What are Kokanee Salmon: All About Landlocked Sockeye Salmon

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Kokanee (oncorhynchus nerka) are the landlocked form of the sockeye salmon.

They are smaller in size and tend to live in lakes.

Like their anadromous cousins they spawn in the rivers where they were born and die after spawning.

Kokanee are a popular angling species and have been stocked in waterways beyond their natural range in the Pacific northwest.

Kokanee Distribution in the US and beyond

Kokanee salmon are found in the same parts of North America that have sockeye salmon runs: Alaska, British Columbia and down to Washington State, Oregon, Idaho and California.

Kokanee have been introduced into lakes in Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, New England, New York and North Carolina.

Outside of the US, kokanee salmon are also found in Japan and in Russia.

As they are landlocked, Kokanee are found in lakes, most often in mountainous areas.

Kokanee salmon size range

Kokanee salmon are considerably smaller than their anadromous cousins. A trophy kokanee salmon would be a fish of 20 inches or 4lb or so.

The largest kokanee on record was caught in Washington State and weighed 6.25lb.

Kokanee Salmon vs Sockeye Salmon: How to Tell the Difference

Size, and where you find the fish, are probably the simplest determinants of whether a fish is a sockeye or a kokanee. Sockeye migrate up rivers and tend to be significantly larger with fish of 25 inches or 8lb or so being fairly standard.

Other ways to tell the difference include color with kokanee salmon having blue backs and silver sides and no spots on their back or tale.

Kokanee salmon also have fewer gill rakers than their sockeye cousins.

Compared to other trout, they have finer scales, larger eyes, and deeply forked tail.

Kokanee are known as silver salmon or silver trout in some parts of the US.

Kokanee salmon lifecycle

Kokanee salmon spawning
Kokanee salmon in spawning mode

Kokanee undergo a similar lifecycle to sockeye salmon (and share the same scientific name oncorhynchus nerka) with the fish being born in headwater streams and then migrating down to a lake (as opposed to the ocean), where they will spend most of their lives before heading back to their birth stream to spawn after they reach maturity at four years or so. The kokanee spawning runs normally occur between August and February. Like the sockeye, kokanee die after spawning.

Male kokanee turn bright red and develop a humped back and an elongated jaw during spawning, which females turn a deeper shade of red.

How to Catch Kokanee

Kokanee salmon
Kokanee salmon

Anglers fish for kokanee salmon year round in lakes with trolling and casting lures a popular way to catch them.

Often kokanee strike out of aggression rather than hunger (their main food is plankton!) so brightly colored spinners, spoons and jigs all work, along with crankbaits.

Fly fishing for kokanee salmon – which are a schooling fish – can also be very successful.

Kokanee fishing is very specialised form of angling based around finding the schools of fish (often using a fish finder) and the depths they are at and getting a fly into that zone.

Flies such as small wets and streamers, nymphs and chironomid patterns will all work.

Kokanee fishing can be fun with many anglers becoming quiet obsessed with catching them instead of trout.

See here for more info on how to catch kokanee salmon from our expert Andy Sparhawk.

Are Kokanee good to eat?

Yes, landlocked sockeye salmon are a good eating fish with a flavour somewhere between a trout and a salmon.

You should only really eat fish that are yet to enter spawning mode as their eating quality deteriorates the closer to spawning time with the flesh becoming more mushy.

Pre-spawning kokanee are fine to eat and can be prepared in the same ways as either trout or salmon.

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Danny Mooers is a passionate fly fishing and angling writer from Arizona. Danny loves sharing his passion for fly fishing for trout and other species through his work for Tackle Village.
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