Kokanee University Part 4:
The Saga of the Well-Schooled Kokanee Continues
By Gary S. Gordon, Fish With Gary™ Tackle Co.
KOKANEE: Well I see you are a bit older. Do I see some whiskers among that peach fuzz?
DUDE: Yeah. I see you are getting a bit long in the tooth yourself.
KOKANEE: Thanks for not noticing the kype.
DUDE: Well I was trying to be nice.
KOKANEE: No need. It’s what I live for. So when last we chatted, your head was spinning from all that information.
DUDE: Well I had to just put the time in on the water to understand your reality, and to make what you told me work for me (and against your kin).
KOKANEE: Hmm. So what wisdom do you now possess after tempering theory with experience?
DUDE: I would say the most important thing is that I have a lot more to learn.
KOKANEE: Then you really have spent a lot of time on the water. My buds and I get a kick out of all the experts out there who spend fortunes on all of the most expensive boats, highest price electronics – sometimes all for naught. Well at least they get a nice boat ride.
DUDE: I admit I don’t have the fanciest of boats but it is adequate. My sonar is color and it is dialed in. I do have reliable downriggers, proper releases, and a trolling motor. I did spend the dollars on getting quality reels to match the ultralight rods. I can measure water temperature at depth. Got the rubber net so the trailing hooks don’t break off anymore.
KOKANEE: And what did having the proper equipment do for your success?
DUDE: Well, I sure eat a lot more kokanee than before. Using a very short leader behind the dodger really helped as did using only minimum drag – letting my rod and reel work together.
KOKANEE: So did you figure out why many kokanee fishermen lose their fish during the fight?
DUDE: I learned early. There is no “try” – only “do.”
KOKANEE: OK Yoda – explain yourself.
DUDE: What seemed apparent to me is that the average fisherman, once a kokanee is hooked, makes several mistakes trying to get the fish to the boat. First, they do not take the slack out of the line as soon as possible. They don’t reel fast enough to get the tension back to the rod. And some don’t stop reeling fast once that point is reached and jerk the hooks out of the fish’s mouth. So lack of tension and too much tension will result in that dreaded long distance release.
KOKANEE: What is the second thing?
DUDE: Many of these long distance release failures seem to be caused by the fisherman trying to pull the fish out of the water. They have their rods pointed to the sky at about 11 o’clock, and then put the tension on the rod. I figured out that the very last thing you want to do is get that attracting dodger to the surface.
KOKANEE: Why is that?
DUDE: The surface of the dodger interacts with the surface of the water and that can become a significant point of resistance allowing the fish to escape the hooks – something like too much tension when you are reeling in.
KOKANEE: So what is it you do?
DUDE: Once I get hooked up and eliminate the line slack, I turn sideways to the fish, forming a 90 degree angle between the fish and my rod. I then lower my rod tip to the water and work the fish by applying and keeping sideways pressure on the fish at all times. When I bend the rod away from the fish I know what the fish is doing as I can feel it. As the fish gives way I continue taking in line but keeping that rod bent a bit keeping that line pressure on.
KOKANEE: Do you adjust the drag during the fight?
DUDE: Not ever.
KOKANEE: How much drag is correct?
DUDE: Just enough drag to keep the rod properly loaded in the downrigger without line going out the reel.
KOKANEE: What about if the koke is really taking line?
DUDE: Excellent. Big fish. That why I have the ultralight rod. It allows me to exert proper pressure on the fish with my sideways approach regardless of the size of the fish. The trick on the big fish is to know when the fish is heading back to you. Make sure you take in that line to keep that tension in the line. Keep bending the rod away from the fish, then reel in the slack. Learning just how much pressure to exert is the trick. Only experience can perfect the technique. However, once you got it, it becomes second nature.
KOKANEE: Sounds like you have really learned a lot.
DUDE: Learning how to properly fight the fish made fishing way more enjoyable. And it resulted in way more fish in the boat. Making the rod and reel work together works on all species of fish -- not just kokanee. So If I’m out on the ocean after big salmon, I use the same methods. If I am combat fishing along the river, same technique.
KOKANEE: Sounds like you have really come a longs ways. But are you ready to take your learning to the next level?
DUDE: Let’s get ‘er done.
KOKANEE: As I take you through all this new stuff, the best way to orient yourself is to reflect on each concept as it applies to what you have already learned.
DUDE: I have been reading all I can. But there is a lot of bad information out there that is passed off as expert. The one person who really seems to give reliable information is that Fish With Gary guy.
KOKANEE: I would agree with you on that. He gives it to you straight. But consider this: he is really smart, but he is no kokanee.
