As one of the most popular fly fishing destinations in the U.S., Colorado is home to several lakes that host several game fish species, including kokanee salmon. And as one of the most popular game fishes in Colorado, it does guarantee fly anglers an exceptional fly fishing experience. Kokanee are landlocked salmon closely related to the pacific sockeye salmon; therefore, they have the same reproductive process, including swimming upstream to spawn.
Kokanee is not a native species of Colorado, but you can find them in about 26 reservoirs, rivers, and lakes in this state. Kokanee are a spectacular game fish, with an amazing fight and relatively easy for anglers to catch.
Although not native to Colorado, Kokanee offers an exceptional fly fishing experience to anglers year-round. In this article, we’ll find out more about Kokanee fishing in Colorado. We will also elaborate more about kokanees.
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What Are Kokanee Salmon?
Unlike its close cousins, the sockeye salmon, the kokanee salmon is a landlocked salmon species known for being anadromous, which means that it doesn’t migrate to the ocean or sea. Instead, it spends its entire life in freshwater. There is a heated debate on whether the sockeye salmon and kokanees are separate species thanks to genetic distinction and geographical isolation.
But scientists believe they’re related, and their divergence occurred about 15,000 years ago after the ice melted, creating rivers and lakes in North America. Some salmon moved to the sea; the others, including Kokanee, remained in freshwater lakes. Therefore, separating these two species is an exceptional example of sympatric speciation. (source)
Where Do They Originate?
Generally, they are native to several lakes in Canada and western parts of the United States, including Idaho, California, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. In Canada, it is native to lakes in Yukon and British Columbia. And to maintain its population, this species has been introduced in several lakes all over the United States, including New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana.
Therefore, you can have fun fishing their aggressive creatures in several water bodies in Colorado. And with proper planning, you may even get to take some home and catch your trophy fish, but first, you have to learn how to spot them in the water.
Unlike the sea-based salmons or most saltwater fishes, kokanee salmons don’t grow large; they are popular because they attain a maximum weight of about 6pounds. They are silver-colored and spend most of their lives silver; they’re popular as silver trout or salmon in some parts of the country.
When Do They Spawn?
Once they attain the age of between 3 to 5 years, they’re usually ready to spawn. Their color changes to bright red with black and green heads at this age, while males have a hump. The males tend to develop a massive hook at the tip of their bottom jaw, with their teeth becoming bigger during spawning. The unique transformation makes the males ideal for fighting off intruders trying to compromise their reproductive process.
Guide Pro Tip: Are you looking for even more details about how to catch salmon? If Yes, check out – How To Fly Fish for Salmon with Video
On the other hand, the females don a unique dark reddish hue that makes them stand out in the water; therefore, if you know what you’re looking for, you’re in luck. The spawning season of Kokanee in Colorado starts in late August and ends in October. Therefore, you must time your next fishing trip with the spawning season, which varies with the reservoir. During this time, the females can lay almost a thousand eggs.
What Can Affect The Population Of Kokanee Salmons?
Besides heavy fishing from anglers and the death of the kokanee salmons after spawning, competition from trout can reduce the kokanee population in summer. After all, lake trout are predatory creatures that love eating young kokanees. Predation by this trout has accounted for 83% of the 88% population reduction experienced in Lake Chelan.
Therefore, habitat destruction, predation, and competition for food from other fish species can also play a vital role in reducing the kokanee salmon population. Luckily, they have been successfully introduced in other parts of the continent.
Where Can I Find Kokanee Salmon in Colorado?
As aforementioned, Kokanee is an introduced species that you can find in several rivers and lakes in Colorado. And despite competition from other species, its population is still considered stable in Colorado. Therefore, if your goal is to have a fantastic weekend catching kokanee salmon, you can try the following water bodies:
1. Gunnison River
River Gunnison is one of the main branches of the Colorado River that flows for over 180 miles and has a drainage area of about 7,923 sq. miles. Its drainage collects from different habitats along the Continental Divide before flowing to River Colorado. Gunnison River is home to many fish species, including the introduced Kokanee salmon.
