The rivers throughout North America are full of a variety of different fish species, but few are as popular as steelhead trout and salmon. These two fish are prevalent across much of the northwestern United States and Canada and are exceptionally fun to catch on a rod and reel.
If you’re one of the many anglers who isn’t able to tell the difference between steelhead trout and salmon, we’ve compiled this article to serve as a guide for doing so.
Both the steelhead trout and salmon are actually two very different species of fish that happen to share quite a few similarities in their appearance and habitat. They are both salmonid species and can exist in saltwater or freshwater, depending on their specific circumstances and habitat.
Steelhead trout are actually rainbow trout that basically have different lifestyles. While these fish are capable of living their lives in either types of water, steelhead are simply a rainbow trout that lives part of its life in the ocean and will swim up into freshwater rivers during their migration inland during the spawn.
Salmon are very much the same in this regard and they are known to spend most of the year in saltwater environments around the coast before making their way into the inland freshwater rivers and streams to lay their eggs for the spawn.
In most cases, salmon are usually bigger than steelhead trout, but both of these fish species are capable of growing to be big enough to put up a serious fight against any angler with a rod and reel.
The steelhead trout is a very distinct species that makes it one of the most sought-after fish in North America. They are what’s known as anadromous fish since they spend a majority of their time in saltwater before venturing many miles inland through freshwater rivers to spawn.
They are known by a few different nicknames including steelhead, rainbows, bows and steelies, depending on what region you’re in.
The fact that they live part of their lives in saltwater and move into freshwater for the spawn causes steelhead trout to develop differently than the common rainbow trout. Those that live in both saltwater and freshwater tend to grow much bigger than rainbow trout that live their entire lives in freshwater lakes or rivers and streams.
Most biologists agree that steelhead trout that live part of their lives in the ocean grow larger because they have a more diverse diet and are able to feed more heavily than rainbow trout that are relegated to freshwater streams or rivers. These fish live two or three years in freshwater followed by two to three years in saltwater environments.
Steelhead trout are known to hatch in rivers that have very fast-flowing waters that provide oxygen-rich habitat, as well as gravel-bottom throughout most of its length. Some of these fish will remain in freshwater throughout their entire lives while others will eventually make their way out into the ocean.
Their habitats are often disrupted by human activity on the rivers where these fish are known to spawn and there are many populations of rainbow trout that are land-locked due to their access to the ocean being blocked by dams or other structures.
There are large numbers of steelhead trout throughout the Pacific coast of North America, but the rainbow trout are one of the most prevalent fish in America’s rivers and streams.
There are plentiful numbers of steelhead trout ranging across much of the western Canadian coast and around Alaska, as well as around the eastern Asian coastline.
The salmon is an integral part of many wild ecosystems across much of Alaska and Canada, as well as the Pacific Northwest. Everything from bears to populations of Native Americans have relied on salmon as a major food source for thousands of years.
These fish are found in cold, clear waters many miles inland, but—like the steelhead trout—they will also live a portion of their lives in saltwater environments.
There are actually five different unique species of salmon that can be found throughout the Pacific Northwest. However, each of these fish have minor differences in characteristics and behavior in comparison to one another.
All salmon are hatched from eggs that are laid in gravel-bottom rivers deep inland across the western coast of Canada and the United States.
Many scientists and biologists have been amazed at the salmon’s ability to travel many hundreds or even thousands of miles away from the freshwater streams and rivers where they are born, only to once again return when they reach full maturity and are ready to spawn.
This miraculous ability to return to their origin is not understood by even the most accomplished biologists, but the annual salmon run is one of the most exciting times for anglers, as well as animals that rely on salmon for their diet.
They are known for the distinct change that their bodies go through during this migration from saltwater into freshwater as the salmon will turn color and their body becomes a deep, crimson-red color after they spawn.
Many of them will die after they have laid their eggs, which in turn becomes food for a majority of animals, birds and insects that live along these rivers.
Disruptions in the migration and spawn of salmon can have devastating effects for the entire ecosystems around these waterways and their survival is pivotal to many other creatures in North America.
The steelhead trout and salmon are both fish that can grow to impressive sizes. Steelhead trout are known to grow to around 24 inches in length and will usually weigh up to about 25 pounds in optimal conditions and with the right diet.
However, they can grow to much larger sizes and it’s not uncommon for trophy anglers to catch steelhead trout that weigh in excess of 30 pounds in some areas.
The IGFA world record steelhead trout is said to be a massive 36-pound monster that was actually caught by an angler who had been trolling saltwater for salmon in British Columbia.
Salmon tend to grow larger than steelhead and are often the prime target of avid anglers who make the trip northward in the late winter and early spring to catch these massive migratory fish. They will usually grow to be around 30 inches in length at full maturity and adult salmon might weigh anywhere from 25 to 30 pounds.
The largest salmon ever caught was taken on Alaska’s Kenai River in 1985. The giant chinook salmon tipped the scales at more than 97 pounds. It’s common for anglers to catch 50-plus pound chinook salmon and the largest specimen ever discovered was a behemoth that weighed 135 pounds.
There are notable differences between steelheads and salmon that are very evident to anyone who would compare the two species side-by-side. Here are the most common methods of identifying each one.
The steelhead trout certainly earns its namesake as the fish’s body appears to have a very silvery, or ‘steel’ coloration. They will often retain the pink color on their sides and bellies until they grow to full maturity.
These fish can usually be spotted with relative ease from the banks of the rivers where they live and most accomplished anglers can readily tell a steelhead trout from a salmon.
The color of most salmon will range from silver to very dark, olive-green color. Salmon are sometimes known to have a steel-looking color that is very similar to that of the steelhead trout, but their skin is often darker than the steelhead.
