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The Best Kokanee Salmon Lures: Kokanee Fishing 101

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While most salmon fishermen are busy pursuing king or coho salmon, there’s another group of salmon fishermen that happily fly under the radar: kokanee salmon fishermen.

Kokanee might not be very large or fight as hard as their saltwater cousins, but they can also be caught in large numbers if you know what you’re doing. They also taste delicious! So what are the best lures for kokanee salmon? 

We’ll cover that and much more in this Kokanee Fishing 101 article. We’ll first go over the differences of kokanee salmon vs other species, as well as where you can catch them. Then we’ll get into the details of what tackle you should use along with the best lures for kokanee salmon. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll be more than ready the next time you go kokanee salmon fishing!

In a Hurry? Here’s Our Top Picks…

Best Kokanee Salmon Lures for Trolling

Small Hoochie Squid Lures

Luhr Jensen Needlefish Spoon

Best Kokanee Salmon Lures for Jigging

Best Kokanee Salmon Lures for Casting

ACME Kastmaster Spoon

How Are Kokanee Different Than Other Salmon?

Let’s start by covering what kokanee salmon look like. They typically grow to around one foot in length and 2 lbs in weight. Trophy kokanee can grow up to 20 inches long and 5 lbs in weight. The record is a 9 lb 6 oz beast caught from Okanagan Lake in British Columbia in 1988

Author Note: They have blue backs and silver sides without any dark spots on their backs or fins. They also have much finer scales than other species of salmon with larger eyes compared to the rest of their body. 

It’s worth noting that kokanee salmon are actually the same kind of fish as sockeye salmon, except that they only live in freshwater. Sockeye salmon (like coho and king salmon) live predominantly in the ocean and migrate up rivers when it’s time to spawn.

Kokanee salmon live one to four years in lakes then migrate up a stream or river that feeds into the lake to spawn. Because Kokanee primarily feed on freshwater plankton and insects, they don’t grow as large as sockeye salmon (who have a much richer saltwater diet).

Where Can I Catch Kokanee Salmon?

The evolution of freshwater only kokanee salmon occurred naturally from sockeye salmon that were cut off from the ocean as water pathways changed. They live primarily in states touching the west coast of North America, ranging from California up to Alaska. They also live further inland throughout Idaho and have been introduced to lakes in the mountain west region as well as eastern states.

Since kokanee salmon feed on freshwater plankton, they tend to hang out at the depth the plankton is at. When temperatures are cool, they live within the top 20 feet of the lake. During the summer when it gets hotter, they swim deeper to 40 or 60 feet where it’s more comfortable. Using a downrigger during the hotter months improves your chances of catching kokanee significantly. 

Kokanee are also much easier to find if you have a fish finder. Since they are a schooling fish, you’ll be able to see a big school easily on your fish finder once you’re on top of them. The parts of the lake you should start looking are spots with a slight current, large points that jut out into the lake, and places where the depth changes quickly. 

What Tackle Should I use for Kokanee Salmon?

Since kokanee salmon are much smaller than other species of salmon, you’ll want to skip your traditional salmon setup for trout sized equipment. We recommend using an ultralight spinning or baitcasting reel paired with a light trout rod. Just make sure your reel has enough line length to get your lure down to where the kokanee salmon like to swim. We like to use 4 to 6 lb test monofilament.

As we mentioned before, using a downrigger to get your lure to the depth the kokanee live at is your best move. Depending on the time of year, however, you may be able to use weights or divers to sink your lure close to where topwater kokanee are living. This only works early in the season or when the temperatures are especially low in the summer.

Best Kokanee Salmon Lures for Trolling

Since kokanee salmon only eat microscopic plankton, the lures you present them are meant to annoy and irritate them into biting. They are a territorial fish that will lash out at something that’s making a bunch of noise or flashing in their face.

The kokanee lures we’ve seen the most success with while trolling are small Luhr Jensen Needlefish spoons in green and silver, as well as Wedding Rings and Pee Wee hoochie squids. Tie one of these onto 15 to 30 inch leader, then tie that onto a small flasher or dodger. The dodger adds additional action to the lure and also serves as an attractant to curious kokanee. Our favorite dodgers are smaller blade setups like the Shasta Tackle Sling Blade.

