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Fly Fishing for Kokanee Salmon 101

By Guest Author & Homewater Fly Fishing Owner - Adam Beede

 The colors of Fall have set in around much of Colorado! From the frosty chilly mornings to the gorgeous Aspen fields and the last bursts of warm days before mid-winter, Fall is upon us. During this time, those willing to gaze through the deep riffles and pools to the world underneath unlock a whole different world of color: the Kokanee of Fall.

Kokanee Salmon, or “Kokes”, are the same species as the more common and “ocean-run” Sockeye Salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka). The only difference between Kokanee and Sockeye salmon is that the Kokanee are landlocked and never make it to the ocean. They spend the entirety of their lives (typically 4 years) living in a reservoir until Fall of their fourth year. At this time, they encounter massive physical and chemical changes, all leading to the mass congregations at the river inlets.

Colorado has an unbelievable set of salmon fishing drainages that can be very fun on the fly rod. Included in this batch is the best freshwater salmon run in the country: on Blue Mesa Reservoir and the Gunnison River. Droughts in the early 2000’s decimated Kokanee populations here (from 1,000,000 individuals to about 100,000 individuals). Extremely hard work by Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), volunteers and the Gunnison Sockeyes River Conservation Club at Western Colorado University have since recovered Kokanee salmon populations in Blue Mesa Reservoir to over 300,000 individuals, as measured by sonar. CPW runs a national model for salmon preservation, reintroducing ~3.8 million Kokanee fingerlings per year in the headwaters stream, to more naturally recover the population to its current levels and beyond.

Generally speaking, most salmon runs in Colorado will peak sometime during September or October. Angling for them by fly is far easier than you might think. Not only are they big and gorgeous fish, but pound for pound, they are one of the best fighting fish in the Rockies. Some of my favorite Kokanee waters are the Inlets to Granby, Vallecito, Dillon, Williams Fork, Wolford Mountain, Green Mountain, Elevenmile, Ruedi and Blue Mesa Reservoirs. There are a lot of options and this is our suggested rig for catching these amazing fish!

Kokanee salmon angling tactics are similar to that of trout: your depth must be dialed in. Here are some helpful tips for finding the depths of Kokanee salmon:

  1. Start with a 9’ Leader -1X or 2X
  2. Tied off the end of your leader run a length of 2X tippet to your first fly
  3. Make sure you run a minimum of 8” between leader/tippet knot and first fly
  4. For your dropper use 14" - 20" of 3X tippet to the second fly
  5. Fish brightly colored or fluorescent egg, worm, or nymph patterns
  6. Add 1 AB split shot per 4 foot of estimated depth
  7. Start with an indicator depth of 1.75X the estimated depth of the pool you are fishing
  8. Focus your casts in the deeper runs and pools
  9. If you aren’t hooking fish or the river bottom, you’ll want to add weight, increase depth, or change the placement of your cast to get your flies deeper.
  10. If you are hanging up on river's bottom, you’ll want to decrease depth or remove split shots. You may also need to change the placement of your cast.

The Kokanee salmon are running thick in rivers across the Rockies, right now, today, waiting for you! Apply these tips and tactics and you are sure to have a day to remember!

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