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By Jason Brooks
Kokanee are hard fighting, finicky and tasty landlocked sockeye salmon highly sought after by anglers. Often thought of as a spring and summer fishery, kokanee are often not fished for in the winter. This may be because a lot of the traditional kokanee lakes are only open during the spring and summer — or because most anglers have a hard time finding plankton eating salmon during the dark days of winter.
Lake Chelan is one lake that has a fantastic winter kokanee fishery. Throw in the mix of a lake that is fifty-five miles long, up to 1,400 feet deep and dead of winter in January, and most anglers agree kokanee would be great, but head for other lakes and other fish waiting until the kokanee can be patterned easier. “Most anglers,” however, doesn’t include Jeff Witkowski, owner of Darrell & Dad’s Family Guide Service on Lake Chelan, as he started searching for kokanee a few years ago when the clients slowed down with cold winter weather.
While Witkowski now mostly guides during the warmer months on Lake Chelan, he spent years figuring out the wintertime kokanee fishing and doing research for Mack’s Lure. We were fishing together one cold January day and he was telling us about his research when one of the rods loaded up on a downrigger, set at 100 feet, began to bounce. Grabbing the rod and reeling the slack as it came free from the release, he handed the rod to my son, Ryan, with only one instruction: “keep the line tight.” This meant a steady pull and reel as the fish fought hard for its size. Soon, the 10-inch silver-sided salmon flopped in the rubber, knotless net. Jeff was quick to get the hooks out and put the fish back in the lake, adding “it’s only a one-year-old fish, still small, and we want the next age class.”
Jeff has learned a lot about these fish and really tries to protect them as much as catch them. Limits are common, even in January, but it is not about just catching fish, it’s about harvesting the age class that will spawn in fall, assuring that by next summer, you’ll catch bigger kokanee.
Anglers need to be ready to run different gear depending on the weather and daylight conditions on Lake Chelan.
Kokanee Dodgers and Attractors
When it comes to attractors, most popular is fishing the Mack’s Lure Double D Dodgers 4”, as well as the Sling Blade Dodger 4” and 6”. Colors for these dodgers should vary from Silver to Silver/Hot Pink, along with a few variations.
I’d also recommend that you run a rubber Trolling Snubber two feet in front of your dodger with a light leader from the snubber to the dodger, such as 8-lb. XXX by Izorline. This allows the dodger to obtain full action, which is then imparted onto your lure, but the snubber will help keep the fish on the line.
Kokanee Lures and Squidders
Trailing the dodger, consider a chartreuse- or pink-patterned Double Whammy Kokanee Pro or Cha Cha 1.5 Kokanee. The Koke-A-Nut and Koke-A-Nut Glo, which is fitted with a highly-visible trailing Glo Hook, are also great lures with two hooks that tend to grab the soft mouths of a kokanee and hold on. The most productive Koke-A-Nut patterns are Glow/Pink/Silver, Pink/Pink/Silver, and Chartreuse/Lime/Silver, but every color available catches kokanee.
No matter what lure you are using, be sure to tip the hooks with corn. Plain shoepeg corn works well, but the deadliest combination I have found is to soak the corn in Pro-Cure’s Anise Bloody Tuna (or Mack’s Lure UV Bait Scent by Pro-Cure in Bloody Tuna). Toughen up the corn a bit by sprinkling some of Pro-Cure’s Wizards Kokanee Killer Korn Magic powder before adding any scent. Let it sit in the fridge for a few days, then a day or two before fishing add the bait oils so they can soak into the corn.
Electronics are probably the most important tool for fishing Lake Chelan. Winter kokanee are found in deep depths, usually around 100 feet or deeper, and as deep as 250 feet. A good sonar unit will show you the schools of fish and even your downrigger, as well as gear. This is important as the days are dark with cloud cover and indirect sunlight. Kokanee are cold-blooded, and though the lake temperature doesn’t vary much due to its size and depth, the barometric pressure is a bit different than in the summer and the fish can be finicky to bite. This means that, if you see fish at 110 feet and your gear is at 100 feet, you may not get bit. Same goes for if your gear is at 115 feet. You need to be right on the fish in these conditions.
Trolling speeds are slow, around one mile per hour, within a half mile and hour or so. Much like trolling during the spring and summer, wintertime still means that you should be doing a zig-zag or figure eight pattern. Don’t just troll along the shoreline, which can be several hundred feet deep, or in a straight line. Kokanee are feeding, just like any other salmon, and you need to stay on the fish. If you troll along a line and get bit, but don’t change your course, you will soon troll right past the school of fish believing the bite is “off” when actually you’re just no longer in the fish.
To find the fish, troll from shore-to-shore, concentrating in the middle of the lake, not along the shoreline. These small fish are also pretty to the mackinaw and they don’t go near the bottom or near structure where the larger predator fish prefer to hide and attack. Don’t be surprised if you catch a chinook or a few of the cutthroat in Lake Chelan while trolling for kokanee. Mixed bag limits are common and add some variety to the day of fishing.
Most kokanee in January are found near the Yacht club or near Greens Landing and Antilon Creek (no creek actually drains here, but it is a cut where the creek used to be before the creation of Antilon Lake).
Lastly, this is Lake Chelan, one of the only fjords in the lower 48 states. It cuts deep into the Cascade Mountains and winds kick up along with blinding snowstorms. I grew up on this lake and it is common to have winter storms hit where you cannot see the shoreline. This means low visibility, high winds, waves and freezing temperatures. Never fish in a small, open boat, and make sure you have a compass on board. Head east and you will see homes and docks, though head west and you’re into vast wilderness with no cell phone service. The nearest boat launch that is open in the winter is Mill Bay, though the ramps may be covered in ice. A four-wheel drive vehicle and even chains are sometimes required to get your boat out of the water.
Don’t sit idly by waiting for spring to get here to chase one of the most-prized fish in the Northwest. Hook up the boat and head to Lake Chelan for some winter kokanee. This is a great family trip destination as the town of Chelan holds a “Winterfest” for two weekends in January with most of the activities, including the Polar Bear Plunge, Bon Fire, ice sculpting and fireworks, occurring after sunset at the city park and downtown area.