Top Tip: Lastly, you’ll need to mask any foreign scents you added to your rig while making it. We like to add one kernel of corn to your lure’s hook and cover the rest of the lure in anise oil. 

Getting your lures to the proper depth is very important as salmon in open water will change their depth depending on factors like water temperature and atmospheric pressure.

Sonar that allows you to see the depth of the fish, lure charts that show the amount of line needed to reach specific depths, and tools like down riggers will ensure that your lure is in the strike zone, it’s a crucial balancing act that needs to be achieved to effectively catch fish and find consistent success on the water.

Best Kokanee Salmon Lures for Jigging

Jigging is also a great technique for catching kokanee. The best kokanee lures for jigging in our experience are Buzz Bombs in chartreuse and pink weighing between ⅜ oz to 1oz.

Let your lure sink down to where the kokanee are (either use a fish finder or try depths between 40 and 60 feet), then firmly jig the lure up every 2 seconds. We’ve seen success with a variety of jigging speeds, so try different methods and use what gets fish. Below are a few more tips on jigging for kokanee salmon.

You should also try different cadences or a repetitive series of pumps and pauses, and mix these cadence’s up throughout the day to see if the fish respond best to a particular presentation.

When jigging for salmon in open water, sonar is very helpful and in some cases essential, the salmon can vary in depth from one day to the next, so you need to be sure you are presenting your jigs in the correct zone, and this can be a complete guessing game in deep water if you don’t have electronics.

You can also see how the fish are reacting to your jigs with sonar, and if they are willing to chase your jigs as your tempt them up higher in the water column, this can be a good way to judge the current feeding mood of salmon.

  • Keep your line taught at all times. When you let the lure back down after jigging it up, let it down slowly so you can feel the lure sink. This is often when a kokanee will bite and you’ll need to set the hook.
  • Keep an eye on your rod tip. Sometimes a kokanee will bite so softly that you won’t feel it, but if you’re using an ultralight rod you will be able to see it.
  • Set the hook aggressively. Many fisherman think that kokanee need to be babied due to their “soft mouths” but we’ve found that ensuring you hook them well is more important. Since you’re pulling them up from the depths they have a lot of time to throw the hook.

Best Kokanee Salmon Lures for Casting

Lastly, we wanted to cover what lures work well for casting for kokanee salmon. You should only try casting for kokanee when you can see them feeding or jumping at the surface. While rare this does happen on calm mornings or right before dark. It can also be one of the most fun ways to catch kokanee. Look for areas where fish flies and mayflies are near the surface as the kokanee will likely be close by.

Use the same style Buzz Bomb, a small Kastmaster, or Panther Martin Spinner and cast your lure right into where the kokanee are jumping. Let the lure sink for several seconds before reeling in. You want it to sink into the school and annoy as many as possible as you begin to retrieve it. Here are a few more tips on jigging for kokanee.

  • Stop your boat. Don’t drag your lure through the water – you want to be able to feel when kokanee bite your lure as you retrieve it.
  • Don’t let your line go slack. Just like when you’re jigging, you need to feel the lure at the end of your line at all times. This will allow you to set the hook properly.
  • Pay attention to everyone’s lines. If multiple fishermen are casting, make sure they account for any currents and don’t kast over other people’s lines.

Are Kokanee Good to Eat?

The short answer is yes – kokanee salmon are great to eat! They taste similar to many other types of salmon but have a slightly milder flavor due to their diet of freshwater plankton. They also have less oil in their meat compared to their saltwater cousins. This is because saltwater salmon eat small fish and other creatures that are higher in fat. 

Parting Thoughts

Kokanee are fun to catch for a lot of reasons. When they’re biting you can easily catch over 20 fish in one outing. They also taste great both smoked and grilled. We hope after reading this article you’re feeling more prepared for the next time you go kokanee fishing. We also hope you know which kokanee lures to buy ahead of time. Got a lure that works really well for kokanee salmon that we didn’t feature? Let us know in the comments below.

Happy Hunting!


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