Kokanee University
Part 2: Presentation Strategies & Tips
By Gary S. Gordon, Fish With Gary™ Tackle Co.

In the years since Kokanee University was written, many wonderful developments have happened. The tackle designs, for example, are way different now as technology has made available vast improvements in action and color. What has not changed are the concepts set forth in Part 1. I decided to now add a part 2 to discuss some observations on the practical side of kokanee fishing. From time to time I will add more subtopics. For now, I hope you will find these subtopics of interest.


Before I begin this discussion, I want to assure the reader that I receive no compensation for the products I have mentioned. I pass them along to the reader because in my experience they simply are the best.

Using Downriggers

Many years ago I did not pay much attention to some well-reasoned advice. I did not purchase electric downriggers. Big Mistake. I bought the human-powered kind.

With electric downriggers, I was more willing to check my setup to see if the corn or worm was still intact. With manual downriggers, bringing up the downrigger turned into a chore every time, which made me not want to do it. That really hurt the success.

With electric downriggers, I am more willing to bring up my setup and change it to a different color or shape. Doing that most certainly increases success.

Electric downriggers have an auto stop feature, which will allow you to bring your downrigger ball up and out of the way while you are battling your fish. All it takes is a simple flip of a switch. That heavy downrigger ball (8-10#) will stop automatically at the waterline. No losing the fish that tangles in the downrigger wire. More fish in the box !!

For years I struggled with the release clip. Sometimes it seemed that the release was too light and would release the fishing line before the setup arrived at target depth. Sometimes it would arrive at target depth, but would release when I would "load" the rod in the rod holder (take out slack and put some bend in the rod). Sometimes it would not release at all, even if there was a fish on the line. Enter the Chamberlain Downrigger Release. Problem solved. https://www.downriggerrelease.com/index.html

The Chamberlain Release allows you to have a large vertical pressure to load the rod, and a separate horizontal adjustment that is the direct connection to your dodger and lure. The horizontal adjustment is a simple finger-friendly screw that will allow easy adjustment of the outward tension anywhere from 0.1# to 4.5#. The whole thing is incredibly easy to use, especially in rough water and wind.

A few notes about "downrigger hum." If your downrigger uses wire cable (as most do), you may have heard that wire cable "humming." The hum is caused by the tension on the wire cable from the downrigger ball as it moves through the water. That humming can be used to your advantage. First and foremost, that humming does not seem to bother the fish. Second, that humming generally starts at 1.2 MPH. Generally speaking, that 1.2 MPH is a popular trolling speed for kokanee. If you drop below that speed, the lack of humming will alert you.

Always carry a complete set of spare terminal gear, and save the instructions, having read them ahead of time. When bad things happen to the cable and downrigger ball (always the fault of the user), you need to be able to perform repairs while on the water to get you back to fishing. Always carry a spare downrigger ball, and always carry a very sharp wire cutter that will not fray the cable when you cut it. Always carry spare line stops if using electric downriggers. To prevent extreme catastrophes, make sure the downrigger tension is adjusted, so that if your ball catches a snag it will play out until you can stop the boat and deal with the situation.

What about stacking the downrigger (having more than one line on a downrigger)? I assure you that I have never, ever had a tangle to deal with from stacking my downriggers. My secret? I DON'T STACK. Enough said.

No Downriggers? No Problem!!

Using downriggers is by far the most efficient way to target a specific depth. When the release clip releases, it is just you and the fish. Anytime you put lead into the setup, you lose efficiency, and you fight the lead and the fish. And kokanee do have some fairly soft mouths, especially in the early season. But far too many kokanee fishermen blame the kokanee's relatively soft mouth for long distance releases, rather than put the true blame on the equipment they are using.

The very worst offender is lead core. Sure, it is easy to use. But it adds literally a ton of weight between you and the fish, and it has no give (shock absorbing qualities). When the fish strikes your lure, the lead core in most instances will cause that fish to become unbuttoned as the fish pulls on the line. True, some fishermen resort to using treble hooks on the lure to prevent release. Some fishermen use a very long leader and then the lead core, but this is also not very satisfactory. And there are some other issues with using lead core.

