Skip to content
Avoid the Crowd with Early Season Kokanee

Avoid the Crowd with Early Season Kokanee

By Jason Brooks 

The Challenge is Reel but Worth the Effort! 

When it comes to kokanee fishing, most anglers who target the landlocked sockeye salmon hit the waters in mid-summer when kokanee are easier to find. Summer weather brings stable water temperatures and an established thermocline that makes fishing for kokanee more predictable. Bringing home some tasty early-season kokanee requires an angler to have a more precise handle on where fish live and feed during the variable months of May and June. With the following tips, you will learn how to beat the crowds to catch kokanee during prime feeding conditions when plankton blooms become more common.

A Late Spring Challenge for Anglers

Late springtime weather often means cold fronts, high winds, and bright sunny, warm days followed by another cold spell. These and other factors cause instability in water temperatures. Anglers who wait for summers' warm and constant weather patterns do have an edge, but then again, waiting for such conditions also means foregoing good fishing weeks or months before everyone else. Why wait for sizzling summer days to catch some of the best-eating salmon living in lakes often far away from the ocean?  The key to finding schools of kokanee while they are actively feeding to put on weight before next fall’s spawn, is understanding of how water temperature and food availability informs fish location.

Sockeye salmon, including kokanee, are like any other salmonoid and need cold water to live, not only for comfort but for food as well. Kokanee are unique when it comes to their food source. Unlike their distant cousins the chinook, coho, and chum salmon who eat baitfish, shrimp, and squid as a staple food source, sockeye are more like the pink salmon. Both species devour zooplankton, small aquatic bugs, and krill in the ocean - or the tiny freshwater mysis shrimp in lakes. This means their food sources are also water-temperature and light-dependent. When it comes to fishing spring kokanee, it is about finding their food sources as much as it is about locating pockets of the right water temperature.   

Early season kokanee fishing can be frustrating as daily water temperatures fluctuate with spring storms, cold nights, and hot days. If the lake was small enough to form ice during the winter, then it might still be in the process of “turning over”, which is where the warmer water on the bottom of the lake rises, and the chilly water sinks mixing the lake's water. This happens yearly in the season.

Spring Warmth Brings Changes and Opportunities

Experienced anglers know when this occurs the fish become active because it brings bugs out of the mud and pushes them up towards the surface. This process also brings up dissolved oxygen, which rejuvenates the fish and makes them more active. Larger lakes that do not ice over will have similar changes in water but not to the extreme as smaller lakes because the water does not have the extremely cold or frozen top layer.  

Larger lakes also tend to be deeper, which means colder temperatures at extreme depths as well as less light penetration. Mysis shrimp are phytoplankton eaters and are noticeably light-dependent. A clear lake means the shrimp can survive deeper than in a dirty water lake. Anglers trying to locate kokanee in large lakes during early summer or late spring often have a tough time finding them due to all the variables from food sources to water temperatures. This is why waiting until summertime when the lake warms up to its maximum high temperatures and stabilizes the thermocline makes finding the fish much easier. Those anglers who head out early get the first chance at fish that have been feeding all fall and winter.

To increase your chances of catching kokanee early in the season, you must first find the fish and that means considering water temperature. Kokanee and their sea-going cousins the sockeye prefer water around 50 degrees Fahrenheit. There might be some variance, depending on the body of water, such as shallower lakes that do not reach 50 degrees or lakes where the water clarity does not allow light to penetrate to the depth where 50 degrees is located. It is important to know that fish will find a happy medium of cool water and food. For starters, locate the depth of the thermocline around 50 degrees and start trolling or jigging at that depth.  

Keep in mind sunlight can affect fishing as kokanee have exceptionally large eyes compared to body size and are light sensitive. Their food can also be light dependent such as zooplankton. Bright sunny days often mean trolling a bit deeper and cloudy days might have you trolling very shallowly. Same with early morning and late afternoon; be sure to adjust as the sun starts to shine bright, especially if you were catching fish in one part of the lake and then find suddenly, the bite is off. More than likely the fish changed depth, not location.  

Scent Makes a Difference

Scent is crucial as kokanee are known to be shy fish. Several videos on the internet show kokanee following lures for a long time and then simply swimming away, while others come out of nowhere and smack the lure.

One of the best-known baits for catching kokanee is cured white shoepeg corn. The shoepeg corn is often a round kernel that is tough with a lot of natural oil, along with being overly sweet. The sugar and oil content are an attractant. Adding cures, will toughen the corn even more, as well as add bite stimulants. Salmon like sulfites and Sockeye are no different. Commercial shrimp and egg cures often have sulfites in them as a preservative and bite stimulant, which is why using a jarred cure works well with corn.

