May 31, 2022
When Colby Pearson notched a Top-10 finish in the recent Apex Pro Tour event on Northern California’s Trinity Lake, the Oregon pro said local familiarity contributed to his success. Knowing the layout of this Northern Calif. gem certainly helped, but without question, the key element was Pearson’s understanding of the kokanee factor.
Basically, a landlocked version of sockeye salmon, kokanee provide an important forage element for largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass. As Pearson points out these meaty fish offer a best-of-both-worlds benefit the bass simply can’t resist.
“The biggest game changer with kokanee is they have the nutritional value in the size of a large baitfish, like a trout, but they tend to school more, like a shad,” he said. “A lot of times in wester reservoirs, when the really big fish are relating to those kokanee and eating them, they tend to suspend—and they’re suspending on big schools of kokanee so they can gorge themselves.”
Kokanee are believed to have diverged from the anadromous (sea-going) sockeye when glacial ice melt formed inland rivers and streams that became cut off from coastal rivers. Native to California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska, kokanee have been stocked in several of California’s mountain reservoirs, the mountain west and as far east as Maine and North Carolina.
The IGFA all-tackle record is a 9-pound, 10-ounce beast taken from Oregon’s Wallowa Lake in 2010, but meat fishermen are usually happy with a 1- to 2-pound kokanee. A 5-pounder earns bragging rights, but for bass anglers, Pearson points to schools of the smaller 5- to 9-inch kokanee as money.
As Pearson and his Apex competitors saw on Trinity Lake, all the black bass species love these little protein bars. That said, there’s definitely a preference.
“Spotted bass are hard-wired to relate to kokanee; that’s why you see scenarios like Bullards Bar Reservoir where you have spotted bass of enormous size (several double-digit spots),” he said. “That’s because spotted bass tend to suspend a little more, although I have noticed smallmouth and largemouth suspending on kokanee.
“I’d say the largemouth are the least likely to suspend, but I (often) see smallmouth suspending on balls of kokanee. Largemouth are more likely to position themselves in a favorable area for kokanee to come by with consistency.”
Specific scenarios vary by fishery, but he shared some insight on the when, where and how of targeting bass that are targeting kokanee.
He favors spring and fall, as the predators and forage tend to occupy similar depths. Summer typically sees more separation, compliments of the thermocline.
“If the kokanee are available, the bass will try to be on them, but the kokanee do tend to be a little deeper in the summer, when the thermocline sets up (usually by mid-July),” he said. “All the plankton they feed on is in an undesirable depth for the bass, say 50-60 feet.
“As long as water hasn’t fully stratified, kokanee are a really good bet.”
Where to Find ‘Em
In early spring, he often finds huge balls of kokanee, often 20 to 30 feet wide and deep on main lake points. This is prespawn time for bass, so the abundant food source offers easy pickings.
“When I can find the fish on points before they go back into the creeks, it’s nuts; it’s lights out,” he said.
May/June brings the postspawn period when railed-out bass are eager to feed up. Same as in the prespawn, forward-facing sonar like his Garmin LiveScope guides him to the buffet line where bass are sure to gorge.
“On kokanee lakes, those postspawn fish will position themselves in a little bit deeper water,” he said. “A lot of times, I’ll be catching them in 25-40 feet of water, whereas on other reservoirs, they would go shallower.
“I’ve noticed postspawn fish (on kokanee lakes) still sitting on break lines and wanting to be on main lake points specifically influenced by current. This is going to filter the kokanee through because they’re feeding on plankton and things that are so small that they’re drifted by even minute currents.”
With the exception of their exaggerated spawning colors (red bodies, green heads and that wicked hooked jawline), kokanee follow a basic silverish tone with a darker back. His starting lineup includes a 4.2-inch Megabass Hazedong swimbait, A Duo Realis spinbait and a deep diving crankbait like the Strike King 6XD.
“Also, a casting spoon can be good when it’s going down,” he said. “If I know it’s happening, I’ll put all my other rods away, because the spoon is the most consistent bait for bass targeting kokanee.”
As Pearson explained, the casting spoon is particularly effective on windy days, when midlines offer visual reference to current strength and direction. Also, the turbidity tends to make bass more aggressive and less apprehensive.
He said the most important detail of fishing for bass in a kokanee lake is staying on top of the bait school’s positioning. Kokanee need their plankton food source, so monitor wind and current to determine where the microscopic food will concentrate these little salmon.
Conversely, he said the biggest mistake a bass angler can make on a kokanee lake is to just go bass fishing. As he saw during the Apex Pro Tour event, anglers new to Trinity struggled, despite following what would elsewhere amount to prudent tactics.
“The number one thing is you have to do is find the bait,” Person said. “That’s the difference between having a good day and a fantastic day. It’s almost more important to find the kokanee than it is to find the bass; because when you find the kokanee, you’re often going to find the larger fish.”