DUDE: So for trolling, the standard setup is using a dodger as an attractor with a lure attached a short distance behind it – really short. Of course the exception is the apex type lure which needs room to move – so more like 18-20 inches. Some kind of scent is applied to the lure. This setup is unknown in nature, so why does it work to catch kokanee?
KOKANEE: For that, I need to take you back in history to the time of King Nerca. He was the originator of “not in my neighborhood.” Essentially anything that invaded Nerka’s space was run out of Dodge. His aggression became both a rallying cry and a lifestyle for the entire species ever since.
KOKANEE: To us, lo these many generations later, it is not fake news. And getting run out of Dodge is how the “dodger” was named.
DUDE: I don’t have to believe that do I? No need to answer. Coming to the attracting dodger for a look see is a far cry from actually biting the lure.
KOKANEE: Glad you are staying focused. Technically the dodger’s disturbance action provokes that attraction response. Getting the fish to react to bite stimulants is the trick. Notice I said stimulants – plural. You want the fish to have a biting response to the bite stimulants.
DUDE: So break it down for me please.
KOKANEE: For kokanee, the first real bite stimulant is scent. And not just any scent. It has to be the kind of scent that is both compatible with the kokanee’s natural biting response and sufficient on the other hand to overcome that initial attraction response. While you may be 100% successful in attracting the fish, you still don’t eat dinner if the fish does not bite. And you need that biting response to be so powerful that it becomes to main focus for the fish.
DUDE: So what is the second bite stimulant?
KOKANEE: The second is visible, contrasting color.
DUDE: So why is scent first?
KOKANEE: Scent is dispersed into the water. Us salmon species are known for our exceptional scent detection – measured in parts per million. Visible, contrasting color is visual for the fish at only about 20 inches or so. Scent is detectible over a far greater distance than 20 inches.
DUDE: Since the scent has a source, and if that source coincides with the visible, contrasting color, that is why they work together.
DUDE: Remind me again about the 20 inches.
KOKANEE: It is often a challenge to get humans to accept that the human eye is vastly different than the kokanee eye. We simply cannot focus. We see for us near and far at the same time. Us kokanee have relatively good contrast vision for dark and light, but very limited vision for color. We have to be about 20 inches from a target to discern its colors other than light and dark. And that color has to be right in front of our snoot. So, as we approach a target, there reaches a finite point where the vision for light and dark suddenly flashes to color – and we could be talking about a distance of a quarter inch. Within that 20 inches – color; outside that 20 inches – shades of dark and light. Just barely inside those 20 inches is suddenly an explosion of color that a quarter inch before was only light and dark. That color flash, working with scent creates its own biting response.
DUDE: You said visible, contrasting color more than once.
KOKANEE: Indeed I did. On purpose. If the color is not visible there is no color flash no matter how close the fish gets to the target. We know that ordinary colors turn black at some point down the water column. However as you recall from our last session, fluorescent colors do not fade provided there is some light to act on them
DUDE: Right. So even if there is only green, blue, indigo and violet light left at that particular depth, a fluorescent orange with still be bright orange, even though there is no orange light to act on it.
KOKANEE: Don’t get me wrong. Black is a good fishing color if it is contrast with a fluorescent white or natural glow. Remember too that black will contrast with the color of the water except at deeper depths.
DUDE: And I do recall from our last discussion that the term “UV” is marketing speak for fluorescent. I also recall that UV light technically does not penetrate the water column more than just a few inches. So it is not UV light reacting with the lure colors. Visible light penetrates the water column, but is absorbed in stages as you go deeper in the water column. It is visible light that reacts with the lure colors.
KOKANEE: Exactly. Contrast is necessary because it makes the color easier to see. Not for humans, but for us fish.
DUDE: So, in tackle presentation it is more important to understand how kokanee will actually see the presentation, rather than to evaluate it from a human perspective.
KOKANEE: But the one thing I can’t tell you is why a color or color combination works so well one day and not the next. It can even change hour to hour. I just know that it does. And most kokanee get the color change memo all at once.
DUDE: Sorta like getting a text?
KOKANEE: It is against the law to swim and use our cell phones at the same time.
DUDE: So to sum up this bite stimulant concept, we need our presentation to have abundant scent and bright contrasting visible colors to be the most effective. For scent, most people use corn, or corn soaked in some kind of scent. From my view, adding corn to my lure makes the lure droop, and interferes with its action. From your view is this what is happening?