Lead core has a limited depth. No matter how much line you have out, it will only go a certain depth. And the more line you have out, the less chance of success due to all of that weight. Putting out your line a hundred yards in a vain effort to achieve depth will wind up with it getting tangled in someone else's line if you have any other boat in the vicinity. Not a good way to make and keep friends, not to mention the down time trying to fix that mess. I have never caught a fish while trying to fix my tackle or untangle a line.

Lead core has a different color for each 30 feet of line. It makes it easy to know how much line you have out, and is often referred to as how many colors you have out. It is generally accepted that it will be a 5-foot drop for each color you have out. At approximately 2.0 MPH, that works pretty well for the first five colors – which would be about 150 feet out. After that, the numbers change, and you're not ever likely to get down to 40 feet no matter how much line you have out. Of course, for the first five colors, the drop depends on the speed at which you are trolling. The faster you troll, the less deep your line can go. That causes a problem when you are trying to target a specific depth. Using a downrigger will pretty much keep your presentation at the same depth no matter how fast you are trolling.

If lead core is all you have, then go fishing anyway.

But you can have a much more efficient setup that is way cheaper than the cost of lead core. While it uses lead, it does so in a way that is more fish friendly, increasing your odds substantially of netting that fish.

The following diagram shows the setup.

sliding swivel no snubber

Simply attach a cannon ball weight to the snap on the sliding swivel. How deep you go with your setup depends on the weight of the cannon ball, the speed at which you are trolling, and how much line you have out. The snap on the sliding swivel makes it easy to change to a lighter or heavier weight. This setup is far superior to an in-line banana weight, which you would have to re-tie the entire setup each time you needed more or less weight. And any direct tied in-line weight will not have the give that using the sliding swivel has.

The following chart will give you a close approximation of your depth, assuming a trolling speed of 1.5 MPH.

Approximate Depth Chart At 1.5 MPH

By using a sliding swivel, the effect of the weight on the line is lessened when the fish strikes the lure and during the fight. As the weight can now slide, it becomes less of a point of leverage for the fish when hooked. This means fewer long-distance releases, and more fish in the box.

If you are not using an ultralight rod, then it is best to add a snubber into the setup, as seen below:

Sliding swivel with snubber

The snubber attaches to the crane swivel with a snap, and a 5-foot leader attaches to the other end of the snubber.

Why An Ultralight Bait Casting Rod?

When ultralight rods first hit the market, I assumed that they were for baby fish. Very wrong again. Having a rod that is so flexible gives you the highest advantage when fighting kokanee as well as trout. When a rod bends it creates pressure on the line. How much effort it takes to bend the rod determines its weight designation (ultralight, light, medium, medium heavy, heavy). Stiff rods generally have the power point near the tip of the rod. When the power point is at the tip, it is called "fast action." These fast action rods are best for very large fish and when casting is important. On the other end of the scale is the "slow action" where the power is distributed throughout the rod, as can be seen in fly rods. The "slow action" rod is ideal for kokanee and trout fishing because it allows for more precise control of the power (pressure) put on the fish during the fight.

Use a bait casting rod. No, you are not using this rod to "cast" for kokanee. This is the proper rod for trolling. A spinning rod and reel will not be a satisfactory combo for trolling due to line twist.

Manufacturers are now making excellent specific kokanee rods, and these rods are fiberglass for strength, durability and flexibility. Some have a combination of fiberglass and graphite, with the most important component being the fiberglass. Look for the most guides as possible on the rod, again to distribute the rod's power. A total of 10 guides on a 7-foot rod is about right. An 8-foot bait casting kokanee may have 12 guides. More guides is "more better"!!

I have fought and landed 10-pound Mackinaw on my ultralight kokanee rod. But I could not have done it without a reel that was matched to the rod.

Why A Good Bait Casting Reel?

We have all most likely at some point owned a reel that was not very smooth on the retrieve. The inconsistent pressure that such a bad reel exerts makes it very challenging to properly fight fish, especially smaller but very aggressive fighters such as the kokanee.

