Don Allphin

Schools of kokanee salmon make their way up the Strawberry River to their spawning grounds in mid-October.

A reader asks, “Why can’t I keep kokanee salmon in the fall? It seems fall is the only time I can consistently catch them and it doesn’t seem right.”

In order to answer this sincere and quite frustrating (on the part of the reader) question, let’s take a look at the obvious short answer and then jump into a more in-depth discussion of these fascinating fish.

In Utah, it is illegal to keep kokanee salmon between Sept. 10-Nov. 30. This is to protect the fish as they spawn. And, unlike other species that spawn over a month or two at the most, kokanee salmon can spawn from between late August to well beyond Thanksgiving.

Now, if you have not taken the opportunity to watch kokanee salmon as they return to the place in which they were hatched or stocked, you will notice there might be literally hundreds of fish in a single school and there might be scores of separate schools in the staging areas just outside of a river or stream up which they will eventually swim to spawn and eventually die.

As kokanee salmon prepare for the spawn (after spending most of their three- to seven-year lives in deep lakes and reservoirs) they begin to change. Rather than maintaining their sleek, silver bodies with a hint of blue in their upper backs, the males begin to turn a light pink and develop a noticeable hump on their backs. The females change too, but their changes (although similar) aren’t nearly as striking as the males’.

Several year classes of kokanees stay together in large schools over the years. So, you might encounter fish from two to five years of age running together. Only the year classes that are ready to spawn will show the changes described above.

As the spawn approaches, changes in the fish become much more pronounced. Pink colors deepen to bright red and the males develop a hooked jaw with their teeth exposed. Just as important, the flesh (of both males and females) becomes softer and the quality of their meat quickly deteriorates.

Ryan Mosely, biologist for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR), points out that natural recruitment, or successful spawns, with kokanee salmon are very important since a significant portion of populations are artificially stocked. Any natural spawns help by providing more fish for anglers to catch in future years.

If kokanees weren’t protected during the spawn, anglers would be all over them, partly because they stick out like sore thumbs. They are bright red, frequently break the surface, and are easily caught thanks to many large schools hanging around their staging areas.

Rather than focusing on the fish you (by law) can’t keep, why not focus on fishing for other species that also follow the kokanee spawn with great interest. For about 10 years now, I have caught some of the largest and most aggressive rainbows and brown trout of the year in the same general areas in which kokanees stage before the spawn.

Why?

All fish species love to eat eggs, and rainbows, browns, cutthroats and lake trout wait patiently for kokanee salmon eggs to wash down a river or stream, or settle onto the nests or redds they make on gravely points or flats. Because most of the kokanees caught in reservoirs are artificially stocked, they spawn in a lot of different environments, not only in rivers or streams.

A couple of weeks ago, some of the best pup lake trout fishing I have ever experienced took place along a nondescript gravel bank that apparently attracted large schools of spawning kokanee salmon along with schools of rainbows and eager lake trout.

I hope this explains why you can’t keep kokanees in the fall. Target other species and if by chance you catch a kokanee, immediately release it so it can continue its final run to the reproduction finish line, which will ensure there will be more kokanees to catch the other nine months of the year.

Don Allphin can be reached at don@donallphin.com.