KOKANEE: You are correct. Weighing down an ultralight lure with corn does indeed interfere with the lure’s action and it also acts as a drag. This is particularly true with the slow speeds kokanee fisherman are fond of using. White shoepeg corn does work because it contains a particular enzyme that acts as a bite stimulant. So is it the corn or the enzyme in the corn has that works? Clearly it is the enzyme. So if you can deliver the bite stimulant enzyme without having the weight of the corn, you keep the action of the lure intact.
DUDE: How is that accomplished?
KOKANEE: In the past few years there have been some significant industry effort put into the science of scents. The results have been amazing. Scents now come in liquids and gels. You may want to try the gels on beaded spinners, simply putting the gel on the beads only – leaving the hooks bare. For the squids – hoochies try using only the liquid stuff. Simply dip the whole rigged up squid into the liquid, shake off a little of the excess and you are ready to go. Again leave the hooks bare. On spinner bugs, use a bit of gel on the body segments. Leave the hooks bare.
DUDE: Let me guess. Leaving the hooks bare eliminates the short bite. The fish is concentrating on the color and scent, and when the fish strikes the lure, the hooks have already done the deed.
KOKANEE: A year ago you would not have gotten that.
DUDE: I guess there might be another good reason to use the gels and liquids. If there is a short bite you don’t have to bring everything up to check and see if you still have corn – because you are not using corn.
KOKANEE: And using the scents instead of corn puts way more attracting scent on your lure.
DUDE: I don’t suppose you would mind telling me which scents are the most effective?
KOKANEE: That’s right. Don’t suppose.
DUDE: C’mon. I have been working so hard at getting better. Cut me some slack.
KOKANEE: Does your tackle box contain just one dodger and one lure?
DUDE: No. I have a lot of stuff to throw at them. I call it my arsenal.
KOKANEE: And the reason why you have an arsenal?
DUDE: Because I can’t tell from one day to the next which is going to be the most effective.
KOKANEE: Same with the scents.
KOKANEE: Here is a sampling of what my rivals have fallen on: Bloody Tuna, Tuna Garlic, Garlic, Kokanee Special, Mike’s Glo-Scent, and anything with anise. I’m not saying these are exclusive. Make sure you have an arsenal of scents. And the favorite scent for one body of water may not work very well in another body of water. Be sure and record your notes so you have a good record.
DUDE: I am faithful to my collection of 3x5 note cards. I record everything I can data-wise. Here is an example. I found out that pink as a color has a lighter more natural version as well as the hot pink “in your face” kind of color. One day the hot pink is tops and on another day the lighter pink rules. The pink stuff works pretty well earlier in the season, and then tapers off a bit, then toward the later part of the season it seems to pick up again. Do you know why that is?
KOKANEE: I subscribe to several audio journals and that concept has been explored. While there appear to be opposing camps, the best explanation for me is that, later in the season, maturing kokanee are undergoing hormonal changes which makes the cones in their eyes more sensitive to pink. See my kype? Since I got this kype thing going on pink seems a bit more intense.
DUDE: So no help on the early season?
KOKANEE: Sounds like you don’t need any help.
DUDE: I guess that is a compliment. One thing I have found pretty consistent. If I’m out later in the afternoon, using chartreuse works pretty well down to about 35 feet.
KOKANEE: Well enough about color, let’s move on.
DUDE: Some years the kokes are pretty small, but in other years out of the same fishery, the kokes are much bigger. Is there an explanation?
KOKANEE: Yes. The correct answer takes in many considerations. Better sit down as this might take some time to lay out for you.
KOKANEE: I want you to know that if I give away too much information I might lose my spawning rights.
DUDE: All the more reason to pay attention.
KOKANEE: Size is first approached from an available food concept. And one needs to focus on the available food supply as to a single kokanee. If you have just one large bucket of food for just one kokanee, that koke will be well fed. However, if all you have is one bucket of food for a thousand kokanee then, with not much food to go around, no one is getting fat or big.
DUDE: OK -- number of fish and an available food supply – got it.
KOKANEE: You have only the start of it. Let’s talk about birth control.
DUDE: You are not going political football on me are you?
KOKANEE: Would you rather catch a bunch of small kokanee or a few less of much larger kokanee?
DUDE: It’s obvious.
KOKANEE: Kokanee are not an endangered species. We are very successful at spawning, hatching, and generally have lower fry mortality than most salmon species. But if the spawning habitat is cut off from spawning kokes, then cutting off that habitat acts as birth control.
DUDE: Oh. Less fish for the same food supply equals bigger fish.
KOKANEE: For many excellent kokanee lakes there are several spawning creeks coming into the main body of water. Placing weirs in the creeks so the kokes are not able to reach their spawning grounds effectively cuts down the population.