Most salmon will have more girth and mass than steelhead trout, which will be more slender and narrow. It’s no secret that salmon are capable of growing to much larger sizes than steelhead trout, so if you happen to catch a fish that weighs in excess of 25 pounds, you’ve likely caught a salmon. A steelhead will always have a more long, skinny profile than a salmon.
One of the most reliable ways you can tell a steelhead trout and salmon apart is to look into the fish’s mouth. A steelhead trout will always have a mouth that’s very white in color while a salmon’s mouth will be much darker with white or black gums.
Salmon are also more likely to have a hooked upper and lower jaw, or kype compared to steelhead trout. The steelhead trout’s nose shape is much more round while the salmon’s head and nose is more pointed.
Both of these species are very popular among anglers and it’s easy to understand why. Their meat offers very tasty flavor and each fish has a reputation for putting up a formidable fight against a rod and reel.
Although not the perfect setup Kokanee Fishing Without Downriggers is still possible and you have a number of available options from which to choose from.
Ideally you would be using a downrigger as it really gives you the best control and accuracy as to what depth your rig is running at.
However if none are available to you then all is not lost.
For the most part getting you lures down deeper will rely on either some form of weight or using a diver.
Both options imply that you are trolling but you can also jig for kokanee with great success if you can find them schooling on your depth finder.
Just bear in mind that modern kokanee rods are usually ultralight trolling rods due to kok’s having soft mouths so they may not be up to the task of very heavy weights.
This will be the simplest option for a lot of people to try. Adding weight to terminal tackle is not new and you can use a very simple rig to get started.
Inline weights are the most common solution and you can use several smaller ones on your line to minimize any potential drag from one larger on.
Adding weight is a popular option when fishing for kokanee without downriggers, although it does have some drawbacks.
One of the major drawbacks of this approach is that the weight will always be on your line as there is no way to release it once you have hooked a kokanee.
Kokanee are notoriously light biters and with a lot of weight on your line you may not feel or release that they are hooked.
Another issue is that it is not a very accurate way to get your lure down to an exact depth.
If you have done a lot of trolling then chances are you have either used or seen some kind of diver a some point.
They are pretty simple and work on the principle of dragging your line lower in the water as the boat moves forwards through it.
The dipsy diver is the most common in use when trolling for kokanee without a downrigger and they are generally quite easy to setup.
A dipsy diver is basically a small plate that has your main line from the reel tied on the top and your leader tied on the back.
As you troll along forwards the diving disc dives down to a certain depth. Once a fish strikes your lure the release mechanism on the top snaps forward and the plate runs through the water without creating any downwards drag.
The also come with what os called an ‘O’ ring. An ‘O’ ring allows you to run a dipsy out at an angle from the boat on the port or starboard side.
You can run 4 divers out at varying angles without them snagging on each other assuming you are not turning in very tight circles.
Lead core line had gained huge popularity just after it was released onto the market and then fell out of favor.
Modern lead core is now seeing somewhat of a revival among some fresh water trolling fans. Lead core line has a different color sheath at regular intervals on the outside.
You can judge how much line you have out by what color you are on. Knowing what length of line you have out will allow you to judge the approximate depth of your lure.
You will need to use a monofilament leader of roughly 4 to 6 feet in length. Mono has some stretch in it and Kokanee have a soft mouth so it is crucial that there is some stretch somewhere in your setup.
There are a few drawbacks though and these will tend to put a lot of people off ever using it:
The slower you troll the deeper any lure(assuming it is not a floating crankbait) will go.
The main problem with slowing your trolling speed down too much is that you ca end up with little life or action in the lure that you are trolling.
However, trolling in a ‘S’ pattern can solve this somewhat as the lure will still have to move through the water.
The trick it is that the constant changing of directions mean you are not moving forward as fast as you normally would in a straight line.
This means your line and gear will sink down a bit more but the lure is still moving through the water giving it a bit more life.
The best kokanee lures will usually be trolled at a slow speed but of you cannot get your boat setup for trolling then there is an other option.
Another alternative is to not troll at all and to instead jig with something like a BuzzBomb or a Revenge Spoon.
At certain times in the season Kok’s are know to school heavily. The trick to finding them is to use your fish finder to locate a school in an area that is known for having kokanee present.
Once overhead you can drop a jig straight down to them and just start jigging.
You will need to switch out your regular kokanee tackle though and use a dedicated jigging rod.
It is growing in popularity as most boats these days will have a fish finder on board.
Whilst most anglers will tell you that trolling is the go to method for catching kokanee more and more are turning to jigging for kokanee and seeing great results especially in the early season.
Kokanee are natural schooling fish and when on the troll you will of course get a hook up if you troll over a large group of them.
But why only sweep past them dragging lures?
Targeting kokanee with jigging lures allows you to repeated get you lures right into the school, this often results in you hitting your limited in just a couple of hours.
Jigging for kokanee involves dropping your jig down into a school of kok’s. Using the rod tip, jig your lure with a small rhythmic action. The slower you can get the jig to fall the better.
Too fast a jigging action and you’ll just end up foul hooking them.
More often than not you will get a bite as the jigging spoon falls. Kok’s are notoriously soft biters and you need to pay close attention to your line and rod tip to try and identify when a kokanee has hit your jig.
This is why you need a jigging rod with a fast action. Better sensitivity and more feedback down through the rod blank and into the handle.
Your regular kokanee trolling rod will be a little too stiff even though they are pretty light when compared to regular trolling rods.
Trolling can be hit and miss, jigging is a lot more laser targeted.
Of course it does require the use of a fish finder to really home in on them in terms of location but also exact depth.
Once you know the depth you can then tweak your kokanee salmon jigging setup to use the correct weight of jigs.
I tend to always use braided fishing line as the main line on a setup like this paired with a fluorocarbon or monofilament leader.