A reel with a very smooth drag is essential. The drag adjustment should allow for very small increases in pressure. The nicest reels have an audible clicker that allows the user to know when the drag is adjusted. An important feature is an integrated line counter to let you know how much line you have out, especially if you are not using a downrigger.

I always use a very light drag, and allow the rod's power to do the work it is designed for. I apply only as much drag as is necessary to properly load the rod into the downrigger rod holder. If the line continues to spool out when loaded, tighten the drag just enough to stop the spooling. Once you hook the fish do not tighten the drag. Put pressure on the fish by using your rod. If the fish is taking line, stop reeling and exert pressure on the fish. When you sense less pressure on the fish, continue reeling, while keeping rod pressure steady.

The ability to take up slack quickly is also very important. The fish will do everything it can to get unhooked, and taking advantage of line slack is usually the fish's best strategy. If you are fishing deep, be careful not to have too much line out, as kokanee in particular tend to rocket toward the surface, putting a bow in the line. The line must be retrieved quickly to exert pressure on the fish so the hook will stay in its mouth. A gear ratio of about 5.8:1 seems about right. Line capacity should be about 165 yards of 8# test monofilament.

What Pound Test?

I prefer a good, consistent quality 8# test monofilament line. I prefer mono because it has some stretch to it. And when it comes to using an ultralight rod and matched reel, such stretch is a "good thing." Many use just 6# test, and that is acceptable as well. Using higher test than 8# is really just not necessary. Kokanee and trout fishing is not bass fishing. We don't use horsepower, we use technique. We let the rod, reel and line work together. I have caught many large fish with the ultralight setup and 8# test. My friend Brian Russell holds the world record for limited class line. He managed to land a kokanee that was 26 inches long, had a girth of 16 inches, and weighed 7.495 pounds. He was using 4# P-Line mono.

Using braided line is popular these days. It is definitely thinner, and will travel deeper in the water column compared to monofilament. It has no stretch, and for kokanee fishing that is a disadvantage. And knots that hold are a bit harder to tie with braided line. Using braided line will mean that you have to put more line on the reel to achieve the desired line retrieve ratio, and that means more dollars for more line that you have to put on -- although using some Dacron backing (as fly fishermen use on their reels) will help.


Amazing things have happened in electronics in the past few years. Not surprisingly, the dollar investment for the latest gadgets has reached new heights. One can have the latest bells and whistles, but none of these will make you a better fisherman unless you use these toys in conjunction with good tackle and good technique.

Color Fish Finder
No doubt the very best piece of electronic equipment is the color fish finder – sonar. Color is better because of the unique biology of the kokanee. Kokanee have an unusually large air sac. Sonar cannot penetrate air. Because of this, kokanee can be seen on the fish finder – usually as bright orange (the default color on many systems). No other fresh water fish have this distinct detectable character. You can easily tell the depth of kokanee by this method.

The fish finder will let you know the current depth. Knowing the depth of the bottom is essential, especially if your lake has varying contours. On more than one occasion, I have raised downrigger balls "just in time" to avoid getting hung up on a bottom that suddenly came up, seemingly out of nowhere. Your fish finder will track your downrigger ball, and you can use this to verify the accuracy of the counter on the downrigger.

One factor to consider is how large a viewing area there is. The larger the viewing area, the higher the cost. Screen resolution is another factor to consider – will your viewer be viewable in sunlight and with polarized sunglasses? Another critical factor is the location of the fish finder in relation to where you are sitting while fishing. You need to be able to see the details on the screen.

GPS serves many useful functions. One of the best is showing accurate boat speed. (The little paddle wheel on the fish finder is unreliable and next to useless.) If you are targeting a speed of 1.4 MPH, you will be able to know when you are doing 1.4 MPH. You will also be able to know when you are NOT doing 1.4 MPH.

GPS will display a track of where you have been, and the memory will store those tracks until you erase it. I have had these tracks for years on the same device, showing both where I have been and obviously also where my favorite and most successful areas have been.

Another fabulous feature is the cartography, which shows the contour depths of the lake you are on. You can either purchase the SD card, or many now come with the cartography pre-installed. My SD card covers all the lakes in the western US. You can get these cards to cover your region as well. Knowing the depth contours is a tremendous help. For example, it will allow you to stay on course within a former river channel. It will show points of land that are underwater and which could be a problem in navigation when the downriggers are out.

