CHELAN — Kokanee fishing on Lake Chelan is getting more attention and drawing outside anglers after larger-than-normal fish started being reported last season.
Those big fish are back this season. The kokanee in the lake used to be 9-to-12 inches typically. Now they’re seeing 14-17 inchers, weighing about two pounds.
Travis Maitland, a fish biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said there is no hard data on historical sizes for kokanee.
“But I’ve been talking to guys fishing that lake for a long time,” Maitland said, “and nobody remembers them so big.”
State wildlife managers and fishing guides will only speculate as to why the land-locked sockeye known as kokanee are bigger than anyone can remember seeing them, but a popular theory is the density of recent spawns has been reduced. There is more zoo plankton to go around for the kokanee coming off the 2008-09 spawning years.
“Primarily they’re 4-year-old fish — the progeny of fish that spawned in 2009,” Maitland said. “The lake is density dependent for fish to grow like that, and there are fewer fish coming off lighter spawning this year.”
Not only are the fish bigger, but they came sooner. Traditionally the prime time to fish kokanee has been mid-April to mid-June, but Anton Jones, a guide for Darrell and Dad’s Family Guide Service, noticed them long ago.
“This year they showed up not mid-April but mid-February,” Jones said. “We started seeing them on sonar, wondered what they were and tried to fish kokanee, and sure enough.”
The early arrival is also only explained in theories, but two things are known for sure: the food is available and they stay as late as they historically have – usually they’re gone by July 4.
Maitland is noticing these fish are full of zoo plankton. Many hoped the larger sizes were in part thanks to kokanee feeding on Mysis shrimp, a competitor for the zoo plankton.
Jones cleaned hundreds of these larger kokanee for customers and for his own eating. He too has observed only the plankton.
Jones said the kokanee are down deep. In 20 feet of water, he fishes 10-20 feet down. Most people are using a 4-inch long dodger with a 16-inch lead and squid rigs baited with corn.
“I’ve just been amazed at how many people it’s drawn,” Jones said.
He’s seen them from Oregon and Idaho and from all over Washington. He counted 124 fishing boats on the lake during a time when usually there’s eight to 10, depending on the weather.
“They’re acrobatic on light gear,” he said.
They’re fast, strong and fun to catch, but the bigger fish from the last two seasons is not a trend expected to continue.