Plus, you can add your own scents and chemicals to make different combinations. A frequent additive is powdered krill as it is a natural food source for Sockeye and closely related to the mysis shrimp. Anise oil is another popular scent when it comes to kokanee fishing and this oil is sweet smelling. Garlic is one that the fish either love or hate and should be part of your cures but be sure to have other baits without garlic available as well.

PRO TIP: One thing about scent is that you can also apply them directly onto your lures in the form of bait sauces, gels, and oils. A good one for kokanee is Kokanee Magic. If you do this, then do not just apply them to the end of the lure but also on any flashers or dodgers you are using as well since they can help disperse the scent and attract more fish.  

Ins and Outs of Chumming

Chumming used to be extremely popular when it came to kokanee fishing, however this technique to bring in fish has faded away in most lakes. This might be because some regulations have changed in some areas to disallow chum, and in other cases, anglers have decided against dumping attractants and other things into the water might be frowned upon by others.

Where it is legal to chum, try using a mixture made from natural and biodegradable ingredients. A common base for kokanee chum is crushed chicken eggshells and feeder salmon eggs. This is a byproduct of commercial salmon egg curing companies that cook their eggs in jarred juices with crushed eggs, corn meal, and other mediums that will soak up the juices of the cures. Be sure to add some other scents such as anise or garlic and have a variety of chum.

When fishing with chum most anglers will jig for kokanee since you want to fish where the chum is slowly sinking and drawing in the fish. The Mack’s Lure Sonic Baitfish is one of the top-producing lures to jig up kokanee; it can be fished vertically so it drops quickly. It can also be used like a walleye angler uses a blade bait by tying it in the middle of the lure for more action. The Glow series in Pink, Orange, or Chartreuse is most popular for kokanee.

Another way to jig for kokanee is to use a sliding weight on the mainline then an 18 to 24-inch bumper to a small Sling Blade 4” Dodger  with another 18-inch leader to a 1/8 ounce Hum Dinger Lure. This tiny lure is perfect for kokanee fishing with the single siwash hook and bright colors, trailing below the dodger that gives it action. For colors try Gold Sand/Red, Green Glitter/Chartreuse, and plain Red for the HumDinger. The Sling Blade Dodgers in Pink/Silver, Fire Tiger, Pink Glow, and Chartreuse/Green are popular amongst kokanee anglers. Another option is to use the Sling Blade dodger and a Glo-Hook tipped with a maggot or piece of cured shoepeg corn.

To make it even simpler, Mack’s Lure has put together a combo pack (Ice Rig Combo Pack) with popular dodgers and lures for jigging. This kit also works well in open water and includes a Sling Blade and either a Hum Dinger 1/8 oz. or Glo Hooks, creating a deadly combination for jigging for kokanee.

Tried and True Kokanee Trolling Techniques

Trolling is the most popular way to fish for kokanee in the spring and summer because you are always searching for fish that might be on the move. As mentioned, during the springtime especially, kokanee can be hard to find and will move with water temperatures, sunlight, and food sources. Being mobile and able to search for them increases your chances of catching them.

PRO TIP: One tool that most anglers do not have is a good underwater thermometer, which is essential to finding the thermocline. Be sure to pick one up and learn how to use it.

When you head out to the lake, stop at various locations, and drop the thermometer down to find the different temperatures at each depth until you find that magical 50-degree mark or where you mark fish on the sonar unit and see what the temperature is at their depth. This will help you understand why, how, or when the fish move to another location, as well as, why when you return another day, the fish are not at the same place they were last time.  

When it comes to trolling you cannot beat Mack’s Lure Flash Lites trailing a Double Whammy or Koke-a-Nut. Popular colors are Watermellon/Chartreuse, Yellow, and Glow/Pink/Silver. Tip the lures with cured shoepeg corn and be sure to smear some scent gels on them and the Flash Lites.

One remarkable thing about using the Flash Lites over a standard metal blade gang troll is the Flash Lites are made of a lightweight Mylar wing that spins at extremely slow speeds. Often Sockeye and kokanee do not swim fast, and trolling is often done around 1 mile per hour or even less.

PRO TIP:  If you do not have downriggers, then simply use a 1 to 2-ounce in-line weight right in front of the Flash Lites. This makes for an easy, simple, and fun way to fish from a small boat as well.

Another great combination for trolling is the Double D Dodger and a Cha Cha 1.5" Kokanee Series or Cha Cha Squidder 

Final Thoughts

Early-season kokanee fishing can be frustrating but learning how to catch them now will increase your odds when everyone else shows up later in the year. You do not need to wait until sweltering summer days to catch some great eating landlocked sockeye. Head out to your local lake that has kokanee and start fishing!  

Photo Credit: Bobby Loomis

Next article Happenstance: Displaced Dentist to Lure Designer