Dodging and weaving our way to the hotspot, I was surprised at the number of boats trolling for kokanee. Not that there were too many boats on the water, but they were all fishing the same way, going the same directions.
Slowing down, my buddy, Scott Walters, flipped on his fish finder. Soon we were on a school of kokanee. Scott’s brother, Terry Walters, already had the rods rigged with jigs and pieces of corn.
When Scott worked the boat into position, right over the school, by using both his front and rear motors, he soon gave the command. “Drop ’em, 26 feet on both sides of the boat.” Soon our party had four lines in the water. Seconds later we battled a double, followed minutes later by a triple.
In just over three hours we put our 25 each kokanee limit in the boat, and all came on jigs. Cleaning 125 kokanee takes time, and while at the cleaning station, we talked to many fellow anglers, all of whom asked how we caught the fish. Of all the people we talked with, the most fish we heard of being caught that morning was eight in one boat.
For decades Scott and Terry Walters have been fishing kokanee.
“Early in the season we hammer the fish by jigging, yet no one does it,” shared Scott. “They all troll, which doesn’t get better until late spring or early summer.”
In mid-summer and fall, I was back fishing kokanee by way of trolling. This time I was with good friend and area guide, Dave Jones. Both the Walters’ brothers and Dave taught me a lot, and with kokanee season upon us, here are tips that can be applied no matter where you fish.
Immediately Scott and Terry taught me the importance of specialized gear when it comes to jigging for kokanee. They offer guided kokanee trips (call Scott at 541-683-5719 to book), and have clients come from around the West to learn from them, then apply their techniques on their home waters.
“The most common question I get asked is, ‘What color jigs are you using?’ which is the wrong thing to ask,” Scott shared. “Color means little or nothing. It’s all about getting that jig into the school, having the right size jig and getting the right presentation that’s the key to catching fish.”
When it comes to picking out jigs that catch kokanee, the Walters brothers are about size, not color.
“We fish 3/8-, 1/2-, 3/4- and 1-ounce jigs,” Scott noted. “While fishing early in the morning and late in the day, when fish are on the surface, we’ll use the lighter weight 3/8- and 1/2-ounce jigs. Once fish drop down into 50 to 100 feet of water, we’ll go to the 3/4- and 1-ounce jigs because they sink faster.”
For added action, Scott and Terry like putting a slight bend in the body of their lead molded jigs. A slight bend also slows down the fall rate of the jig, as does adding corn.
With a piece of corn placed on each of the treble hooks of the jig, the idea is to slow the rate of fall of the jig. The more corn, the greater the resistance, thus the slower the drop rate of the back of the jig. Since kokanee hit jigs on the fall, action and speed are everything.
Rod and reel setups are also important if wanting to get dialed-in to jigging for kokanee. For the Walters brothers, line counter reels are a must, as are the perfect action rods.
Once the Walters switched to levelwind reels with built-in line counters, their catch rates skyrocketed. This is because line counter reels allow them to get to the precise depths the fish are at, as confirmed by their electronics.
As for the Walters’ jigging rods, these are also specialized. In an effort to increase hookup ratios on kokanee, Scott and Terry build their own rods. They like a 6-foot one-piece rod with an extra fast action and medium power.
As for lines, the Walters like 6-pound braid as a mainline. To this they use a uni-knot to attach a 2- to 3-foot-long section of 10-pound monofilament. This combination achieves a fast sink rate and high hookup ratio due to minimal line stretch.
Once you find a school of kokanee and know their exact depth as revealed on your depth finder, give this jigging approach a try. When it comes to early season, you’ll be amazed at how productive jigging can be over trolling.
As spring progresses, water temperatures warm and schools of kokanee disperse throughout a lake, making it a challenge to find them. For this reason, trolling now takes center-stage as the top approach for catching kokanee.
From late May or early June through September, trolling is the go-to approach for kokanee anglers. For years, Dave Jones, tackle shop owner and guide (541-915-5710), has been catching kokanee, and trolling is his preferred approach.
I recently fished in the summer and fall with Jones and his business partner, Julie Collis. We caught many kokanee on both trips, and prior to this, Dave and Julie did very well on five different lakes they fished, and three of those for the first time.
Dave is a stickler for detail, and he makes his own kokanee spinners. He uses a combination of Hoochie skirts, hand-painted spinner blades and beads to make his trolling spinners.
“As the water warms up and lakes receive more fishing pressure, the 1 1/2-inch skirt gets more hits versus the 2-inch skirt, which gets more hits early in the season,” Dave attests. “With a 24-inch leader, the 2-inch skirt creates a lot of action that kokanee love early in the season.”
