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Expert Tips: What Makes Kokanee Attack a Lure

Expert Tips: What Makes Kokanee Attack a Lure

Mike Hall, Pro-Staff Angler

Next time you head out Kokanee fishing on your favorite river or lake, remember these salmon strike for basic reasons of hunger, reaction, anger, spawn and territorial behavior.

Kokanee are attracted to strike by degree of action, smell, noise, water displacement, size, color and visibility.

A primary understanding of these points will allow you to be successful while fishing under all conditions (on any water) for the catch commercial fishermen called Blue Back and American First Nations call Kokanee, the Red Fish.

Kokanee Fishery Overview:

There are few natural stocks of Kokanee wildlife remaining, and most have originated from hatcheries. Kokanee salmon require much less time in hatcheries to reach a suitable size for planting than rainbow trout. Allowing increased production provides greater benefit to the numbers available to the angler and increased efficiency to fisheries' operations. This accounts for the growing increase of Kokanee waters and stocking projects in North Carolina, Montana., Utah, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and other Western states and Canada. 

Hatchery sourced eggs display of mixture of all the genetics of their species. Anglers should also be aware that Kokanee has a one to seven-year life span. The biological rule is they trend to source, i.e. two-year cycle source parents have mostly two-year cycle offspring. Most four-year cycle fish, because of their size, are preferred for hatchery production. Generally speaking, fishery stocks can, and do, produce all life spans and sizes with trends representing the wildlife source.

Kokanee, with good food and proper environmental conditions, can become trophies, legends, and giants close to 10 pounds!

Available food resources affect the quality, size, and maturity of Kokanee. Environmental stability is critical for both the food and survival of this Columbia region's Kokanee (keystone) salmon. Algae negatively affect food production, destroy oxygen levels, reduce food resources and chemically pollute trout stocks, especially for sensitive Kokanee.

Planktons, "tiny, microscopic organisms," provide the life diet for this trout salmon. Algae, a plant mater, feeds on nitrates provided either naturally or by pollution, which depletes this food resource for planktons. As algae blooms grow, they increase water temperature, reduce both sunlight and oxygen required for all aquatic life, and warm water beyond normal temperatures, destroying conditions that maintain fishery stocks.

Temperature is the most critical environmental standard for prolific Kokanee fisheries. The ideal temperature for Kokanee is 42 to 54 degrees Fahrenheit.

Natural lakes provide great stability, but with spawning, they can overproduce numbers and result in smaller-sized Kokanee.

Notably, reservoirs have the greatest environmental changes and can cause an extreme loss in numbers of trout and Kokanee salmon available to anglers. Morbidity from temperature accounts for the largest percentage of Kokanee loss in all waters. 

Current studies show that even adult fish are not able to recover from catch and release and will die when surface temperatures reach 70 degrees. Winter drawdown in reservoirs has adverse effects as the temperature stability is compromised, causing notable losses.

Predation from other fish also has a negative effect on the numbers that reach a mature size.

Populations can and do, survive in viable numbers on most waters, but angler harvest and water management practices inherently have the greatest effect on the quality and numbers in Kokanee stocks in lakes and rivers.

It is very important to note that food resources and temperature stability are the differences between a 10-incher and a 10-pound giant.

These two environs do not account for stimuli needed in action, smell, noise, water displacement, color, and visibility in the most successful offerings used to capture this freshwater salmon. Attention to these details may well be the difference between the finest salmon dinner you will ever enjoy or a cup of veggie soup after a long day fishing on the lake. 

My heroes would rather clean salmon at the dock than dazzle with lavish stories. So I won’t expound further with Latin terms or a more aggressive lesson in physiology.

Now, on to the more serious details on equipment, attraction, and presentation.

Before you head out to the lake, consider your equipment choices are critical, after all you never know when a fish of a lifetime will volunteer for a trip home in your boat.

Topping the list is a quality sonar or fish-finder. Kokanee anglers must know the precise depth, speed, and location of the fish to be successful. Be sure to read the instruction manual and be familiar with operating and reading the unit.

