Jurassic Fish: Kokanee Salmon (Part 1)

Strings of sunlight splashed through the clouds at the top of Monarch Pass. Glimpses of snow dotted the roadside. Bluegrass played lightly through the speakers. As we began our descent down the pass, I became a giggly mess of excitement. We were on the road back to Gunnison to catch some Kokes.

The beginning of October came quickly this year. After travelling, fishing and job searching, everything aligned for a couple weekends of excellent fishing in Gunnison. Is it obvious that I miss living in the mountains?

Skylar and I loaded up the car on Thursday night and headed into the hills. The four-hour drive we used to make weekly seemed a bit longer than usual, and we were content with that. Driving through the Rockies in early October is outstandingly beautiful! Changing trees, mellow rivers, snow-capped mountains. They all lend to the coziness of autumn, and we drove contently down the winding road to the place we called home.

We arrived in Gunnison a bit after dark and picked up the essentials for an early morning—coffee, some breakfast burritos and some chocolatey snacks to fuel us the next day. Our plan was to attend the Salmon Giveaway at Roaring Judy Fish Hatchery and continue to some of our favorite spots from last year. There’s not many necessary moments to use an 8-weight on the Gunny, but salmon fishing requires heavier tackle. I also brought my 3-weight, just in case some tarpon made a guest appearance (spoiler alert, they didn’t).

Early morning came all too soon, and we were in the car before sunrise. Grabbing an early spot during the salmon giveaway is essential; it provides you enough time to fall back asleep. A bit after 9 AM, we had our fish on ice and made our way to some of my favorite, albeit not-so-secret-anymore, salmon fishing spots on the Gunnison River.

The air was a bit cold as the sun danced between clouds, but I had my line in the water quicker than a roadrunner on asphalt. I tied a double-dropper rig onto my 3x leader and tossed the setup into a pool not far from the road. My thingamabobber bounced up and down as the weighted Pat’s Rubberlegs rambled across the riverbed. Fishing for Kokanee requires quick reaction, perfect placement and a smidge of finesse. Getting a fish on is the easy part. Keeping one on, that requires some strategy.

After a couple roll casts, my indicator took a quick left turn and dove into the water. I set my hook quickly and felt the weight at the end of my line. I like to compare setting into a Koke like setting into a log. It takes some decent strength to land these fish. As my set stuck, I prepared for battle. A cool 5 minutes later, I had landed my first salmon of the day! Bringing in Kokanee is a bliss-filled adventure for me, as these salmon are the closest we get to the larger salmon of Alaska.

After a quick photoshoot with the fish, I was back to lobbing my rig into the pocket. Not long after the first fish took my fly, another was fighting for the chance to battle me. I was bringing in the second fish and caught a flash of color I wasn’t anticipating. Typically, Kokanee are red. This fish was bright and gold.

The brown trout at the end of my line was a total surprise! I had forgotten that Kokanee are typically followed by larger browns and bows who eat up any loose eggs behind the pod. This was one of the larger trout I had caught all year, and I kissed it as the fish departed my net basket to resume munching on salmon skittles.

We continued tossing casts throughout the day and landed a few more beautiful salmon. Our hoots and hollers could be heard throughout the valley as we brought in some of the harder fighting fish we’ve caught. A few kokanee jumped like dolphins out of the pod randomly, and we would look at each other in amazement as they did. They are incredible fish with incredible strength.

If you’re looking to visit Gunnison in autumn, be sure to bring a larger rod, some 3x tippet and some truly ugly flies. Kokanee love those. If you feel so inclined, take a break at the Garlic Mike’s boat put-in, cross the bridge and walk the banks on the South side. If you’re feeling adventurous, walk out to the river by the big boulder. Toss a line in front of the willows on the right and see what happens. Just remember, you didn’t hear any of this from me.

Fish on, my friends.