Braid has very little stretch and that is what you want especially if you are jigging at very deep depths.
A leader is crucial as braid is far too visible and kokanee salmon spook very easily.
The choice between fluoro or mono is not that important as the leader will be six feet or less. Six feet of mono will not have that much stretch in it so it’s nothing to worry about.
Buzz Bombs can be considered the all time best Kokanee Jigging Lures. The are an absolute stable in any jiggers tackle box and are responsible for thousands of Kok’s caught on a jig lure.
The have a straight through design so you can switch out the trebles for single hooks of you wish but I tend to prefer the treble hooks.
There is also a bumber included to help protect your knot from the inside of the lure.
Next to the Buzz Bomb above the Laser Minnow from P-line is almost as popular as a kokanee lure when jigging.
They have a very life like appearance stamped onto the exterior of the jig and come in a pretty decent range of very bright colors.
They generally come equipped with treble hooks so it’s just a matter of tying on to your leader and drop away.
A pretty similar design to the Laser Minnow above the Crippled Herring come as a single hook only jig. They do have a split ring on them to make swapping out for trebles a bit easier.
A bit limited on the range of colors but the are a very solid performer.
The Gibb’s Minnow jigging lure is a little bit more slender than the flutter spoons listed above so they can ted to fall a little bit quicker for the equivalent weight.
This is really good if you are fishing quite deep. They have a simple patterned effect on the outside.
If you are fishing in very deep waters then you need a spoon that has a good bit of weight built into it already.
Bomber slabs sink really quickly due to there weight and larger beefier blade body.
The Kokanator is like the Laser Minnow above on steroids. They are extremely bright and in darker waters the can practically out fish almost any other lure.
What kind of rod makes for the best kokanee jigging rod ?
The best kokanee jigging rods is a casting rod with a light power rating and a fast action.
The action should always be fast the power on the other hand is where a lot of anglers will disagree.
If you are doing some shallow water jigging with lighter jigs in the 1/4 ounce range the a light or even an ultralight rod power would be best.
However if you are dropping down to 50 feet or more using much heaver jigs in the 3/4 to 1 ounce range then you will need a rod with a lot more backbone like a light or medium/light casting rod.
At the deeper depths a casting setup using a baitcaster reel is much less work than using a spinning outfit.
Spinning rod and reels are fine in shallow water but letting lots of line down vertically is a pain.
A casting rod and reel is also much easier on the arm over the course of a long day.
Flick the button, thumb the spool down to your desired depth and then turn the handle to lock the spool, no messing around with bail arms.
For deeper work you can reuse your trolling reels especially if they have a line counter on them, but these types of jigging setups for kokanee are reserved for deeper work using large jigs.
The best kokanee rods are able to stand up to season after season of hard trolling combined with a soft enough action so as to not tear a kokanee’s fragile mouth.
If you have ever done much trolling for salmon or large lake trout then you can be sure that the gear is suited to these large predatory fish.
Kokanee on the other hand need a somewhat softer touch when it comes to rod choices
Kokanee have pretty soft mouths…
This presents a slight problem if you intend on using the kind of traditional trolling gear that is seen in the great lakes or for offshore salmon trolling.
Heavier gear does not provide enough shock absorption right when the kokanee strike.
Modern kokanee anglers have cast aside the larger more powerful trolling rods in favor of light to ultralight ones.
Light weight trout rods don’t really cut it when used as trolling rods, the solution?
Specialized ultralight trolling rod.
These rods are specifically designed with kokanee trolling in mind.
The brands to look out for are Okuma, Lamiglas, Tica and G-Loomis.
The Okuma SST Kokanee is probably the best kokanee rod for the money.
If you are just getting started out at kokanee fishing and do not want to go for a higher end rod like a G-Loomis or St Croix then the Okuma is a solid choice.
They are not just for beginners though many fisherman buy them as a first rod and then end up buying more to fit out their boats with.
Pair one of these with an Okuma Magda Pro level wind reel, some 8 lb monofilament fishing line and you have yourself a great value kokanee combo for very little money down.
Okuma have really carved out a niche for themselves in recent years when it comes to freshwater trolling gear and for many anglers they are the go to brand of choice for kokanee fishing poles
They are available in both a casting/trolling version and a spinning version also.
So if you are looking to do some bank fishing in smaller tributaries for kokanee an SST paired with a small 2500 sized spinning reel is a good option.
The range comes in different length from 6 foot up to 8 foot. A longer rod is favored for kokanee as it acts as an additional shock absorber.
The sweet spot is either a 7′ foot or 7’6″ rod with a light power rating.
The rod blanks are made from graphite and are perfect for long lining. However, graphite does not hold up as well as a glass fiber rod particularly if you are always using them with downriggers.
If you want a really good downrigger rod then the Tica and Lamiglas rods below are a more robust choice.
The Tica Kokanee Glas series is a classic fiberglass trolling rod that has the right kind of slow action you need for kokanee trolling.
It is available in 7’6″ or 8 feet rod lengths and in light or ultralight power ratings.
These rods have a whopping 12 line guides spaced evenly along the blank. More line guides means a better distribution of force through the rod blank which helps it’s slow action absorb even more of the strike impact.
You’ll want to go for the 8 foot model for trolling as it really has the better, softer action for use with a downrigger.
These are a step up in quality from the Okuma but they also give a very different feel.
There was a time when if you were going to be using a downrigger exclusively then always opting for the glass fiber rod was the only option. Modern graphite rods have almost bridged the gap in terms of durability but not quite in terms of feel.
A fiberglass rod cannot compete when it comes to casting and this rod is no exception, strictly for trolling!
The E6X series of rods from G.Loomis are a high end rod series at a mid-range price point.
