January Kokanee

by Jason Brooks, December 30, 2016
Kokanee are a hard fighting, finicky, and tasty landlocked salmon highly sought after by anglers. Throw in the mix of a lake that is fifty-five miles long, up to 1,400 feet deep and dead of winter in January and most anglers agree kokanee would be great but head for other lakes and other fish waiting until the kokanee can be patterned easier. “Most anglers” doesn’t include Jeff Witkowski, guide for Darrell and Dad’s Family Guide Service (509-687-0709) on Lake Chelan, as he started searching for kokanee a few years ago when the clients slowed down a bit with the cold winter weather. Last January he called me up and offered to take us fishing and show my son Ryan, and my dad, Al Brooks (a retired guide with Darrell and Dad’s) what he has found over the past few years.

Witkowski started off by explaining his theory on the tasty fish; “I knew they were here, as they had to be, they live in the lake.” Most of the fish head up-lake in early fall to spawn in the many small streams that feed into the large lake. Much like an ocean, Lake Chelan is a huge body of water with its own ecosystems. Jeff used his electronics and began searching for the schools of fish.

While he was telling us about his research one of the rod’s loaded up on a downrigger and set to 100 feet began to bounce around.

Grabbing the rod and reeling the slack as it came free from the release he handed the rod to Ryan with only one instruction, to keep the line tight. This meant a steady pull and reel as these fish fight hard for its size. Soon the ten-inch silver sided salmon flopped in the rubber knotless net. Jeff was quick to get the hooks out and put the fish back in the lake, adding, “It’s only a one-year-old fish, still small, we want the next age class.” Jeff has learned a lot about these fish and really tries to protect them as much as catch them. Limits are common, even in January when nobody else is targeting kokanee but it is not about just catching fish, it’s about harvesting the age class that is a year older and assuring next summer you catch bigger kokanee.

Jeff runs Mack’s Lure’s Double D dodgers in the four-inch size. Colors vary from silver to silver and hot pink tape along with a few variations. Trailing the dodger is a Double Whammy with a smile blade in chartreuse or pink, or a mini cha cha squidder in hot pink both tipped with scented shoepeg corn. Plain corn works well but the most-deadly combination I have found is Pro-Cure’s Anise/Bloody Tuna. Toughen up the corn a bit by sprinkling some Pro-Cure’s Wizards Kokanee Killer Korn Magic powder before adding any scent, let it sit in the fridge for a few days and then a day or two before fishing add the bait oils so they can soak into the corn. You can run a rubber snubber two feet in front of your dodger with a light leader from the snubber to the dodger, such as 8 pound XXX by Izorline. This allows the dodger to obtain full action which is then imparted onto the Double Whammy or squider but the snubber helps keep the fish on the line. Jeff also helps with research and development for Mack’s Lure so if you book a trip with him you will learn some tricks and tips he has come up with.

Electronics are probably the most important tool for fishing Lake Chelan. Winter Kokanee are found in deep depths, usually around 100 feet or deeper. A good sonar unit will show you the schools of fish and even your downrigger ball and gear. This is important as the days are dark with cloud cover and indirect sunlight. The fish are cold blooded and though the lake temperature doesn’t vary much due to its size and depth the barometric pressure is a bit different than in summer and the fish can be finicky to bite. This means if you see fish at 110 feet and your gear is at 100 feet you might not get bit, same with if your gear is at 115 feet. You need to be right on the fish.

Trolling speeds are slow, around one mile per hour, within a half mile of an hour or so. And much like trolling during spring and summer, wintertime still means doing a zig-zag or figure eight pattern. Don’t just troll along the shoreline, which can be several hundred feet deep, or in a straight line. Kokanee are feeding-just like any other salmon-and you need to stay on the fish. If you troll in a straight line and get bit but don’t change course you will soon troll right past the school of fish and the bite is “off” when actually your just no longer in the fish.

One last tactic you should do is troll shore to shore, concentrating in the middle of the lake, not along the shoreline. These small fish are also prey to the Mackinaw and they don’t go near the bottom or structure where the larger predator fish prefer to hide and attack. Don’t be surprised if you catch a Chinook or a few of the cutthroat in the lake. Mixed bag limits are common and add some variety to the day of fishing. On our day with him we only caught Kokanee, but we caught several fish in the fourteen-inch range that were fat and perfect for a meal or the smoker.

Lastly, this is Lake Chelan, one of the only fjords in the lower 48 states. It cuts deep into the Cascade mountains and winds kick up along with blinding snow storms. I grew up on this lake and it is common to have winter storms hit and you cannot see the shoreline. This means low visibility, high winds, waves and freezing temperatures. Never fish in a small, open boat, and make sure you have a compass on board. Head east and you will come to homes and docks, head west and you’re into a vast wilderness with no cell service. It is a good idea to hire Jeff for a day and learn his tricks and tips, along with where you can find the schools of fish. Most are found near the Yacht club or near Greens Landing and Antilon Creek (no creek actually drains here but it is a cut where the creek used to be before the creation of Antilon Lake). The nearest boat launch is either at Lake Chelan State Park which is often frozen and inaccessible this time of year, or at Mill Bay, again the ramps are covered in ice. A four-wheel drive and even chains are sometimes needed to get your boat out of the water.

Don’t sit idly by waiting for spring to get here to chase one of the most prized fish in the northwest. Hook up the boat and head to Lake Chelan for some winter kokanee. This is a great family trip and destination as the town of Chelan holds a “WinterFest” for two weekends in January with most of the activities after the sun going down such as the Polar Bear Plunge and bonfire at the city park, and fireworks along with ice sculptures in downtown.

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