The depth cursor is a handy feature to average the location depth and being able to see the exact depth of your downrigger ball is also paramount to ensure proper fishing presentation.

Rainbow trout usually print in open water as a ladder of arcs. Kokanee, in open or deep water, will print as a group of closely scattered dashes. I hope these tips help you to understand what you see on the locator when identifying trout and Kokanee.

Expert Fishing Tip: "Fish-finders do not lie. If you're not seeing arcs or dashes, it is because Kokanee is not there. It is best to move your fishing to another location.

Trolling Rod Selection

There are many different types of trolling rods that qualify as suitable gear for Kokanee fishing. Ultra-light rods are popular, but may not be the complete answer for Kokanee angling. Oh, yes "you can use an ultra-light trolling rod and be successful using a basic lure with long-line or downrigger presentations. Ultra-lights are rated for lighter action and lure weights of ¼ to ¾ ounce, which doesn’t include weights from dodgers or trolls, and the water-resistance these rigs produce.

The soft mouth of this salmon further compounds problems in maintaining hookups.

Fish after fish can be lost due to line slack when the rod is incapable of maintaining proper tension on the setup. 

Planning and purpose should be given to rod, reel, and line for any complete and effective angling presentation.

Expert Fishing Tips:  

Matching the recommended rods, action, and lure weight to trolling setups is a step toward the solution to increasing your catch rate.

Rods rated from ¾ to 1 ounce in medium action, with a fast taper and soft tip, are excellent for the presentations used in trolling for Kokanee.

Most often, a good quality level wind is desired, but consideration to a line counter-style reel is valued with downriggers and long line presentations for precise trolling.

Main running lines are generally a match to the presentation used and 10-pound test is often preferred.

Kokanee is not line or leader shy but color defines their world and clear line is best. Ponder the line diameter, larger line size translates to more water resistance or drag when trolling, so a thin diameter line is a plus for the main trolling line. When fishing for Kokanee, precise depth presentations are critical to your success.

Attractors are available in many sizes and styles for Kokanee angling.

Basic groups are flashers (rotate in a circle), dodgers (side to side action), and inline trolls (spinner blades).

Here are two favorite Kokanee lures you won’t want to leave at the dock:

Both of these attractors for Kokanee are made in the U.S.with stainless steel, they give the best flash and optimum weight for the perfect presentations.

The Sling Blade is best at speeds of 1 to 3.5 mph and can be tuned by slightly increasing the length-wise bend.

The Double D Dodger is not recommended for tuning and performs best at speeds of 1 to 2 ½ mph.

presentations. The Double D and the Sling Blade come in several sizes and colors to match water conditions and Kokanee preference.

Expert Fishing TIp:  Remember, the golden rule is your leader length; "longer leaders will result in slower action, shorter leaders put out a faster action and heavier leaders benefit from increased lure action.

Mack's Smile Blades are versatile in size, flash, and vibration, and will enhance any lure or bait. Better yet, they come in great colors, including the three new UV colors: copper, lemon-lime and purple haze.

Preferred sizes for Kokanee are 0.8-, 1.1-, 1.5- or 1.9-inches.

Smile Blade Tips

Kokanee can't resist a Smile Blade lure (a popular choice among Kokanee, salmon, and trout anglers). Rig Smile Blades with a small bead placed on your leader first so they will spin properly. Smile Blades can be changed easily on leader rigs and trying different sizes or colors is highly recommended for success. Kokanee offerings range from ¼ to 6 inches in effective sizes.

Smile Blades spin at much slower speeds than metal blades and effective speeds are effective at speeds as slow as 1/4 miles per hour.

Lures have five categories: topwater (floating lures), jigs (Rock Dancer), crankbaits (Wiggle Hoochie), spoons (Sonic Baitfish, Cripplure, Hum Dinger), and plastic baits (hoochies or squids). Thus far, I haven’t caught a Kokanee with a topwater lure but anything is possible (and it's on my bucket list).

Organizing your gear by category will help you select effective presentations and give you versatility, which is key to success when you want to catch Kokanee.

