How to Catch Kokanee 101
Table of Contents
- Where to Start
- How to Catch Kokanee
Where to Start
We have all had to start somewhere. Some people reading this may be experienced fisherman wanting to learn how to fish for Kokanee. Others may have been fishing for Kokanee for a while but want to learn what products and techniques work for someone else. Or you may be just starting out. I have learned to fish the way I do from a combination of research, trial and error and great advice from other successful fisherman. I always enjoy fishing with other fisherman to see how they fish. I have learned that just because someone does things different than I may, doesn't mean it won’t work. I believe there is no right or wrong way to catch Kokanee - just "best practices". My hope in putting together this guide is to provide some of those "best practices" that I have found success with to help jumpstart or add to your Kokanee fishing techniques. Note - all the products I recommend below are products that I currently use or have used in the past. There may be other options out there that are equal or superior, but I am only sharing those that I can personally vouch for.
To help understand how to catch Kokanee let's start with a biology lesson. In the below video I talk about lifecycle of Kokanee Salmon specifically in Strawberry Reservoir, UT, but the general guidelines apply to Kokanee everywhere.
Do I Need a Boat?
Kokanee will primarily be in deeper parts of the lake. In Utah during the main summer season, between about May - Aug, I am primarily fishing for them in about the 25-45 ft depth range. In the early spring or winter, I have also found them in the top 10-15ft of water. Because of this you really need a boat or other floatation device to catch them from and a way to present your lure at a targeted depth. The exceptions to this are during the spawn in the Fall when they will come in closer to the gravel beds near the shore and into river inlets. During these few weeks they can be caught from the shore. Depending on where you live, they may be off limits from keeping during the spawn. In Utah they are off limits from Sept 10th to the end of November (as of 2021). You can also catch them through the ice in the wintertime.
So, do you need a boat? If you want to constantly catch Kokanee during the summer months the answer is yes. But that boat could be a kayak, a float tube or a raft. For trolling (my preferred method) you need to be able to consistently move at about 1.2-1.8 mph either from a motor or human power. If you are in a smaller vessel, make sure you watch weather conditions. Kokanee are typically in the middle of the lake and you don't want to get stranded or worse if the weather suddenly changes. There are several lakes that have Kokanee that are smaller and "wakeless only". These are the ideal lakes to target Kokanee on if you have a smaller vessel.
For larger lakes I recommend a larger boat for safety. If you are boat shopping, I would recommend looking for something in the 18 ft+ range. I would also recommend an outboard motor so you can use it year-round without the complications of having to winterize it like you have to with an inboard.
Do I Need Downriggers?
You need a way to target the depth you are fishing at. Downriggers provide an easy and arguably the best way to accomplish that. I have 4 of them on my boat. But do you have to have them? What if you just have a ski boat and don't want to drill holes to mount them (I have been there) or are fishing from that kayak? The answer is NO. They can be caught without them using various methods. The method I have found to work the best is using clip weights. In the summertime I will generally run 6 poles at a time. 4 on my downriggers and 2 using clip weights. Some days I catch more fish on the clip weights than I do on my downriggers. They work GREAT! Here is a video to show how I use them.
What Rod Should I Use?
It is possible to catch Kokanee with your standard spinning rod and reel. If you are just getting started out there is nothing wrong with doing this to see if Kokanee fishing is for you. Once you catch (and most likely loose) a few Kokanee your rod and reel will be one of the first things you want to upgrade. Kokanee have very soft mouths. As a result, it is very easy to rip the lure out of their mouth as you are reeling them in. To help with this using a lightweight flexible rod is essential. A good entry level rod is the Eagle Claw Kokanee Rod for about $30 and it goes on up from there. My current favorite is the Velocity Fishing Ninja Kokanee Rod.
Some people may use rubber-snubbers. I have tried them in the past with standard trolling rods that are stiffer but have found that they are unnecessary if you are using the correct rod.
What Reel Should I Use?
Just like with the rod, it's ok to start with your standard spinning reel. But again, this is another item I would recommend upgrading. I recommend a level wind reel (baitcaster style). When you are trolling you are frequently putting out 100-200 ft of line. Using a spinning reel, I have found that you get more "line twist" due to the way it functions. With a level wind reel, I feel there are advantages with just pushing a button and having thumb control to quickly let line out. They also have great drag systems and the huge advantage of being able to get one with a line counter (especially if you are fishing with the clip weight method mentioned above).
A good baitcaster reel without a line counter is the Abu Garcia Black Max.
What Line Should I Use?
