Kokanee Trolling Setup: Everything you need to know

Kokanee fishing has certainly gained popularity in recent years and for good reason.  Pound for pound, they are some of the hardest fighting fish in freshwater.  It doesn’t hurt that they are down right delicious too!  

By far, the most successful method of catching kokanee is trolling.  When I first learned to fish for kokanee, getting my trolling technique just right was the hardest part.

Let’s go over all the tips and techniques I have learned throughout the years.  

The life of a kokanee

A biology lesson on the life of a kokanee may seem like a waste of time.  However, the more you know about your quarry, the better you can catch it.

Kokanee are simply landlocked sockeye salmon.  They generally live 3 to 7 years and die after spawning.  With a short life span, most kokanee average 15 to 18 inches in length but can occasionally get much larger.  The current world record is a 9-pound, 10-ounce beauty caught in Wallowa Lake, Oregon in 2010.  

Their food source is primarily zooplankton that they filter through gill rakers.  Minor components of their diet consist of tiny plants, insect and freshwater shrimp.   

Kokanee are schooling fish and typically follow the zooplankton as they migrate in the water column.  Zooplankton move to deeper water during daylight hours and move shallow at dusk and dawn.  For this reason, you may need to adjust your trolling depth as the day progresses. 

You might have noticed that most kokanee tackle looks nothing like their tiny microscopic prey.  Vibrant colored lures with flashy dodgers are often used to catch kokanee.  It is widely believed that aggression and curiosity drive them to strike passing tackle, not hunger. 

Kokanee are also extremely sensitive to changes in water temperature; 53 degree temperatures are ideal.  Exposure to temps above 60 degrees cause significant stress to the fish.  Catch and release fishing is not recommended for this reason.

Kokanee trolling tackle and equipment

Like other types of fishing, buying some specialized equipment is going to bump up your odds of success.  But don’t worry,  it’s not too expensive and you may already have some of the gear in your tackle box.

Keep in mind that lure and bait choices for kokanee fishing is more about attracting and aggravating the fish until they strike and less about mimicking a food source. 

The key to success is finding the balance between making a fish irritated enough to strike and scaring it away.  In time, you will develop your own favorite rigs and color choices.   

Dodgers and flashers

Dodgers and flashers are both designed to attract and draw fish in to investigate.  Once you have their attention, they hopefully strike the lure that is close behind.  

What most people don’t know is that dodgers and flashers work in different ways to achieve a desired affect on the lure that follows. 

Dodgers have a side to side, erratic movement that imparts an enticing action to the lure.  Flashers, on the other hand, are in-line spinners that don’t change the action of the trailing lure.  

I find that dodgers are far more successful than flashers at bringing fish into my gear.  That’s not to say flashers don’t have their place.  I like to switch to a small flasher when the water is ultra clear and the fish are finicky or dispersed.  If you use a flasher, make sure to follow it with a lure that has good action.

Use a 4 or 5 inch dodger for most water conditions.  A dodger that is too big mimics predatory fish, like rainbow trout, that feed on kokanee.  Cloudy water is the exception to this rule.  A large dodger helps fish find the lure more easily in murky water.

Purchase dodgers that can be “tuned” (bent), which allows you to customize the action that it gives to the lure.  Side to side movement not only adds flash, it adds vibrations as well.  

Recommended dodgers and flashers

Color is less critical than action when it comes to selecting a dodger.  I generally like to have a dodger selection that covers a wide range of brightness.  That way when the water is super clear, I can dial the flash down a bit to avoid spooking the fish.  

I also like to throw in a few chartreuse, pink or orange colored dodgers to choose from.

Lures

Dodgers draw the fish in but the lure makes them commit.  Like I said earlier, kokanee are the attack dogs of the lake.  The goal is to get them riled up enough to catch a limit. 

Two basic types of lures exist.  Those with no action and those with their own action.  

Action lures have their own erratic or side-to-side movement.  Non-action lures move straight through the water.  How you tie up your trolling rig depends on the lure you choose.

As a rule of thumb, run action lures behind a dodger on a leader that is 3 to 5 times longer than the length of the dodger.  That way the dodger movement does not hinder the action of the lure.

Non-action lures are generally run 2 to 2.5 times the length of the dodger so that the dodger imparts some movement to it.  

If you are using a flasher, use an action lure on a 16 to 30 inch leader.  I like to run a shorter leader if the water clarity is low during the early season in spring.

The growing popularity of kokanee fishing has led to a flood of new lure innovations.  A few have become favorites among seasoned anglers.  

Don’t be afraid to have a variety of kokanee lures on hand.  What works one day may not work the next, or even one hour to the next.  Switch up colors and actions until you find the lure that consistently gets bit.

Recommended lures

A whole spectrum of lure colors exist for kokanee.  Hot pink, chartreuse and fluorescent red are popular.  UV and Glow colors are also showing promise as kokanee slammers.  

I had my doubts about glow in the dark lures until I started doing some testing of my own.  The deep water that kokanee prefer mid-day is a prime opportunity for glowing lures.  Take a look at my glow in the dark lure article to find out for yourself.

