There are so many different types of freshwater fish you can catch in the peace and quiet of winter. One that is a bit less common than most is the kokanee, a relative of the sockeye salmon that never goes to the ocean. Catching kokanee can be a lot of fun. Here are 21 tips to help you catch more.
1. Get Their Attention
If you don’t manage to find where the kokanee are at the moment, the next best thing is to make them come to you. You need to devise some strategies to get their attention.
Kokanee, like many fish, can become curious about weird things they see far across the lake. This will lead them to investigate, and if your presentation is good, they will then take a bite into your hook.
One way to get the attention of these fish is to jig up a storm. Jig big and fast. However, once the fish get closer, they will not like that. It can be hard to know when they are close unless you are using a fish finder or underwater camera. So, there are certainly challenges to trying to attract kokanee this way.
One strategy you could try along those lines is to do some big jigging for a short time, then wait, then do some smaller, subtler jigging.
Another way to get kokanee’s attention is to use a lure such as a spoon that will reflect light all over the place. The descent into deep underwater will take care of the work here.
Whatever strategy you come up with, the point is to attract kokanee to your line. You are taking advantage of their curiosity to lure them into a trap.
2. Use a Sensitive Rod Tip
Here is a tricky part about fishing for kokanee: their bites can be rather soft. This means that sometimes it is going to be tough to know when you have one on your line.
For that reason, you are definitely going to want to use as light of a rod as you can get. Then, pay careful attention. You may not feel any force, but if the tip of your rod is bending, that indicates that something is tugging at your line.
One thing that can make it even easier to tell when you have a bite is to place your fingers on the line. These bites can be truly small, so a huge level of sensitivity will help you catch more fish.
To catch the most fish, always be alert, and make sure you have equipment that can handle this situation. An average fishing pole is not going to cut it if you don’t want to miss a single bite. Get an ice rod that’s light enough to bend at small tugs.
3. Jig Slowly
Jigging isn’t as simple as just placing a line underwater and going crazy. You have to jig in a way that is appealing to each fish species’ specific hunting behavior.
For kokanee, you aren’t going to want to be too intense, except when trying to get their attention from far away. Relating this to their eating habits, kokanee don’t hunt for anything too fast, so a wild, erratic jig won’t appeal to them.
Instead, jig slowly and with a consistent rhythm. It will be hard for kokanee to bite if your jig is moving in an unpredictable fashion. So, make it easy for them.
Jigging is probably the most effective way to catch kokanee, as long as you are smart with it. The point of jigging in ice fishing is not to keep warm through movement or anything like that. It’s to convince fish that there is some tasty live food before their eyes. So, movement is required, but not too much movement.
4. Go West (And North, Too)
If you’re looking to catch kokanee, it’s important to realize that they are not as widespread as other types of freshwater fish are.
Kokanee are found primarily in the Northwestern United States, British Columbia, Yukon, and Alaska.
Within these areas, you will find them in midsize and large lakes because they require a large amount of oxygen.
While the midwest is an absolutely great place for ice fishing, you probably won’t find kokanee there. It’s fun for those who fish further west to have a unique species you won’t find just anywhere.
However, kokanee have been introduced to other U.S. states and regions of Canada. It would be difficult to generalize entire states, though; while some lakes in one may be stocked with kokanee, others may not.
The only surefire way to determine whether a lake has kokanee in it is to do some research specific to that lake. Luckily, there are online databases which contain information about lakes including what species are common within them.
By the way, kokanee can also be found in Russia and (very rarely now) Japan, though they are technically slightly different species than the North American one.
5. Work Your Way Down
There are a lot of aspects of kokanee behavior that makes them tough to find, and one is how they seem to love swimming in various depths. It makes it hard to track them down. You can’t expect to just drop your line to the bottom and catch fish.
If you don’t have a fish finder, this is a methodical approach to help you figure out where these fish are swimming at the current moment. Start by lowering your line to a depth of just ten feet. See how that works, and if it doesn’t give results, lower the line deeper. Perhaps try increments of five or ten feet.
Sometimes finding what you’re looking for requires a slow, steady grind. This method of searching each little section of the water column may seem boring, but logically, it will give better results than randomly choosing depths.
