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Spawning Kokanee at the Hatchery
Fishing for Kokanee on the Gunnison
Fishing for Kokanee Salmon on the Gunnison River
Paul B Downing
Standing at the edge of a pool, I watch in fascination as several large fish splash through the riffle below it, their backs out of water, joining others stacked in the pool’s slack water. They join at least fifty fish visibly resting in the clear water before continuing their trip upriver. Each has a distinctive green head and pink body, common in spawning salmon. Large hooked jaws easily identify the larger males making their fall spawning trip to reproduce and then die as many generations have before them.
My fly drifts down to this pod of salmon. The indicator pauses and dips below the surface. I set the hook and all heck breaks out. The fish runs and darts, changing directions suddenly. It bores deep, and then splashes the surface. It runs down to the riffle below the pool in an effort to escape, turning just as it reaches water too shallow for it to swim in. Finally, I maneuver my fish to the net and admire this wild thing that now fills it. Carefully I remove the fly from the hooked jaw of my salmon and gently release this proud male to continue upstream and fulfill its destiny. I could be standing in the middle of Alaska during a sockeye salmon run, but I’m not. I am on the Gunnison River in Colorado at the height of the annual kokanee salmon run.
Kokanee salmon, a close relative to sea run sockeye salmon, have been introduced to many reservoirs in the west. Known for their great taste when cooked, they live in deep water and are not available to fly fishers. In the reservoirs, catching them is a matter of deep trolling. However, the fall spawning run offers the opportunity to catch these tough fish on a fly. The Gunnison River run is unique for the large average size of the fish (14 to 22 inches), the large number of fish in the run, and the near natural spawning history of this stock.
The annual salmon runs in Alaska transform their fisheries. When the salmon are in, they dominate the stream. You can catch trout, but the method of doing so is to adjust to how the trout react to the salmon. The same is true on the Gunnison. During the fall run, trout follow the salmon feeding on eggs released prematurely. Many fly fishers adjust their offerings so that they have a good shot at the salmon and the trout. This approach can make for quite a day! In spring kokanee smolt are released form the Roaring Judy hatchery. As they swim down to the reservoir where they will grow and mature, they bring on a feeding frenzy among large trout. Fishing a smolt pattern may produce the trout of the year. In short, the kokanee run transforms the Gunnison into a river with the character of an Alaskan stream. This is a very good thing.
Gunnison kokanee live their life to maturity in Blue Mesa Reservoir. By late July of their third year of life they reach maturity. They start staging where the Gunnison pours into the lake. From mid August through September and perhaps into October, they work their way upstream through the Gunnison and East rivers. They then follow a feeder stream into two ponds on the Roaring Judy Hatchery. There they wait until they are ready to spawn (about mid-October). At that time gates are opened and they enter a raceway. Here they are collected and manually spawned by hatchery personnel. Like sockeye salmon, this is an once-in-a-lifetime trip for the kokanee who die shortly after spawning.
Approximately 6000 females are spawned each fall. Each is mated with a single male. This one-for-one mating helps insure the genetic diversity of the population. The vagaries of life in the lake, plus the risks and energy of the twenty-mile trip upriver, weed out the weak…keeping the population strong.
Not all the returning kokanee are spawned. Terry Robinson, the hatchery’s manager, estimates that over 30,000 start the trip up out of Blue Mesa, but some fall prey to predators. Bald eagles, in particular, have learned of this easy source of protein. One year 55 eagles were counted following the run. Others die of various causes along the way upstream. Some make a wrong turn and enter the Taylor River instead of the East. Still others miss the feeder stream and continue up the East River. These salmon may reproduce naturally in the East River, but their offspring do not add significantly to the kokanee population.
The fertilized eggs are hatched and reared in the hatchery and by the next April the smolt have grown to about 2 inches. They are now ready to be released back into the East River. One evening in April when the moon is in its dark phase and water flows are right, all the smolt are released at once. Most of the 2.7 million smolt that are released make it to the reservoir overnight. Terry coordinates the release with local farmers so that irrigation ditch gates are closed, preventing smolt from entering irrigation ditches and dying. The reason for releasing all the smolt at once is to reduce predation from the trout. However, not all successfully complete the trip downstream. Some gather in eddies or get otherwise sidetracted, becoming prey for trout. Therein lays another interesting part of the story.
For many, their only experience with fishing for kokanee is seeing spin fishers jerking weighted treble hooks through the water in an effort to snag spawning fish. The argument is that this is the only way to harvest the kokanee who, after all, are going to die soon, usually without successfully spawning. In many western waters there is a special season where snagging kokanee is legal. On the Gunnison things are different. First, as we have seen, the kokanee do successfully spawn at the end of their run upstream. Second, and most important to us, kokanee…like their bigger cousins the sockeye…will bite a fly. Kokanee do not actively feed on their spawning run. However, a properly presented fly will induce an aggressive reaction. This means that the flies that are successful have little to do with the kokanee’s natural food. While fly fishing is legal, snagging is illegal and all fishing is catch-and-release in order to protect these fish and insure a successful spawn.
Why, your might ask, should fly fishers pay particular attention to kokanee they cannot keep and eat? The answer is simple. They are one of the toughest fighting fish you can catch in fresh water. They are wild, running in all directions with rapid reversals mixed with tough bulldogging. When a kokanee is on a fly fisher’s line, it is like watching an old Keystone Cop movie. People and fish are going everywhere! It is just great fun to participate in and even to watch.
In fly fishing for kokanee three elements, in order of importance, are key to success: location, presentation and flies.