Bait and scent

Even though aggression is the reason kokanee strike your lure, it doesn’t mean bait and scent won’t help.  Sometimes it is the icing on the cake.  Adding scent is also a great way to cover up the human smells that often contaminate our gear.

By far the most popular bait is dyed-cured shoepeg corn.  Pink corn with garlic and anise is favored by many anglers, including myself.  Pre-made, scented and colored shoepeg corn is available anywhere kokanee tackle is sold.

Worms and pink maggots (live or synthetic) are good baits too.  

Whatever your bait choice, only use a small amount to avoid affecting the action of the lure.  If adding bait is ruining the lure’s action, just add liquid garlic or anise scent.  Garlic and anise are known irritants for kokanee and using it definitely improves catch rates.  

Rods and reels

Almost all rod makers have a rod that is perfect for kokanee trolling.  The ideal rod when using a downrigger has a medium-light to light action in the 7’ 6” or 8’ length range. 

Here are a few rods to consider:

  • Velocity Elite Blue Glass Rod
  • Okuma SST Kokanee Rod
  • Eagle Claw Featherlight Kokanee Trolling Rod
  • Lamiglas CGR762L Tournament Kokanee Special Rod
  • G-Loomis E6X Kokanee Trolling Series

If I could pick only one, it is the Okuma Kokanee Black trolling rod.  I expect a kokanee rod to have the durability to troll on a downrigger season after season, and also have the sensitivity to feel the lightest taps from smaller kokanee.  Okuma rods do just that and they deliver a well rounded trolling rod for angler’s on a budget.  At only $89 at BassPro Shops, every kokanee diehard needs one.

Once you have a rod selected, match it up with a good level-wind reel with 4-8 pound test line. I matched up my Okuma Kokanee Black with the Okuma Coldwater 153 line counter reel

A spinning rod and reel works fine for trolling as well.  However, if you plan to do a lot of trolling this season, I recommend a level-wind setup.  Spinning combos suffer from more line twist when trolling.  If this is a problem for you, my recent post on avoiding line twist when trolling will help you.

Downriggers, weights and divers

Getting your lure in front of the kokanee is crucial.  To do that, you need to have some way of getting your lure down to their depth.  

Downriggers are by far the easiest and most accurate way to do it.  An 8 pound ball is sufficient weight.  Even a 6 pound ball will work since trolling for kokanee is done at slower speeds.  

For those without downriggers, including kayak anglers,  several other options are available for getting your gear deep.  Banana weights, snap weights and divers are all excellent, and effective, methods.  

I highly recommend checking out my in-depth guide on how to troll deep water without downriggers for more on the subject.

Electronics

The most valuable piece of gear you can get for kokanee fishing is a good fish finder.  Definitely pick one that has GPS and base maps that show lake topography.  

Trolling speed is critical with kokanee and GPS-enabled fish finders are ideal for tracking your speed.  The topographic feature is also handy to help you target contours where fish hang out.

Locating kokanee when trolling

Finding kokanee in a big lake is harder than it sounds and a good fish finder is worth its weight in gold.  There are also seasonal factors that determine where you will find fish too.

Kokanee are schooling fish that follow their zooplankton food source around the lake and along the water column.  If you want to consistently catch kokanee, you will need to have some knowledge of the seasonal lake patterns and the underwater contours.

Some lakes and reservoirs get “blown” out in the spring by snow and rain.  Most locals know that this disperses the food, and therefore, the fish.  Early spring is a challenging time to catch kokanee for this reason.  

When the melt water subsides, zooplankton will congregate around wind blown points, stream inlets/outlets and underwater structures.  

With a little pre-planning, you can pick several locations to scout out with a fish finder before you begin trolling.  Large schools of kokanee will be easy to spot.  Downriggers are great for targeting the correct depth where you are marking fish.

Trolling tactics

Kokanee prefer slower trolling speeds than trout or walleye.  1.2 mph is the ultimate sweet spot and speeds ranging from 0.8 mph to 1.7 mph entice kokanee to strike in most situations.

Kokanee may be aggressive but they sure can be picky about your tackle presentation.  Sometimes it is easy to simply troll in a straight line at the same speed, but if you want more action, try changing up the routine. 

There are loads of underwater videos on Youtube that prove kokanee will follow your tackle through the water for long distances and never strike.  Eventually, they may strike at the slightest change in direction or speed.

When you are marking schools of kokanee without any hits, add some chaos to your trolling tactics.  

Start by making abrupt speed changes that entice sudden attacks from fish.  You can also make “S” curves or “figure eights” as you troll, which adds variation to the speed, depth and direction of your lure.  

Sometimes I like to lower or raise the depth of my tackle by a few feet while trolling through a school.  The rapid depth change seems to irritate the fish and trigger a strike.

Last, but not least, if nothing else seems to work, try different dodger and lure combinations until something strikes. 

Whether you are just getting started or are an experienced pro, hopefully there are some useful tips in this article that you can apply on your next outing.