Kokanee vs Cutthroat: What’s the difference?


We’ve all had those fishing trips where we’ve gone out full of hope, and come back with nothing but an empty cooler and tangled line. If Kokanee salmon and Cutthroat trout are in your line of fire, knowing key differences between the two can make or break your fishing trip!

Kokanee salmon are the non-ocean-going version of a Sockeye salmon and are thus different from Cutthroat trout. Kokanee salmon survive on a diet of plankton, as opposed to other salmon who are typically more predatory. Cutthroat trout, on the other hand, are extremely carnivorous, eating a variety of bugs, fish, fish eggs, and small crustaceans.

Knowing what they eat is important of course, but that can’t be it, right?

Color/Physical Identifiers

Cutthroat trout come in many shapes, colors, and sizes, with golds, greens, and grays being the most common, these variables coming into play depending on location.

Though most species and strains of Cutthroat trout can be identified by the red mark under the jaw, that mark is not specific to the Cutthroat trout, with several species of rainbow trout sporting red gills as well. Cutthroat trout can most reliably be separated from other trout by the possession of any of these three traits.

  1. An upper jaw that extends behind the eye.
  2. The presence of basibranchial teeth at the base of the tongue.
  3. The classic red “cutthroat slash” the fish is named for.

Accounting for the different subspecies, Cutthroat trout range from 6-40 inches, with weight varying from .4 ounces to a record holding 41 pounds in ideal conditions. Cutthroat trout, unlike Kokanee salmon, undergo no physical changes during their breeding season.

Kokanee salmon are a fairly landlocked offshoot of sockeye salmon, though due to their almost singular diet of plankton, they stay much smaller, ranging from 9 to 20 inches at adulthood, with variations occurring at such a wide range because of nutritional availability.

Most frequently weighing between 2 and 5 pounds, they can, at a glance, be mistaken for trout. Sporting a dark blue-hued or silver back and silver sides, they can be distinguished from trout by their smaller scales, deeply forked tail, and larger eyes.

During mating season, they are especially easy to pick out as the body turns bright red, the head turns green, and the males develop the humped back and hooked mouth typical of the average salmon.

Habitat/Range

Both Kokanee and Cutthroat Trout are both river dwelling, and therefore are easily confused.

Cutthroat Trout Range

Cutthroat trout, depending on the species, can either be found in fresh water, or salt water streams and estuaries. Coastal cutthroat trout are born in freshwater, migrate to salt water to where they sexually mature, later returning to fresh water where they stay for the winter and to spawn.

Coastal cutthroat are generally bigger than their freshwater cousins due to the greater availability of food and nutrients.

They don’t venture far from freshwater streams however, being most commonly found 5 to 10 miles from the stream of their birth, though they have been found up to 70 miles from shore.

Cutthroat trout that remain in freshwater (called riverine or lacustrine trout) live only in river and lakes respectively, and can be found most commonly in clear, well-oxygenated water. Cutthroat trout are actually so sensitive to water quality, that they are used as an early warning system for water pollution.

If cutthroat trout are disappearing from a habitat they have formerly inhabited, chances are there is something wrong with the water. Due to their sensitivity, they can most easily be found away from human development, where there would be a lack of water pollution and disturbance.

All cutthroat trout will reproduce either in clear, shallow ponds, with an abundance of gravel, or cold, clear, deep lakes, as long as there is gravel present. Spawning for cutthroat trout begins once the water reaches 43 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit.

Kokanee Salmon Range

Kokanee salmon are naturally found most commonly in the north western United States, in addition to south west Canada, though they have been artificially introduced to other parts of the United States as well.

Kokanee salmon, unlike other salmon, spend their entire lives in freshwater, as they have failed to develop the necessary evolutionary changes to make the transition to salt water. Adult Kokanee salmon typically inhabit large lakes, until they return to the stream or shoreline of their birth to spawn.

Though Kokanee salmon can be found at all depths, they do prefer cold water, and will seek deeper water, or the shelter of debris when the days and seasons start to heat up.

Prolonged exposure to temperatures around or above 60 degrees Fahrenheit can actually prove fatal to the fish, which can make a catch and release dangerous for this specific variety of salmon. That being said, they do feed on plankton, which will follow the light columns that penetrate the water, and the Kokanee will follow their food source.

They can be found in Idaho, Alaska, Oregon, Washington, as well as throughout British Columbia and the Yukon in Canada.

Fishing/How to Catch

Kokanee salmon are aggressive and territorial, so though their diet consists primarily of plankton, they will come to investigate. Kokanee salmon see color and will strike at your lure if it makes them angry.

Use Lures on Kokanee

Rather than choosing a lure that imitates their prey, Kokanee lures and baits are actually designed to make them angry. You’re wanting to make the fish mad that your lure is there, that it’s territory is being invaded, and to get it to strike out of anger.

Lures in bright colors such as oranges, reds, or pinks, with attachments that can flash and reflect light, have been reported to have the highest rates of success. Be careful, however, that your tackle isn’t threatening.

Kokanee salmon are a prey fish, meaning that they will typically share the water with species of fish that eat them, like Rainbow trout. If they feel threatened, they’ll leave the area. Make them mad, but don’t scare them.

Unless you’re fishing in the morning when the surface water is cooler, Kokanee salmon are generally found in deeper, cooler water, so weighted gear will be smart.

Kokanee salmon are a schooling fish, and sticking together makes them easy to find on sonar. Using sonar, and trailing your line from a boat has been consistently reported to give the best results.

Fly Fishing for Cutthroat Trout

Fly fishing is the most commonly accepted and successful mode of the hunt for this fish. Extremely predatory, territorial, and impulsive, cutthroat trout show no hesitation in biting at a fly if the timing is right.

Where many other species of fish are typically only caught during specific times of the day, the cutthroat trout seems to have none of the inhibitions of its cousins, proving to be around for a fight any time of the day.

This is a great fish to target for those of us with jobs who can’t regularly hit the mountain’s lakes and streams at the earliest sign of the sun. Like Kokanee salmon, Cutthroat trout are aggressive as well, but as a less picky fish with a wider range of acceptable food as it’s diet, there are a higher number of lures that it will find attractive, and making it angry isn’t the only way to get it to bite at your bait.

With a proclivity for flies on the surface of their water, your best chances come from using flies that imitate whatever the current hatch happens to be. That being said, cutthroat trout have a reputation for being indiscriminate feeders, so don’t stress too much about finding the perfect fly.

As they are more sensitive to water quality, try fishing further away from populated areas, where you can find clear water. Cutthroat trout are an ambush fish, so wherever you decide to fish from, try to maintain cover, and cast your fly quietly to give yourself the best chance. Eddies, log jams, and another natural cover tends to be a great place to find a cutthroat trout waiting to strike at its next target.


Tim Butala

My name is Tim and I have been a fisherman my whole life. My favorite fish to go after is a Stripped Bass.

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