DUDE: So for the fisheries folks it’s “to weir or not to weir – that is the question.”
KOKANEE: And their task is not quite that simple either. Science can make better predictions if there are fewer variables. And always keep in mind that science and politics don’t mix. To be considered also are the factors that affect the food supply itself. If the food supply has been constant over several years, then manipulating spawning grounds gives a more reliable result. Calculations are made based on the number of fish desired as a ratio to the reliable food source necessary to sustain that fish population.
DUDE: So you are saying if many variations affect the food supply, it becomes more challenging to use weirs as a means of birth control.
KOKANEE: Exactly. And many fish and game folks are thrown blame based on factors they cannot control.
DUDE: So what are some of the factors that affect the food supply?
KOKANEE: The pH of the water and the water temperature are the first to be considered. In chemistry, pH is a numeric scale used to specify the acidity or basicity (alkalinity) of an aqueous solution. Recall that the primary food for kokanee is plankton, more specifically zooplankton. Kokanee favorite food is the zooplankton called Daphnia. Kokanee fry devour copepods, a smaller zooplankton. Zooplankton can move about in the water column, and are not dependent upon wind and wave action to go adventure out. Zooplanktons eat their share of the phytoplankton. Phytoplankton needs sunlight to produce the carbohydrates the zooplanktons rely on. If the pH of the water is too acidic, the beneficial green algae cannot survive. Algae, like other plants, utilize light to photosynthesize food for growth. Low temperatures slow algae growth. During the day, photosynthesis takes place, due to the presence of sunlight. Algae draw carbon dioxide from the water to utilize during photosynthesis, promoting cell growth. Removal of carbon dioxide from the water raises the pH levels, as a result of the reduction in carbonate and bicarbonate levels of water, since they are used to replenish the lost carbon dioxide. At night, no photosynthesis takes place, so algae stops taking in carbon dioxide from water and goes into a respiratory stage. During this respiratory stage, algae consume oxygen that was produced during photosynthesis and release carbon dioxide into the water. This increased production of carbon dioxide decreases the pH levels in the water at night.
DUDE: There’s more?
KOKANEE: Algae are a very welcome part of a lake’s ecosystem. They form the base of the food chain, and are thus vital. They provide a source of food, energy and shelter for the zooplankton, fish and other aquatic organisms. Algae also play a strong role in the ability of an ecosystem to absorb nutrients and heavy metals.
KOKANEE: If the water is too cold, green algae cannot sustain growth. This is the situation in the cold months of late fall, all of winter and early spring. If the winter produced abundant snow in the high country feeding a lake, the rate at which that snowpack melts and flows to the lake determines in part how fast a lake will warm up after winter. Remember too that in winter the angle of the sun to a lake is lower than when the days get longer in spring and summer. Water has a great capacity to absorb infrared radiation (from sunlight) and to retain that gained heat. And sunlight drives the growth of green algae. So, snowpack inflows and the angle of the sun on the lake work together to make the lake’s temperature what it is.
DUDE: Let me see if I can apply this. Fishing in the early spring for kokes can be frustrating because the water is too cold and there is little food for the kokanee to eat, making them less active.
KOKANEE: Right. The type and amount of dissolved nutrients also affects algae growth. The most important one is the amount of phosphorus available and dissolved in the water. Less phosphorus, less algae.
DUDE: How do the dissolved nutrients get into the lake?
KOKANEE: You really have to think in terms of the entire watershed that comes into the lake. When the watershed has wildfires, nutrients are released that are washed downstream and wind up in the lakes. Heavy storms can cause significant erosion in upstream water paths. Rapid snowmelt can do the same. While some of the nutrients are already dissolved in the water flowing downstream, sediments that enter the lakes will take time to dissolve, becoming part of that lake’s ecosystem. So you can see that there are a lot of factors. In the old days, runoff from agriculture produced too much phosphates and other gunk into reservoirs.
DUDE: What other factors affect size?
KOKANEE: Manipulation of the natural food supply has sometimes produced huge kokes with disastrous long-term effects. Many years ago, Mysis shrimp were introduced into the Flathead Lake watershed in Montana. The Mysis managed to migrate downstream into Flathead Lake. The sole purpose was to be an enhanced food supply for the resident kokanee in the upstream lakes. The goal was create large kokanee. Mysis shrimp pack a lot more protein than processing plankton. It is sorta like the difference between steak and salad. At least that was the theory.
DUDE: Let me guess. Things did not go as planned?