If you’ve ever used one of G Loomis’s steelhead/salmon rods you’ll understand just how perfectly light and balanced the rod blanks are combined with superior rod action and great casting performance.
The Kokanee trolling rods are no different. Most rods that G Loomis build can run to twice the price of the E6X series and to be honest the majority of anglers would struggle to tell the difference.
If you happen to troll with a downrigger in waters that contain lots of smaller kokanee or trout then the E6X has all of the tip sensitivity required to detect even the lightest of bites.
You are getting near fiber glass softness with the added sensitivity of graphite. These are also fairly decent casting rods but it is on a troll that they truly shine.
Built with the highest quality reel seat, line guides and inserts and a premium cork handle.
The Lamiglas Kokanee Jared Johnson series strikes a great balance between casting and trolling rods giving that little extra bit of versatility.
Although they are made from fiberglass they still cast quite well. Not as good as a high end graphite rod but still pretty good.
It is on a down-rigger however where they really start to shine. These are an 8 foot 2 piece design. They will run best with 4 to 8 pound monofilament on a small sized baitcaster or conventional trolling reel.
Don’t let the name put you off although they are branded as a casting rod they fit the bill for kokanee fishing just right.
The rating is a light as opposed to ultralight but they are more than soft enough for kokanee trolling.
The Celilio is strong enough to handle continuous use on a down-rigger or long line troll with lead core lines and yet has the softness and sensitivity required for soft mouth kokanee.
They are actually very similar in the specifications to to the Okuma SST rod listed above.
As discussed above kokanee rods have a light to ultralight power with a fast action, they are usually between 7 and 8 foot in length.
Let’s take a little look at some of those specifications as if you are new to buying rods then you may not understand some of the terminology.
When choosing kokanee fishing poles understanding what the following specifications mean will allow you to understand just why they need a different type of rod blank than say a salmon trolling rod.
All rods will come with some form of power rating, below you’ll see the most commonly listed fishing rod power ratings, from the lightest to the most powerful:
As their name suggest the “power” rating will tell you how powerful the rod blank is. The heavier rods will have more power whereas an ultralight rod will be the least powerful.
For the soft mouthed kokanee we really need to be using ultralight or light powered rods. These rods are designed to take lighter lines.
Although trolling rods would generally not have an ultralight power rating, for kokanee they are they exception to the rule.
Rod action and power are often confused with one and other. Whereas rod power is how much power you can expect to exert back against the fish, rod action is a measure of how much of the rod bends and where that bend begins.
For example a fast action rod will bend most at the upper end of the rod towards the tip. A slow action rod will start to bend much lower down through the rod blank towards the reel seat.
A fast action rod is good for casting light lures and setting the hook really quickly. It is also good for jigging as it gives you a lot of sensitivity in the rod tip which gives you a much better picture of what is going on with your jig.
A slower action rod however, will set the hook much slower as a lot of the force that you put into the rod when you strike will be absorbed by the full length of the rod blank.
For kokanee a slow action rod is better as it means a lighter hook set which is easier on the their mouth.
The majority of rods are constructed from either graphite or fiberglass. You will see some more modern rods begin to incorporate carbon fiber blends into the blanks but they are usually on very expensive specialist rods.
Some rods will in fact contain a blend of both graphite and fiberglass. A lot of anglers prefer the feel of a fiberglass rod for certain fishing techniques.
However fiberglass is heavier and one way to combine the feel of fiberglass with the lighter weight of graphite is to blend them.
Traditionally trolling rods would always be fiberglass especially if you are using a down-rigger.
These days however graphite construction has become a lot stronger so you just as likely to see either used as kokanee trolling rods.
There are two types of line guides those with inserts and those without. A high quality insert will create a lot less friction on your line than a cheaper one.
Most trolling rods will come with inserts for their line guides. It’s usually very high end flyfishing rods that have line guides built without an insert and they tend to use very expensive and lightweight metals to help keep the weight lower.
The reel seat is an often over looked piece on a rod. All of the big brands will use high quality reel seats. Fuji are probably the best known manufacturer or reel seats.
As long as you are pairing the reel with your rod you really should not have much of an issue with the seat.
The choice between foam or cork handles will largely come down to personal preference.
However a cheap cork one will end up splitting and breaking off so always make sure it is made from high quality cork.
To recap the best fishing rods for kokanee will have the following specifications:
The best kokanee lures are also some of the most odd looking things you’ll ever see in a freshwater fisherman’s tackle box.
Glow Tubes, hoochies and blades are somewhat unique to kokanee fishing.
Kokanee salmon are prone to hitting lures that lake trout, steelhead and sockeye wouldn’t dare. The reason for this is that they are in fact plankton feeders.
Their main natural food source is a mix of mainly zooplankton, small sub-aquatic insects ad fresh water shrimp.
They have even evolved specialist combs on the back of the gills called “gill rakers” that they use to filter out the tiny plankton from the water.
Most kokanne lures will in fact not imitate their normal food sources instead they wil force them into a strike, essentially taking advantage of their naturally aggressive behavior.
The newer version of an all time classic the Kokanee Killer contains an EChip electronic attractor that sends out a small electronic pulse which kokanee seem to find irresistible.
They have added 3D eyes for an extra life like appearance and are available in a range of about 14 different colors.
They can be rigged two ways one of which is for ultra-slow trolling. Dual tandem red hooks ensure a higher hook up rate than a standard single.
The Mack’s Double Whammy features a small spinning smile blade at the front with half the body split between contrasting beads that are separated by a gold wedding ring.
They come with two extremely sharp tandem single hooks. There is added action through the lure due to a flexible leader that runs full length from hook to tie on point.
A classic combination of soft hoochie tail and spinner head, the Luhr Jensen Hydro Vibe Hoochie is particularly suited to slow trolling.
