Kokanee Salmon Fishing in Colorado
When you think of salmon fishing, you probably think of heading to Alaska or the Pacific Northwest. However, there are actually salmon hiding in the mountain lakes and streams of Colorado. This area is one of my favorite places to hunt and fish, so I enjoy the trip whether I get anything or not. I have to admit, it feels strange fishing for salmon in the same valleys in which I hunt for elk.
The kokanee salmon is similar to the sockeye salmon and has no spots on its back. Somehow it thrives over 1,000 miles from the Pacific coast at elevations of more than a mile above sea level. It has maintained a solid population for over 50 years in about 25 locations in Colorado.
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Where to Fish
For the most convenient spots to fish for Kokanee, you can head to Lake Granby, Williams Fork Reservoir, Wolford Mountain Reservoir, and Green Mountain Reservoir. However, the best spot in Colorado for kokanee fishing is the Blue Mesa Reservoir. This spot has at times had over 1 million kokanee, but recent numbers have dropped below 300,000 due to predatory lake trout. It still accounts for roughly 60% of the kokanee population.
When the fish reach four years old, they instinctively swim upstream to spawn at the place they were born. This means that often the streams and rivers feeding into the reservoir can be the best places to catch monster fish. If you can catch them during the spawn in the fall, they will be stacked up along the shores of the reservoir as well as in running water. Read our blog to find out how to fish the post-spawn successfully.
What to Expect
It may be hard to tell you are looking at kokanee, and this holds true even after you have hooked one. During the spawn, males turn a reddish-brown color and fat ones can look like rocks on the bottom. When you hook one, they will often remain still for a while until they realize that they are hooked.
When they take off, be ready and hope you have the right gear. These fish are large and powerful. They can unwind your reel quickly, so make sure you have your drag set properly. If you hook one early in the spawn, prepare to give your shoulder a workout. Kokanee will not give up easily. It will keep fighting until its strength is completely gone. Remember that these fish swim upstream for miles to reach their spawning area. They are prepared for a workout.
Lures to Use
There is much controversy over what lure to use to catch kokanee, but most rigs have some similar traits. The majority of successful setups include a brightly colored egg pattern alongside a nymph that is heavily weighted. You should have a thick hook to penetrate a boney jaw.
Anglers will often hook females in the mouth because they try to pick up an egg pattern lure with their mouths. However, you may also hook a male in the tail as he tries to fertilize that same egg pattern lure. Either way, set your drag stiffly to handle that initial run.
How to Find Fish
Obviously anywhere in a stream of the reservoir is a fine place to fish. However, in the reservoir there are several options to explore. When trolling the main body of water, check out the main channel first and use a fish finder. Kokanee swim in large groups, so finding them is easy with a digital readout.
If you do not find them there, check the mouths of adjoining streams next. During the spawn this is where they will likely pile up in large numbers. You can also check along the dam if you have no luck up to that point.
Fishing a bare lure can work fine, but adding scent can take your fishing success to a new level. We have no idea why, but kokanee tends to like the scent of white shoepeg corn. Just a piece on the tip of the hook is enough to bring them in.
The fact is that any scent may be better than nothing. Anything that adds some stink to your lure is worth a try. Some anglers take this very seriously and bring dozens of options, so just remember that fish use multiple senses when they decide to strike.
Reeling in Your Fish
When you feel a bite you need to be firm when setting the hook. However, do not muscle the fish too much when you are reeling it in. Kokanee have mouths that are soft in some places, and the hook can rip free. They are notorious for running at the fishing boat, so be ready for it and do not let it break the line.
You will also need to have a good fishing net with you for Kokanee. If you try to lift one into the boat by the line, it will likely rip the hook free. You also want to handle the fish as little as possible if you plan to catch and release, so use your net and use fishing pliers to get the hook free.
Kokanee are fish that are becoming more and more popular to pursue. They are a great deal of fun to land and bring in, and are delicious cooked over an open fire. If you hit Blue Mesa during the spawn, plan to meet lots of other anglers. Kokanee anglers love to share stories and make the experience social. If you are hooking fish, plan for other boats to come over and share the wealth. They mean no disrespect. We would highly encourage you to find time to try a kokanee fishing trip. As with most anglers, you will likely be hooked.