Expert Fishing Tips: 

Using larger hooks increases the hook gap, hooking fish better and ultimately puts more Kokanee in the boat.

Fishing while using too small a hook or treble often does not penetrate deep enough and is the primary reason for losing Kokanee during the fight.

Inactive Kokanee side swipes the lure, hooking them on the lip or face, generally outside the mouth.

Active Kokanee will bite, taking the lure or hooks inside the mouth.

Hook size is relative to fish size, and if you’re losing Kokanee, try a different sized hook.

Kokanee responds paramount to color, size, vibration, action, smell, and speed in presentations.

Expert Fishing Tips:  
The color of your offering is the most important piece of this puzzle. Kokanee prefers fluorescent or bright colors over most natural colors. UV colors further enhance color and help improve appearance in the blue/green spectrum that aquatic life visualizes.  For salmon, this works much like a neon does for drawing attention from us.

Attention is given to the dodger and/or flasher and the lure is a critical factor for any presentation. Flash color is a big factor in attracting fish and, yes, silver is a power color in this game.

Note: Chrome, silver, and stainless material affect the intensity and brightness of the flash.

Expert Fishing Tips:
Stainless is preferred by those who fish Kokanee because of its lightweight and superior flash in dodgers and flashers.
As a rule, brighter solid colors work well from the surface to about 20 feet of water, and complex or multi-colors work best from 20 to 60 feet of water.
My favorite colors for deep water are blues, glows, and darker pinks. A personal favorite is Fire Tiger and Fire Tiger Glow early in the spring.
Adding bait to the hooks is another sure method and adding color can make even bigger differences in the number of hookups.
Here’s an idea: Replace the hooks on your fishing rig with a Glo Hook.
The very best presentations have details and color always works. Size rules apply here and are important and very effective with squid presentations ranging from 1.5 to 3 inches. The profile or size of the squid lure is decisive for the time of year and time of day with differences noted at as little as ¼ inch.

Active Kokanee will take a large profile lure when feeding and a small profile lure when inactive. Inline spinners like the Smile Blade produce both flash, vibration, and profile to aid in attracting fish to this offering. Again different sizes should be part of your salmon fishing arsenal.

Smell, given thru bait or scent, enhances any presentation.

Maggots (real or artificial), shoepeg corn, earthworms, and a variety of scent products are preferred baits for Kokanee. Movement is another critical factor, as it incites feeding behaviors and instinctive strikes.

Speed kills, for sure, when triggering Kokanee.

Differing degrees of movement can be imparted to the lure using dodgers and/or flashers, crankbait style lures, and spoons.  Faster presentations are often key because they increase lure and attractor actions. Most often, speed becomes the effective and preferred key during the warm summer months but is critical year-round.

Expert Fishing Tip: Consider this: Kokanee, like all fish, move away from, or out from under, the boat. This is apparent when fish are shallow or spooked from a motor, sonar noise, boat traffic, or unstable weather. Keeping the attractor in front of them is the game.

Compounding this is the consideration that Kokanee feed, strike and move on a horizontal plane. They rarely move more than 2 feet vertically to chase or bite an attractor.

Precise depth presentations are most critical to success when fishing for Kokanee.

Adding a black box for electrolysis will aid in condensing active fish at the depth of the downrigger ball with the lure. Speeds of 1 mph to 6 mph will get the job done, but the speed is often determined and limited by the presentation. Dodger presentations do not work well with higher speeds because of water resistance and loss of momentum.

Kokanee are followers of current like all salmon.

Whereas lures like spoons or crankbaits fished alone will produce at higher speed. Natural lakes have an up and downwelling of these currents, and Kokanee will often be found at depths of 100 feet of water or greater.

Reservoir impoundments have currents on or near the river channel. Deep open water is a preferred Kokanee habitat, so start hunting for these areas for fish and note the proximity to these structure keys.


This might not be the entire story, but it gives anglers a start on where and how to look for Kokanee. Well, that's enough for now.

Remember, lifting people up in life is better than pushing people below your place in the world. Now get out there and catch a bunch, and if you should see my boss tell him or her I’m working hard. I’ll see you at the lake!

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