The blade on this kokanee lure has a vented blade which as water passes through the small section of the blade creates even more vibration over a standard blade.
This is the single hooked variation of the Kokanee Killer. A more basic spinner with long beaded body. Each half of the body is separated by the classic wedding ring that Mack’s Lures have become famous for.
A combination of hoochie skirt and smile spinner. These have a tandem hook formation of single hooks that are arranged in opposing directions which is said to improve hook ups.
Kokanee lures are all about attraction whether that’s an added wobble to your lure or a extra bit of flash using a dodger or flasher.
When fishing with hoochies for example they absolutely need to be used with a dodger. Without the use of a dodger the hoochie will be all but lifeless as it move through the water.
That added bit of movement is what attracts the kokanee in from a distance but it is also what forces them to strike once they are in closer range.
Although some of the more modern hoochies have started to incorporate action into the lure.
Spinners and spoons of course are all action
You will generally be trolling in one of two different configurations, although a lot of fishermen will actually use both:
When running both downriggers and longlines then you can run the speed somewhere in the middle.
The preferred setup for trolling is an ultralight rod and a baitcast or conventional/trolling reel.
The best kokanee rods will have an ultralight power rating with a moderate action.
These are not your regular kind of trolling rods that you are used to seeing. Kokanee have unusually soft mouths and because of this fishermen made a change to ultralight tackle in an effort to reduce the amount of lost fish because of hooks tearing through the Kokanee’s soft jaw.
Reel wise you will need to look for a small trolling or baitcast reel that can take a decent amount of line.
Line counters are very popular especially if you are long lining.
If you are using a heavy trolling reel you need to be very careful to make sure that the drag is not set too high.
A heavy drag rating will result in lost fish.
The Kokanee tackle setups of days past were once big heavy gang trolls on beefy trolling rods.
Things have changed and these days modern kokanee anglers are switching out the heavier gear for much lighter trolling gear.
Although at first you may think that your regular salmon fishing gear may be just fine for as kokanee tackle the problem is that their mouths are just too soft.
Those softer mouths mean you need a much lighter trolling setup for kokanee. The big heavier rods and line weights have been replaced with near ultralight versions that have a fast action.
As we mentioned above the preferred options these days are light powered kokanee fishing rods that can stand up to the extra strain that trolling with a downrigger can place on the rod blanks.
A faster action rod will start to bend much higher up towards the top, this gives you better sensitivity and will allow for a big bend right when the kokanne strike.
With a medium/slow action rod the bend will start much lower down in the rod blank towards the reel seat.
The faster action on these trolling rod will also help to act as an extra level of shock absorption for the soft mouths of the kokanee salmon.
You have the choice of spinning rods or casting/tolling rods for kokanee but personally I will always choose a tolling/casting setup over spinning gear.
Kokanee rod specifications:
Undoubtedly if you are running a trolling setup then you’ll want either a traditional level wind reel or you can use a baitcaster.
Personally I’ve always run level-wind reels when trolling and nearly always ones with a built in line counter.
The best kokanee reels will need to have a lighter drag setting than most traditional trolling reels.
Generally when trolling for you’ll need a trolling/baitcasting reel as discussed above spinning gear is rarely used.
During early season kokanee fishing I like to run the lures way back so as not to scatter the fish as the boat moves over them.
A longer line like this really does require the use of a line counter.
My two all time favorite trolling reels for kokanee are the Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5500 LC and the Okuma Magda Pro line counter.
Both reels have drags that are light enough for kokanee.
When it comes to smaller capacity level wind reels Abu Garcia are the reels to get. For larger capacity trolling reels with much higher drag settings brands like Penn and Shimano have a host of offerings.
But this kokanee fishing and we needs much lighter smoother drags. These reels are very compact and will not feel like they are affecting the balance of your lighter kokanee style rod.
If you are on a budget then the Okuma Magda Pro is a great little reel at a very affordable price.
It can hold 290 yards of 12 lb monofilament so perfect for kokanee long lining.
You’ll often see an entire boat full of these reels on the great lakes and a lot of guides I know swear by them.
Given the nature of their softer mouths monofilament is the best fishing line for kokanee.
Monofilament has a natural inbuilt elasticity to it, which means it will stretch a little when put under load.
That extra little stretch is another layer of shock absorption for their soft mouths.
Braided fishing line on the other hand has very little if any stretch and that is why it should not be used for kokanee.
Don’t get me wrong braid has lots of applications where it is superior to mono just not in the case of kokanee.
The only time you should use braid is when you are jigging for kokanee. When jigging you are looking for a lot more feedback through the line and the stretch in mono will ted to dull how it feels.
Fish finders are almost a necessity these days.
Given that they are a schooling fish having the ability to locate a large group of them on your lake is clearly a massive advantage.
You can mark and record where you find them when using a sonar with gps. A high quality fish finder allows you to build a history of where and when they school in a lake.
Over several years if you log this information correctly you can build up a pattern of their behavior and may be able to predict where they are for certain times of the year and weather situations.
There are not that many kokanee boats that don’t run a downrigger. It is an almost essential piece of kokanee tackle.
What does a downrigger give you that a lead weight or lead core line does not?
When used in conjunction with a fish finder a down rigger gives you the ability to target the precise depth that the fish are currently holding at.
It also allows you to get down really deep. Trolling with lead core lines has a limit as to how deep you can actually go.
There are no such restrictions when using a downrigger.
Dodgers and flashers have two purposes one to attract via a flash hand the second to add some extra life or action into your lures.
Hoochies for example have very little if any real natural action to then. Stick a dodger in front of them and now they have a more life like sideways action.
Kokanee lures haven’t really changed much in the past few years.
