How to Catch Kokanee: The Basics

Kokanee salmon closeup

Kokanee salmon are more popular these days than Taylor Swift. And hey… they’re abundant, fun to catch, taste great on the grill… what’s not to love? You just need a few basics to get you started… and then you’ll be off and running.

Finding the Fish

The key to successful trolling is, of course, to find the fish. Fortunately, kokanee salmon run in large schools, so they are pretty easy to locate with electronics.

Fish on the meter!!

When you’re on an unfamiliar body of water, start your search in the main body of the lake out over the river channel. If that doesn’t pan out, try the face of the dam or off the mouth of a spawning tributary. More often than not, you’ll find kokes in those areas, but don’t ignore deep water humps or large points that extend well out into the main lake.

Lures

Being plankton feeders, it’s a bit of a mystery why kokes will hit a lure, but the truth of the matter is they will – often enthusiastically. Some of the most common offerings include small spoons, Hootchies, “Bugs,” and spinners. Due to the popularity of this fishery on the West Coast, most tackle stores now have large kokanee sections. Wander through the koke area and you’ll be blown away by all the different manufacturers and styles of lures they’re producing.

If you need to start with a few basics, try:

I also like to make “Squid Spins” which are hootchies with a spinner blade in front. I used to have to build them myself, but now several companies make a similar lure.

Rocky Mtn. Tackle’s UV Pearl Super Squid

My ace in the hole lure – the one to go to when the chips are down is – believe it or not – a bare size No.2 Gamakatsu octopus-style hook (in the red, hot pink or glow finish) trolled closely behind a dodger. I know it sounds crazy, but it works.

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At first, it feels a little strange dragging a bare hook all over the lake but a quick couple of fish in the box will help change your tune. And if you need more evidence, take a trip up to Seattle’s Lake Washington when the sea-run sockeye season opens. There will be thousands of boats on the water each day and most, if not all, will be trolling the red hook/dodger rig.

Kokanee

Kokes are drawn to lures of many different colors, though I tend to lean towards hot pink, fluorescent red, fluorescent orange and chartreuse. Glow-in-the-dark finishes are also gaining a huge amount of popularity these days, particularly during low light periods or when the fish are deep.

In any case, it pays to carry quite a few different colors onboard for those days when the fish are feeling a little temperamental.

Dodgers & Flashers

Dodgers

While there are times when you can do well without them, I always begin a day of kokanee fishing by running a small dodger ahead of my lure. Due to the popularity of kokanee trolling, many companies now make small trolling dodgers – Sep’s, Vance’s Tackle, Luhr Jensen and Shasta Tackle to name a few. As a dodger moves through the water, its flashy, side-to-side action will draw fish to your offering. That same motion can also add action to your lure, depending on how long your leader is.

Check out these dodgers:

When using a lure that has no action of its own – say a hootchie, bare hook or bug – I’ll keep my lure very close to the dodger. That way, it will pick up some movement from the dodger. I also like to use stiff mono (say 12-pound fluorocarbon) for the leader so that even more action will be imparted to the lure. Make your leader 2.5 times the length of the dodger when using low-action lures. Bump the leader to 4 times the length of your dodger if you’re using active lures like spoons and spinners.

Scents

While you can catch plenty of kokanee without scent on your lure, you will certainly tip the odds in your favor by adding a little “stink” to your rig. In kokanee circles, the time-honored approach has been to tip hooks with Green Giant white shoepeg corn. For reasons not totally understood by those of us with brains larger than a splitshot, kokanee seem to have a real sweet tooth for the stuff.

Whiskey Kokanee

These days, the whole corn thing has been taken to a totally new level. Hard-core koke anglers will often have 3 or 4 different colors of dyed corn on board, along with 15 different scents and combinations thereof. Honestly, it’s getting a little crazy! I think having several different shades and flavors on hand may give you an edge on the really slow days, but I prefer to operate on the keep it simple principle and use my corn “el natural” – though I often like to marinate it overnight in stuff like:

Many guys have now made the switch from corn to white Berkley Gulp Maggots… give ‘em a try!

