The Phenological Calendar of Kokanee

The Phenological Calendar of Kokanee – Harvesting Nature

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, fishing being the most common.

A downrigger set at 30 feet maintains a small dodger and squid bait in the pursuit for kokanee salmon.

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 alder seeds wafting on the breeze all hint at the timing for fishing desert lakes.

By mid-May, I’ve been 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 those silver-bullet, landlocked sockeye.

While rubber squid are 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 registered 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 finnicky 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, committing to the bait.

Kokanee are typically small, but beautiful and delicious, and worthy of a relaxing day on the water.

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 with warmer water. Bigger fish can be found in some lakes with a little research, but a passel of 10 to 12-inch kokanee is typical and 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.

Upland Pursuits – The Caddis Revolution

Published in the East Oregonian, July 16th 2021

If you’re a fly-fisherman, think back on your first trout on the fly. Can you remember it? Turns out I cannot, but I do recall my teenage years spent trying to crack the code on mountain brook trout in Appalachia. While my casting skill left much to be desired, habitat selection may have had more influence on my struggle to coax a fish to the fly. Thirty years later, mountain trout streams take me back to basics such that the last time I carried a western-style fly rod and reel into a headwater stream was probably 2016.

These days I seek elevation and skinny water with only a handful of flies of usually one or two patterns, and a tenkara rod. Whether the fishing is actually easy or just second nature to me now remains to be determined, but one thing has remained constant. The elk hair caddis. This classic pattern stands as a staple in the fly box of trout anglers worldwide, mine included. It’s effectiveness has made this the first, and often the only fly I use on mountain streams.

A Montana brook trout couldn’t resist the caddis as it bobbed overhead, casting a shadow in the summer sun

So, how did this fly earn its reputation? There are approximately 7,000 known caddis species, which hatch generally April through October in the northern hemisphere. The dry fly (adult) pattern is often effective through November with peak hatch months typically being June through September. The October caddis hatch is well known in some areas, including locally, for remarkable densities of colossal flies that may be mistaken for large moths. Fishing a giant October caddis can redefine “epic” as feisty fish feast to fatten up for winter on the filet mignon of insect forage.

Tied with a black, brown, or olive body, ribbed with copper or tensile or not at all, and topped with hair as black as moose or bright as a bull elk’s rump, the pattern is universally effective. The same olive elk hair caddis once duped native brookies in several Virginia mountain streams only days before it landed me the Bitterroot Slam of rainbow, brook, brown, cutthroat, and cut-bow on my drive back to Washington. That was July 2020, and that fly now hangs on my pickup’s driver-side sun visor as a constant reminder of an exceptional few days on the headwaters draining our major eastern and western mountain ranges.

Given the fly’s popularity, effectiveness, and commonplace existence as a renown fly pattern, one of the most curious facts about the fly is that it has been on the scene barely over 60 years. The simplicity of the elk hair caddis pattern led me to assume it has been around since the beginning of modern fly-fishing at the latest.

The elk hair caddis (far right) is a staple in the box of most any fly fisherman and fits perfectly with this array of large stimulator patterns for cutthroat

Seemingly one of the earliest possible fishing methods, one may assume that fly-fishing was common as early as 1653 with the first publishing of Izaak Walton’s Compleat Angler. Surprisingly. One of the first records of fishing flies includes a group of about a dozen salmon streamers tied in Ireland in 1789, possibly older than the first color illustration of flies, according to the American Museum of Fly Fishing. Even more surprising, the first elk hair caddis is credited to Al Troth, tied in 1957, far later than many other classics like the Adams, which turned up around 1922. Little did Troth know that his caddis pattern would go on to imitate virtually any species of caddis, as well as some stoneflies. A truly revolutionary fly.

Dry-fly fishing – fishing flies on the water surface – is thought to be the pinnacle of trout angling. Norman McClean’s A River Runs Through It, centered in Missoula, Montana, sensationalized fly-fishing, invigorating the fishing world to take up the sport. McClean’s wit suggested purity in fishing dry flies through biblical reference, saying “Our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly-fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly-fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.” While anyone can fish dry-flies, sans the pretention, there are arguably few other flies or fly-fishing methods that compare to charming wild trout with an elk hair caddis.

A mountain stream rainbow fallen victim to the temptation of the elk hair caddis

A creamy puff of elk rump bobs carelessly on a dead-drift, cascading into the head of a mountain stream pool. Unable to resist the temptation, a muscly rainbow with a cotton-candy pink lateral stripe rockets to the surface, engulfing the fly in an eager splash as it drifts over the emerald depths. A quick flip of the wrist sets the hook, and the fight ensures. Admiring the remarkable hues of salmonid perfection from the clear, cold cascades is what dreams are made of. Dreams that can be reality for anyone willing to chase them with an elk hair caddis, July being a fine month on streams like the Wallowa River, Umatilla, and Walla Walla.