Kokanee Salmon Program
The kokanee salmon is a landlocked form of the larger pacific sockeye salmon. Like all pacific salmon, the kokanee life cycle is unusual in the fact that they are semelparous, meaning they die after spawning. Kokanee also go through extreme physiological changes, such as changing colors from silver to bright red and developing fang-like teeth and a hooked jaw (or kype), during their once-in-a-lifetime spawning occurrence.
Kokanee have been stocked into select Connecticut lakes since the 1940s, and currently provide several very unique and exciting fisheries not found anywhere else in the Northeast! The history of kokanee in Connecticut is extensive, with close to 20 lakes being stocked throughout the decades, but only three lakes - East Twin Lake, Lake Wononskopomuc, and West Hill Pond – have developed into viable recreational fisheries.
Kokanee cannot spawn naturally in Connecticut with enough success to sustain a fishery, so each autumn biologists from the Fisheries Division collect adult salmon using trap-nets in either East Twin Lake or West Hill Pond. The salmon are stripped of their eggs and milt at Burlington Trout Hatchery and mixed. The fertilized eggs are incubated and hatch at the Hatchery, resulting in approximately 170,000 fry that are reared until late May and then stocked.
Over the years, both East Twin and Lake Wononskopomuc had completely lost their salmon fisheries due to the illegal introductions of alewives that outcompete kokanee for food. While kokanee continue to struggle in Lake Wononskopomuc, thriving kokanee fisheries await anglers at both East Twin Lake and West Hill Pond. In addition, the Fisheries Division has stocked kokanee into Beach Pond (Voluntown) since 2016 in an attempt to restore a historic fishery!
Kokanee provide an estimated 20,000 – 30,000 hours of recreational fishing in Connecticut annually, and those fishermen who are willing to learn the techniques are rewarded with one of the State’s best tasting freshwater fish. The state record Kokanee of 2 lbs 14 oz from East Twin Lake (2011) was tied in 2018 from West Hill Pond and the catch and release record of 20” from East Twin Lake was set in 2010. The current fishing regulations are 5 kokanee/day and, remember, a Trout and Salmon Stamp is needed if you want to keep a kokanee.
Learn more about kokanee salmon in our state in this article in Connecticut Wildlife Magazine.
Kokanee are great fighters on light tackle and provide excellent fishing opportunities throughout the year, with May through July considered the best time to catch them. The favorite food of kokanee is zooplankton and they will follow the plankton up and down in the water column to feed, so finding the depth where kokanee are at any given point in time is critical to success.
The two basic methods of catching kokanee are: 1) trolling (typically using downriggers) or 2) anchoring a boat and fishing at night.
Trolling at the correct depth with small spinner rigs or plastic skirt lures that look like a squid are extremely productive. Lure colors vary from chartreuse early in the morning to white, pink, and red often being preferred by the salmon later in the day.
Anchoring a boat at night and hanging a lantern or floating light over the water is very productive and fun! You must use sensitive rods to detect the light hits, light line (2lb – 6lb) and a small hook (size 10 or 12), jig or weighted fly tipped with a small piece of garden worm, maggot, or shoepeg corn. Keep your bait at or just below the thermocline.
Kokanee are an open water (pelagic) fish and, as such, are typically not available to shore-based fishermen, except when they come into the shallows in the fall to spawn. Shore anglers can catch the male salmon at that time with small brightly-colored lures or flies along with salmon eggs.
Kokanee salmon are more famous for their crimson red color and large sharp-toothed jaws as seen at the top of this page. That color and morphology only occurs just prior to spawning. For the majority of their life span, the kokanee are silver and have earned the nickname "silver bullet".
Once you have figured out how to catch them, you will be rewarded with excellent table fare that rivals any wild caught salmon found in any high-end market. Like all fish, care of the fish after being caught is critical to preserving texture and taste of the fish. Some tips include:
- Keep your salmon on ice.
- Because kokanee are typically not over 16”, they can be cooked whole, but they can also be butterflied or filleted depending on how you are going to cook them.
- Treat kokanee as any other salmon using your favorite recipe, but for a real treat try planking a salmon using cedar, or preferably a fruit wood, such as apple or cherry. See recipe below!
This recipe uses a cherry wood board as the plank for grilling, but you can use any other fruitwood board or cedar. Just select a board that will hold the number of salmon fillets you want to cook and also fit on the grill. In this particular recipe, we use charcoal as the heat source as it does impart a different flavor, but it is possible to do this on an electric grill as well. To use on an electric grill, the plank should be thoroughly charred over a small fire or using a torch, a propane torch works well for this. The trick is to not just discolor the wood, but get a good deep char. This aids in imparting the smoked flavor to the finished salmon. Also, a butterflied salmon will work as well as fillets, but whichever you prefer, you must leave the skin on the salmon. Preparing the board does require time, so plan on starting this the day before you want to cook or first thing in the morning so the plank has time to full soak in water. Soaking is crucial as you want the plank to smolder and not catch on fire.
- Cherry board approximately 10”wide X 12” long X 3/4” thick
- 4 – 6 kokanee fillets (skin on)
- Olive oil
- 1 fresh lemon halved and sliced thin
- ¼ cup chopped fresh dill
- Salt and pepper
- Aluminum foil
Preparing the Plank:
Prepare the plank by first getting a bed of coals going. Once fully ignited, lay the plank on the coals. Move around as necessary, but you want to get a complete charred surface. You want it to look burnt and craggy. If you aren’t using charcoal, see note above on using a torch or small fire. Next, fully submerge the charred board in a bucket of water or other suitable container and let it soak for at least 6 hours, preferably overnight.
Preparing and Cooking the Kokanee:
- Get the coals going in the grill. Use just enough charcoal, that when spread out, will form an even layer big enough to equal the size of the wood plank.
- Remove plank from the water and place on a work surface with the charred side up.
- Coat the charred side with olive oil. A pastry brush or paper towel works well for this.
- Lay the fillets or butterflied kokanee skin side down on the oiled board.
- Squeeze a little fresh lemon juice over the fish and then season with fresh dill, salt and pepper to taste, and then put 2-3 thin lemon slices over the fish.
- Take aluminum foil and create a “tent” over the fish and board. Do not fully enclose the foil, but rather leave it open on the ends so smoke from the plank can get to the fish and add its flavor to the salmon.
- Put a grate just above the bed of coals (about 2” above is good) and place the board with fish and aluminum tent on the grate. Cover the grill.
- Once you start to see smoke coming from the grill, check every minute or so to be certain the plank is not catching fire. The reason for soaking the plank is so it smolders and does not catch fire.
- Kokanee fillets are thin, so cook time, depending on amount of heat, does not take long (5 minutes or so). Check a fillet with a fork for doneness.
- Remove fillets from plank (often the skin stays on the plank, which is ideal), and serve with an herb or wild rice and vegetable side of choice.
Note – the seasoning in this recipe is simple, but that is intentional because the delicate flavor and smokiness of the salmon does not require heavy-handed seasoning. But, feel free to use your imagination and maybe create a rub using ingredients that will complement the salmon, like paprika, garlic powder, coriander, dill, salt, and black pepper. Or, maybe a miso rub . . . the fun is experimenting with what tastes you enjoy.
Please contact the Fisheries Division with any questions.