Despite being home to many fish species, you can find kokanee salmon in a particular part of the river. Therefore, the best spot for catching this species is the lower parts of the river that is designated Wild Trout Water and the Gold Medal Water. This fishing spot starts 200yards below the Crystal Dams. (source)
The Gunnison River would create an exceptional salmon run in Colorado. Plus, thousands of them migrate upstream from August to September to spawn, and during that time, you have a high likelihood of catching these unique hard-fighting fishes.
The Colorado State Parks and Wildlife maintain a fishing map that has a full directory of where to fish. Check it out – Colorado Fishing Maps
Is It Allowed to Fly-Fish in Gunnison River?
Unlike the normal catch-and-release lifestyle that we’re used to, fly anglers prefer keeping their catch in the Gunnison River, which is allowed. But you must check the local regulations and find out how many fish you can keep. After all, they are known to die after spawning; therefore, bringing them home is always a good idea. (1) But during the low season, you may be required to practice catch and release to help maintain their population.
But if your main goal is taking some home for dinner, you should examine your catch; after all, it starts decaying after spawning. If you find Kokanee with grayish spots, fading colors, and cloudy eyes, you should release it back to the water. These are signs of decay, and nobody wants to eat a fish already decaying. Therefore, even though they will die after spawning, you still need to catch a fresh kokanee salmon.
2. The East River
Despite being shorter than the Gunnison River, the East River is home to many fish species, including trout and Kokanee. You can find this river is 38.3 miles long in Central Colorado, where it flows from Lake Emerald to the confluence of River Gunnison and River Taylor. (source)
If you visit this river when the water is high, you may be in for an exceptional kokanee fishing season. Therefore, you should remember that it runs low in September, so visiting the East River in September can be a hit-or-miss experience.
3. The South Platte River
Other than being a major river in the American Mountain/Southwest and American Midwest, the River South Platte is one of the main branches of River Platte. The South Platte River is a gold medal trout river situated on the eastern slope of this state.
This river is known for its unique population of wild trophies of rainbow and brown trout. And thanks to its closeness to Denver, it is visited by thousands of anglers yearly from both states in search of Kokanee salmon.
The seven dams along the South Platte River make it a unique tailwater for the fishery. (source) A vast percentage of these dams are bottom-release which means that they can help keep the temperature stable, guaranteeing a year-round fly fishing experience. And with a plentiful food supply, the fish will be active even in winter.
Guide Pro Tip: I’ve got a complete guide where to toss a fly on the South Platte. Get the maps, flies and gear in this article – Where to Fly Fish on the South Platte
“The Dream Stream”
If you’re looking for an excellent spot for catching huge kokanees and trout, the stretch between Eleven Mile Reservoir and Spinney Mountain should be on top of your list. After all, the locals call this stretch “The Dream Stream.”
The dream stretch is home to some large fish species in Colorado, which possess some challenges, especially for beginners. Therefore, you will need a lighter tippet and leader to venture into the slow-moving part of the river. But if you dislike the idea of fishing in a remote area, you should avoid this part of the river.
When exploring the Dream Stream, you should always wear your polarized sunglasses. With these glasses, you can easily spot the Kokanee salmons, and if you have never searched for these fishes, you should look for their telltales. Some things to watch out for include a reddish cluster of underground fishes, which can be very hard to miss.
4. The Blue River
The blue river is a 65 miles long river that rises from southern Summit County before flowing to Gore Range’s eastern slope. A dam 13 miles upstream from Kremmling, known as the Green Mountain Dam, forms the Green Mountain Reservoir, which provides water for irrigation and hydroelectric power. (source) The dams create an ideal place for fly fishing to help regulate the water temperature.
