Kokanee are running

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THE THOMPSON River mountains covered in clouds. (John Dowd/Clark Fork Valley Press)

One of the most highly anticipated fishing ventures for anglers in Northwest Montana is the run of the kokanee. This is the time of the year when the waters of a few streams and rivers turn red with the flashing of piscine tails and bodies.

For a short part of the year the kokanee of Montana transform in color, shape and temperament in order traverse into the tiny waterways, in mass migrations, to spawn.

Kokanee have an interesting life cycle, living only two to seven years, then after swimming upstream in a what is called a “run” in order to lay and fertilize their eggs, as a group. During this time, they do not eat or sleep, and will die soon after spawning is finished.

Kokanee salmon are not native to Montana and were introduced in the early 1900s. Originally, they can be found across Alaska, Idaho, Washington, California and Oregon as well as in British Columbia and parts of Canada, Russia and Japan. Although they are not generally a large fish, measuring only 9-12 inches (with a few records coming in at around 20 inches) they are known and prized by fisherman for their fantastic taste and exciting runs.

I have never myself experienced the rush of seeing a run but am told that it is quite the adventure. It is also a fantastic fishing experience because the fish rarely eat when they spawn. This means that inventive fisherman have had to come up with a more clever way of catching the fish with a rod.

I am of course talking about salmon snagging. The trick of snagging fish has actually been around for thousands of years. In fact, the first native people of the areas where kokanee are native have been recorded using not only spears, but wooden hooks tied to rocks and string in order to hook the fish in their sides to bring them into the fisherman’s basket.

This circumvents provoking a fish to take bait or to strike, and puts the man, or woman, in direct link with the line.

Employing not only patience but the angler’s eyes as well to line up a snag. Of course, this method becomes far easier during an intense run where the fish seem to push themselves onto the banks.

In these times it would be hard for a fisherman to throw into the water without hooking onto something, even without any training or using ones sight.

A friend of mine, from another paper, and I decided to go to try to get a taste of this incredible event. He had experienced this rare treat before, having come last year to Eureka, Montana, to try his luck. He had great success and described the fishing as having been as easy as dragging the line through the water and hooking up onto fish.

Another person I met while trying my luck, Maxx Caffyn, told me how he had caught all his fish, and hit his limit, within only 30 minutes. This is quite the feat because the limit for Kokanee in Montana is 20 fish.

The first place we tried was around the Troy area, where neither of us had been fishing before and to no avail. Although we sought the fish in several locations, we had no luck. Finally, we ended up back in Eureka where he had been before.

After several failed attempts at the fish, I decided to ask around, where I met a man named Maxx who helped me out. I asked him, saying ‘Now I’m not an expert, but I thought runs were supposed to be more exciting than this.’

What we were seeing were small flashes of red in the creek every few minutes, but not a deluge of crimson working its way up the river. He proceeded to tell me how the initial run had already occurred, and that we had arrived a week late.

Kokanee have several runs a year, and when they are on, it is like turning a faucet from a drip to a fire hose. The water is described as turning red and rushing in the wrong direction. Maxx told me not to worry though and showed me a few tricks.

I am predominately a fly fisherman, so traversing the pool to snagging seemed quite the daunting task, especially when I had to use a spin rod, with a big hook to try to snag up on a fish the size of my hand.

Maxx explained that the trick was to tie a piece of brightly colored flagging tape onto the heavy weighted treble hook. This would allow you to see where the hook was sitting on the bottom of the river, and the weight was to keep it there in the fast current.

He showed me a few tips and tricks to walk the hook next to the fish, placing the salmon between oneself and the hook. After this all one had to do was to simply snag upward. This did it. Even though the run was more of a tiptoe than an honest marathon I started having success.

The kokanee season in Montana runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 30. Generally, there are several runs within this season, however there are usually two main ones.

Often the biggest occurs earlier than the 15th, however the gap in time allows for many of the fish to succeed in spawning, without much bother from the fisherman.

This makes for season after season of fun for the fisherman and future generations of fish.

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