Our family will be attending one of the kid’s graduation festivities in Portland on Saturday, May 19th and we will not be able to fish the Third Annual Lake Stevens Kokanee Derby. I have had many requests for derby tips and general Lake Stevens information so I have decided to put together a short Kokanee clinic as a blog post. I am having problems with posting pictures to my gallery and will not be able to pull pictures from the gallery to add to the blog so as soon as the problem is resolved I will edit the blog to include a few pictures. All that said and aside from being the beverage of choice north of the border what the heck is this kokanee thing?
Kokanee are land locked sockeye salmon. In Washington State some lakes naturally produce kokanee but most are planted as fry 1-1.5 years ahead of a given fishing season. As catchable fish they offer great sport on light gear often making long runs while putting on an aerial show that may include seeing both the fish and dodger out of the water. Kokanee are also excellent table fare and can be prepared using any recipe that uses salmon as the guest of honor. Catching kokanee can be a challenge but there are effective standard kokanee techniques. First kokanee eat plankton. Their gills are specifically designed to filter plankton out of the water. Of all the kokanee that I have caught in my… I won’t say how many years of fishing for them I have never found anything more than green goo in their stomachs. Then, how does one catch them? You dazzle them, piss them off, and invade their territory or whatever it takes to get a reaction bite out of them (kind of like what I remember of dating). Now what? How does one go about catching a kokanee?
By attracting them with scent, low frequency vibrations or both and then dragging some flashy or irritating hardware in front of their noses. I troll small dodgers or swing blades followed by some sort of small spinning, oscillating, vibrating or flashy offering. My theory is that, as the swing blade or dodger travels through the water they transmit low frequency vibrations or noise. The low frequency vibrations travel for long distances in the water. The dodger is like a billboard to the fish “The worlds biggest plankton bloom, just 100 more miles”. Curiosity gets the best of the kokanee and it heads in the direction of the noise. When it gets there all it sees is this irritant in the form of your lure. The fish is cranky now, it just swam 100 miles out of the way and all it sees is your lure. The fisherman is hoping for one of two things at this point. First is that the fish sees your lure/attractor combination as a form of competition and figures that it will eat the lure before the competition does or secondly, that it just plain pisses the fish off so he lashes out and strikes the lure. Ok so much for my views on kokanee fishing, now what?
Technique and what gear to run? The list is endless but here are a few ideas for the Lake Stevens kokanee fishery. Technique; when downrigger fishing for kokanee and trout I usually don’t cinch the rod tip down to the water effectively pulling the release clip and cable tight. I usually set it so the release clip and cable angle is less than 45 degrees (you will have to experiment with your individual speed, the type of rods you use and set-up), and is somewhat loose so the bite is easily detectable. When setting the clip tension or line placement, make sure that the release tension is tight enough to set the hook, but loose enough that you can pop the clip if the fish doesn’t do it for you. When you have to pop the clip, gently lift the rod increasing the tension until the clip releases. Don’t just grab the rod and yank it to pop the clip, unless of course you want to be able to tell a story about the kokanee that broke your rod. With the exception of some specialized techniques I usually run a set-back of 24’ – 30’. I never use the snubbers but instead use rods designed specifically for kokanee fishing. The rods help absorb shock to help prevent the hooks from pulling out of the kokanee’s soft mouth. They are kind of a noodle rod with a stiffer butt section. In the past I have been asked about using treble hooks for kokanee. I never use treble hooks while fishing for kokanee and with some exceptions I custom tie all my rigs using size 6 or size 4 octopus hooks. I feel very confident in my 2 hook rigs and rarely loose a fish due to not enough pointy ends. Leader length varies from lure to lure. With a squid type of lure and depending on the day you may be fishing a very short leader, maybe as short as 8”. With a spinner type lure or a spoon I rarely use a leader longer than 18” and usually my leader is around 14”. Regarding commercial wedding band spinners, they work great out of the package but I would tie up some 2 hook leaders using size 6 octopus hooks and then restring the wedding band stuff on the 2 hook leaders. For bait I am partial to the corn but I am always prepared with worms and maggots also. Regarding colors, I am equipped with every color under the rainbow but in my experience the fish in Lake Stevens are partial to green, purple or pink. Whether it is a mini squid, spinner or something else, those three colors are my first choice in Lake Stevens.
My basic Lake Stevens rig is a Swing Blade flasher, Skagit Tackle dodger or a small Sep’s dodger in a variety of colors, 8-16” leader and then one of the following lures; A wedding band type of lure, mini squid, Dick Night spoon, other lightweight trolling spoons, my “kokanee flies” and whatever else is on the boat that I can tie a hook to. I often use scents and tip my lures with some form of bait such as corn or maggots. On my boat I typically run two rods off the downriggers, one lead line rig and then one flat lined rig. I may also stack lines on the downriggers, giving me the ability to comfortably run 6 lines off my boat, any more and it becomes work and not fishing. My trolling speed varies but I will usually try to target .9 – 1.6 MPH with 1.4 MPH being my preferred speed for Lake Stevens. I will frequently adjust the depth of any rod on the boat until I find fish that are willing to bite. The method is a bit laborious (my downriggers are manual) but I typically chase meter marks with one of the downrigger rods.