Line selection is one of the area’s where the “best practice” can vary from fisherman to fisherman. There are 4 common types of line. Monofilament, fluorocarbon, braid and copolymer (hybrid). Each has their pros and cons.
Monofilament will give you more stretch than the other types of lines. This can act as a shock absorber and give some benefit but with too much stretch it can be tough to keep the perfect amount of tension on the line if you are using an ultralight kokanee rod. Monofilament also tends to refract light making it more visible in the water. I haven’t found Kokanee to be line shy but if you are fishing other species with the same line this is something to be aware of.
Fluorocarbon does not have much stretch to it. It is a very strong line and allows the light to pass through it, so it becomes more invisible in the water. Fluorocarbon is commonly used as a leader and to tie lures with due to these factors.
Braided line has no stretch and the strongest line for the diameter. Using a braided line, you will need to use a leader as it is visible in the water. I know some Kokanee fisherman swear by braid. I haven’t used it for Kokanee fishing personally.
Copolymer is the last type of line. I like to think of it as a hybrid between monofilament and fluorocarbon. It is stronger than monofilament and fluorocarbon but not as strong as braid. It does have some stretch but not as much as monofilament. It is less visible than mono but more than fluorocarbon.
All 4 types of lines can work, and it really becomes a personal preference. For me I started with monofilament. This was back before I had my ultralight kokanee rods. Once I upgraded to ultralight rods, I switched to P-Line CXX copolymer line and have been using that ever since.
Whatever line you decide to use I recommend switching it out once a year (or more depending on how much you fish). For line weight you can use anything from 6-12lb test. For monofilament I would recommend sticking with a higher lb. test. Using the P-Line CCX copolymer line, I use 8lb test and have been happy with that.
Here are some of lines I have used and would recommend:
Do I Need a Net?
A good net is an invaluable tool for Kokanee fishing. Kokanee tend to turn into acrobats as you get them close to the boat. Many a fish have been lost in the netting process. I highly recommend a net with a long handle so you can get to them at the beginning of their acrobatic routine. I have been using an EGO Slider Net that has an extendable handle. I also recommend getting one with rubber netting as your hooks don’t get caught up in it as easily and it’s easier on the fish.
Along with a net another item I would consider essential is a pair of pliers or forceps. Most Kokanee lures are tied with 2 hooks. After you have netted the fish and need to remove the hooks, Kokanee are in the peak of that acrobatic routine. I have witnessed many times (myself included) someone get a hook impaled in their hand while trying to unhook the fish as it twists around. I always recommend using forceps or pliers to remove hooks.
What Lures Should I Use?
Out of all the topics I will cover this is probably the most controversial one. It’s been said that fishing lures are made to catch fisherman, not fish. On a good day, when the fish are actively feeding, if you will follow the principles I share in the Keys to Success Section below you can catch them on almost anything you put in front of them. On other days they may have a preference to a color or type of lure. I have my “go-to” lures that I generally will start with but also have a wide variety so I can switch things up as needed.
Kokanee’s main diet consists of zooplankton which are microorganisms in the water. Unlike other species of fish, we aren’t trying to match what they are eating. They are an aggressive fish and will strike when something unwanted enters their space. We are literally trying to make them mad and trigger a strike. It is possible to spook them especially if they are in a lake where they may be food for larger predator fish. So, we want to use something big enough and flashy enough to trigger that strike but not so big that they feel threatened.
For Kokanee fishing the typical setup I use is a dodger followed by a short leader (6-18” depending on the lure you are using) followed by your lure.
There are many different types of dodgers available. The main purposes of a dodger are to attract fish and create action for your lure as it rocks back and forth through the water. Dodgers come in many shapes, sizes and colors. Here are some of the ones I regularly use and recommend.
I would recommend getting a few different styles and colors and sizes so you can experiment and find a combination that works best for you.
Next is figuring out what lure you want to use. There is a limitless number available. This is an area where personal preference really takes over. If you asked a dozen different Kokanee fisherman what their best lure is chances are you would get close to a dozen different answers. One of the things I love about lures is they can tell a story. Once you have that amazing day or catch that monster fish you start to get your favorites. For Kokanee fishing there are several different styles of lures available. I recommend getting an assortment of styles and colors. Here are some of the main ones.
