Fly Fish for Kokanee Salmon

Everything You Need to Know About Fly Fishing for Kokanee

When most fly anglers think about fly fishing in freshwater sources, they rarely think of kokanee salmon. While they’re not as crucial as the other gamefish, they can give you an exhilarating fishing experience thanks to their scrappy behaviors that guarantee you an aerobatic flight with some explosive runs. Therefore, why don’t you pursue them on your fly? Even though most folks claim that it can’t be done, some anglers quickly disapprove this myth.

Kokanees are very timid in shallow waters, so after locating them, you need to approach from up river slow and quiet. For gear small indicators and correctly weighted flies to get down to the fish. Kokanees prefer bright colored fly patterns, with a small profile resembling a stone fly or mayfly nymph.

Have you ever tried to fly fishing for Kokanee? Traditionally, these beauties were fished by trolling the water sources using numerous traditional angling methods, but the aerobatic fights make them a favorite for fly fishing. So in this article, we’ll show you everything you need to fly fish Kokanee salmon.

What Are Kokanee Fish?

Kokanee, also referred to as silver trout or little redfish, is a sockeye salmon that doesn’t migrate to the sea. This freshwater fish spends its entire life in freshwater lakes and rivers. Fortunately, its life cycle resembles the other salmons.

They’re born in streams and then migrate to the lake, where they spend many of their lives. this species’ lifespan ranges between 2 and 7 years. (source)

Guide Tip: Kokanee Salmon are called sockeye salmon, red salmon even blueback salmon. Originally from the northern Pacific but trans-planted around the U.S.A. Kokanee have a signature red back during spawning season. (source)

Where Can You Find Kokanee?

Kokanee salmon is a freshwater fish, which means it can never be found in the world’s seas. It’s pretty standard in the northern American states like California, Idaho, Washington, and Alaska. This species has also been introduced in other US states, including California, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and New York, to help increase the population of this landlocked fish. (source)

In Canada, Kokanee can be found in Yukon and British Columbia. They have also been introduced in most lakes in Saskatchewan and southern Alberta. (source) Kokanee population can also are known to be found in Russia and Japan.

Kokanee can be found in a wide range of freshwater lakes in the United States, including

The Great Lakes are one of the largest water bodies in the United States and is occupied by Kokanee salmon. In this region the common name used is Sockeye Salmon. Kokanee fishing also occurs in lesser-known places like the Tobacco River in Montana. (source)

When Is the Best Time to Fish Kokanee?

Typically, Kokanee starts migrating upstream by mid-August, but most Kokanee enter the river by late September. The migration lasts for eight weeks, and during this time, they congregate in huge schools turning the base of the stream dark. Therefore, the best time to start fishing Kokanees is when they migrate in late September. (source)

If you manage to locate them while migrating and have the right gear, you will catch some trophy fish. But if you don’t want to follow their migratory routes, you can try fishing them in the above lakes in late spring when their rising shallow-water temperature forces them to return to the deeper parts of the lake where you can find them near the shoal.

Guide Pro Tip: Kokanee are part of the salmon family.  Folks are always wondering about how big salmon get.  Read about the biggest Salmon HERE

Locating The Kokanee

Once you find the rivers they use when migrating, your next step is to locate a school of Kokanee. You can get this information from experienced anglers who know how to track certain fish species. You can also find some migration route maps online and do more research while talking to the locals.

You can find them near a shoal that offers a unique drop-off ledge to deeper waters in spring. Kokanees spend a huge percentage of their lives in the reservoirs and large lakes, where they feed on planktons and occasionally on aquatic insects. (source)

They tend to hold and rest in some slow-moving pools when they move upstream to spawn. But the problem is finding these pools; you can get one pool with hundreds of Kokanee fishes and then not see another one for over 2 miles.

When migrating, they tend to feed on many bright-colored streamers or insects. Therefore, keeping a keen eye for the insects and their young ones is another reliable method for spotting this fish.

The best way to detect the insects is by looking at the place where the birds are flying down to catch these insects. After locating this activity, you can move to that place and cast your line.

Stone fly case on boulder
Stone fly case on boulder

Another technique is to pickup rotting logs and rocks to see what might be crawling around. Select your fly based on size and color.