Trolling Speed

In general, slower is better for kokanee but I have caught them trolling at nearly light speed on days when the wind was howling. As a rule of thumb, keep your speeds in the .5 to 1.5 mph range and you’ll be in business. If you’re willing to sacrifice the number of bites you get for a shot at bigger kokes, troll 2.5 to 3 mph.

Related articles:
California’s Top 5 Kokanee Lakes
Jigging for Kokanee

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  1. I like to use a hot pink squid with a bright orange dodger with 1 black hook and one red hook and a pink magot I caught a 5 pound kokanee

  2. My best set up for big kokes is a crystal basin wee tad or apex kokanee killer 30 inches behind a 6 inch sling blade I like to modify my bait by changing the hooks out #2 red gamakatsu octopus hooks then either white glow, red, orange, pink, or chartreuse beads My best producers for solid 12-16 inch fish I like to run R&K hoochies 18-8 inches behind a sling blade the most productive pattern for the blade is watermelon black diamond in either nickel or copper back. The beat colors I’ve used are pink, white, green, orange, clown, flame, chartreuse, and watermelon. Of tip your hooks with corn and marinate it with your favorite scents

  3. I love fishing all the lakes off #97 in oregon, Odell is great for browns also , but very, very windie!

    • A couple of other lures I’d recommend especially for bigger kokes are 2.5inch R&K hoochies and 2inch tomic wee tads

    • For Bigger kokes I like to use a apex trout killer or a wee tad made by tomic trolled at 2.5 mph 24 inches behind a 8 inch sling blade and for a quantity of solid 13-17inch fish I’d recommend an R&K hoochie with a 12inch leader to a 4 or 6 inch sling blade nickel watermelon and copper watermelon are the best two ice tried and whatever color hoochie you prefer depending upon conditions tipped with corn of course for both setups

    • For big kokes I like to use crystal basin wee tads 30 inches behind a 6 inch sling blade trolled at 2.5mph this will also work with an apex if you want to take it a step further insert two beads in between the lure and hooks in a white glow, pink, chartreuse, or red and for a quantity of solid 13-17 inch fish I use R&K hoochies behind either a #3 or #4 sling blade the best pattern on the blade I’ve used is watermelon black diamond with a nickel or copper back, I shorten the leader 12 inches and troll this rig anywhere from 1.2mph to 2mph.
      For slower trolling (.5-1.4) try a seps strike master or pro dodger 18-8 inches in front of your favorite bug the better colors I’ve had over the years are white, pink, green, orange, flame, clown, chartreuse, and watermelon. Pink seems to rule the roost so always start out pink and whatever color fits the conditions

    • My go to set up for big kokes is a crystal basin wee tad or apex with changed out leader, hooks, and beads 30 inches behind a 6″ UV sling blade for hooks I use a double hook rig consisting of gamaktsu #2 red octopus style hooks. For beads either white glow, red glow,or pink glow radical glow beads either two 5mm beads or one 8m bead. For the leader I retie it with 10LB P-Line fluoraclear. For cosistantly hooking quality fish i go to a #3 or #4 sling blade I tend to lean toward a #4 watermelon black diamond with a nickel or copper back then for leader a 18-8 inch leader too an R&K hoochie, humdinger, or spinner in whatever color fits the conditions but you should always start with whatever color fits with the conditions on one side and a pink and pearl R&K hoochie on the other the pink and pearl R&K hoochie has been the best producer of quality fish for me over 5 years of chasing these landlocked sockeye

  4. It can. Try an apex instead of a wedding ring behind the flashers…NOT a dodger… Some call them cowbells. Or a ford fender. Those are very big flashers and you dont need very big ones.I use the willow leafs my self.

  5. You can try a one once weight with a hilldebrant/ 4 flasher set /. Witch you can use instead of dodgers.

  6. Is it possible to use dodger setup without a downrigger? How can i get to the depth I want in a kayak and not using downrigger? Thanks.

    • Hi Stephanie-
      I just returned from kayaking a Washington State lake. I caught several Kokanee on a black fly tied to 4#mainline and fished way behind the kayak. It was early morning and they were feeding on top.

    • Use a jet diver or a dipsy diver or a deep six they come in all sizes for getting your dodger and gear down where the fish are.

