels, leaving the fish nowhere to spawn.”
This has happened some years at Anderson Ranch, and it’s one of the reasons fishing may be great one year and a dud the next. Kokanee can and do overpopulate and stunt, particularly in a succession of low-water years. Because low reservoir levels result in less available food, adult fish will not grow to size, but spawning success is not affected as they are stream spawners.
Southwest regional fisheries manager Joe Kozfkay is responsible for managing Deadwood Reservoir in Valley County. East of Cascade and north of Garden Valley, surrounded by pine forests and a long, bumpy ride from anywhere, Deadwood is Idaho’s crown jewel of kokanee fisheries.
“Deadwood has recovered from the kokanee population crash of the late 1990s,” Kozfkay said. “We have the average size up to about 15 to 16 inches, and hopefully the numbers will recover to their historic abundance.”
He added: “In the past, we have run a kokanee egg-take on Deadwood Reservoir when the numbers were there, supplying other lakes and reservoirs with a kokanee fishery.”
Just as in the case of Anderson Ranch, Fish and Game has stocked fall Chinook salmon as a trophy fishery.
Kokanee are excellent table fare and almost impossible to ruin. One of the easiest ways to cook kokanee is to fillet the fish, marinate it in Italian salad dressing and cook it over a charcoal or gas grill.
Another quick, easy way is pan broil the fillets, with salmon seasoning sprinkled on top.
My favorite: poached in white wine with lemon slices and lemon zest.