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Delicious kokanee

by Warren Illi
| July 7, 2022 12:00 AM

For those of us that like to fish or eat fresh fish, July is the ideal time in Northwest Montana to enjoy a fish fry of delicious kokanee salmon. The kokanee is a fresh water version of the Pacific Coast sea run sockeye salmon. Kokanee salmon in Western Montana generally run 12 inches to 18 inches long, probably a pound or two at best. What makes kokanee a really fun fish to pursue, is that they can be challenging to catch, so fishing for them requires some skill or luck. Like in most fishing, a little luck doesn't hurt. When you catch one, you are also in for a treat at the dinner table. If the fish you catch have been feeding on some of our fresh water shrimp, their meat is a nice pink or red color and are as delicious as any sea-run Pacific Coast salmon.

Another plus to kokanee fishing is they are a fun fish to catch. A good size kokanee will leap high in the air as they try to dislodge or shake your lure. Kokanee, like trout, like cool or cold water. So in July, kokanee live in deep water, probably 10-30 feet deep. So it is challenging to get your lure or presentation down that deep in the water column.

At one time Flathead Lake had one of the finest kokanee fisheries in Montana, perhaps one the best in the United States. Thousands of kokanee or more likely tens of thousands would make their annual fall spawning run up the Flathead River from Flathead Lake. Those fish were so numerous that FWP removed all bag limits. Since the fish were on their life ending spawning run, they wouldn't feed or bite a lure. So, the standard method of catching them was to snag them with large weighted treble hooks. The fishing method was to cast out your weighted treble hook, let it sink to the bottom, then quickly pull your line toward yourself in short jerks to jump your weighed hook off the bottom. The treble hook would snag a salmon and you would haul in the fish. The salmon were concentrated in deep holes as they migrated up the river. You could actually fill a five gallon bucket or washtub full of fish. But you had to catch them early in their spawing run, before their flesh began to deteriorate. The salmon migrated up to the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, spawning in various smaller streams flowing into the Middle Fork.

McDonald Creek, flowing from McDonald Lake into the Middle Fork by West Glacier, was a primary kokanee spawning stream. After spawning, the kokanee would die. Those dead and dying fish attracted hundreds of Bald Eagles attracted by the easy to catch salmon. This was perhaps being the biggest concentration of Bald Eagles in the United States. The eagles also attracted lots of fall tourists who loved to watch them.

That great salmon run ended when a new species of fresh water shrimp was introduced into local waters. In Idaho, that shrimp had been introduced into kokanee lakes, resulting in much larger fish that set new state records for large kokanee. But in Montana, the intended benefit to the kokanee fishery backfired, resulting in the decimation of the Flathead Lake kokanee fishery. So, FWP has become very reluctant about introducing any new critter into local ecosystems.

Anyway, enough about the history of our kokanee fishery history, lets review current kokanee fishing opportunities. There are many local lakes, other than Flathead Lake, that still produce good kokanee fishing. Ashley Lake, Little Bitterroot Lake, Lake Mary Ronan, Lower and Middle Thompson Lakes, and Crystal Lake provide good kokanne fishing.

I learned my kokanne fishing from a master fishing expert. Kokanee can be difficult to catch and tend to live in very clear water lakes. So a long leader, up to 30-35 feet long is recommended. I use a light 6 pound main line, with a 30-35 foot leader of 3 pound florocarbon line. It seems the most kokanee lures have some red on the lure. My favorite kokanne lure is a small, one inch long chartreuse or light green colored Triple Teaser lure. A good variation of that lure is a similar lure, but with a red head. Triple teaser lures are not a popular lure in local tackle shops. But local tackle shops can recommend a wide variety of good kokanee lures. I sometimes tip my kokanee lure with a maggot or other small bait to give my presentation a smell attraction. I also use leaded core line to get the lure down to the depth the kokanee are showing on my fish finder. Generally kokanee are a schooling fish, so a fish finder is very helpful to locate schools of kokanne in the water column and lake.

So, if you want to have some summer fun fishing and great eating, try some Flathead area kokanee fishing.

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