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Kokanee Salmon - what you need to know

September 16, 2010
Author: Trouts Staff

When you ask somebody to tell you what comes to mind when you say “Colorado Fly Fishing”, most people would mention 2 things: the Rocky Mountains and Trout.  The reality is that fly fishing in this state is very closely associated with the resident trout (Rainbow, Brown, Brook, Cutbow and Cutthroat), and not the many other species that fill our local ponds, lakes, reservoirs and rivers.  Yet every Fall, the Kokanee Salmon make their annual migration out of a few or our states reservoirs, and essentially goes from being a complete anomaly to fly anglers to being a highly sought after species.  Yet there still remains a large number of fly anglers who are completely unaware of this species, particularly how much fun they can be to catch on a fly rod.

Kokanee-Salmon

Background

The Kokanee Salmon is essentially a land-locked Pacific Sockeye Salmon.  These fish were first introduced to lakes and reservoirs in the interior US starting in the early 1900’s, and these stocking programs continue today.  Because they don’t venture from saltwater to freshwater, Kokanee Salmon are much smaller than their androgynous brethren, and only get to be about 1lb – 3lb.  It’s also important to point out that except for a few exceptions, Kokanee don’t ever successfully spawn.  As a result, local fish and wildlife agencies have to do annual stockings to maintain adequate population numbers.  Yet although these fish don’t successfully spawn, it is during the spawning period where this species becomes accessible to fly anglers as they will seek out gravelly shore lines in reservoirs, or small tributary streams to swim up and “spawn”.  Just like any other salmon species, once they begin their spawn these fish stop eating and will eventually die.

Where to Find Them?

Although there are a number of reservoirs across Colorado where Kokanee can be found, there are only three thatUnderwater-Kokanee are of interest to fly anglers: Blue Mesa Reservoir (the Gunnison River), Green Mountain Reservoir (the Blue River), and 11-Mile Reservoir (the South Platte River).  The reason for this is that these are the only locations where Kokanee will migrate out of a reservoir and into a river.  As noted above, these fish do not successfully spawn, so the Colorado Division of Wildlife has adopted an annual stocking program in these reservoirs in order to keep  populations at suitable levels.  Kokanee are typically stocked as fingerlings, so it is the adult fish (3-5 years in age) that will venture up tributary rivers and streams to spawn.  It is during this time that this species is most accessible, and most fun to catch on a fly rod.

How to Catch Them?

The good news about Kokanee is that once you locate them, they are not hard to catch.  The tricky part is understanding their spawning habits and Kokanee to handultimately knowing when they will stat to move out of a reservoir and into the river.  In Colorado, we’re fortunate that the three reservoirs that house migratory Kokanee tend to have varying spawning times, thus on certain years it’s possible to be able to fish all three drainage’s.  Depending on the year, Kokanee tend to move out of 11-Mile Reservoir first as the water temperatures in this area tends to fall the fastest (50 degrees is typically the “magic” temperature that gets the fish moving into tributary streams), cuing the Kokanee to run upstream.  Next is Blue Mesa Reservoir which has the largest run of Kokanee in the state.  Last is usually the Blue River, where the Kokanee begin their run in mid to late September out of Green Mountain Reservoir.

Once you’ve got a handle on their spawning patterns, all it takes to catch a Kokanee is a well presented fly that is bright and flashy enough to anger the fish.  Remember, once a Kokanee (or any salmon for that matter) begins to spawn they stop eating, and the only way to get them to attack your fly is to essentially annoy them or piss them off.  Small Rs2’s and mayfly emergers, although deadly to trout in the fall, tend to pass by a Kokanee without hardly a glance.  Yet a large pink Copper John, any egg pattern, or a flashy streamer is always a good bet to get their attention.

So this year, think outside the box and spend a afternoon or day trying your luck with this seasonal catch.

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