Palouse Outdoors: The Phenological Calendar of Kokanee
June 1, 2023
Whether you realize it or not, most outdoor enthusiasts are phenological scientists. You may never have published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal or even considered proper phenology as practical in everyday life. Maybe you've never even heard of phenology. But if you appreciate the outdoors or even just vegetable gardening, chances are, you're a seasoned phenologist.
Simply put, phenology is a branch of science dealing with the correlation between climate and environmental cues, and periodic biological phenomena such as fish spawning, deer and elk rut, songbird migration, and upland bird nesting seasons.
For example, the big game hunter reads the moon phase and weather patterns to estimate the peak of the rut for hunt planning. Anglers keep an eye on snowmelt and spring runoff timing and water temperature to predict migration and spawning periods for fishes like salmon, bass, and walleye. My wife keeps an annual calendar of weather and plant bloom patterns to phase seed starts into her vegetable garden.
As a professional scientist, it's only natural that I also rely on phenological cues to plan outdoor activities, most commonly fishing.
Spring in the arid lands of the Pacific Northwest is an incredible season, rich with the hues of our natural landscape responding to longer and warmer days. Brilliant canary-yellow clusters of arrowleaf balsamroot, cotton-topped common yarrow, fuchsia cushions of longleaf phlox, and the snowstorm of black cottonwood and white poplar seeds wafting on the breeze all hint at the timing for fishing desert lakes.
By mid-May, I am already chasing trout among the puddles of the Washington scablands. But as the water temperature warms, my thoughts drift to kokanee, advancing in their early summer patterns.
When balsamroot clusters speckle the shrub-steppe, glowing like yellow lava perforations among the sagebrush, it's time to drop a downrigger and squid bait behind a dodger for these silver-bullet landlocked sockeye salmon.
While squid is not exactly a natural food source in the seep lakes, a small, orange, eyed skirt with tiny trailer hooks tipped with scented corn inexplicably does the trick when trolled behind a small dodger. Downriggers make it easy to target a specific depth, and this technique becomes more successful as the lakes stratify and food sources concentrate.
Lakes in Washington's channeled scablands typically register around 55 degrees Fahrenheit at the surface in mid-May – cool enough that the kokanee scattered about the depths from approximately 12 to 75 feet. Additionally, the cold water had the fish finicky to start the day, making their half-hearted bait bumps nearly unnoticeable on lines clipped to a downrigger ball. But a rod with a two-ounce weight dropped off the back of the boat provided quick adjustment to encounter fish at many depths, as well as greater sensitivity to strikes, landing a limit of "kokes" in short order as fish warmed up and committed to the bait.
Kokanee are sought for their table fare first and foremost. Small fish tugging against heavy tackle doesn't produce the most inciting of battles, and their weak mouths make them difficult to land if they fail to inhale to bait. Additionally, as fish strike the trolling squid, they typically hook themselves. It may take a few fish to get over the instinct to set the hook, but simply reeling up and keeping the pressure on can be most effective for landing fish.
Kokanee action in June can be more reliable as fish narrow into their preferred depth and become more active in warmer water. Bigger fish can be found in some lakes with a little research, but a passel of 10- to 12-inch kokanee is perfectly suited for a smoker, oven rack, or frying pan, and sublimely paired with a Pinot Gris or Chardonnay and fresh asparagus spears from the garden. Another phenological sign of the time to kick back in the boat and coax up the tasty (albeit tiny) freshwater salmon of the frigid depths.