Sooner or later, you’re bound to encounter a kokanee. Once you’ve found one, you should return to that same depth. These fish travel in schools, so if you find one, you will find another.
You need patience. But if you’ve fished before, you probably already know patience tends to be an essential ingredient to success.
6. Try Different Approaches
With kokanee, what works on one day will likely not work as well on another. The kokanee could be in a different part of the lake. They could desire some different bait, for some reason. They might be unwilling to go for a moving jig.
Their behavior is hard to predict. So, you need to have different tricks up your sleeve. Don’t rely on just one approach. Have different kinds of bait. Get different lures, jigs, etc.
It’s important to be flexible. If something isn’t working, though a bit of patience might help, there comes a time when you ought to stop doing it and try something else.
There is no silver bullet for kokanee. Come prepared to adjust and learn as you go.
Granted, it may be hard to know exactly what needs to be changed in your approach. Underwater cameras, if you want to be fancy, can help you know why fish aren’t biting. Otherwise, simple changes like using different bait or doing less or more jigging can make a difference.
7. Go To The Middle
While I’ve written in other articles about how underwater structures can be the best places to find fish, fishing experts are not so quick to send you there if you’re looking for kokanee.
Kokanee like to eat zooplankton or other small organisms, whereas many fish species who are popular targets in ice fishing prefer to eat larger meals such as other fish. Underwater cliffs and shoals may make for good hunting grounds for those fish, but if you’re looking for zooplankton, there’s not a huge advantage there.
What you do want is deep water. Don’t bother with shallow areas. Naturally, the deepest water is at the center of the lake. So, you should go to the middle of the lake and drill your holes there.
It’s not like it’s necessary to find the exact center of the lake, and doing so would be rather difficult, anyway. Just stay away from shorelines. Anywhere the water is particularly deep is going to be useful to you.
8. Use a Fish Finder
Since kokanee can be found at so many different depths, you will save a lot of time if you use sonar to track them down.
There are many fish finder devices out there at varying price ranges. The more expensive ones naturally have a lot more features. Super-cheap ones are going to have questionable accuracy, so they probably won’t be too useful to you.
Fish finders with flashers are especially useful for ice fishing. They are not cheap, but they can essentially show you onscreen exactly where fish are gathering.
As you can imagine, this saves you a lot of time and effort you’d spend searching for schools of kokanee. If you know where they are, all you have to do is focus on your presentation.
You might think fish finders take the challenge out of fishing, and there is a bit of truth to that, but getting kokanee to bite is still a challenge on its own. These fishes’ preferences seem to change daily, so you will have to figure out what they want. By taking the searching out of the equation, you can catch far more fish.
Of course, not everyone has money to buy fish finders, but don’t feel bad if you don’t. Many tips on this list will help you catch more fish even without one.
Still, you will become a more effective and efficient ice fisher if you have one. And if you’re looking for one, check out my article on which fish finders are the best.
9. Use Tip-Ups Plus Bait
Tip-ups can make your fishing more efficient. There is usually a trade-off though: except for some special tip-ups, tip-ups can’t jig the way you can with a rod in your hand. That means that while you can have a tip-up or two in the water, they probably won’t be as attractive as a jigging line is.
But that isn’t a reason to rule out using them. In fact, there are times when jigging really isn’t useful for attracting kokanee. Sometimes these fish are feeling lethargic and will gladly eat something that’s just sitting there. As you can imagine, tip-ups will be particularly effective on a day like that.
You will always want to use bait when using them. Kokanee are still going to need something appealing to bite. I mean, I sure wouldn’t bite a metal hook for fun.
Tip-ups typically allow you to adjust the tension so that the flag will be triggered by either less or more force. You will want to adjust it to go off for a fairly light force. Kokanee often have gentle bites, so if the tip-up demands too much force, you won’t know when one has bitten your line.
10. Set the Hook If You Think It’s a Bite
The soft bites of kokanee are hard to detect. Normally, with other fish, you wouldn’t want to overreact to tiny bumps. However, with kokanee, you will probably miss on some catches if you aren’t ready to set the hook when you feel even a small bit of force.
