TWIN FALLS • As the summer ends, soon the elusive kokanee, landlocked sockeye salmon, will make their way back to the streams where they hatched. Their silver flesh will turn red, indicating that they have hit maturity and are ready to spawn.
This time of year, kokanee start emerging from the deep waters of reservoirs and lakes that anglers have to hunt them in.
Think it’s too late to catch one of these fish? Not so, but spawning time is when the fishing slows.
“They are hard to catch when spawning because they don’t eat,” said Scott Stanton, regional fisheries biologist with Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
Once they finish spawning, they will be ready for catching again, but you probably have only about a month to fish them because they die soon after spawning.
Stanton said kokanee fishing is usually good through the middle of September.
“They are actually a good eating fish once they get closer to their spawning because they are fat,” said Dusty Jenkins, fishing manager at Sportsman’s Warehouse in Twin Falls. “By the time they turn red they are not as good eating.”
Jenkins said kokanee are good for smoking, and when they are silver their flesh is firm with a flavor and texture similar to a trout.
Every year, Fish and Game takes samplings of kokanee by trawling Anderson Ranch Reservoir in Elmore County — the closest water to the Magic Valley to fish kokanee. Fish and Game takes samplings at different water levels to monitor the fishery and make sure kokanee populations are where they should be.
“Kokanee are a density-dependent species. The more kokanee you have in the reservoir, the smaller they will be,” Stanton said. “If you have too many based on the spawn, too many eggs and too many babies, the density gets too high.”
The agency controls the population through fishing or harvest.
“We also have the ability, even though it’s costly, where we can put up (block) a tributary so only some can go up the river,” Stanton said.
Kokanee feed primarily on zooplankton, and as the summer heats up they can be found in the lowest depths of the waters. When the sun sets, Stanton said, they often come to the surface to feed, which is when Fish and Game does its trawling.
This year, he said, the catch rate was four fish an hour at 12 inches, which he considers a good year.
“The reason we do the kokanee management in Idaho is because the fishermen really like kokanee. It is because they are very good eating. It’s very important to a lot of anglers. If the kokanee fishing is real good, they will drive a long ways,” Stanton said.
In early spring kokanee can be found in shallower waters in the reservoir, Jenkins said. They start going deeper as the summer goes on.
“By July you need down rigger because they will be 40 to 60 feet,” Jenkins said.
That’s part of the fun of catching this fish, said Alan Greenhalgh of Meridian. Greenhalgh specializes in kokanee tackle called Kokabow Fishing Tackle. He has designed a lure that attracts both kokanee and trout with a series of spinners that produce colorful reflections of light.
“They protect their zooplankton beds, and as a fisherman you are trying to disturb their beds. You are trying make them mad with something with a lot of color and flash,” Greenhalgh said.
The flash and vibration attract the fish to the line, Jenkins said. Then something smaller and less intimidating is pulled behind it, and that is what they usually attack.
Though Idaho features many bodies of water, Greenhalgh said, not a lot produce zooplankton. Where you find zooplankton, you can find kokanee. That usually means the water has to be cool and deep.
“Salmon Falls Reservoir has a few kokanee, but Anderson Ranch Reservoir is one of the best kokanee fisheries in the state of Idaho,” Greenhalgh said.
The appeal of the fish is that it’s not the easiest fish to catch, he said, but once they have the right equipment and know how to target it, anglers can’t get enough.
“Early in the spring, April to May, you will find them at 12 to 15 feet, but you have to propel yourself. It doesn’t take a very expensive boat; all you have to do is propel yourself and you are good,” Greenhalgh said.