Colorado is home to a unique salmon species called the Kokanee. For fly fishermen, these fish offer excellent and unique fall fishing opportunities. These landlocked salmon are close relatives to the Pacific sockeye salmon. They have a similar reproductive process that includes migrating upstream into moving water to spawn. This migration gives Colorado fly fishermen a chance to catch these hard fighting fish in many of their home rivers.
What are Kokanee Salmon?
After spending three to five years living in deep, cold Colorado reservoirs, Kokanee salmon move out of the lakes. In an attempt to spawn in feeder streams much like their ocean-dwelling relatives. As they start their journey to the inlets and up the tributaries of these larger reservoirs, they change dramatically in appearance. Their bright silver color gives way to a deep red or crimson throughout their body, while their heads remain dark green. The males develop a large hook at the tip of their lower jaw. Their teeth become larger and more exposed. This transformation in the male fish makes their jaw and mouth more suitable for fighting off intruders who may compromise the Kokanee’s reproductive process. This process usually occurs between late August and through October in Colorado. Successfully fly fishing for Kokanee means anglers must accurately time the spawning run which can vary widely from one reservoir to the next.
Where to Find Kokanee
Some of the most popular Kokanee fly fishing destinations in Colorado include the Gunnison River, the East River, the South Platte, and the Blue River. Starting mid fall, Kokanee swim upstream out of Blue Mesa, Elevenmile, Antero, and Green Mountain Reservoirs to the rivers and tributaries where they were first stocked or hatched to begin their spawning process. In order to consistently catch Kokanee, you must first find them. Fortunately, rivers are usually running low and clear during their spawning season, making large groups of Kokanee easy to spot. Their bright red bodies usually give them away from afar. The later in the fall, the further upstream from the reservoir you will find them. They tend to fight the best and eat flies more aggressively in the earlier part of their migration.
How to Catch Them
Scientists tell us that Kokanee salmon, like their saltwater relatives, do not usually eat while spawning. This means that the only real way for fly fishermen to hook them is to take advantage of their territorial nature and agitate them with their flies in order to get a bite. There are a few ways to do this, but one of the best is to set up a deep nymph rig with large, brightly colored flies like eggs, stoneflies, and San Juan Worms. It is important to use enough weight to get these flies all the way down. Fishing for Kokanee in the middle or upper part of the water column will most likely not work since the fish will be concentrated deep, and focused on their nests and eggs. Streamers can also get good results for fly fishermen during Kokanee season. Bright colored streamers seem to work well when swung close the spawning salmon’s nest. Sometimes no retrieve is necessary and a dead drifted streamer can be very effective.
For their size, Kokanee are often times stronger than trout, and will break light tippet easily. They also showcase big, sharp teeth. The average Kokanee runs from sixteen to eighteen inches long and two to three pounds but larger specimens are common. Again these are tough, strong fish that run hard and jump frequently and anglers should use at least a five weight. But, a six may be more appropriate and upsizing tippet to the 3X range is a good idea. Also be aware that these fish are migrating up some of Colorado finest trout streams. Sometimes very large trout are often intermingled with the Kokanee. Or just downstream of them feasting on the eggs that the female salmon are depositing and this gives anglers a shot at fly fishing for some trophy trout while chasing salmon.
Keep in mind that while these landlocked salmon are in the process of spawning, it is not considered unethical to target them at this time. The salmon will die after spawning and since they reproduce in large, concentrated numbers, catching a few does nothing to affect the overall population. In Colorado, on some streams it is legal to keep kokanees which can be great on the smoker, while other spawning runs must be released immediately. Check the regulations at each river to be sure.
If you have never experienced Kokanee fishing in Colorado, now is the time. With summer long gone and winter fast approaching, a day of catching these unique, prehistoric looking fish is a great way to wrap up the summer fly fishing season. As always, make sure to stop by Vail Valley Anglers in Edwards to stock up on all the right flies, tackle, and gear for Kokanee fishing in Colorado.
Andy “Otter” Smith, Guide and Content Writer