By: Anton Jones
Lake Chelan Kokanee have been numerous with jumbo fish to 16 inches in 2016. After banner years from 2012 thru 2015, they are the talk of Northwest anglers. With liberal limits that allow anglers to bring home tasty fish the lake’s kokanee fishery is becoming more popular each year.
Kokanee are dwarfed landlocked sockeye salmon. They are widespread Northwest lakes. They are generally filter feeders, making their living off of phytoplankton and zooplankton. In some lakes mature fish can be smaller than six inches. Lake Wallowa in Oregon produced the world record of 9 lbs 10.73 ounces in June of 2010. Wherever they are found they are greatly sought after by anglers because they provide exquisite table fare. Additionally, when you match the gear to them they are acrobatic and energetic fighters.
In Lake Chelan kokanee were introduced in about 1910. By 1970 there were bonus limits of 25 fish. Most kokanee then were six to nine inches. They were super abundant and virtually without predators. In 1974 mysis shrimp were introduced to the lake and the numbers of kokanee dropped precipitously as the mysis out-competed the kokanee for the zooplankton that they feed both feed on. Then in rapid succession Chinook and lake trout were introduced and placed the kokanee population under more pressure.
When I started to fish Lake Chelan for kokanee in the mid 1990’s, the lake mostly produced nine to 12 inch fish. I felt that numbers were strong with a little, but not much work being necessary to produce five fish limits. Then in 2009 we had an incredible year for numbers. I took Erik Schoen (a graduate student from the University of Washington) out to catch kokanee for research. We bagged 53 fish in about 3 hours. We lost twice that many. Then 2010 was similar. Unfortunately, 2011 was an abysmal year for kokanee. Only a few small fish showed. Next came the banner years of 2012-15 with 14-17 inch fish that made Lake Chelan the toast of kokanee fishing in the West. So far, 2016 has been a nice mix with dense schools of 10-13 inch fish with some jumbo’s up to 16 inches mixed in.
While catching kokanee is not rocket science, it does demand some attention to detail. The first thing to consider is location. Most of the fish are being caught in depths from 50-100 feet deep so far (as of early June in 2016). Lakeside, off of Rocky Point, off of Minneapolis Beach, along the face of Mill Bay, by the Monument and up by the Yacht Club are top producing spots.
Chelan kokanee availability has been expanded from it’s traditional April to June season to include the period all the way from January into August by our pioneering guide, Jeff Witkowski. He has started to catch them in January by fishing from the Narrows up to Twenty-Five Mile Creek, then following their down-lake migration until they hit the Pat & Mike’s area by late April. Then the concentrations of fish begin to move back up the lake, usually disappearing from the lower lake by July 4th or so. From there, you need to make the long ride up to the Stehekin area to fish for pre-spawn fish until they begin to move into the river in September.
We are catching Kokanee trolling at speeds of .8 to 1.5 mph. Usually the slower end of this range is more productive. The wind speed and direction will dictate whether it is possible or not. We are trolling Mack’s Lures Double D Dodgers (in the 0000 size) with a 16-inch leader to either a Mack’s Mini Cha Cha Squidder (orange has been our main producer) or a Kokanee Pro Wedding Ring baited with Pautzke’s Fire Corn. The Fire Corn that we have had the best luck with so far has been Natural and Yellow., but we’ve also caught fish using orange and red. Witkowski has gotten in the habit of retying these rigs with either #2 or even #1 hooks. This not only helps hold the fish better, but also seems to increase the bite rate.
As you develop a trolling pattern in a certain area you’ll note where the concentrations are on your sonar. I highly recommend that once you get bit in a location you immediately turn and go back through that same area. These fish are finicky and sudden in the way that they turn on and turn off. You have to hit them while they are biting. Another technique to help you get more baits in the zone quicker is to stack your rods so that you are fishing two rods on each downrigger, each 20 feet apart. When you get bit on the upper or lower line, raise or lower your ‘rigger to immediately put the other line in the zone. I think it’s a bad bet to keep trolling in a long line hoping to run into another school of biters. Besides, it’s the adult ADHD sufferers dream fishing with frenetic energy multi-tasking to the max.
Tight lines and good luck. Wave if you see me out there! BTW: My wife and I love these kokanee grilled lightly with nothing more than a sprinkle of seasoning salt and sweet basil on them.