The kokanee is a sockeye salmon that spends its entire life cycle in freshwater. They are good fighters, great eating and – in the best lakes and reservoirs – incredibly plentiful. Sometimes they also are very big here: In 2010, Wallowa Lake produced the world record kokanee.
Kokanee fishing can be fickle one day, fabulous the next. Be prepared to try different angling methods.
In Oregon as elsewhere, “kokes” thrive where they have cold water and plentiful zooplankton – the tiny critters that make up the bulk of landlocked sockeye diets.
Many of the lakes top kokanee lakes are clustered near the middle of the state, so that region is covered separately in Best Kokanee Fishing in Central Oregon. But that leaves plenty of other hot spots in the Beaver State. By angling zones, here are some of the best:
Wallowa Lake may not always wow you with numbers – and in some years you definitely will have your work cut out to reach the 10-kokanee limit. (Only five of those may be over 12 inches.)
But these kokanee can rival their ocean-going kin for size. That’s because Wallowa contains a nonnative freshwater shrimp that become a buffet line for craftier adult fish. In fact, numerous state records have been caught here, leading up to Ron Campbell’s 9-pound, 10-ounce world record in June 2010.
“Most people troll for them,” said Gina Barstad, owner of Wallowa Lake Marina. She said pulling flashers ahead of a Mack’s Lure Wedding Ring or Worden’s Spin-N-Glo lures is popular here. Jigging also catches big kokanee.
Wallowa also has a very popular rainbow trout fishery, and a few anglers go after lake trout that reach trophy size.
Also in the Northeast Zone: Olive Lake has plenty of smallish kokanee and good numbers of rainbow and brook trout.
- Lake of the Woods – Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Roger Smith would give this big lake between Medford and Klamath Falls the nod among kokanee lakes in his district, but only because it sports decent numbers of pan-sized kokes. The lake also has rainbows and some big brown trout, as well as yellow perch, brown bullheads and largemouth bass.
- Fourmile Lake – Its self-sustaining population of kokanee traditionally ran thick but small at about 10 inches, tops. But now that lake trout have been stocked in Fourmile, the growing Mackinaws are cutting into the kokanee numbers. At least the remaining kokes are running larger. There also are brook and rainbow trout in this deep, high-mountain lake just uphill from Lake of the Woods.
- Miller Lake – A fantastic fishery for big browns, along with good fishing for stocked rainbows, off Highway 97 near Chemult, but its abundant kokanee often are overlooked and under-fished. Perhaps that’s because they also happen to be quite small.
- Heart Lake – If you’re heading east, this lake between Klamath Falls and Lakeview has kokanee that generally run on the small side, but there also are some occasional nice rainbow trout.
Willamette River Zone
If you’re tired of hearing about salmon as an endangered species, go to Green Peter, where everyone wants you to take home the 25-kokanee limit … and then come back and do it again tomorrow (as long as you don’t waste these tasty fish). Some years the kokanee are pan-sized but so numerous a little thinning might help; other years they are commonly caught at good sizes, often 14 and 15-inchers like many landed in 2010.
Greg Graham, former president of Kokanee Power of Oregon, a nonprofit that supports trout and salmon lake fisheries, likes to troll Shasta Tackle Company’s Cripplures and Humdingers, as well as hootchie-type lures. Buddies who prefer jig fishing like the Gibbs Minnow, he added.
The reservoir, southeast of Albany, also is planted with rainbow trout and has some largemouth bass.
Also in the Willamette River Zone:
- Detroit Lake – Hugely popular for rainbow trout fishing and power-boating, this big reservoir east of Salem also sports kokanee and landlocked chinook salmon.
- Timothy Lake – a high-mountain beauty southeast of Portland, kokanee anglers here can attempt to fill a 25-kokanee bag limit when the bite is on. This is a nice spot for rainbows, brookies and crayfish, too.