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Friday, March 27, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Kokanee’s fall spawning run makes prime fishing for man and beast alike

Kokanee salmon, vibrant red during mating season, travel to their spawning grounds in Hayden Creek last week. (Kathy Plonka)
Kokanee salmon, vibrant red during mating season, travel to their spawning grounds in Hayden Creek last week. (Kathy Plonka)

Fall colors aren’t limited to trees.

Some local creeks turn red this time of year as early kokanee runs make their way to upstream spawning grounds.

Hormonal changes transform the silvery fish into scarlet beauties with olive-green heads. The vivid hues are signs of reproductive fitness, and redder is better, particularly for males.

The “brightest, baddest-looking” males have the best chance of attracting females, said Ned Horner, a retired fisheries manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

Spawning males also develop a hooked jaw, big teeth and a pronounced hump on their backs, which they use to scare off other males.

“They’re pretty intimidating,” Horner said.

From time to time, Fish and Game hears reports of “monster fish” in local bodies of water, which usually means that someone has found the toothy jawbone of a spawned-out kokanee, he said.

Kokanee are landlocked sockeye salmon that were introduced to local lakes in the 1930s and ’40s. The fatty fish quickly became part of the region’s food chain, providing prey for trophy trout populations and easy calories for migrating eagles.

Later kokanee runs in Lake Coeur d’Alene and Lake Pend Oreille attract the eagles, which have developed stops on their journey south to take advantage of a November-throughJanuary spawning cycle.

But some kokanee start spawning in September, and those fish already are making their way up tributary streams of local lakes, said Jim Fredericks, fisheries manager for Fish and Game’s Panhandle region.

“In colder tributaries, it takes longer for the eggs to spawn and hatch out, so those fish lay their eggs earlier,” he said.

Early spawners also have brighter colors than later-spawning kokanee, which are a dull red.

Hayden Creek was full of kokanee last weekend, with red flashing in the stream as males chased other males out of their territory. Males defend the best patches of gravel, using the prime real estate to attract females looking for spawning sites, said Horner, the retired fisheries manager.

The fish die after they spawn. The carcasses attract coyotes, raccoons, ravens and other opportunistic feeders.

Anglers get in on the action, too. The kokanee season lasts all year, but fishing is particularly good right now in Lake Coeur d’Alene, with late spawners starting to congregate in the northern end of the lake, Horner said.

It’s a popular fishery, said Tina Padgitt, who works at Black Sheep Sporting Goods in Coeur d’Alene and has fished for kokanee in local lakes for 30 years. The fish bite readily, and you’re coming home with a salmon, she said.

In most areas, the limit is 15 kokanee per person.

“I like to can them for winter casseroles and smoke them for dips,” Padgitt said.

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