Casting for Kokanee
The five mile run across Lake Granby from the Stillwater boat ramp up into Columbine bay takes your breath away. The steep walls of the pseudo-fjord dive deep into the water. Moose and Elk occasionally swim the channel. The bald eagle’s nest near the inlet guarantees you will sight a big bird, or two, every trip.
The full windshield on my Crestliner Fish Hawk keeps the 40-degree wind off your face while the Mercury Verado engine quietly moves us up the bay at 40 mph. At 5:00 AM in mid September the sun barely illuminates the fog. At the last deep section of the bay the kokanee show themselves on the surface of the water. Dimples and fins give them away.
Three key things come together to create a four-week opportunity to cast lures in lakes for Kokanee salmon. Each fall the fish gather near inlets, dams, and boat docks due to spawning urges. This concentration of fish makes finding them a simple affair. The surface water temperature during mid-to-late September hovers at 54°F allowing the salmon to feed on the surface near their preferred conditions. Third, the salmon prey on zooplankton and zooplankton avoid light. So, for one or two hours a morning the Daphnia will be within the upper reaches of the water column and the salmon instinctively chase them. Once the light hits the water the zooplankton swim downwards and the surface fishing ends.
By the time the boat drops off plane the fog has lifted slightly. Dimples show up just out of casting range. A few clicks on the handheld i-pilot and the Minn Kota Terrova silently maneuvers the boat into casting range. The spot-lock option on the motor uses a GPS system to control the prop and keep us in place. It takes a few casts but eventually a kokanee bites the spoon on the drop. A short but vicious fight ends with a silver-sided fish in the livewell for later.
A fairly limber medium action rod like the Fenwick HMX 6’6” ML it increases landed fish because it flexes when the salmon shake their heads. Similarly, 6-pound monofilament like Berkley Trilene XL absorbs some shock while fighting the fish. Pair everything with a medium-sized Wright and McGill Sabalos 2500 reel and it is time to make some casts.
It is not possible to catch and put microscopic daphnia zooplankton on a fishing line but the mature salmon will regularly hit flashy fluttering spoons. The Lindy Viking and PK Flutterfish in the 1/8 to 1/4-ounce sizes both cast well and come in the pink and orange colors preferred by kokanee. If casting is not your forte a small jig tipped with a waxworm 3 to 6-feet under a bobber will also work. Fly fishermen with a generic #8 to #12, orange or pink-colored, beadhead nymph are not matching any hatch but accomplish the same attraction and flash as the spoons.
An hour into the morning the sun starts making its way across the water. The three of us cast frantically towards every rise. Although we see only a few rises at a time, the school is so big it covers almost the entire inlet. As soon as we cast in one area it seems the fish start rising behind us. At no other time of the year can you be surrounded by literally a thousand fish!
The retrieve of the spoons can be a key to success. The best speed could be described as “medium-slow” with about two turns of the reel every second. A jigging retrieve unlocks the action of the fluttering spoons. Moving the rod tip 6 to 12 inches with a small wrist action before letting the spoon fall for a few seconds works best. It is vital to note that the fish hit as the spoon falls and the jigging action is not a snagging-style motion.
If there is one fish that should be taken home for dinner it is pre-spawn kokanee. The silver salmon die after spawning anyways. The few lakes with naturally reproducing stock have special regulations against salmon harvest to protect their numbers. Other lakes fed by stocking programs expect that fish will be taken at some point in their lives. The kokanee either feed you or die and feed the bears.
The sunlight hits the far side of the bay and pushes the shade towards us. The salmon stop rising by 7:30. At that point you have a couple of options—troll for the deeper fish, focus on lake trout, or head home for the freshest possible salmon benedicts.
For salmon, the trolling options simplify this time of year as well. The 54°F water temperature allows the fish to hunt throughout the water column instead of being confined to a small section of comfortable water. Plus, they do not move far from where they were in the morning.
The only variable left becomes depth. With your sonar running and zoomed into the top 40 feet of the water start driving around the area to located the school. Watch the sonar for fish arcs at a certain depth. Mark each fish with a GPS waypoint to create a trolling path for the day. Once you see at lest three fish at a certain depth start fishing. If you do not see anything, take an extra lap through the area. If still no fish show on the finder you can assume the big school is still relatively shallow and nearly invisible on your finder.
If the fish show up deeper than 10 feet then use lead core, downriggers, snapweights, or inline weights to take the lures to the fish and try inline planer boards to spread out the lines and avoid tangles. Downriggers provide the most accurate depth control but sometimes the fish avoid the weights and will not bite. Leadcore requires a rubber snubber due to its low-stretch nature. Let out one color of lead core for each 5 feet of desired depth. If you do not have a downrigger or lead core then clip a one-ounce snapweight about fifty feet in front of the lure or tie a one-ounce inline weight about 5 feet in front of the lure and put out twice the line as the desired depth. Calibrated line counter reels such as the Abu Garcia 5500LC help control the accuracy of your presentation.