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Summer is winding down and bright, warm mornings are fading to cooler temperatures and darker light.
The hunting community’s sights are turning to cold days and big game, but summer is not quite gone yet
in California and some of our last days have been spent kokanee fishing in California cold water lakes.
Kokanee are the non-anadromous form of Sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka). Sockeye salmon can
be grouped into three different ecotypes (genetically distinct geographic variety, population, or race
within a species, which is genotypically adapted to specific environmental conditions) based differences
in freshwater life histories. These forms include lake ecotype sockeye which spends a large portion of its
life in a nursery lake before migrating to the ocean and is the most typical anadromous form of sockeye.
Sea ecotype which is an anadromous form of sockeye that spends a much shorter period of time in
freshwater before migrating seaward. This ecotype also includes river-type sockeye that mature in
fluvial or estuarine habitat. The kokanee ecotype has a non-anadromous life history and is found in lakes
(Wood et al. 2008).
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The natural range of kokanee in the Pacific Northwest includes the Colombia River north to the Yukon in
Alaska. They can also be found in northern Japan to the Anadyr River in Russia (Moyle 2002). The
distribution of kokanee is likely linked to lake productivity and the difficulty of anadromous migration.
Kokanee and lake ecotype sockeye are known to occur together as genetically distinct populations that
compete for food in the same rearing lake (Wood et al. 2008, Moyle 2002)
Their presence in cold water lakes in the western United States and Canada is due to introduction for
various reasons including as a prey species for trout to sport fishing opportunities. Kokanee were first
brought to California in 1941 as a sport fish that could be introduced into reservoirs that fluctuated
(Moyle 2002). Kokanee life cycle varies from 2-7 years depending on food availability (zooplankton),
temperature, and light, but most mature in 4 years. Kokanee range is size from 9-12 inches and typically
weigh about a pound, though in some populations these sizes can be much larger (Washington
Department of Fish and Wildlife 2023).
Our family’s favorite way to eat kokanee, and it is good any way it is prepared, is to brine it, smoke it,
and serve on crackers.
Brine: 1 part salt, 2 parts sugar per fish (average kokanee) for 24 hrs.
Smoke in a smoker for approximately 2 hours on low heat. Enjoy!
Moyle, P.B. (2002) Inland Fishes of California. University of California Press, Oakland.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. 2023. Species and habitats. Kokanee
(Oncorhynchus nerka). Kokanee | Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife Accessed
Wood CC, Bickham JW, John Nelson R, Foote CJ, Patton JC. Recurrent evolution of life history
ecotypes in sockeye salmon: implications for conservation and future evolution. Evol Appl. 2008
May;1(2):207-21. doi: 10.1111/j.1752-4571.2008.00028.x. PMID: 25567627; PMCID:
PMC3352436. Recurrent evolution of life history ecotypes in sockeye salmon: implications for
conservation and future evolution – PubMed (nih.gov) Access 8.29.2023.