Guide Pro Tip: Looking for a map of where to fish on the Blue River? Here’s a Free PDF – Blue River Basin Map PDF
Unfortunately, a certain percentage of this river is private, and with the size of fish found in the public region, it does tend to overflow with fish. But if you’re interested in catching Kokanee on this river, you should try the Green Mountain Reservoir. When the water level is low, the plant and overgrown life can make fishing in this river hard.
5. The Taylor River
Boosting about 11 miles of public fishing stretch, this river is an exceptional tailwater that stretches from Taylor Reservoir through Taylor Canyon before draining into the Gunnison River. This stretch is beautiful and home to a massive population of Kokanee and trout. Some anglers claim that they have caught more kokanees in this river than any other source of water in Colorado.
Aside from being home to many rivers and lakes, Colorado is home to several reservoirs that create an exceptional kokanee fishing experience. Therefore, in mid-fall, these fishes tend to swim upstream of Antero, Elevenmile, Blue Mesa, and the Green Mountain reservoirs to their branches and rivers, where they were hatched or introduced to start their spawning period.
Therefore, to consistently catch this species, you need first to find them; luckily, the rivers usually run low, making it easy to spot these fishes. Plus, their unique red bodies tend to give them away from a distance. Knowing their spawning season will make it easy for you to spot them; after all, they tend to eat more aggressively when they start migrating upstream.
How To Catch Kokanee Salmon?
Scientists believe that all salmons, including Kokanee salmons rarely eat when spawning. Therefore, the only real way to attract and hook this fish is by irritating it while it is in its natural habitat and agitating it until it bites.
Fortunately, there are many ways to do this, but the most common is setting up a deep nymph rig, San Juan Worms, stoneflies, and eggs. After all, it would be best if you had more than enough weight to sink the fly to the lower water columns where salmons reside.
Fishing for this species in the upper or middle parts of the water won’t work since they’re more concentrated deep in the water or focused on protecting their eggs and nests. Some anglers start targeting Kokanee in spring, but the fishing season peaks in summer.
What Is the Best Method for Fishing Kokanee Salmons?
One of the best methods for fishing kokanee is trolling, and while trolling, you should use downriggers to access the deeper parts of the lake where they congregate. Some anglers even use lead weights or lead core lines to access specific depths of the river.
The Best Gear for Kokanee Fishing
Thanks to their aggressive nature, when hooked, you should use an ultra-light action rod; fortunately, most firms produce these types of rods, especially when targeting this species. (source) Other lures include small spoons, soft plastic tubes, squids or hoochies, and small spinners.
Looking for the perfect fly rod combo for Colorado?
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.
Remember, Kokanee salmon can hit many lure colors, but the most common options are orange and pink. Some folks usually add a flasher or dodger ahead of the lure. The flasher or dodger helps in attracting Kokanee to your lure.
Fly Fishing for Kokanee Salmon
Fly Presentation Technique, Detecting the Take and Proper Weighting
There are numerous ways to present a fly with a fly rod for salmon. This is one of the more popular methods used in the Great Lakes region. Many well know fly fishing authors have written about it. Deep nymphing, dead drifting, drift fishing, high sticking, chuck and duck.
These are all terms, used to describe the same method. Anytime you can make it easier for any species of fish to feed anywhere in the world you will increase the odds of hooking up. That’s why this presentation technique is so popular, especially during the winter months. It works in every condition you will ever find on a river. (High-low water, cold-warm water, any species, clear- off color water, fast-slow moving water, close in far out, no room for a back cast, crowded conditions, etc)
You only want to lightly tap your weight on top of the rocks, (3 light ticks is sufficient) giving your rod tip a slight bounce or 3-6 in. twitch when feeling a slight pause, stop or hesitation. If you slightly twitch the tip of the rod on the pause, then you are pre-setting correctly.
If it’s a rock, you have just gotten over it, and kept your fly on the bottom. If you fully set, then a lot of the time you have moved you weight and fly so far of the bottom, that your drift is over. If it’s a fish (rock?) then your line will not move and stop which means you should immediately set the hook.