KOKANEE: Not even close. Glad you are sitting down. Remember, phytoplankton is the primary food source of the zooplankton, which in turn is the main food source for kokanee. Phytoplankton needs sunlight, so in most waters phytoplankton distribution is limited to about the top 30 feet of the water column. Once the sunlight that penetrates the water column falls below about 10%, phytoplankton cannot achieve photosynthesis. Zooplankton migrate up the water column to feed in the evening because they avoid light. They descend the water column in the morning.
DUDE: OK so far. So I guess zooplankton are like lawnmowers -- consuming the green algae and keeping it in check. But what do the Mysis shrimp eat?
KOKANEE: They eat the zooplankton that the kokanee depend on. In fact, the Mysis way is to devour all of the Daphnia. Kinda like water Vikings. Mysis are vast consumers of the Daphnia and easily out-compete kokanee for that food source. The remaining zooplanktons, such as the copepods, are much smaller and less efficient at keeping the algae in check, and are much less of a nutritious food source for the kokanee. It has been thought that Mysis consume more than six times the zooplankton than the kokanee do.
DUDE: Why don’t the kokanee eat the Mysis?
KOKANEE: In case you had not noticed, when kokanee emerge as fry they are tiny. Mysis being 1-2 centimeters would be more than a mouthful. And the Mysis are eating the food that the kokanee fry and fingerlings need. No food, no survive. The two year old kokanee don’t eat them. With less and less available food, kokanee become size challenged. Of course there was a temporary exception over in Wallowa Lake in Northeast Oregon. Mysis were introduced and the chain reaction started. But somehow the adults managed to develop a taste for Mysis, and as a result grew to record sizes. But when these monster kokes were caught or spawned, the kokanee fishery collapsed. And putting huge numbers of kokanee fingerlings into that lake made no difference.
DUDE: So the kokes that did survive had their main food source removed until the Daphnia could get re-established. And with less food, smaller kokes.
KOKANEE: And, another factor is the presence of predator fish who feed on kokanee. Generally these predator fish such as lake trout and larger rainbows hang out at the lower part of the water column, and that is where the Mysis hang out during the day. These predator fish love Mysis, and grow fat and large on the bounty. As a result their numbers increase dramatically. And in turn, more predator fish feed on the kokanee population, reducing and in some cases devastating the kokanee population.
DUDE: So the kokanee never get a chance to get very big.
KOKANEE: Exactly. A double whammy.
DUDE: How long can it take to get things back in balance?
KOKANEE: 20 to 25 years. Some lakes never recover.
DUDE: I’ve got a feeling you can tell me more.
KOKANEE: So you are paying attention. Yes there are more factors.
DUDE: I’ve got the tissue box right here. Seem to have something making my eyes water.
KOKANEE: Tears? Think about how the kokanee feel when their kids are faced with starvation.
DUDE: OK….taking some deep breaths. Let’s continue.
KOKANEE: In some waters, one cannot discuss kokanee without discussing spotted bass. When spotted bass are introduced into kokanee fisheries, kokanee populations are eventually significantly reduced or wiped out altogether. Here is how this happens. Fingerling spots are not much a threat to kokanee, but the adults are. It takes some time for the spots to reach a size where they can gobble down kokanee. But when they do reach that size they become the perfect predator. Spots can suspend at any depth in the water column.
DUDE: What do you mean suspend?
KOKANEE: It means they can just hang in a place without having to move around. Because they are not moving they are not creating a vibration signature that can be detected by the kokanee.
DUDE: So no movement, no vibrations.
KOKANEE: Spots just hang and when the kokanee swims by …boom. Kokanee have no defense to this kind of predation.
DUDE: So let me guess, the first attempted corrective reaction is to put more kokanee into that lake.
KOKANEE: Exactly. But more kokanee will not restore the balance and bring back the population. Putting more kokanee in the lake only makes the spots bigger with an increased food supply. Bigger more mature spots mean more spots and the cycle continues. Eventually, say goodbye to a peaceful kokanee fishery and hello to a rip-roaring bass fishery. That works well for our bass fishing friends. Not so much for us kokanee.
DUDE: Now I suppose you are going to tell me that in some fisheries kokanee are planted for the primary purpose of feeding the predator fish.
KOKANEE: True enough. How that comes about is more political I suppose. One thing I do know: kokanee don’t get to vote.
DUDE: You mentioned something about kokanee being planted into lakes. How does that work?
KOKANEE: In some waters it is necessary to plant young kokanee. Kudos to the many volunteer groups that work with their fish and game departments to make this happen. Basically at spawning time, the kokanee are trapped and eggs extracted from the females and then the males provide the milt so fertilization can be accomplished. The fertilized eggs are taken back to a hatchery and properly oxygenated and kept at a cool temperature. Then in the spring the water temperature is slowing raised to a point when the kokanee hatch out of their eggs. The tiny kokanee are then kept until their eggs sacks are absorbed and they are then ready to be put back into the lakes. Hatching success using this method is quite high.