Speaking about meter marks, in my opinion a good fish finder is important when fishing for kokanee. Kokanee have proportionately larger air bladders than other fish their size. When running your fish finder in the arch mode Kokanee will typically be distinguishable from other fish. I know that cone angle, frequency, water conditions, the fish’s position within your transducer cone and other factors will affect your ability to interpret sonar readings but generally when fishing for kokanee the fish arches showing on your meter will have a red area in the middle of the arch. Thermocline is also important in determining what depth to fish for kokanee. On a better meter the Thermocline will show as a band of (for lack of a better term) interference. Typically the band of interference will be denser in the middle with a symmetrical dispersion of the interference above and below the denser area. My antidotal experience is that the bulk of the actively biting kokanee will be in the upper half or just above the thermocline. Don’t be afraid to turn the sensitivity way up, surface clutter down and the noise filter off. I know that the screen will be a mess but a pretty white screen is not what you bought the thing for. Look for the thermocline and fish arches with red in them.
Now to really mess with you, when fishing for kokanee one needs to be flexible. If something is not working, change tactics. Later in the summer it is common that the fish will be active as deep as 50’ or more while early in the season, overcast days or early mornings the fish will be in the upper 10’ of water. But consider that as a guideline only, change depths every 5 to 10 minutes until you find fish willing to bites. I have one last comment on depth, if you are catching smaller fish and you need something to enter for the derby change depth in two foot increments until you locate bigger fish. Typically the bigger fish will be hiding below the relative safety of the school of little guys above. Now where to fish?
When fishing the derby I would launch at the WDFW launch in town, with your WDFW parking pass it is free and the adjacent park is the derby headquarters. Things will be crowded and unless you arrive very early you may have to park your rig somewhere in town. As you leave the cove into the main lake I usually get the gear down and head south along the 80’ line to the about the southern entrance of the bay then do an about face and head NNW trolling a slot “S” pattern across the 60-90’ line until your generally due east of the northern edge of the aerator pen. This trolling path is my honey hole and depending on success I may rerun the trolling path or head towards the aerator pen to work a “L” pattern along and around the southern and eastern edges of the aerator pen. I have also had good success working the shoreline to the west of the aerator pen. The, what we refer to as the Regatta Run” is also productive, especially in the afternoon. The “Regatta Run” is basically a trolling path that starts at the entrance to East Cove and runs toward the boat launch at Wyatt Park. Now you know everything I know about Lake Stevens kokanee but I believe there is also a prize category for the largest trout.
The trout in Stevens can be difficult to find and only seem to bite early. I have scratched out some fish later in the day but it took a lot of hunting. There is a large flats area at the north end of the lake and early in the day I will fish the flats. I pull 3” stick baits or woolly buggers in 8-12 feet of water approximately 50-60’ behind the boat at 1.0 mph. Then as the day gets brighter I move out to 25-30’ foot line and fish the stick baits 50-60’ behind the clip with the riggers running at 20’. It takes a lot of patience and searching but can pay off. Color is a tough one. I usually start out with gold body/orange belly or silver body/blue back stick baits and then start going through the box until I get it figured out. The gold body/orange belly (perch colors) is by far the most effective. I have another technique that I’ve been messing with and it seems to work very well for targeting the big trout in Lake Stevens; I have experimented with a walleye bottom walker rig, floating spinner and trussed-up night crawler. In my opinion this rig will become the standard rig for targeting the larger Lake Stevens trout.
As previously mentioned, it will be crowded. I don’t really mind the carnival, bumper boat atmosphere and in-fact I enjoy the fellowship and being able to talk with the boat trolling next to me. For me the wait at the ramp to get in or out of the water is also not a problem but a good opportunity to get to know the other fisherman on the lake, find out what’s working or not. It is also a great time to ogle the other guys’ boat, electronics or rigging and tuck ideas away for future enhancements to your vessel of choice. We all take pride in our boats and the ramp wait is also an opportunity to show off. Whether it be your boat, trailering skills, the days catch or even to take the time to share your experiences and knowledge. OK, so I’m a little strange…! I know that not everybody is comfortable with this type of fishery so how can you make the best of it?
Be prepared to launch before you put your tow rig in reverse. While waiting to launch, secure your lines and bumpers, tilt the motor up, and remove the transom tie-downs, put the plug in and be ready to go when it is your turn to back into the water. Also if someone needs help offer assistance and be patient. Everyone has a different comfort zone and skill level. Be the teacher not the person that stands on their horn because the launch line is going too slow.
Organization, during a typical day of trout or Kokanee fishing I may change lures 50 times. Unless I kept things organized my boat would be a war zone, difficult to move around in and generally unsafe. While fishing for anything, keep everything organized. On my boat I have found that the pipe installation type leader keepers strung on bungee cords or the same on a PVC rack that I came up with are an excellent way to keep pre-rigged lures organized. I frequently have a 100# dog and kids on board so the placement of unused rods, the net, pliers, dikes and even the garbage is well thought out. The boat is still a mess at the end of the day but at least I started with a plan. For your boat look carefully at your needs, spend an hour or so just sitting in it while parked in the driveway and think out your organizational approach. Everybody’s will be different depending on, finances, time spent in the boat, your physical limitations, whether or not you fish solo, type of fishing excreta… Take the time to organize your boat and there will be a higher likelihood that your on the water experience will be a positive one. If not at least you’ll be able to find the first aid kit if you need it, which reminds me…make sure you have some form of basic first aid kit onboard.
Hit your local tackle store the week before and stock up on kokanee gear. Holiday Sports in Burlington has everything an angler would ever need to catch a kokanee, boat supplies and the staff is very experienced in our local fisheries.
Come Saturday morning I will be sending all the derby fisherman kokanee vibes and I wish everyone good luck and a safe fulfilled day.