Fly Fishing Technique for Kokanee

Generally, the tactics for fly fishing for Kokanee are similar to fly fishing rainbow trout, but you’ll have to make a few necessary changes since they are very timid. Therefore, successful kokanee anglers look for areas funneling into a deep-water pool with fewer tricks and slow-moving waters and must be very creative.

They avoid places with complicated drifts like the reverse currents, undertows, and swirly currents, which can cause foul-hooking of numerous fishes.

So, it would help if you looked for evenly paced runs, rifles, and some apparent seams as they allow your dry flies to drift better. The strikes should also be very soft, and only a keen sense of touch and eyes can detect their take-off. If your strike indicator darts upstream or sinks abruptly, then the chances are that you may foul-hook Kokanee. Therefore, you should look for a bit of pause in your indicator before your hook sets promptly. (source)

When fly fishing with an indicator, ensure there is little-to-no slack in the line between the indicator and the rod tip.

The Best Fly Rod for Kokanee

The Kokanee is one of the most powerful game fish you can tackle on a fly rod since they jump many times before you can direct them to your net. Therefore, you need a strong fly rod, line, and reel that can help you manage its many jumps as it tries to unhook itself.

Most fly anglers use 9-foot, 7-weight to 9-weight fly rod which can cast heavy nymph setups.

Looking for the perfect fly rod combo for Kokanee Salmon?

The Sage Foundation Fly Rod Combo comes with everything minus flies. The rod in made in the U.S.A. and comes with the typically lifetime warranty. The fast action allows you to cast in the windy conditions found along the Colorado. Even better – when your buddies see you casting a Sage you’ll get the jealousy looks.

If in doubt lean toward a heavier weight fly rod weight (9 weight) that will give you enough backbone to effectively fight these salmon in currents. (3)

Guide Pro Tip: I’ve got an article devoted to fly rods for salmon.  Check it out with this link -> Best Fly Rod for Salmon

What Are the Best Flies for Fishing Kokanee?

Anglers have been hooking salmon Kokanees for the last few years using conventional nymphing rigs with common Stone Flies, Pheasant Tails patterns, San Juan Worms, and most important egg patterns.

Black Stonefly for brown trout fishing
Stone Fly
Pheasant Tail Nymph
Pheasant Tail Nymph
nuke egg fly for steelhead
Egg Fly Pattern

You can also use several small bead-heads like the Flashback Pheasant tails, Prince Nymphs, and Copper Johns. (source)

Remember, they prefer bright-colored flies, so you should go for the shades of red, orange, green, black, or brown. Remember, how fishes view the color will be determined by lighting, so if you plan on fishing at night, you should get a fly that glows at night. So when surface fishing, you should go for a smaller Damselfly or Mayfly.

The key to fishing Kokanee is patience, and learning how to land the fly within the striking zone and maintaining it there matters a lot. But with this species, what works today may not work tomorrow or in another fly fishing spot. Once you crack the code for dealing with Kokanee and have a good day fishing them, you’ll never go back to fishing them the traditional way.

Guide Tip: Are you ready to fill your fly box?  Read about my recommended flies for salmon in this article. -> Favorite Flies for Salmon

Final Verdict

Kokanee is a freshwater fish that doesn’t migrate to the sea; instead, they are born in streams before migrating to huge lakes. Fortunately, they’re very aggressive and can give you a tough fight accompanied by explosive runs. Therefore, if you want to have fun while fly fishing, you should try fly fishing Kokanee in late spring in some of America’s huge lakes in late September when they’re migrating.

Want More Salmon Fishing

Hi David Humphries Owner of Guide Recommended. I love everything to do with fly fishing. Casting, Tying, YouTube, writing about it and even teaching. I’ve got a FREE video workshop teaching how to dry fly fish at this link How to Fly Fish


  1. Wikipedia Contributors, Kokanee Salmon,,Distribution,found%20in%20Japan%20and%20Russia./ Accessed April 12, 2022
  2. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Kokanee, Accessed April 12, 2022
  3. Pat Dorsey, Fly Fishing Tailwaters: Tactics and Patterns for Year-Round Waters, Accessed April 12, 2022
Scroll to Top