The old reliables like:
All run behind a dodger or flasher will work reliably well.
Kokanee have a great sense of smell so always try not to handle anything of a strong chemical nature.
This includes your gas tank on the boat so try to fill up the day before if possible. Petrol has a very strong smell and can ruin a lure for kokanee if you handle the lure and line after touching gas.
Insect repellent is another one which is incredibly strong so really try to go easy on it. I rarely if ever use any on a boat. If you do need it try to use a spray on only and then make sure to wash your hands thoroughly after.
Just be aware that touching your face and neck after you have applied the bug spray is also to be avoided as much as possible.
If you have ever trolled for salmon or lake trout then you’ve probably used a down-rigger setup. Both flashers and dodgers are used extensively when trolling with a down-rigger.
They are used to attract salmon and trout to your lure or bait. However, they are not designed nor do they perform in the exact same way and knowing the difference between the two is crucial if you want to get the best performance from them.
The difference between flashers and dodgers is that the flasher is designed to spin as it is pulled through the water whilst the dodger will swing back and forth from side to side.
A flashers main purpose is to attract feeding trout or salmon from a distance by emitting a sharp flash as it spins and wobbles through the water.
A dodger is also used to attract fish but it has the added advantage of adding a sideways action to the lure on the end of your leader.
A flasher is usually used when you want to troll at a speed of more than 2 mph. A flasher will usually have a mush longer length from the down-rigger release than a dodger. These lengths for a flasher can vary from 15 all the way up to 30 feet in length.
The bait or lure will generally be about 3 or 4 feet behind the flasher.
A Flasher is usable over a larger range of speeds than a dodger and it’s action is less susceptible to speed changes.
Usually in warmer temperatures you will be trolling deep and at a slightly higher speed than in the cooler months.
A dodger is best trolled at less than 2 mph, so any time you are planning on trolling low and slow then the dodger is the best option.
A dodger will typically be used with a very short length from your release of roughly 27 inches.
Lake trout and Kokanee salmon are normally trolled at a slower speed. Dodgers will generally only work within a very small speed range. Once you go above a certain speed the dodger will start to spin or roll over on itself. When this happens you will loose it’s intended action and can quite often upset the nature of how the bait or lure is being presented.
Depending on the speed and time of year that you are trolling you can vary the distance between the dodger and the lure.
In colder months when fish are in shallower water and less aggressive you can use a smaller dodger and a slightly longer distance between the lure and the dodger. The longer distance will mean less of an action.
In warmer months when fish are more aggressive you can shorten the length so that the dodger imparts more of an action onto the lure. This added action can help to force more strikes from fish.
The beauty of steelhead is that they have a habit of biting a wide variety of natural and artificial baits. The best steelhead bait is what imitates their natural food choices.
From flies that imitate the natural bugs found in the river environment to the sweet smell of a fresh spawn bag, steelhead will often see a variety of presentations throughout the season.
A lot of steelheaders tend to have a very narrow selection of favorite baits that they use. However, there is actually quite a large range of bait that you can use if you take into account both natural and artificial baits.
The maddening part is deciding what baits or steelhead lures to throw at any given time. Since steelhead have been programmed to eat natural food sources, such as salmon eggs and worms since they were a smolt, it pays to keep imitations of these preferred food items handy when plying the waters of your favorite steelhead stream.
Let’s take a look at both natural and artificial baits that have been proven to attract and catch steelhead across the vast amount of Lake Ontario watersheds.
Eggs are by far the classic steelhead bait. During spawning season when eggs are a plenty steelhead will gorge themselves on trout and salmon eggs.
If you can present that bait in a natural manner like drifing it with nothing else but a hook you really have to try hard not to get at least a bite.
You can buy your eggs in either natural or cured. The cured eggs will last a lot longer in the fridge. However, it’s pretty hard to beat the natural smell of an un-cured egg.
Lot’s of anglers will add all manner of additives to their eggs in order to get them to smell strongly.
What could be more basic than fishing with a nightcrawler or worm? Steelhead love them! Just like eggs they can be drifted on very little gear.
Spring is the ideal time to use a nightcrawler as the higher water levels may well wash worms out from the soil in the river banks.
A simple rig is to run them on a bait hook threaded all the way up the leader. You can also put on an artificial egg just above the eye of the hook.
Or if you happen to have some corn handy instead of an artificial egg you can slip that on instead.
The corn gives you a atural scent combined with a bright yellow color that the fish can lock onto especially in fast moving waters.
The use of shrimp or prawns is certainly on the rise. They give off a very different smell than other baits. If you can get live ones then the natural action they give out can drive steelhead wild.
I’ve seen guys use a small elastic band fix the shrimp to their hook. This means the shrimp stays alive on your rig un-injured and is free to swim naturally through the water.
Their hard back shell means that you can use a fairly strong elastic band. Throw one of these into a deep hole that fish are waiting in and you are onto a sure fire winner.
Steelhead love free flowing eggs in a river environment, there is no secret about their fondness for the protein filled little orbs of orange goodness.
Anglers in pursuit of steelhead have used all sorts of materials from yarn to pom-poms to imitate a salmon or trout egg pattern. But few compare to the visual esthetics that a Trout Bead provides when it comes to imitating the real deal.
From the varied sizes, to the myriad of colors that imitate the stages a natural eggs goes through while rolling around in the gravel strewn river bottom, the bead is so simple yet so deadly effective.
Beads became a popular steelhead egg imitation thanks to some crafty Alaskan fishing guides who grew tired of tying hundreds, if not thousands, of yam flies like glo bugs throughout the course of a season.
Someone had the bright idea to slip an orange bead on a leader and the rest is history. Companies like Trout Beads, have taken the plain round bead to the next level with colors and finishes that fool even the wariest of steelhead.
