Whiskeytown's Awesome Kokanee

Kokanee salmon are good to eat and fun to catch, and there's a mess of them these days in Whiskeytown Reservoir!

Guide and tackle manufacturer Gary Miralles nets a kokanee near the Highway 299 bridge on Whiskeytown Reservoir. Photo by John Higley

By John Higley

In the spring, as you drive across the state Route 299 bridge over the Whiskey Creek arm of Whiskeytown Reservoir, you'll probably see the not-unusual sight of a handful of small fishing boats going nowhere fast. Most of the time there is but a single angler in each craft, sitting on the rear seat and manning a low-powered outboard while a fishing rod sits in a nearby holder. You can tell, even from a distance, that these anglers are trolling patiently for kokanee, a small variety of salmon introduced to Whiskeytown waters decades ago.

Whiskeytown Reservoir is one of the three lakes in the Shasta-Trinity region that are primary destinations for visiting and local anglers. Huge Lake Shasta (365 miles of shoreline) offers the most diversity with scads of bass, trout and catfish and more coves than you could fish in a decade of constant casting. Across the mountains to the west, Trinity Lake (165 miles of shoreline) provides some decent trout fishing, but its main claim to angling fame is its trophy smallmouth bass.

Whiskeytown, smaller than the others by far with only 3,200 surface acres and 36 miles of shoreline, is the best place in the region for recreational sailing and for kokanee fishing. In fact, in recent years Whiskeytown has consistently produced some of the finest catches of kokanee of any lake in the state.

When California Game & Fish asked Department of Fish and Game reservoir fisheries biologist Larry Hanson about the recent kokanee fishing at Whiskeytown he said simply, "It's been awesome." That's enough to perk up any angler's ears. We'll take a closer look in a minute, but let's review a little kokanee history first.

The kokanee (Oncorhynchus nerka) is a small landlocked form of sockeye salmon that was discovered initially in some freshwater lakes of the Pacific Northwest. Recognizing a good thing, game departments eventually transplanted the fish into other suitable waters far and wide, including a couple dozen lakes in central and northern California. In a few lakes, such as Whiskeytown, kokes are now largely self-sustaining. In other words, they manage to spawn successfully most years in tributary streams. In Whiskeytown there are actually two strains of kokanee. One of them spawns in late September and the other spawns in mid to late November. The fish die at the completion of spawning, as do all Pacific salmon.

Occasionally the spawning run is smaller than normal as a result of a variety of factors. When that happens, the DFG augments the population with around 50,000 fingerling kokes from a source near Lake Tahoe. The last such boost was made in the spring of 2001 after a poor spawning run in fall 2000. Such supplemental planting guarantees that the quality of the fishing at Whiskeytown will remain good year after year. Some of the other kokanee lakes have to be planted annually to keep the fisheries in them viable.

Kokanee occasionally ingest aquatic insects and small fish, but their diet is primarily zoöplankton, which they filter out of the water passing through their gills. Thus, fishing tactics are designed to provoke strikes out of aggravation rather than impulse feeding.

Whiskeytown Notes

Whiskeytown Reservoir is part of a 42,000-acre recreation area managed by the National Park Service, which charges a $5 daily fee. Weekly and annual passes are available. Boat ramps are at Oak Bottom, Whiskey Creek and Brandy Creek. Contact the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, P.O. Box 188, Whiskeytown, CA 96095; (530) 242-3400, or online www.nps.gov/whis.


Whiskeytown is only a few miles west of Redding on State Route 299. The city offers all types of amenities. Contact the Shasta Cascade Wonderland Association, (800) 474-2782, or online www.shastacascade.org.


The California Inland Fisheries Foundation helps the DFG with funding and volunteer work. Contact CIFF, 4260 24th Street, Sacramento, CA 95822; or call Rod Browning at (916) 456-5981 or (916) 456-1331.


Gary Miralles guides Whiskeytown kokanee anglers. Contact Shasta Tackle and Sportfishing, (530) 275-2278, or www.shastatackle.com. -- John Higley


Trolling is the best way to catch kokanee, and one of the most skilled at it is tackle manufacturer Gary Miralles, who lives nearby and fishes Whiskeytown regularly - sometimes with yours truly. Here's what Miralles had to say about kokanee fishing in May and beyond.

"Spring is a good time to be out on Whiskeytown. The kokanee are scattered but they aren't too deep, usually 20 to 40 feet, and they're fairly easy to find," Miralles advised. "I've caught lots of them in the northeast section of the lake, and some close to the dam, but the best area is probably from the Highway 299 bridge to buoy 7 near Oak Bottom.

"When I catch a kokanee I mark the spot and come back through it because there will be more fish in the vicinity. As summer comes on, the fish go deeper, and you may have to fish for them 70 to 100 feet down in the lower thermocline. A downrigger is a great aid in presenting your offering at the right depth every time."

Speaking of offerings, a variety of lures are popular with kokanee aficionados. Among them are small spoons like Humdingers, Cripplures, Kokanee Kandy and Triple Teasers. Wedding Ring, Aero and R&K spinners are practically synonymous with kokanee fishing. Trolling flies such as the Koke-A-Nut, Aero flies and Vance's Bugs also works well.

A typical set-up for kokanee includes a dodger or a series of small flashers on the line about 3 feet ahead of most spinners and spoons. Dodgers and flashers should be in

stalled much closer to trolling flies to impart some action to them. The ideal trolling speed for most kokanee fishing is usually somewhere around 1.2 mph. Troll much faster, and some dodgers will stop wobbling and start to spin, which will twist your line in a hurry.

No matter what lure is used, most anglers swear that putting a kernel of white corn on each hook helps attract the fish. Most prefer the shoepeg variety of white corn packed by Green Giant.

"No one can tell you exactly why the corn works," Miralles said. "Maybe it smells like plankton, or maybe it's just a focal point for the fish to home in on. All I'm sure of is that it helps."

Ideal tackle for this kind of fishing will include a 7-foot spinning or baitcasting rod with a soft tip and a reel loaded with 6- to 8-pound test line. Kokanee have delicate mouths, so you shouldn't set the hook. Instead, keep tension on the line and let the soft rod tip absorb the shock when a fish strikes. To land these fish, always employ a long-handled net, and be careful, because kokanee at the boat are noted for making one last run and breaking off in the process.

Today, there are lots of good kokanee fisheries in the Golden State, and most of them can produce fish at the end of their 3- or 4-year growth cycle that range from 16 to 18 inches or a little bigger. However, for sheer numbers of big fish, Whiskeytown is hard to beat. Last summer and fall, the kokes there averaged from 14 to 18 inches with a few 20-inch specimens tossed in. According to fisheries biologist Larry Hanson, the emphasis from late summer on was on the larger fish.

"Fishing was so good that a lot of folks I talked to had two or three of the bigger kokanee in their five-fish limits every day," Hanson told California Game & Fish. "And I heard of a few limits of fish over 17 inches, which is simply incredible. Anglers just had to hold out for the exceptional ones, but that wasn't hard to do, because there were so many of them out there to begin with."

Kokanee are fun to catch, and they are also fine table fare. Their bright orange flesh is wonderful baked, smoked or barbecued. Just be sure to clean the fish and put them on ice immediately rather than hang them on a stringer or let them lie in the bottom of the boat.

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