DUDE: Any problem putting the kokanee in the lakes?
KOKANEE: Yes. When the kokanee are ready to be planted, the various volunteer groups are out of the picture. It is only the fish and game folks. The generally accepted practice has, in my opinion, two substantial errors. No effort is made to match the water temperature of the holding tank where the kokes are taken from with the water they are being put. Apparently a 10 degree difference in water temperature hitting the little kokanee all at once do not bother the fish and game folks one bit.
DUDE: Are you kidding? I would even do that with my aquarium fish.
KOKANEE: C’mon now. These are professionals. Actually they are just drivers. The professionals are back in their labs doing science and lobbying for more funding. The little kokanee are not even one-half inch. So a temperature change of any significance is dangerous.
KOKANEE: These drivers offload at the ramp. They are not distributed through the lake. The result is that these potentially water shocked kokanee are stunned as they enter the water, and guess who is waiting for them? The kind of fish that hang out at docks.
DUDE: Seems like a lot of work by the volunteers not being honored. I bet the volunteers would be eager to distribute the baby kokanee if given the chance. They have boats to do the job.
KOKANEE: I have not heard of a jurisdiction where they are given that chance. The in-lake mortality has been the subject of some discussion, and efforts are now underway to test raise young kokanee a bit longer at the hatchery and then transfer them to special pens in the water where they are to be released. The cost factor is always present -- the longer they remain at the hatchery, the more public cost is involved. But pens can be accomplished by volunteer groups at no cost to the fish and game folks, with the volunteer groups supplying the construction, placement, necessary cleaning and so forth. This method allows the fish to grow and not be subject to early predation.
DUDE: You mentioned that the kokanee in Wallowa Lake had adapted to eating Mysis. Are there other examples of kokanee adapting their eating habits?
KOKANEE: Yes there are. When kokanee get larger than say about 16 inches, their nutrition needs increase. If successful in finding more food, the larger they can become. It is all a matter of adaption and survival.
DUDE: Mind if I go back a bit. We were talking about size and diet. And the totally misguided ideas behind planting Mysis shrimp into a kokanee population. I have it on reliable information that some mature koke populations up in British Columbia actually feed on baby kokanee.
KOKANEE: You are not supposed to know about that.
DUDE: Well -- photographs have documented such behavior. These seem to be the really large kokes.
KOKANEE: Do much larger kokes have higher protein needs than very much smaller kokes?
DUDE: I'm sensing you are OK with this.
KOKANEE: I earlier spoke of how adaptable kokanee are. If you are a very large kokanee, snacking on a few daphnia just won't deliver the fire power necessary to drive the larger kokes through the spawn.
DUDE: You know I have read so many times on the various fishing forums about how some guy had a great time fishing for kokanee. He is bragging about how many he caught and retained, and how many he caught and released "in good shape to live for another day." Thoughts?
KOKANEE: Maybe I'm mellowing a bit in my old age. I am always grateful for good intentions. But I also believe that there are times when good intentions produce not so good results.
DUDE: Let me guess -- it is more complicated than I would have thought, and probably more complicated the well-intentioned kokanee fisherman realized.
KOKANEE: Indeed. Let's start first with the fact of just how old are the kokanee that bite. Most kokanee will respond to a well-balanced color and scented lure starting in their third year. Spawning will take place later in either their third or fourth year depending on location. Biting has everything to do with spawning. For the kokes that will be spawning later in the season, their scales are on course to transition from soft and flaky to absorbed and hardened.
DUDE: Come to think of it, the scales are very soft and flake off easily in the early spring bite. They get on everything. But late in the season, the scales do not flake off at all.
KOKANEE: It is a natural process of maturing. By pre-spawn, the kokes are well along in resorbing their own scales. They need hardened scales to withstand the rigors of the spawn. Do you know why fish have scales?
DUDE: Scales are the protective outer layer of the fish's skin. I can understand why hardened scales are protective, but what about soft scales?
KOKANEE: The outer part of these soft scales has a consistency similar to mucous, making the fish extra slippery in the battle not to become prey. The slime can come off without a problem. But the scales themselves have a very important function -- they act as a barrier to ward off infection. If some of the scales are removed from the fish, infection easily moves in. Remember, theirs is a water environment. Infection is easy to come by. Fish will not be able to get a prescription for an antibiotic, and the fish has no biological mechanisms to replace the lost scales. The result is usually a slow and painful death.