I pre-set the hook with a twitch, then set, if line remains still. The first lesson I was ever taught when fishing for salmon using this technique is if you pre- set on the pause or hesitation, and pull up a leaf, then you are detecting the slight pause or hesitation correctly. If you wait every time for your line to stop before you set, then you are missing fish.
When in doubt, pre-set the hook, and if the line doesn’t move, set it! Not a day goes by when you can watch other anglers fishing and see their line pause with no reaction by them. Or watch the line stop dead for 3-4 seconds with no reaction. The reaction to the take has to be immediate or fly is spit out.
I sometimes change my weight 2-3 times without moving from the same spot. I work the water close, then farther out. Weighting is critical to helping you detect the takes. The key is to lightly tap the bottom, not dredge the bottom. Too much weight and detecting subtle takes is impossible.
This technique also works in your local streams and rivers for trout during high water conditions. Also, in the deeper, faster sections where traditional fly lines will not allow you to get down to the bigger fish. Basically, telling the difference between tapping a rock and a subtle take is one of the most difficult skills to acquire, when fishing in this manner.
Most anglers are all waiting for the big BANG. Thereby missing 50% of actual takes. If you think about it, doesn’t a pause or hesitation always precede a complete stop? When a fish takes and spits your fly, it can happen in a split second. By concentrating on your line movement, correct weighting, depth of drift, contact with the bottom, pauses and the hesitations. You will be on your way to becoming a part of the 10% that catch’s 90% of the fish.
What Makes Kokanee Fishing Hard?
Kokanee is a powerful creature with sharp teeth; they can easily break a light tippet. They will give you a hard run and jump frequently, so you should consider upsizing the tippet to about three times the standard size, and a 6wt fly rod can work perfectly with this species.
Plus, they’re known for migrating in some of the best trout streams, and at times they can intermingle with some huge trout. You can also find them downstream consuming eggs that females have deposited; therefore, you will likely catch a trophy trout while chasing kokanee salmon.
Kokanee salmon love feeding on insects and zooplanktons; therefore, your dry fly should resemble the insects they feed on at any given time. Thus, learning its feeding patterns and weather conditions can help you plan your next fishing trip.
Remember, Kokanee is a landlocked salmon that has been introduced in Colorado. Therefore, while spawning, it’s considered illegal to target these species; after all, they do die after spawning. But they reproduce in huge numbers, and catching a few won’t affect their population. Therefore, you should find out the rules and regulations of where you’re fishing before catching them.
Get a copy of the Colorado Fishing Regulations and License Info – HERE
Remember, some of these rivers are private properties; therefore, you can’t just cast your line anywhere along the rivers.
Last Cast To Kokanee
Kokanee is aggressive freshwater game fishes that are known for their hard-fighting capabilities. Therefore, fly anglers love them because of the challenge they pose when caught; after all, you will have fun reeling a kokanee fish in.
If you plan on visiting Colorado for your next fly fishing trip, you should also consider catching kokanee salmons; after all, it is one of the best gamefish in this state.
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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 2 Fly Fish
- Wikipedia contributor, Kokanee salmon, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kokanee_salmon/ Accessed June 24, 2022
- Wikipedia contributor, Gunnison River, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunnison_River#Fishing/ Accessed June 24, 2022
- Wikipedia contributor, The East River (Colorado), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_River_(Colorado)/ Accessed June 24, 2022
- Wikipedia contributor, South Platte River, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Platte_River#Fly_fishing_overview/ Accessed June 24, 2022
- Wikipedia contributor, Blue River (Colorado), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_River_(Colorado)/ Accessed June 24, 2022
- California department of fish and wildlife, Fishing for Kokanee, https://wildlife.ca.gov/Fishing/Inland/Kokanee#56082913-angling/ Accessed June 24, 2022