Squid / Hoochie
Wedding Ring / Spinner
Scent & Bait
Kokanee are said to have a very strong sense of smell. It’s important to have clean hands void of sunscreen or bug repellant as you setup your lures. Many Salmon fisherman use lemon joy dish soap to clean their hands frequently and also clean their lures and dodgers. For bait I have found that tipping the hooks of your lures with corn or synthetic maggots greatly increases your odds of getting a strike. There are also many scents that you can add to your dodger, lures or bait that you are tipping it with to attract the fish and mask your human smell. My preferred method is to mix some scent in with my maggots in their bottle. This is an easy way to add some additional scent.
Here are some of by preferred baits and scents.
I will go into more detail on the video in the rigging section below.
Essential Gear Summary
Let’s do a recap of what equipment I consider essential to get started with Kokanee fishing. Here is the list:
- Downrigger or Clip Weights
- Rod & Reel with 6-12LB test line depending on the type you are using that is in good condition
- Net & Forceps
- Dodger & Lure of your choice
- Bait with optional scent
Additional Recommended Equipment
To decide what fish finder you should purchase, it helps to figure out what you want to accomplish with it. I am going to keep this simple to cover the basics. Here is a list of key features I use regularly.
GPS – I use the GPS to mark waypoints so I can return to them later, see the speed I am trolling and mark my path on the map so I can retrace it if we find a productive spot.
Map with Lake Contour Lines – Along with a GPS having a built-in map is essential. Most fish finders with GPS come with some built in maps. You can add additional maps that show the lake depth with contour lines. This allows you to target areas you want to fish and monitor depths to help prevent getting your downriggers snagged up on the bottom.
Sonar – The primary reason for a fish finder is to find fish. There are different technologies used to accomplish this. The most common ones are CHIRP 2D, Down Imaging and Side Imaging. CHIRP 2D is your most basic option. It focuses right under the boat and will show you what it sees as lines on the screen. Down Imaging still focuses right under the boat but takes that one step further to create almost 3D images on your screen. It helps you identify if that blob you are seeing with your 2D sonar is a school of fish or a tree. Side Imaging lets you see below and to the sides of your boat. If there is a school of fish under or to the side of you, they will show up as a bunch of dots. It’s one more layer of enhancement to what you can see.
Advanced Features – With today’s technology it is possible to network your trolling motor, fish finder and downriggers all together. You can chart a map on your fish finder screen, decide what speed you want to go and with a press of the button your boat will be driving itself. The key to making this all work is purchasing products that are compatible with each other. When you pick a manufacture, you are buying into that manufactures ecosystem. If you want that advanced functionality, make sure you do your homework so they will all play nicely together.
I chose to buy into the Humminbird / Minn Kota / Cannon ecosystem so that all my electronics would work together. There are pros and cons for each manufacture. I suggest figuring out what you want the end result to be and then work backwards to find a manufacture and equipment that fit those needs.
Downriggers are an excellent way to fish at a targeted depth. Downriggers come in manual and electric versions. I used manual downriggers for years and caught tons of fish with them. They work great just take more effort to use. Electric downriggers use motors to lower and bring your downrigger ball up and down the water column. With electric downriggers you can also get advanced functionality such as bottom tracking, cycling your line up and down, networking to your fish finder and trolling motor. In the video below I cover how downriggers work and the basics.Here is a summary of key words to learn and accessories you will need to go with your downriggers.
Downrigger Ball – this is a lead ball that is attached to your downrigger line. For Kokanee speeds and depths, I use a 4-6 lb. ball.
Stacking Clip – You can run multiple lines on a single downrigger. This clip attaches to your downrigger line on one side and has a release on the other that you put your line into.
Downrigger Release - You clip you line into this release and then drop the downrigger to your desired depth. When you get a fish on the fish will pull
Setback – This is how much line you put out before you clip it onto the downrigger. If I say I’m fishing with a 100ft setback – your lure is about 100ft behind your boat.
Electric Trolling Motor
A good electronic trolling motor is like having a built-in captain on your boat. It’s one of the things that has been game changing for me as I’m out fishing. Not having to worry about constantly steering your boat while you are trying to do everything else makes fishing so much easier. You can get trolling motors that have built-in GPS that can “spot-lock” and hold your boat’s position to anchor you to an area you want to fish. Using that same built-in GPS, you can set a heading and speed and it will keep you going in a straight line.
Electronic trolling motors are generally mounted in the bow of your boat. For a boat in the 18+ ft range they will run off a 24 or 36 volt system. They have their own bank of batteries separate from the batteries you use for starting your boat and running your electronics. I recommend getting the biggest Marine Deep Cycle batteries you can fit. I've been using these Duracell Group 31s for several years and have been happy with them.
You will need onboard battery charger / tender to charge these batteries between trips.