DUDE: So how does the well-meaning fisherman cause the harm?
KOKANEE: The harm is more likely early in the season when the scales are very soft. The scales come off with the use of any net, as well as any touching with the human hand. Well intentioned fisherman wanting to remove the hooks so the "fish can live another day" are shredding those protective scales. And although the fish when released happily swims off, the fatal damage is already inflicted. That fish gives the impression that all is well. All is not well.
DUDE: So how long does it take?
KOKANEE: You mean before the infection becomes fatal? Depends. Hours. Days. But it will happen. Of course other species benefit. Ospreys for example love those well-intentioned fisherman. So do mackinaw -- lake trout. Fish in weakened condition become a tasty addition to the food chain.
DUDE: So if a fisherman wanted to simply just release the kokanee without touching it from any means, just how is that accomplished?
KOKANEE: Let me refine your question a bit. Remember we are talking about the time in their life cycle before the scales are fully hardened. Let’s say a fisherman has a two rod stamp - which many states now have. Two rods - but single limit. Let’s further say that the fisherman is one fish shy of a limit. Both rods are out. Bam. A double. Only one can be taken. There are only two choices. First, land the one and then "release the other to live another day" using the net and manually removing the hooks - and thus killing the released fish. The other choice is to land the one fish, but as to the other fish, just let it have some slack. Unless it has a hook through the bone in the snoot, it will self-release. Neat - no net, no human hands, no loss of scales. Actually does live another day.
DUDE: What if it does have a hook through the snoot?
KOKANEE: Easy. If you have brought the fish to the side of the boat and just let it swim there, the fish will be pretty tired. Control the distance to the side of the boat with your rod. This works best with the boat moving forward. Without netting the fish or touching it, simply cut the line as close as you can to the hook and let the fish swim off. In most cases, the fish will be fine.
DUDE: You said "in most cases."
KOKANEE: Yes that is what I said. And kokes are generally resilient to injuries as long as the injury does not entail scale removal. I have seen some of my friends with broken and partially split lower jaws reach full fat maturity. There are some other injuries I have seen that even I have been amazed that the fish survived.
DUDE: So as you have explained it, any contact with the soft early season scales is likely fatal. But as the season progresses, the soft scales become harder, and don't flake off. When the pre-spawn kokes have reached this maturity, and I want or need to release it, then I can use the net and actually touch the fish to remove the hooks.
KOKANEE: Correct. Just be aware that this is a gradual process over the course of the fishing season. A smart and caring fisherman will make these timing observations and react appropriately.
DUDE: I have caught kokanee in the later part of the season, and the scales are flaky and come off easily. What gives?
KOKANEE: Think it through. I told you that the process of scale hardening and absorption is a characteristic of the pre-spawn kokanee. If you catch a late season kokanee with flaky scales, then it is not pre-spawn. As it turns out, there are quite a few precocious young kokanee that are ready to chase lures as they get towards the end of their second year. They will spawn the following year.
DUDE: Thanks for being patient with me.
KOKANEE: Look kid - the reason we are able to chat about this stuff is because you have spent time on the water and paid some dues. But even more important you have shown a strong desire to learn as much as you can about the kokanee world. And it is truly a world-- California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, North Carolina, Connecticut, British Columbia, and Alberta.
DUDE: I told you that I read as much as I can -- with a critical eye on content -- and I have run across a couple of other kokanee concepts that I would like to ask you about.
KOKANEE: I'll do the best I can.
DUDE: I have heard rumors that there are kokes that are bred to become "late season spawners." I have friends in Idaho, who tell me they can fish for kokes on Thanksgiving, and the scales are hardened, but the fish have not yet turned color and the males are just barely beginning to show signs of a kype. Seems like most of us see color and kypes sometime in late July, and definitely by late August and for sure by Labor Day.
KOKANEE: The rumors are true. We kokes are fairly adaptable to our environments wherever situated. Some kokes developed genetic characteristics that better guarantee survival. Let us suppose a particular kokanee world is a draw down reservoir - so the alfalfa farmers can get their late summer water. In that situation it makes good sense to spawn earlier in the streams and feeder creeks as they will not be water to spawn in in the main body of water. But some kokes have an easier situation. For these kokes size matters genetically. A longer growing season means consistently larger kokes if the food supply is adequate to support them.
DUDE: No harm in larger kokes.
KOKANEE: When the early spawn/late spawn characteristics become predictable, then such a population of kokes can be introduced into a water system that would be compatible with that characteristic. Manipulation of the species.
