The Ultimate Guide to Kokanee Ice Fishing

It’s funny how some things don’t seem possible until someone shows you that it is.  That was the case for me when a buddy asked me to go ice fishing for kokanee salmon.  Come again?  

Kokanee has long been one of my favorite open water game fish.  Whether it is trolling or jigging, I love the challenge and as a bonus they taste great too.  Yet, here in the Pacific Northwest, most west side kokanee waters don’t freeze up in the winter.  

It never occurred to me that colder climates with lakes or reservoirs suitable for kokanee produce just as well once capped in ice.  Now, I am a believer.  Not long after, I decided to do as much research as possible to find out everything there is to know about ice fishing for kokanee.  

Now, I hope to share my new found knowledge of kokanee salmon ice fishing with my fellow anglers.  This ultimate guide has everything you need to know to successfully chase kokanee through the ice and enjoy this untapped winter fishery.  

Where do kokanee go in the winter

Finding kokanee under the ice is not much different than on open water.  The important thing to keep in mind is how their food source moves once the lake freezes over.

Kokanee salmon rely on microscopic zooplankton for the majority of their diet.  Zooplankton movement is light dependent.  More light drives them deeper into the water column and higher in low light conditions.  

From first ice until just before the melt, kokanee stay in loose schools on the prowl for concentrated pockets of zooplankton.  

Even under the ice water currents exist.  Water movement around points, ridges, bars and reefs tend to gather high numbers of these microscopic invertebrates.  For reservoirs, the end nearest the outflow provides the best foraging spots for kokanee. 

Winter light is less intense and zooplankton are often shallower than during summer months.  Locate areas near key structure in 70 to 120 feet of water.  Most kokanee will be suspended above deep water anywhere from 10 to 80 feet in the water column.  Start shallow during low light hours and work your way deeper.

How to find kokanee under the ice

Once you have selected choice spots, you still need to find exactly where they are to consistently stay on the bite.  Kokanee are seldom stationary.  Cutting a series of holes along contour levels is helpful in staying on top of them as they move.

Everyone has different methods of targeting schools and every lake requires a bit of fine tuning.  Let’s take a look at the basics of finding kokanee.

With a fish finder

Without a doubt, a fish finder is the most efficient way of catching kokanee through the ice.  You will be able to quickly determine their depth and relocate fish in new ice holes as they meander by.

Drop your transducer in the hole and watch for a few minutes to see if fish swim by.  You can start jigging your gear while you wait but once you see a ping on the sonar, drop your gear to the appropriate depth.

In lakes with less depth, keep an eye out for fish hugging the bottom.  When there is only 50 or 60 feet of water, kokanee suspended a foot or two off the bottom and they’re easy to miss on the sonar graph.

Without a fish finder

If you find yourself on the ice without the aid of electronics, don’t despair.  It may take a bit more time and patience but I promise you can still find fish.

Understanding the lake’s topography is critical in getting off to a good start.  Find a prominent point or inside turn along the shore at the proper depth.  Drill several holes spaced 20 to 30 feet apart at slightly different depths.

Trial and error is the name of the game.  A systematic approach to fishing will make better use of your time.  Start jigging about 10 feet below the ice.  A reel counter is great for this but pulling out line in one foot increments and counting is fine.

Jig at 10 feet for a few minutes and then descend 5 more feet.  Keep this up until you get a bite or hit 70 feet of water.  If you make it to 70 feet without a bite, move to the next hole and repeat.  It is all about covering lots of water quickly.

Move when the fish aren’t there

Whether you have a fish finder or not, don’t be afraid to move when nothing is happening.  I see so many people stubbornly sitting at one hole all day to only go home empty handed.  

Schools of these little landlocked sockeye do move around but they often follow predictable patterns.  When you go awhile without a bite and you are not marking any fish on the sonar, you’re in the wrong spot!  Drill more holes until you are in the zone.  I recommend spending no more than 30 minute at a hole if you are not marking fish.

Tackle for winter kokanee

Much of the tackle used to catch kokanee through the ice is the same as in open water.  The setup is not complicated and getting an assortment of tackle does not need to break the bank.  Here’s what you need to start out.

Use an attractor

Kokanee may not be huge but they are inquisitive little bull dogs.  More often than not, a kokanee strikes your bait out of shear irritation rather than hunger.  Remember, they eat microscopic organisms most of the time.

In order to attract them, use a dodger between your main line and lure.  Use 12 to 16 inches of leader from the dodger to the bait. 

Get a handful of 3 to 6 inch dodgers in a variety of colors, including UV and glow in the dark.  There is a fine line between attracting kokanee and scaring them.  Having a few choices to match the water and light conditions should increase your catch rate.

Plenty of companies make good dodgers.  I find Mack’s Lure Sling Blades provide the best action.  UV pink, chartreuse, silver, gold and glow are favorites among experienced kokanee anglers.