One thing you can do to more easily detect bites is to put your fingers around the line. Even with a highly sensitive rod whose tip bends easily, your fingers are a bit more reliable. If you don’t have a very sensitive rod, you should definitely use your fingers.
Once you feel something, set the hook, and bring what hopefully is a kokanee up. Now, I can’t guarantee it won’t be a false alarm, but since you should have your line in open water anyway, it’s not like it’ll get stuck on weeds or similar things. It’s probably either a fish or you imagined something tugging on the line.
Rest assured, not all bites will be as subtle as what I’ve described. However, if you want to maximize the number of kokanee you catch, it’s best to be ready for these tiny bites they sometimes give.
Over time, you will get better at recognizing what a bite feels like. When that happens, you will have a lot more success. Overall, remember to stay alert and act quickly when you think you have a bite.
11. Use Smaller Bait
There are several options for what bait you could use to catch kokanee, but there is one thing in common among all of them: they are on the small side.
Some fish species like big meals. The kokanee is not one of them. Kokanee do not eat other fish. Instead, they go for tiny creatures.
So, you can use things like corn or maggots as bait. I recommend bringing different options. Depending on the day, they may be more willing to bite on one type of bait than another. Bring a few different types and switch if one isn’t working.
Save those giant swimming jigs for another day if you’re after kokanee. Effective fishing is always a matter of understanding what your prey likes to eat. And with kokanee, that means to not bother with anything as big as a minnow. Tiny bait is the best for them.
12. Use Fresh Bait
Kokanee have some standards when it comes to food. They use their sense of smell when looking for it.
What this means for you is that you should use non-artificial bait, if you can. You want stuff that kokanee can smell. They don’t want to eat any old garbage. They want something fresh.
If you aren’t getting any kokanee bites, the bait could be the problem. Make sure you’re using bait that smells good to them, though it’ll probably not smell good to you.
13. Bring Friends
For greater success in catching kokanee (and really any fish), find some other people to go with you.
First of all, it’s fun to have your friends and/or family gathered together on a frozen lake.
But, you are likely more concerned with catching more fish. Having other people to work with will absolutely help you do that.
Kokanee swim in schools. If you catch one, sending your line right down to the same spot will likely result in catching another.
So, let’s say you and your friends are fishing with a bit of distance between everyone. If one person catches a fish, the others will want to immediately go right where that person is and take advantage of their good fortune.
For that situation, it is smart to drill multiple holes right next to each other. That way, if a school of kokanee is found, multiple people can put their lines down and all catch fish. It’s a highly efficient way to get a bunch of kokanee.
(This is probably a good time to remind you to be aware of local regulations that may limit how many kokanee you are permitted catch).
If you came to the lake alone, you’ll still greatly benefit from talking to anyone you see there. If they happen to be fishing for kokanee too, they can let you know what’s been working for them and point out potential hotspots.
If you just want peace and quiet, I totally understand wanting to fish alone. But, working with other people will only help you improve the effectiveness of your fishing. Plus, it can be a fun time with friends that brings everyone closer together.
14. Know the Common Depth Range
It would be a waste of time to look in waters where kokanee are unlikely to be found. The typical range they swim within in the winter is between 70 and 120 feet.
As stated earlier, you are unlikely to find kokanee in a small lake, so if you know that the lake you’re at isn’t even as deep as 70 feet, you are probably in the wrong place.
On the other hand, kokanee can be found swimming above such depths. It’s a good idea to check all depths when you first get started. Wherever you find kokanee, you should continue to fish in that range for a while.
However, unless you find them elsewhere, the majority of your time should be spent in the 70-120 feet range.
15. Use a Line Counter
Some of the tips I have written in this article have implied a need for you to know the depth your line is sitting at underwater, and you may be wondering how you’re supposed to do that. You could use a fish finder, but there is another easy way.
You can get a reel with a line counter. A line counter is designed to measure how much line you have extended. So, if you’re looking to lower your line 80 feet underwater, all you have to do to know when you’re there is to look at the line counter as you let the line fall.
It’s definitely the simplest solution to this problem, as long as you’re willing to get a new reel.
With a line counter, you can much more precisely make your way through the water column. You can methodically try fishing at different depths, and when you find a kokanee, you’ll know exactly what depth to return to.