Rigging the bead is quite simple. Slip the bead on your leader and then tie on an egg hook. Jam a toothpick in one side of the bead and break it off; this will keep the bead in place while drifting down the river.
Keep the bead 1 to 2 inches above the hook to avoid hooking the fish deep; set the hook hard and you’ll have the fish hooked in the corner of the mouth every time.
Relative newcomers to the egg imitation scene, Otter Eggs are a unique spin on the rubber egg imitation.
Formulated from a plastic that gives the egg a soft feel, Otter Eggs are meant to look and feel like a real egg. This can be a real advantage when facing pressured fish that have seen a lot of different presentations, as the longer the fish hold onto the bait the better.
Another key to the success of the Otter Eggs is their ability to hold scent, since they are soft and have an absorbent material wrapped around the outer portion of the egg.
If you really want to maximize the scent effectiveness of the Otter, try soaking them in your favorite oil or scent overnight in order to allow the scent to really permeate the bait.
I have even seen some crafty anglers smash a few real salmon eggs in a small jar and then let the Otter Eggs soak in the natural juice of the egg. It’s the best of both worlds as the Otter Egg with have the natural scent of a real egg while being much more durable that the real thing.
Available in varying sizes of single eggs, clusters and sucker spawn, these eggs can be used to match the correct size and shape no matter the water conditions. Try using the glow colors during low light conditions and the sparkle patterns when fishing off color water.
Worms are a natural food source that steelhead see quite often after a fresh rain. While carrying and using real worms can be a hassle, small plastic worms, such as the Berkley Trout Worm, make for an effective replica.
Even though these worms are available in a variety of colors, the pink version has become a staple item in the vests of steelhead anglers.
Whether it’s a carry over from the “pink worm” craze that started out west, or just a coincidence that steelhead just seem to have an affinity for the pink plastic, these worms catch fish and do it well, in pressured situations.
Trout worms can be rigged in a couple different fashions. First is called the “Wacky” style, taken from the popular bass fishing method. Put the hook through the worm at the mid part of the body, allowing for the worm to hang over the hook in a uniform manner.
When the worm drifts down the river, it gives off a unique action that drives steelhead crazy. I know one veteran steelheader that does exceedingly well on winter steelhead bottom bouncing the worms and the strikes are so violent, they nearly tear the rod out of his hand.
Another method to rig the worm is to thread the worm on the leader using a bobbin threader. Begin at the top of the worm and bring the end of the leader out 2/3 of the way down the body of the worm.
Place a small bead on the leader before tying on the hook as this will keep the hook from tearing into the worm on repeated hook sets. When float fishing with worms in this rigging manner, be sure to hold back on the float periodically and give the rod tip a shake to give the worm some added action.
Hang on tight when the worm settles back in the drift as steelhead tend to hit the worm hard as it falls back to them.
Artificial baits have their time and place for steelhead anglers. They last longer than real baits during the repeated casting and drifting during the course of a day on the water and the more you are putting baits past a steelhead, the more fish you will catch.
Give these baits a try on your next steelhead trip and you to will become a believer that artificial baits can catch fish as well as the real stuff.
Egg fly patterns for steelhead are likely the most popular fly pattern for fishing the Great lakes tributaries.
For many of us, these are first flies we used when we first started fishing the tributaries. This is not without warrant. There are times when egg flies are the most productive fly patterns on the rivers. Even when the fishing gets tough, we can often depend on egg flies to save the day.
Why are egg patterns so effective? When it comes to a food sources for steelhead, eggs seem to have one of the strongest food attractions as anything you can find in the wild.
Just like steelhead, trout and salmon will readily respond to eggs that are freely drifting. It does not matter if these fish are actively spawning or not. When it comes to trout, they will key in on eggs faster than any other food source.
Even when spawning activity has wound down and eggs are no longer readily available, trout will still respond to a well-presented egg fly, the memory remains.
As you can imagine, with all the attention and fisherman using egg patterns, there is a large variety of patterns, ranging from very complex to the very simple and basic. Even though egg patterns are relatively simple patterns to tie, there is wide range of flavors and styles of patterns.
Egg patterns are often tied with various colors of yarn and Estaz, glow chenille, and other basic fly tying materials. Fly tiers will often try to imitate the nucleus of the egg and even incorporate minute blood dots.
Egg patterns can also be very simple and basic, tied with basic egg yarn. Obviously how flashy you would like a fly or subtle an egg pattern is, will depend on fishing conditions.
Since egg patterns are easy to tie and we use in expensive materials, it is always a good idea to carry a large selection and supply of flies.
Fishing conditions on the tributaries can and do change very quickly. Water conditions will play more of a role in what type of egg patterns to fish. When the water is running high with some color in it, the more colorful, flashy and slightly larger flies will be more effective.
These egg flies are tied with flashing material such as Estevez and glow chenille. Just the opposite is true when fishing in low clear water or fishing pressure is heavy.
The more natural looking smaller egg patterns will be far more effective in these conditions. These flies will be tied with egg yarn in natural looking colors.
This type of tying material does not have a lot of flash in it. In these conditions you do not want to visually overload the fly. We are trying to imitate a very basic food source. I prefer to keep egg fly patterns simple, because, fished correctly, right along the bottom, we have a tendency to go through quite a few flies.
When tying and designing new egg flies, I always incorporate a light veil over the pattern with some sort of egg yarn. The reason for this, when a trout takes an object into its mouth and instantly decide this is not what it want and reject that object instantly.
The idea of the veil around the egg pattern is to cause the fishes’ teeth to temporarily hang up in it. Giving us a chance to realize the fish has taken the fly and it’s time to set the hook.
All of this fly design does not mean much unless the fly is properly presented. Nature has designed eggs to be denser than water. This way the eggs will stay for the most part, where the fish deposit them in the river bottom.