I have found that depending on the size of the boat, wind, what size batteries you are using and speed that you are trolling, that if the system is sized right you will generally get between 4-8hrs of trolling time off of your batteries. If I am going to be trolling faster than about 2mph, in windy conditions or for an extended period I will use my gas kicker trolling motor to move the boat but still steer with my electric. If the electric is only steering, you could potentially go for a couple of days on one charge of batteries. If I was getting into fishing, after I had the essential gear, a good GPS trolling motor would be the next item on my list even over a fish finder.
How to Catch Kokanee
You have all your essential gear. Your boat is gassed up and ready to go. Cooler is packed with snacks and drinks. How do we actually catch these fish?
The Night Before your Trip
Early morning hours are some of the most productive hours to catch Kokanee. The night before I always go through all my gear. Get the poles ready with the lures I want to start with. Pack my boat and truck with everything I plan on needing for the day. I try and do as much prep work as possible so that when we get to the lake we can immediately start fishing and not waste any of those precious morning hrs.
Rigging your lures
In this video I show how I rig my poles including what knots I use and how to make sure I’m getting the action I want on my lures.
Using Your Electronics
Spend some time learning your electronics. I would recommend watching videos on the particular model of fish finder you have and learn how to do the basic adjustments. You will need to adjust the strength and contrast so that you can cleanly mark fish. This will vary from lake to lake, so it is important to get familiar with how to do this. Once your “base” adjustments have been made and you are marking fish you will want to start looking for multiple fish together. Kokanee are a schooling fish so if you see a single fish shallow or down deep but a bunch together somewhere else target the depth where you are consistently seeing multiple fish. In the video below I review this in more detail and show you some examples of what to look for. I also show the differences between 2D, Down Imaging and Side Imaging.
Keys to Success
I am going to share with you what I have found to be the “Keys to Success”. If you are following these 4 principles, you will catch Kokanee.
Time of Day
Kokanee are more active at different times of the day. This can vary from lake to lake but here are some guidelines that I have found to be generally consistent. Kokanee will start feeding early in the morning. I try to be on the water and fishing about 1 hr. before sunrise. There have been many times that fishing will be hot from before light till about 8 or 9am and then slow way down. I have caught more Kokanee between these hrs. than any other time of the day. Throughout the rest of the day there will be times that you are doing everything else right, but the fish won’t bite and then 30 mins later the bite will turn on again. I have also found that during the last few hrs. of light Kokanee are generally active. They can be caught all day long. There will always be those off days that this rule will be broken but being there early will greatly increase your odds.
You need to be where the fish are. Kokanee will generally be in the same areas of a lake year after year. Do some research and find out what area’s you should start looking for them at. Use your fish finder and mark waypoints where you see schools of fish and where you catch them so you can return to the same spots in later trips.
Kokanee are trolled at a slower speed. They can be caught as slow as .8 mph up to 2mph. I typically fish in the 1.2 – 1.6 mph range. Some days speed can be key. If you are marking fish but aren’t getting any strikes speed is one of the things you will want to adjust. A quick speed burst or doing “s” turns that will very your speed can be a very effective way to trigger a strike. If you are in a boat that doesn’t have a trolling motor to get you down to those speeds, you have a couple options. You can use trolling socks to slow you down. Another option is a trolling plate. If you don’t have either of those good old 5 gallon buckets tied to a rope and then to the side of your boat will also do the trick.
Your lure needs to be presented to the fish at the correct depth with the action necessary to trigger a strike. To find what depth you should be at watch your fish finder. You are looking for multiple fish together. Adjust your downriggers or clip weights to be right above the fish you are seeing. If you aren’t seeing any fish on your fish finder but are in an area you think they should be, try fishing one or more lines in the top 10 ft of water with a long setback of 100 ft or more. Often if fish are on the surface, they will get scatter as you drive over them with your boat, so you won’t see them on your fish finder. That doesn’t mean they aren’t there and will get back into position not long after you pass. This is especially true during colder months in the winter or early spring. Next you want to make sure your lures are running properly in the water. If your lure has a spinner on it make sure you are going fast enough that its spinning. Some days the fish will like a lure that has lots of action. Other days they don’t want much. If you are following all the other principles correctly but not getting any bites switching up the action by using different dodgers or a different lure is something I would try. Make sure you watch the rigging your lures video as I cover this in more detail.
I hope this guide has been helpful to either start your Kokanee fishing journey or add to your existing knowledge. I plan on putting out some additional articles that will cover more advanced topics in the future. If there is a specific topic you would like covered please contact me and let me know.