Many fish finders also have GPS. Selection becomes one of cost, as well as screen size and screen quality. It is important to have as much information as possible that's easily viewable on the screen. But, if you have the fish finder and the GPS going with depths and speed numbers on the same screen and you have a small screen, then things are going to be overcrowded. Viewing the details will be much harder unless your face is planted right in front of the screen. I have my fish finder and GPS in separate units.

Temperature At Depth
One of the very best recent developments in technology is the ability to accurately measure the temperature of the water at depth. The temperature function on your fish finder only tells you the surface temperature. The simplest device for measuring water temperature at depth is from FishHawk Electronics. This little device is called the FishHawk TD. It is easy to use. Simply attach the device to your fishing line, press START, wait for READY, then lower it into the water. I send it down deep, and then retrieve it. Then press view, and it shows the water temperature in 5-foot increments all the way down the water column as far as you have lowered the probe. This is extremely useful, particularly when looking for that 54 degree temperature depth in kokanee season. The price is about $155.00, which is way cheaper than the hard wired, separate transducer, separate screen setup costing four times as much.

I have also used the device to understand what was going on underwater. During one early September outing on a high mountain lake, I could see on the fish finder a few scattered kokanee at 40 feet, and a whole bunch of kokanee at 60 feet. Try as I could, no kokanee could be enticed from the 60-foot depth. The kokanee at the 40-foot depth were the only ones that would bite. I set out the FishHawk TD to determine if temperature had anything to do with it. Sure enough, it did. The fish at 40 feet enjoyed a temperature of 54 degrees. The fish at 60 feet were at 44 degrees. The deeper fish were starting to settle in for the winter. Since it was September, I could tell these were the two-year-olds (next year's fish). Most of the kokanee I had caught at the 40-foot level were either turned or were turning color. By combining what I learned from the temperature measurements with what I saw on the fish finder, I was able to figure out why I was not getting bit at the deeper depth.

Electric Trolling Motors
The single best advantage of the electric trolling bow mounted motor is the ability to steer the boat by wireless remote control from wherever you are in the boat. I simply strap the small control on my wrist, and that lets me easily control the boat's direction and speed, even when I am fighting a fish or setting the downrigger.

Some electric trolling motors are now equipped with "brains" allowing you to follow a specific depth contour, or remain stationary, even in the wind. They can also take you back and repeat the exact course you came from. I'm not sure I have enough money or mindset to get one of these.

Scouting A New Lake

Once you have enjoyed some success fishing for kokanee, you can have confidence in fishing any lake with a kokanee population. Kokanee are kokanee regardless of whether they are in Oregon, Idaho, Montana, North Carolina, British Columbia, Washington, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming or California. When I know I am going to fish a new lake, the very first thing I do is to find the lake using Google Earth. I need to know the shape of the lake, where the deep water is, where the shallow water is. I need to know what feeder streams come into it and where the outlet(s) are. I need to know the structure of the surrounding terrain, such as if one side coming into the lake is steep and the other side is gentle.

I also check out the lake using my GPS cartography. I can sit in my boat in Central Oregon, and study lakes in any other location simply by moving the cursor on my GPS.

Generally, what I am looking for is where current might be and where feeder streams come into the lake. Those are two locators of what I call "active" water. This is where water mixes with the regular lake water, adding oxygen to the water. Fish need oxygen. This is also where trace nutrients come into the lake from feeder streams. These trace nutrients act like fertilizer to the plankton (phytoplankton) that the zooplankton, kokanee, and other baitfish feed on.

I look for drop-offs, where the lake suddenly gets deeper. Recall as you go deeper down the water column, the water gets colder. It cannot get colder unless it gives up heat that rises to the surface. This process causes mixing - water movement up and down. This process is also good for the plankton and, hence, good for the kokanee.

If I am fishing early in the season, I look for structure, such as points of land coming into the water. I have found that in the early season kokanee relate to structure.

