While California’s ocean salmon stocks were down in the dumps the past few years, it was an entirely different story inland. Thanks to the efforts of the DFG and organizations like Project Kokanee and Kokanee Power, landlocked salmon are thriving in more Golden State waters than ever before. Of course, they’ll never be able to outgrow or taste better than their ocean-going cousins, but these pint-sized inland salmon provide anglers with plenty of good action throughout the year.
While there are similarities between the three, each species has its own attractive qualities – and unique fishing techniques attributed to it. Let’s take a closer look at California’s Inland Salmon Slam and get to know landlocked kings, kokanee and coho a little better.
Kokes are the undisputed favorite freshwater salmon in California’s waters and the hype has reached a fever pitch in recent seasons. Just take a look at the number of $50,000 aluminum boats trolling popular kokanee reservoirs on any given summer Saturday and you’ll see what I mean. Koke junkies are serious about their sport!
What’s all the excitement about? It’s an interesting question considering kokes are the smallest of the inland salmon trio. In many of the state’s lakes, a 17 incher is considered large and a 20-inch fish will make grown men as giddy as teenage girls at a Justin Timberlake show (the California record is only 4 pounds and change). On scaled-down tackle, kokanee are nice little scrappers that can burn off a surprisingly good amount of 4-pound line and often go airborne when hooked. Like their ocean-going cousins, the sockeye (or “red”) salmon, kokes are also noted for their extremely tasty flesh. I think the real root of their popularity is that there are lots of kokes in a bunch of different lakes and they can be relatively easy to catch.
Trolling with downriggers is the most productive way to get down to these deepwater dwellers without having to use tuna gear. Kokanee are plankton feeders, so you’re not trying to “match the hatch” with your lure selection. The idea is to present them with something flashy and interesting and there are countless makes and models of spinners, spoons, bugs, hootchies and dodgers from which to choose. And when we start talking about corn, things get even more complicated. It used to be that all kokanee anglers tipped their lure with a single kernel of white corn but now you can buy corn that’s been dyed every color of the rainbow and is scented with everything from Alaskan krill to carp spit. Luckily, kokanee really aren’t as confusing and tough to catch as the tackle manufacturers would have you believe. The guy in a 12-foot Sears Gamefisher can still go out there with his smoky 2-stroke and catch fish on an old school set of Ford Fender flashers and Wedding Ring tipped with plain white corn.
Kokanee lakes seem to go through cycles and the ones that received top billing a few years back may not be as hot this summer – and vise-versa. Waters to watch in the upcoming season include New Melones Reservoir, Stampede Reservoir, Lake Berryessa and Whiskeytown Lake, where anglers should have a shot at some of the state’s largest fish. Places like Bullards Bar Reservoir, Shaver Lake and Union Valley Reservoir (to name a few) typically boot out rock solid action for smaller fish.
Fishing in most lakes starts in May for kokes and then builds through the summer. By August, the fish are typically at their largest and are traveling around in tightly-packed schools. As fall begins, they’ll start to turn color in preparation for spawning. Some natural reproduction occurs in tributaries to Lake Tahoe, Boca Reservoir, Stampede Lake, Buck’s Lake and a few others, but in the majority of lakes, the kokes simply color up and eventually die. As their color turns, so does their flesh and they become less valuable as table fare.
Unlike kokanee, the landlocked king or Chinook salmon that are planted in California’s lakes are not a subspecies of the full-sized saltwater models. They’re actually the surplus offspring from salmon that swam up out of the ocean and into hatcheries. Once the hatcheries meet their goals for raising fish to be released back into the rivers, some of the extra fish get dumped into reservoirs. With no access to the sea, the fish become landlocked and the lake is their “ocean.” They’ll roam the lake’s open water areas and grow for 3 to 4 years before dying. In that time, it’s possible for the kings to reach double-digit weights, though most top out around 5 or 6 pounds.
Make no mistake, to reach those impressive sizes inland kings don’t settle for a diet of microorganisms. They are straight up meat eaters and chow primarily on high protein critters like threadfin shad and pond smelt. Most anglers troll for them with baitfish imitations – long thin spoons like Needlefish in waters where the slender smelt are the food of choice and deeper bodied spoons and plugs where shad are present. Another effective method is “rolling” shad, which involves trolling fresh or frozen shad rigged with a bait harness so that it will spin when dragged through the water. Drifting live minnows and hopping tube jigs over structure can also take lake kings from time to time.
Lake Shasta is probably the state’s most prolific producer of big king salmon and the best place for a legit shot at a 10 plus pounder. Lake Almanor and Lake Berryessa are also good producers and anglers should also keep an eye on places like Pine Flat Reservoir, Folsom Lake, Don Pedro Reservoir and Del Valle Reservoir. The king fishing heats up in the spring and then slows down during the heat of the summer. As the lakes turnover in the fall, the bite picks back up.
If you’re looking to complete the California inland salmon trifecta, Lake Oroville is your only shot at coho (silver) salmon. In fact, it’s the only water in the state – fresh or salt – where you can keep coho.
Back in the 1970’s, the lake was originally planted with coho but the Department of Water Resources couldn’t find a reliable source of eggs and the program was discontinued. Kings became the salmon of choice in the 80’s and 90’s but their ability to transmit a virus called IHN resulted in a moratorium on stocking in 2001. After going through a lengthy list of coldwater species, biologists finally determined that coho salmon were resistant to the virus and began searching for an out-of-state source. In 2005, eggs and fry were obtained from a Washington State hatchery and thus Oroville’s contemporary coho era began.
The fish planted in the lake are of the Domsea strain and typically live 2 years. They are voracious, fast-growing fish that can get as big as 6 pounds in a year. Most of the fish die after their second year in the lake but approximately 10 percent of them keep growing. Since the planting in 2005, silvers to 11 pounds have been taken and the average fish has been running a solid 18 inches.
Japanese pond smelt are the main forage for Oroville’s coho and most of the fish are taken by trollers working the dam and Bidwell Bridge areas with white grubs, hootchies and Speedy Shiners. There is also a group of anglers who do well mooching anchovy chunks along the buoy line near the dam. Fishing is best here in the spring and fall months.
To learn more about California’s inland salmon populations and what varieties are stocked in your favorite waters, check out www.kokanee.org.