    • you need a reel with lead core line I use an ambassadore 6500 with 18 pound test lead core with a 8 pound leader of about 25 feet. use your rod to tell you how fast the dodger is moveing. A general rule is 5 to 8 feet per lead core color is your depth
      I have caught thousands of kokanee this way. Starting back in the mid 1960’s. How to tie your leader to the lead core is the secret. Peal about 3 inches of the core out of the jacket. Start 3 half knots about 2 feet in front of the coreless section. Run your leader matterial up to the corless section. Carefully run each half knot down to the leader tighten each one seperatly. With practess this knot will hold any fish you hook..

    • Heck yea, it works for trout! But my all-time trout trolling set up is a threaded mini crawler and a small silver dodger.

  7. The Tackle Shack in Meridian Idaho has one of the best selection of Kokanee tackle and rods anywhere, kokaneetackle.com

  8. Jake, don’t forget about the north east part of the country. Catching these bullets in Connecticut have out of control this year.

  9. Have had good luck at several lakes in North Central Washington using a Luhr Jensen needle fish in the Brass Bikini design with a single hook with leaded line and three colors out with one piece of white corn. The trick is not to get discouraged-you may go 1 or 2 hours without a bite then all of the sudden the bite is on and you limit in half an hour.

  10. Ok. With that being said I must being doing something wrong. I’ve used the gulp maggots on every lure I can think of including the red hook/dodger rig, not to mention in at least 3 different colors. Although everyone says white works best, I haven’t caught a thing. Needless to say I was really surprised especially with all the hype. I have been chasing these “silver bullets” for over 10 years so I’ve pretty much got the basics down. I generally fish the mother lode lakes, now that I live in the valley. But I am from El Dorado county and did learn on Union Valley and the Crystal Basin area. So I guess you can see my dilemma.

    P. S. I love reading your stories about your “old stompin’ grounds”, cause I’m sure I’ve been to a few of the same places. Keep it comin.

  11. Hey I love to fish the Kokes at Stampede Lake…just outside of Truckee Calif….every once in a while ya get into some Mac and even brown action.

  12. has anyone been fishing for kokanee in timothy lake on mt hood?
    if so describe your rig if succesful, also where you caught them, Tell me about any trout spots too. thanx

  13. If you get a chance you need to make a trip to Wallowa Lake in North East Oregon. I was there in July last year and caught a number of Kokanee in the 4-5 pound range. Stae record was also caught there last year and exceeded 7 pounds. There are also a number of Rainbows in the 7 pound range. Scenery is wonderful as well.

  14. Very good advice on Kokanee Basics. Odell Lake Oregon is one of my favorite lakes to fish Kokanee. Several years ago we had little success with wedding rings. A couple of guys at the dock where nice enough to show us what they where using. Basically a glow bug behind a dodger.

    I had a couple dodgers and removed my wedding ring blade leaving a glow bead before the hooks and two red beads. Tied so the lure would be 14″ from the dodger. We went back out and hooked a number of fish.

    One thing that I have done is bought Kokanee rods. They are more limber then the fiber glass rods we did use. I had trouble getting novice people in the boat to slow down when reeling in Kokanee. They where ripping the hooks out of the fish. With the rods I have now it will be a lot harder to rip the hooks out.

    Another tip I was given years ago for trolling with downriggers. If your money is tight and you can’t afford expensive rods and reels use a Zebco 33 closed faced reel. It has a anti-reverse lever on it. Attach line to the ball and put the rod in the rod holder with the reel unlocked. Let the ball down to the desired depth and then lock the reel. Reel in slack line and your ready. These reels come with 10# test. Seem to work really well and don’t cost a whole lot either. If replacing the line on a Zebco 33 make sure it is a soft line no more then 10# test.

  15. My brother and I were recently fishing here in Colorado, looking mainly for trout, but also for kokanee, at one of the resevoirs we saw quiet a few people snagging, and bringing up a lot of fish! We found a couple of snagging hooks on some line left there, so we tried it out, but no luck! We thought we were doing it right, and we know the fish were there. I was wondering if maybe someone could give me a few pointers on the basic techniques of snagging.