Next, I visit the various fishing forums. I admit that, a great many times, I do get frustrated with these forums. There are a great many folk who post just to post, and do not give away any useful information. Some post to simply whine. Please don't get me wrong, there are some really excellent, accurate posts, but you generally have to wade through many posts to get to them. Human nature is such that we tend to protect our "hot spots" from other fisherman invaders. However, if you are diligent and discerning, reading the posts will ultimately give you a valuable source of specific information about your target lake. One of the major sharing points that is shared generously is the wind factor. Pretty much all posts about the winds are accurate. Knowing the local wind patterns is really important, especially if the lake has afternoon winds that will blow you off the water.

The whole idea is to learn as much reliable information about the new lake as you can from the available sources. Be assured, what has worked for you on your local lake will also work on the new lake.

The Science Of "Scent"

All fish have nares, which are scent detecting tubes on the snoot of the fish. A fish's ability to detect scent is flat out amazing, often measured in the parts per million. And salmonids are probably near the best in scent detection. For thousands of years, fishermen have used bait on hooks to persuade fish to bite.

Some awesome kokanee fisherman or fisherwoman discovered a long time ago that kokanee will bite a lure baited with white shoepeg corn. And that discovery has been passed down many years to the present time. What has not been passed down is why white shoepeg corn works so well.

It turns out that white shoepeg corn has an amino acid that is actually a bite stimulant for kokanee, something that apparently yellow corn does not have. White shoepeg corn also manages to stay on the hook fairly well at kokanee trolling speeds. My own research has revealed another interesting characteristic of white shoepeg corn: it stays white all the way down the water column without any fade. As such, it presents a clearly defined target for the fish to attack. (For doubters, take a kernel of white shoepeg corn into a dark closet and shine a black light on it).

Over the years it has become popular to add additional scent to the corn by brining it first. Such scents have included anise, garlic, vanilla, and a host of others. Savvy kokanee fishermen would have more than one type of scented corn to entice the kokanee; in case the first one didn't seem to work, they would have a backup. I know that making up different scent combinations is part of the wonderful pre-fishing ritual. Some even dye the corn different colors. More ritual.

In the past I endorsed using two kernels of corn on each of the tandem hooks in the lure. I have changed my philosophy a bit over the years. I found out that putting corn only on the leading hook helped prevent that dreaded "short" bite. A "short" bite is where the fish targets the trailing hook, hits it and does not get hooked. The same concept is where the fish will take a bite out of a worm that extends beyond the hook. Either way, the fish wins, and you get that wonderful frustration feeling.

Placing the corn on the leading hook takes advantage of a fish's biology. Since a fish cannot see directly in front of its snoot a distance of about two inches, placing the target scent corn on the leading hook will make the trailing hook invisible to the fish. The result is a higher percentage of hook-ups, and deeper penetration of the hooks.

I have also studied the hydrodynamics of putting two kernels of corn on the leading and trailing hooks. At kokanee trolling speeds, using two kernels on each hook significantly dampens the action of the lure.

This poses an issue. I want maximum action on my lure, and I also want to maximize the scent on my lure. Can I have both action and scent without compromising the action of the lure? And I also want to prevent the "short" bite.

The best solution finally emerges as being obvious all along. Pro-Cure has been making scents for years, and mostly we have used them in making our white shoepeg corn brines. And they worked. But now Pro-Cure has created their scents with an available very sticky gel. In my opinion these scents are more powerful bite stimulants than anything that corn can produce by itself. I now use only a single kernel of undyed, and otherwise unscented, white corn on the leading hook only, and place some Pro-Cure gel on the beads of my beaded spinners. This gives maximum scent to my lure without interfering with its action. If I am using a squid or a hoochie, I place some of the gel inside the squid or hoochie body, again using but a single piece of white shoepeg corn on the leading hook. I believe my success rate has increased using this setup.

At the end of the day, do your best to rinse off the gel on your lures. Using generous amounts of hot water will help. I have now substituted my pre-fishing "brine the corn ritual" for a post-fishing "clean the lures ritual."

I have found the gel scents of anise, kokanee special, garlic and especially bloody tuna to be excellent.

Part 3: Interview With A Well-Schooled Kokanee

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