Dave and Julie have found orange, pink and red colors to be their top three producers, with watermelon also being a favorite.
“Having a combination of all these colors in both skirts and spinner blades is important, as what kokanee hit one day may not be what they hit the next,” Dave advised. A change in leader length, skirt size and blade color, even scents, can make a difference, too.
Rounding out Dave and Julie’s terminal gear setup are the hooks and baits.
“We created what we call a 3X Hook System that’s boosted our hookup ratio by 35 to 40 percent,” said Dave. Be sure and check hook regulations in the state and waters you fish prior to using a three-hook setup.
On Dave’s 3X Hook System, which he personally ties and sells, he puts two pieces of corn on both the upper and middle hooks. There is no bait on the trailing hook. “I think we catch more fish with two pieces of shoepeg corn on two hooks than when we use only one piece, and that’s because a lot of times the corn comes off. The more corn, the more scent, the more fish will bite.” On a two-hook setup Dave runs two pieces of corn on both hooks.
Dave and Julie are advocates of scents, and their favorite is a mix of tuna and anise oil. Their second favorite is a tuna and garlic combination. Dave mixes the scent with corn, and prefers letting it sit in the refrigerator for two weeks prior to fishing them. Remember, kokanee are landlocked sockeye salmon, with an incredible sense of smell.
As for what’s placed above the hooks, Dave has this to share with anglers: “Ford Fenders are my favorite because they have so much action and throw so much light. We’ll also use a Cousin Carl Troll and a Sling Blade, too.”
Dave likes running two longline rods and two rods off downriggers; having a two-rod endorsement greatly decreases the learning curve (check state/local regulations). However, if Dave had one way to fish, it would be with a longline. “We catch 60 percent of our kokanee throughout the season on longlines.”
Dave’s favorite setup is a Ford Fender with a duo lock snap swivel to which he attaches a 6-ounce cannon ball sinker directly to the rudder.
“I like attaching the sinker to the rudder, rather than running an inline trolling sinker, because I think it keeps the rudder straight, which increases the action of the trolling blades, thus the action of the skirt and spinner blade. Using a 6-ounce sinker allows us to get deeper, quicker than if we used 2- or 3-ounce ones,” Dave noted.
Dodgers can also be trolled, and Dave and Julie’s favorite is a size 3 or 4 Sling Blade. As for trolling speeds, they keep it between 1-1.7 miles per hour, having found that range to be most effective in a variety of lakes over the years.
Downriggers also work well for kokanee, something you don’t see a lot of.
“I like trolling with a short setback, only about 10 feet back, sometimes 20 feet,” notes Dave. “My goal is to have that downrigger cable almost pulling straight down, and I use that as a guide to gauge my trolling speed.”
Dave elaborates: “If I’m using a 100-foot setback (letting out 100 feet of line before snapping it to the downrigger) I won’t get much action on the terminal gear. But if I’m using an 8-inch leader trailing 10 feet or 20 feet behind the boat, the action of the flasher/dodger is greater, which increases movement of the skirt and spinner.”
Dave relies on a piece of gear that accounts for a lot of kokanee from a downrigger; he calls it DJ’s Kokanee Downrigger Flash & Release. This tool has a series of flasher blades strung together on a 27-inch-long twisted wire with a colorful coating. One end of the flasher is attached directly to the cannonball, and a release is attached to the other end. This allows the mainline to be clipped directly to the line of flashers, which is a great way to get more flash and action on your downrigger presentations.
Most of the kokanee we caught on downriggers during our trips with Dave and Julie came on DJ’s Kokanee Downrigger Flash & Release. It’s impressive to see this setup in action, underwater, and easy to see why fish are attracted to it.
In addition to these trolling setups, other pieces of gear Dave and Julie rely on are a depth finder, drift socks, line counter reels and rubber nets. All of these tools make their time on the water more efficient, and as a result, they put more fish in the boat.
With kokanee season upon us, diversify your approach. Early in the season give jigging a try. As waters warm and schools of kokanee spread out, turn to trolling. Catching fish using both methods is effective and will open your eyes to the addicting kokanee craze. ■
EDITOR’S NOTE: Looking for multiple ways to cook your kokanee? For signed copies of Tiffany Haugen’s popular book “Cooking Salmon & Steelhead,” send a check for $25.00 (free S&H) to Haugen Enterprises, P.O. Box 275, Walterville, OR 97489, or visit tiffanyhaugen.com.