By Rob Phillips
In the past three or four years one of the top lakes for kokanee in the Northwest has been Lake Chelan. The huge natural lake in North Central Washington has always had a naturally reproducing population of landlocked sockeye salmon, but in the past few years the average size of the salmon has grown considerably.
While Chelan has always had a good kokanee fishery in late spring and summer, in the past few years the fish have also been biting in the late fall and winter. And while they aren’t quite as big as they were a couple years ago when they were pushing 17-inches in length, the fish that are being caught this year are still nice kokanee in anyone’s book.
I’ve fished Chelan several times the past couple years and have had some good days and some not-so-good days. Chelan is big and deep, so finding the schools of fish in the 50-mile long lake is never easy. Most anglers wait until the kokanee show up at the lower end of the lake, near the town of Chelan, to fish for them. This usually occurs around April or May, and can provide some good fishing through the summer months.
But kokanee can be caught in Chelan during the late winter and early spring too. As has been proven again this year by longtime Lake Chelan guide Jeff Witkowski and others, it seems 10-fish-per-person daily limits have been the norm. Witkowski, who also fishes for the abundant lake trout in Chelan throughout the year, has been having some pretty good luck catching the feisty, landlocked salmon during recent weeks.
One of the secrets to his success is finding the thermal layer in the huge lake. Figuring the thermal layer in the deep lake moves down during the winter months, he starts fishing up the lake from the state park near Manson, and runs his gear deeper than normal.
There are a number of different types of trolling rigs that have worked recently. Trolling a variety of dodger and lure combinations, all tipped with either white corn or corn dyed a blood red color, have been productive during the past few weeks.
I have had particularly good luck with a Fast Limit Kokanee Dodger about 12 inches ahead of a Tight Line Kokanee Rig but other rigs from Kokabow and others will work too.
Fishing over water that sometimes is 1,000 feet deep, Witkowski likes to keep trying different depths on the downriggers until he finds a biter or two. Most of the fish being caught in late February were between 70 and 140 feet deep, with many being hooked between 90 and 120 feet on the downriggers.
Kokanee are notorious for having soft mouths, so hooking one doesn’t always mean you are going to end up with a fish in the box. With the fish coming from deep water, it definitely increases your chances of losing them. During my last trip to Chelan we netted about 50 percent of the kokanee we hooked.
Still, we ended up catching nearly 30 of the fat kokanee that were the perfect representation of why old timers call the fish silvers. They all were as shiny as a new dime, and the meat was firm and red, perfect for the grill or the smoker. They ran from 12 to 15-inches in length.
Because of Witkowski’s success in the past few years on winter kokanee, more and more anglers have been attracted to the big lake to try to catch them. Which is just fine with the popular guide. He figures it is a big lake and there are plenty of fish, so everyone should get a chance to enjoy the fishery.
He says the secret to success it to spend some time searching and trying different depths until you find the fish. Most of the time I like figuring all this out for myself. But that can take up plenty of valuable time. A good way to cut down on your learning curve is to hire Witkowski or one of the other Chelan guides for the day and learn where the fish are and what they are biting. He not only keeps up on what is biting where, he is a great guy to spend a day with in the boat. Witkowski fishes with Anton Jones of Darrell and Dad’s Family Guide Service. Call them at (509) 687-0709.
Fishing during the winter anywhere in Eastern Washington can be uncomfortable. But with the right gear it can be done. Darrell and Dad’s runs good sized boats with tops and heaters. My open bow jet sled is a little more suited for summer fishing but it will work in a pinch. You just have to dress a little warmer.
It used to be kokanee were only fished for during spring and summer. In the past few years, that has changed. Now, those with some get-up-and-go can have fun catching the fish virtually all year long. And one of the best places to try some late winter kokanee fishing is Lake Chelan.
Rob Phillips is a lifelong Washington resident and has been fishing around the state since 1970. He is also an award winning freelance outdoor writer who has been writing professionally since 1986. His weekly column “Northwest Sportsman” appears every Thursday in the Yakima Herald-Republic.
This article was originally published in March 2018.