I received a very interesting call the other day from Abril Tolo, a buddy of mine who works for Game and Fish. He asked if I could help him out with a research project he’s been overseeing for the past several years. Tolo (or “Island” as we call him, which morphed from when we used to call him “A-Tol” but I digress) said all I needed to do was tow my boat down to Lake Clementine where we were going to do a little “hook & line” sampling. He said to bring some light-action steelhead rods and he’d have everything else.
It sounded cool to me and I was particularly intrigued by the fact that he made a specific point to have me bring steelhead rods. I didn’t have the foggiest notion what we’d need them for at Clementine, considering the largest fish I’d ever caught there was a 2-pound smallie. So, it was with great eagerness that I met him at Raley’s in Train Village last Tuesday. As we slowly crept down the winding road to the launch, he gave me the full scoop.
“I’ve been working on a program in which we’ve been trying to develop a larger strain of kokanee salmon for distribution in California waters,” my pal said. “Kokanee have been very well-received by the angling public and are less-expensive for the Department to produce than rainbow trout. They are excellent table fare and quite skilled fighters when hooked on rod and reel. In short, kokanee are a great fish with only one real downside – they’re just too small.”
So with that, he went on to tell me the history of his project. Initially, he obtained eggs from waters known to hold trophy kokanee and tried releasing them into several California reservoirs. Fry from Oregon’s Lake Paulina went into Bowman Lake several years back and the results were lackluster at best. He also tried dumping kokes from Flaming Gorge Reservoir into Bullards Bar but nobody caught anything larger than about 15 inches when those fish matured in the summer of 2002. The same went for the fish he released into Boca Lake, which had originated from the home of kokanee, British Columbia’s Lake Kootenai.
His next step was to try raising sockeye salmon eggs (kokanee are a land-locked subspecies of ocean-going sockeye) and releasing the young fish into places like Lake Del Valle in Livermore and Whiskeytown Reservoir near Redding. A couple fish to 22 inches came out of Whiskeytown two summers ago, but not enough to continue the project. And the fish didn’t take to Del Valle at all.
“The program was in danger of losing its funding,” Island said, “but then we made a breakthrough. Instead of experimenting with different varieties of kokanee, we just took run-of-the mill kokanee fry collected as eggs from Lake Tahoe’s Taylor Creek and started altering what we fed them.”
The short version of what happened next goes like this: Tolo and his cronies messed with all sorts of kokanee chow. Some of it was fairly standard stuff — high protein pellets and such — but they also tried thinking out of the box a bit and fed the fish everything from minced herring chunks to goose liver. They were not making much progress until they found, quite by accident, the one thing that made the fish grow like crazy was ground-up hotdogs. Through further experimentation, they determined that a particular brand, Hebrew National, produced the best results. On a hotdog diet, the young kokanee grew to nearly 14 inches in their first year (normally, 1-year old kokanee are only 6 inches or smaller ). By holding the fish in the hatchery for two seasons, the results were stunning. Tolo told me of a handful of fish that he raised that measured out at 70 centimeters (about 27½ inches!) and the majority of them were a solid 60 to 65 centimeters (23 to 26 inches).
Those fish were released into Clementine in 2004. Game and Fish kept it quiet because they wanted to give the salmon a chance to grow to maturity. Had the public been clued in, there would have been an all-out angling blitz and the 2,000 kokanee from that initial plant probably would have gotten fished out before they got a chance to reach their full potential. Since this season marks the fourth and final year of the super kokes’ life span, Tolo wanted to go and see how the fish had fared before turning the kokanee-crazed public loose on them.
And that brings us to why we found ourselves on lonely Lake Clementine last week. With the water pouring over the dam at an impressive clip, we putted up the lake about a quarter mile to steer well clear of the falls just in case we had motor trouble. The lower end of the lake was still a bit too murky for our tastes, so we jetted upstream a bit more. The water clarity improved in the shadow of Robber’s Roost and that’s where I flipped on the graph. Within short order, I saw some good marks 30 to 50 feet down and we decided we’d better get some lines in the water.
I rigged up my rod with standard kokanee fare – a watermelon Sep’s dodger trailed by a blue/pink Uncle Larry’s spinner tipped with white corn. Seeing those fish on the screen, I got excited and rushed to get my line clipped into the downrigger and dropped into the zone. I was so engaged in my own actions that I failed at first to notice that my companion was filleting a hot dog with my crusty bait knife.
“Makes sense, doesn’t it?” said Island with a Cheshire grin as he meticulously cut the dog into thin 3-inch strips.
No, not really, was all I could think, but I went with it. “Let me guess – Hebrew National, right?”
With that, my friend, who I was suddenly starting to think was maybe a little loco (and this is the guy we trust as the steward of our resources?), threaded a hotdog strip, “nightcrawler style” up his leader and left the hook hanging free at the end of the bait. He attached the leader to a set of Ford Fender flashers and then snapped his line into the release clip and sent the whole enchilada…er…dog down to the depths.
I’ll never forget what happened next. My eyes saw it but my brain just couldn’t logically register it. We had only trolled about 10 minutes when Tolo’s rod got slammed hard. The fish easily popped the line from the clip (rare with kokanee) and then his reel started screaming wildly. A very large silver fish cart wheeled out of the water and then bull-rushed the boat, causing Tolo to reel frantically while blurting out a colorful mix of expletives in Portuguese, his native tongue. On yet the next jump, the fish relieved itself of the offending Hebrew National….which was followed by another rapid-fire round of “select” words in Portuguese.
After taking a few deep breaths, he said quietly, “That ain’t your daddy’s kokanee, there bro.”
I nodded solemnly, not even sure I could believe that the beast had been a koke.
On the next pass, Island hooked up again and the fish stayed on just long enough to wrap up both our lines, a downrigger ball and the kicker prop. We never saw it and I still wasn’t completely clear about what kind of fish we were dealing with. Island assured me they were kokes – and he proved it a few minutes later, when the hotdog line got bit again. After a royal battle, I scooped up the largest stinkin kokanee I’d ever laid eyes on. I had to blink twice at what I saw next – the thing pulled the needle on my scale down to an unbelievable 5.32 pounds.
“Dude, that’s a new state record,” I said, partially stunned.
“Not for long,” he said with a wink and dropped his gear back down.
In a few minutes, he had another grab which he missed and yet another 15 minutes later. That was all I could take, so I reeled up and put some “mystery meat” on my rod and got my first fish of the day, a robust 3.9 pounder as I was dropping my downrigger down.
By the time the wind came blasting down the canyon and forced us reluctantly off the water, we’d hooked 11 super kokes, landing 5. The majority were all in the 4.5- to 6.75-pound class but Tolo finished the day off with an amazing 8.11 pounder!
“That’s more like what I was hoping to see,” Tolo said as we weighed the leviathan. All I could was think about how much my head was spinning. An 8-pound koke…are you kidding me?
On the way home, I thought about keeping Lake Clementine’s record-setting kokanee a secret, but that’s not how he wanted it. Island wants the public to enjoy these fish, so that’s why I’m telling you about them now. In return, just promise you’ll always let me have a parking spot down at the ramp, okay?
So, break out your steelhead rods and hotdog strips and head down to Clementine. Oh yea, one more thing before you go…you may also want to check the calendar. If you need another hint, the loose Portuguese translation of my fictional friend’s name, Abril Tolo, is April Fools.
Did I get ya?