When you need a bit more action, put a bend in the dodger until you achieve the desired spinning affect.  Often kokanee will come in from a long ways off if the conditions are right.

The lures of choice

Almost any kokanee style lure will work.  The most common choices are plain hooks or jigs tipped with bait.  Small spoons, flies or small hoochie jigs also work.

Vibrant colors are more important than the particular lure.  When using plain hooks or small jigs, red or chartreuse help to entice bites. 

Sometimes spoons add a little extra flash that drive kokanee wild.  Either way, change things up when you are trying to find the pattern that works best.  What works one day may not work the next.  That’s why I keep a selection of lure options in my tackle box.  

Here are some great lure choices:

  • Mack’s Lure Glo Hooks
  • Kokanee Kings
  • Mack’s HumDinger
  • Mack’s Sonic Bait Fish
  • Needlefish

Don’t forget to recharge glow in the dark lures with a portable light every 15 to 20 minutes.  

The importance of bait and scent

Regardless of what lure or hook you use, always add bait and scent.  The right combination gets kokanee to bite, even on the slowest days.

The most popular baits are pink maggots and dye-cured shoepeg corn in pink, orange or chartreuse.   

My preference is pink shoepeg corn.  I always add extra scent.  Gel scent does two things, it disperses attractive smells far and wide to draw in fish and it covers up my scent on the gear.  

Pro Cure brand offers a wide selection of scents.  Experiment with several to find what works for you.  However, few kokanee can resist striking a lure laced with garlic and anise scent.

The rod, reel and line

The type of rod and reel you choose is not crucial to your success but there are a few things to consider when selecting your setup.

Rod and reel

Any 28 to 32 inch ultralight or medium-light ice rod will work.  Even a short open water rod up to 5 feet gets the job done.

The most important thing is to have a soft tip.  Kokanee are light biters and have soft mouths.  The soft tip helps to detect bites and the flex of a lighter power rod prevents hook sets from tearing through the fish’s mouth.   

Match the rod with a good quality reel.  A fair bit of line capacity is best to reach the depths that kokanee swim.  However, their small size means they aren’t peeling too much drag.

Line

In deep water, sensitivity matters even more.  Any good ice line works but to feel even the lightest bites use a braid or fluorocarbon main line.  4 to 6 pound main line is plenty adequate.  Use monofilament or fluorocarbon in 4 to 6 pound test between the dodger and lure.  12 to 16 inches of leader is a sweet spot.  Adjust the length if necessary.

How to jig through the ice

So, you have your spot picked out and all the gear to start catching kokanee.  Now is the time to go over jigging techniques to suit any situation.

Get their attention

You won’t always be right on top of fish.  To bring them in to investigate your bait, start with a fairly aggressive jigging action.

With a sharp motion, lift your gear 12-24 inches and quickly drop your tip to let the dodger flutter and flash naturally.  Jig in erratic intervals and change up the jigging style until you find what excites them.

With sonar, you can often see how fish are responding to your lure.  If you notice fish take a quick look and leave, tone down your jigging to avoid spooking them.

Know when to slow it down

Not every day brings hot fishing.  On occasion the bite is slow and kokanee get lethargic.  On these days, a slower jigging pattern is in order.  

On the toughest days, still fishing is even possible.  For those situations, scent is doubly important in getting fish to commit to still bait.  

The bites are very subtle and a soft rod tip pays big dividends.  You can even hold the line directly in your hand for more sensitivity.  

Fighting kokanee through the ice

A kokanee’s soft mouth adds a bit of extra challenge once you have one hooked.  You won’t land every fish but with the right habits you can improve your odds.  Learn from my mistakes with these tips.

  • Practice a smooth hook set.  You are not bass fishing here.  Novice kokanee ice anglers think they are too slow and miss the bite. Yet, it was most likely the over zealous hook set that tore out the hook from the fish’s mouth.
  • Keep steady pressure on the fish as you are reeling up.  A light power rod helps immensely to avoid tearing the mouth or letting slack in the line.
  • Start with a light drag.  That way aggressive hook sets are buffered and when you get a larger kokanee on, they can make some powerful runs.
  • Don’t delay.  It’s fun to let a fish fight but kokanee thrash violently when hooked.  More time in the water means a better chance of throwing the hook.

Kokanee are great little fighters but they are very delicate fish.  Even a quick fight is hard on them.  Catch and release is not recommended.  Even the most gently handled fish suffer a high mortality rate.  Plan to keep fish and enjoy the fine table fair.

Summing it up

Ice fishing for kokanee is a great way to spend quality time with friends and family.  If you have a lake in your area that holds kokanee, don’t miss this exciting opportunity.  Kokanee are a popular sport fish in the west so find your spot on the ice and go after them this winter.  

Be safe on the ice and have fun!