We think of eggs drifting through the water column similar to the way aquatic insects, nymph do. This is not the case; an egg drift is more like an egg roll. That is, the egg does more rolling or bouncing along the bottom than drifting just off the bottom.
Obviously, the trick here is to imitate this egg drift – rolling along the bottom. We need to slow down the speed of the drift; an egg drift is considerably slower.
When fishing egg patterns keep in mind the type of water you are fishing in. This will play a big role in your success. Feeding trout will be located where the food is most concentrated.
This way they can feed more efficiently. Simple sounding concept, but, the trick is to find these prime feeding spots. These feeding spots can be anywhere.
However, during active spawning, any locations where there are cuts in the river bottom and the current is concentrated this will also concentrate stray eggs.
Very simply, locate actively spawning fish, down river where the current is being compressed forming a cut in the river bottom. You will find feeding trout.
When spawning is over and winter settles, the eggs are not as accessible to the fish. We can still easily predict when we will see a good egg bite. Every time the river has a water flow increase, these waterfalls will dislodge stray eggs and send them adrift, creating a feeding opportunity, an egg bite.
This egg bite will last for a few days to a week after water flows stabilize. So keep this in mind when you are trying to decide what to fish.
Fishing with eggs for steelhead is a no-brainer once the eggs are moving through the current large steelhead will gorge themselves on what is one of their most important food sources.
Steelhead can be absolute gluttons during the fall run when salmon and brown trout are broadcasting eggs all over the stream bottom during their spawning cycle.
With an easy food supply that doesn’t flee in their presence like the baitfish do on the high seas, steelhead are more than happy to set up in a current break and let the food come to them.
As much fun as throwing a steelhead lure is, fishing with either real eggs, steelhead beads or an egg fly pattern is so much more productive as you can be almost 100% positive that the steelers are definietly feeds on what you have put in front of them
While these chrome brutes will hit anything that remotely resembles an egg early in the run, they do get wise as time goes on.
With a wide variety of eggs to feed on, steelhead will often get locked into a certain size, shape and smell that is preferred over all the rest. The trick is putting the pieces of the puzzle together and determining what the magic combination the steelhead prefer on that particular day.
Serious egg fisherman, tend to carry a variety of eggs in order to offer the fish a number of scent dynamics. Steelhead have a great sense of smell which we anglers can take advantage of.
Every egg, be it from a salmon or trout, has a different scent characteristic; and fall steelhead that have seen every size and shape of egg coming at them for months know the exact one they want to feed on. It’s our job to give them an assortment of eggs to choose from, and they’ve made the obvious choice when the float slams down!
The first clue in unlocking the egg puzzle is to determine what fish could still be spawning on the watershed you plan to fish.
For instance, in the majority of the Lake Ontario streams, Chinooks are usually the first to arrive in September and can begin dropping eggs from the middle of the month right into early October.
Coho’s are the wild card in the mix; while not found in all our Lake Ontario tributaries, they tend to come into the river in one big wave and take over the river for a couple weeks.
Steelhead always seem to have a fondness for Coho eggs. It’s amazing to me how steelhead will quit feeding on anything else and strictly focus on Coho eggs when the run is on. Browns are usually the last to arrive in October and can linger till the end of November.
Also Read: Steelhead vs Salmon
Brown trout eggs have been “secret” steelhead bait of tight lipped fanatics for years; but thanks to the internet, word has leaked out about the effectiveness of this great bait over the last few years.
Since brown trout eggs are smaller than those from a salmon, they tend to be more delicate and will last longer when drifted in slower pools rather than being smashed to bits in fast, rocky runs.
Another key element to getting the magic formula is the egg cure, or in some cases, the lack thereof.
When it comes to cures, there are plenty of commercial cures available these days; but few can compare to the Borx-O- Fire cure from Pautzke Bait. This cure is basically a mixture of salt, sugar, borax and krill powder that enhances the scent of the egg while toughening the egg enough to withstand multiple drifts through prime holding water.
The natural color works well with most eggs, but a mixture of the pink and orange versions produces an egg with a deep, vibrant color that fish devour in stained or off color water. But as good as this cure has proven to be in our watersheds, there are times when it pays to go natural and fish with fresh skein eggs.
I don’t know what it is about these eggs, but there is something about fresh skein eggs that really get stale steelhead in a friendly mood. These eggs are far more fragile than a cured egg, but the scent and soft texture are often the right combination that consistently take fish on the tough days.
Pre-cutting the skein into chunks and letting them air dry for a few hours will help keep them on the hook longer. It also helps to fish these eggs in slower pools down in the lower reaches of a river system where wary steelhead lie in wait for the next rain event to trigger their migration upstream.
Be sure to keep your eggs in separate containers; mixing eggs and cures can muddy the scent trail and will ruin all the effort you put into tying dozens of beautiful spawn sacs. Mark each container with the type of egg and cure used to avoid confusion when the bite is on.
Another tip to keep in mind is tie larger sized egg sacs earlier in the run and gradually reduce the size of the sacs as the season wears on and the water cools.
This correlates with the holding position of the steelhead throughout the run; early season fish tend hang around fast, oxygenated water and need something to catch their eye as it whizzes downstream. Conversely, steelhead will begin to hold in slower current breaks as the water cools down prior to winter and have a much longer window to see the bait coming at them.
It’s time to open the egg buffet this fall and see what the hungry customers are in the mood for each day. Don’t get fooled into using one style of egg, sac color or size all season long; short term success on one particular combo can lead to long term failure.
Do your homework and have a variety of eggs ready for each outing. You’ll be glad you did when a trophy sized steelhead is on the end of your line trying to drag you back to Lake Ontario!