Location is crucial. Kokanee run up through riffles and pause in slow water to rest before continuing upstream. They will not bite while fighting the current in a riffle. The key is to find their resting spots. These are usually the deep pools that are found all along the Gunnison. Kokanee seem to prefer the outside edge of a pool where the bank drops off quickly to deep water and the current is moderate. They will take a properly presented fly while holding in these resting areas. These pools are where most kokanee are caught.
Typically kokanee hug the bottom as they rest in these pools. Since they are not actively feeding, they will not chase a fly. It is necessary to drift a fly right in front of their nose to induce a strike. Rig a nymphing system on a 5- to 7-wt rod with an indicator, a weight and a fly on 3x tippet a foot or so below the weight. Adjust until you get a dead drift with the fly ticking the bottom occasionally. Cast so that the fly is very close to the bottom as it passes through the pod of kokanee. Watch the indicator carefully and set quickly at any sign of irregular movement of the indicator. Kokanee takes are very subtle.
Be careful to set with a short, quick movement. If you set with a long sweeping movement, you will often snag a fish. Snagged fish are very hard to land, often breaking the line and possibly your rod (I know this from personal experience.). Snagging can damage a fish and may lead to death before it has a chance to complete its mission. Even being careful, you will occasionally snag a fish. They are stacked so close together that it is almost inevitable. But with practice a quick, short set will minimize the problem.
Kokanee like red…or hate it if the theory that they are biting out of aggression is true. Rod Cesario of Dragonfly Anglers (www.dragonflyanglers.com) suggests that you dead drift western coachmen, woolly buggers and red San Juan worms to attract kokanee. He also suggests trailing a yarn egg in Oregon Cheese color behind the lead fly. The salmon will take the egg, but there is a bonus here. As in the salmon runs in Alaska, trout follow the kokanee upstream feeding on eggs the females drop along the way. Don’t be surprised to hook into a nice rainbow or brown of 20 inches or more! I get at least one good trout on every trip to the kokanee run.
The Gunnison can be wade fished or floated. Floating can give you access to pools not available to wade fishers. There are many public access spots along the river for wade fishers. Look for deeper runs and pools where the kokanee pod up and rest. My favorite area is the Almont Campground just downstream form the town of Almont. Here deep runs empty into nice pools. Locate the pods of kokanee and you are in business.
Just above there, at the town of Almont, two rivers, the Taylor and the East, join to form the Gunnison. At their confluence is the most marvelous pool on the river. Kokanee stack up here to rest before the turn up the East River. The pool is big and there are several drifts that will produce hookups.
The East River from here up to the outlet stream from the Roaring Judy Hatchery is closed to all fishing from August 1 to October 31 in order to protect the mass of pre-spawn fish that congregate there. However, above the hatchery outlet the East is open to catch-and-release fishing. On the hatchery grounds there are several pools where kokanee who miss the outlet stream congregate. These pools offer some great wade fishing.
To find these pools, enter the hatchery road from the highway. After you cross the river, turn left onto a dirt road. Follow this downstream until you reach a temporary barrier. Park and follow the worn path east through the woods to the stream. Here you will find a marvelous long sweeping pool with three drifts. One is where the water slows just below the riffle entering the pool. The second is in the middle of “the bend” where a slight rise in the bottom provides a little extra current break that attracts the salmon. Further down stream a deeper spot is formed on the far bank near a group of small trees. It is not uncommon to have one or more fly fishers successfully fishing these spots and catching fish after fish while others fishing in-between rarely hook up. The subtle current breaks at these three spots attract the salmon and make them pause for a while. It is then that they are most likely to take your offering.
While you are on the Hatchery grounds, leave your rod, walk past the barrier and down to the two ponds below the raceways. During the kokanee run these ponds are closed to fishing but they are full of kokanee. It is quite a sight. Follow the outlet stream to the East River. It is fascinating to watch the kokanee enter the stream. With careful observation, you will probably see some large rainbows that are following the kokanee into the hatchery.
While the fall spawning run is a great fly fishing opportunity, the kokanee provide another great occasion in the spring. The April release of smolt attracts the big rainbows and browns in the Gunnison. Rod Cesario tells me that fish of 20- to 28 inches are caught each year over the few days after the smolt are released. He suggests concentrating on the deeper parts of the river between Never Sink and the Blue Mesa Reservoir. Slow, deep stripping of a conehead black woolly bugger, a white Zonker or a silver fly can be very productive. This is the best time of year to catch one of the true monster trout that live in the Gunnison.
Timing is everything in kokanee fishing. The fall run usually starts in mid-August and is at its peak in mid-September, but the timing is different each year. It is best to check with Rod at 970-349-1228, or Brian Bell at Almont Anglers 970-641-7404. Brian’s shop is across the road from that great hole I mentioned. Both Rod and Brian will know how the run is progressing and where the concentrations of kokanee can be found. They both offer walk or float trips which would be a great introduction to this fishery. They will definitely be helpful in pinpointing those big trout during the spring smolt release.
Kokanee on a fly will be an experience you will wish to repeat often. It can be a challenge. There are glorious days when whatever you offer works and you are into fish all day. However, kokanee can develop lockjaw! No matter what you throw at them…they don’t bite. On such days I get in the car for the short drive up the Taylor river and target its terrific fall trout fishery. In addition to the Gunnison, there are a number of other reservoirs in Colorado and throughout the west that offer similar runs. Check with local fly shops to find out about these opportunities. While these alternatives can be fun, few offer the near natural spawning run and large kokanee of the Gunnison. The Gunnison’s kokanee run attracts a few who are in the know, but it is generally under-appreciated. Expect some competition for the best spots, but don’t worry, there are plenty of places where you can be successful.