The benefits of using a reel with a line counter are significant and can make your fishing much more effective. If you haven’t bought a reel yet, now you know something to look for when getting one. Or maybe you will choose to upgrade from a reel you’ve been using.
16. Use Smaller Jigs
Just as I said earlier that you should stick to tiny bait, so also should you stick to smaller jigs when fishing for kokanee.
Kokanee are not tiny fish, but their meals are small. So, if you’re hoping to attract them with large jigs, they won’t bite. You might get their attention, though.
On that note, a strategy you could try is to use two lines. One will have a sizable jig to attract kokanee from far away. The other will be baited in a way that will appeal to them and entice them to bite.
If you don’t want to bother with that, though, just be sure to stick to smaller jigs. Jigs are arguably the most effective tool for catching kokanee, so you should definitely use them. But don’t assume bigger is better here.
17. Target the Same Spot Repeatedly
Picture yourself catching a kokanee. You are surely happy about that. But don’t take a break just yet. Put your line back in the water and in the same spot you just had it. Where you find one kokanee, you will likely find another.
This is because, like many other fish species, kokanee prefer to swim in groups.
Eventually, of course, the school will move on. You can’t fish in the same spot forever. But when you find one kokanee, always assume that others are nearby.
18. Try Glowing or Brightly-Colored Hooks
In addition to jigs and lures, one other aspect of your presentation you can look at it is the hook itself. Sure, the primary job of the hook is to trap the fish, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be designed to be appealing.
One type of hook I’ve seen fishers have success with is a glow-in-the-dark hook. Deep underwater, kokanee will be quite fascinated by the slight glow of this hook.
A red hook is appealing to them as well. It doesn’t have to be red necessarily; just think bright colors.
The hook is often overlooked among the several aspects of a fisher’s presentation, but it can certainly make a difference. If you’re looking for new tricks to try, a new hook might be just the ticket.
19. Use Spoon Lures
I recommend spoon lures rather frequently. That’s because they truly are effective in ice fishing for many types of fish, and kokanee are no exception.
As a spoon flutters down, it will reflect light in many directions. This is a great way to get the attention of fish from all across the lake. Kokanee are not beyond getting curious. Any unusual occurrence in the water might mean food for them, so they may go check out your line.
An example of a good spoon lure is the Swedish Pimple. The name of it may be funny, but this highly popular lure is a favorite among many ice fishers because it gets results. Check out an article I wrote about the Swedish Pimple to learn more about it and how to use it.
If you want to catch more kokanee, you need to get them to pay attention to your line, and spoon lures make for a great way to do that.
20. Try “Still-Fishing” (Especially in Late Winter)
I have said that jigging is arguably the most effective way to catch kokanee. It is not the only way, though. “Still-fishing,” or in other words, dropping your line in the water and letting it just sit there, can be effective.
It is especially effective when the kokanee are feeling lethargic. This tends to happen beyond mid-February. By that time, there won’t be as much oxygen reserves in the lake.
Kokanee use a lot of oxygen, so they need to be more conservative in how they spend energy. If they can eat food without having to dash at it quickly, that’s using less energy. So, your bait just sitting there is perfect.
With that in mind, jigging in late winter may actually be the less effective method. That’s not a guarantee, though. If your still bait is not getting results, it’s probably time to start jigging. It all depends on how the kokanee are feeling.
21. Be Aware of Currents
Currents can push zooplankton, which kokanee eat, to a specific end of the lake. And currents don’t stop just because there’s a thick layer of ice covering the lake.
Putting this tip into action could be a bit more difficult than the others I’ve listed. To figure out where currents could be, you’ll need a map. You can often find maps for specific lakes online.
Alternatively, instead of trying to figure out exactly where currents would push zooplankton on your own, see if there are any fishermen around who know the area well and have learned the best feeding spots from experience. It’s always helpful to learn from others.
Fishing is all about following the food chain. Where are the kokanee going for their food? Figure out the answer, and you’ll find more.
Kokanee are not the most well-understood fish out there, so trying to catch them will be a unique and fun experience. Keep all these tips in mind, but feel free to experiment, too, because you never know exactly what will work on kokanee on a given day.