DUDE: You are not going to wax philosophical on me now are you?
KOKANEE: No. Just sayin'
DUDE: I got an invitation for next year to go and fish Wickiup Lake in La Pine, central Oregon.
KOKANEE: Believe me -- I know about La Pine and Wickiup.
DUDE: I hear the kokes there are huge -- sixteen to twenty two inches or more, and the daily limit is twenty five. I was passing through there last September and decided to go check the reservoir out. I could not believe what I saw. The only water I saw was in the river channel. There were vast wide areas of shallow dry lake bed gently sloping to the river, which was not very wide.
KOKANEE: And you probably want to know where the fish go when the reservoir dries up. Well let me tell you. The reservoir is to capacity just about every year in spring. But during the season, the water is gradually drained out down the Deschutes River. When the dam was constructed, it was not constructed for kokanee. It was built to provide irrigation water for downstream farmers and alfalfa growers. The kokanee in Wickiup are early spawners. They have to be. And it may come as a surprise to you but the kokanee fishery at Wickiup is entirely natural.
DUDE: Not supplemented?
KOKANEE: Not at all. This is a great example of the adaptation I was speaking about earlier. The kokes have to be ready to spawn before the water supply challenges and limits their ability to graze. Fortunately, just enough water is available to make redds that will be properly oxygenated even with the draw down.
DUDE: But the size and the great number?
KOKANEE: With so much of the reservoir being shallow when full, the draw down encourages a great variety of insect hatches. One species in particular thrives there. These are a type of fly. In larval form they are called chironomids. They are produced in such abundance as to be mind-boggling. Wickiup kokanee have discovered that these chironomids are a better source of protein than the zooplankton water fleas known as daphnia. These chironomids don't run and hide when the sun comes up, and the kokes can feed on them round the clock. And they do. An abundant protein source makes for very large kokes, much the same as the Mysis shrimp did for the third year kokes at Wallowa Lake. Only the chironomids don't destroy the next generation of kokes.
DUDE: And let me guess, the second year kokes at Wickiup can eat chironomids because the fly larvae are small enough, unlike the Mysis.
KOKANEE: Exactly. So the second year kokes gorge and become very large second year olds. As such, they have more strength to make it through the severe winter conditions at Wickiup. So when spring comes, now as three year olds, they are still in great shape, large and cranky - just the way they should be. In the meantime the three year olds have spawned. The drawdown of the reservoir provides a good measure of protection as virtually all motorized boating ceases. If left alone, the redds will produce huge numbers of kokanee fry ready to start the cycle.
DUDE: Do the redds get vandalized?
KOKANEE: Sadly yes. You know I will never understand humans. So self-centered. Go splash in the stream after the spawn. Make a happy with your dog and toss those sticks in the water to be retrieved. Such activity destroys redds. I hope that signs could be placed to inform would be violators. Of course there is no guarantee that the signs would be read, let alone understood and respected. And most dogs can't read.
DUDE: Maybe I should change the subject. I hear conflicting stories about kokes spawn in their third year. Others say they spawn in their fourth year. Both assertions can't be true,
KOKANEE: Ah but they are. Here you have to go with some generalizations. Generally speaking, kokes in the more southern and central areas tend to spawn in their third year. The growing seasons are longer and the water warms up faster making production of kokanee fuel more rapid and sustained. Generally speaking, kokes in the more northern climes will be of the fourth year variety. The reason is identical, really, to their more southern cousins. It's all about food and the length of the growing season. In the northern climes, the water says cooler, warms up later, and gets back to cold soon. This limits the available food production and supply -- so much so that it takes kokes into their fourth year to get their spawning energy and fat reserves together. Couple that with a late spawn genetic pool and you pretty much have your answer.
DUDE: You got my head spinning again.
KOKANEE: And I think that is a good place to leave it.
DUDE: You have taught me so much and I don’t know how to meaningfully repay you.
KOKANEE: Well, there is a way you can do that.
KOKANEE: You know all those mornings when you get on the lake just before first light, and then some light starts chasing the darkness away? How quiet and still things seem to be. Your mind is filled with anticipation of the great fishing day ahead. And you take a slow deep breath – just trying to take it all in. Don’t ever lose that feeling, and don’t keep it to yourself. Pass on such ethics to your children, and family and friends. Help out and encourage those just staring out in the sport.
DUDE: Yes, I can do that.
KOKANEE: I’ll be on my way now. Gotta fulfill my real purpose. It’s been great chatting with you and I’m really glad you responded in the way you did. As for me, the ladies are calling.
Copyright© 2021 Fish With Gary Tackle Co., Gary S. Gordon