State Fishing Report: Fishing For Kokanee Salmon



Widely believed to be one of the best tasting fish that can be caught in New Mexico, the kokanee salmon offers a unique and delicious Southwest opportunity. Kokanee salmon live in Navajo Lake, Heron Lake and Eagle Nest Lake. They are essentially landlocked sockeye salmon that do not travel to the ocean and therefore live their entire lives in fresh water. The fish are stocked as fry by the Department and after three years reach their mature size.

Here is some interesting background information on kokanee salmon.

During the summer and fall, anglers seek out the aquatic delicacy. They go after them primarily by trolling during the summer or snagging them later in the year during snagging season.

Trolling for kokanee salmon during the middle of the summer is one of my favorite things to do. At that time of year, the fish are healthy and strong, as opposed to later in the fall when the kokanee spawn and die off as a part of their natural lifecycle.

During the summer, kokanee feed on zooplankton and can be found living in deeper water because they prefer the cooler water temperatures. I have found them as deep as 100-feet and as shallow as 15-feet. It is helpful for anglers targeting kokanee salmon to be equipped with a fish finder so that they can adjust their fishing technique to the correct depth where the kokanee are found at that specific time.

Schools of kokanee salmon can usually be found in the main body of the lake over the deepest spots. Sometimes, deep underwater canyons provide the preferred habitat causing kokanee to congregate in those areas. When trying to identify a school of salmon on your fish finder, look for multiple fish schooled up at approximately the same depth.

salmon bait

Once you have located a school of fish, it is time to present a variety of lures to them and see what their preference is. My favorite colors for kokanee lures are pink, orange, green, silver and gold. The kokanee will usually highly prefer one color over another. And the color they prefer can change daily. Small to medium size spinner rigs with beads work well for kokanee salmon.

The spinner is fished about 1.5-feet behind a dodger. The dodger is basically a larger flashy or colorful attractant. I like to use a similar color dodger / spinner combination. For example, if I am using an orange spinner, I will also use an orange dodger.


The fishing line coming from your reel, through you rod eyelets, is tied to a swivel. The swivel attaches to your dodger. One and a half feet of fishing line is tied to the other end of the dodger. At the opposite end of this line is where you tie on your spinner.

Adding 1-3 kernels of shoepeg white corn to the hooks of your spinner is a key addition to your setup. I am not exactly sure why this is so important, but I assure you far more kokanee salmon strike when your hook is baited with corn. I have also caught them with yellow corn, but white shoepeg is the unanimous favorite amongst anglers.

Now that we have gone over the fish catching end of the setup, let us go over a couple creative techniques for sinking your dodger / spinner setup to the correct depth.

Downriggers are a precise and easy way to get your lures to the proper depth. When your fish finder is showing fish at a depth of 70-100 feet, downriggers are the absolute best way to get your lure to those depths. Downriggers, especially the electric ones, can be costly.

Lead-core fishing line is a good cost-effective option for sinking your lures to the proper depth. For this setup, you will need a level-wind reel like the Penn 309. The lead core line has different colored sections of line. Each section is equal in length. The purpose of the colors is to help you identify how many feet underwater your lure is.


You can tell approximately how deep your lure is based upon how many different colored sections of line you have out. For example, if each color takes your line down 5-feet then you would need to let out 6 colors to reach a depth of 30-feet. The packaging on your lead core line should come with a table. This is a popular method for catching kokanee, and last summer at Navajo Lake it worked great for GO Unlimited anglers.


Earlier this year, we discussed a good recipe for smoked trout and salmon. Here it is again with some pictures of smoked Navajo Lake salmon from last summer.

Smoked trout or salmon recipe

Do you have a lot of salmon in your freezer from a past fishing trip? Or maybe you just want to try a different way to prepare your fish. I personally love smoked salmon. It is my favorite way to prepare them!

All you need is a simple electric smoker, some household ingredients and wood chips (alder wood preferably).

For this recipe, I fillet my fish and leave the skin on. They don’t have to be filleted (just my preference) as this recipe also works well with whole fish. If smoking whole fish, please watch the video for a couple tips you are going to need.

For fish fillets:

Step 1: Lay your fish in a high-sided (2 inch) baking dish.

Step 2: In a large mixing bowl make the brine, mixing salt and brown sugar in a 50/50 ratio. You want to mix enough to ingredients to cover your fish.

Step 3: Cover your fish in the 50/50 salt brown sugar mixture. Let fish and brine mixture sit in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight. The brine mixture will draw moisture out of the fish.

Step 4: Wash your fish of the brine mixture and pat dry with paper towels. Fish should have a dry texture. Pepper the fish to your liking. Place fish back into the refrigerator for a few hours or up to overnight. This step creates a sticky texture on the fish knows as a pellicle. The pellicle helps to catch the smokey flavor once placed into the smoker.

Step 5: Place fish in the smoker on racks that allow air to circulate on all sides of the fish. Do not place fish on closed bottom plates or baking sheets. Place alder wood or fruit wood in the smoker and allow to smoke for 3 to 7 hours at a temperature between 175F – 225F. The temperature you smoke your fish at will determine the amount of time it takes to smoke. You can check on your fish after two to three hours to see how they are doing. Some people like their fish smoked but still a little moist. Others prefer a much drier jerky type texture. I personally like the drier variety.

Step 6: Enjoy! Smoked fish is great fresh out of the smoker or chilled. It is great with crackers or by itself. You can also look up several smoked fish dip recipes on the internet. Vacuum-sealed smoked fish placed in the freezer will last for quite a while.

Here is a video for reference to the above-mentioned recipe. Note that they use water in their brine whereas I prefer not to.

Here is a video for making smoked fish in the oven.


Smoked Salmon in the oven

  • 1/2 gallon water
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup salt
  • 2 tbsp garlic powder
  • 3 tbsp lemon juice
  1. This recipe is for five to seven pounds of fresh fish.
  2. In a large baking dish, pour in brine, place fish into brine.
  3. Brine the fish for about eight hours in the refrigerator.
  4. Remove from brine, rinse off fish in cold water. Pat dry.
  5. Lay fish onto the racks of your oven.
  6. Preheat oven to 180-200 degrees. Smoke fish until done, about an hour and half to two hours.
  7. Vacuum seal the fish when cool.
  8. Store in the refrigerator or freezer.


If you have personal tips and tricks that you would like to share with your fellow anglers as we wait out the current restrictions, please email Dustin at

Closure Information:

Social distancing is a challenge for all anglers; the itch to go fishing just keeps growing. But this is a time for all New Mexicans to pull together for the overall health of all our citizens and stay home. The Department reminds anglers it is their responsibility to be aware of closures and contact land managers for properties of interest when restrictions are lifted.