For many anglers, catching salmon is a dream as unachievable as winning the lottery or marrying a model. It might be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure that has to be planned for years. This is especially true with two of the most iconic salmon species: Atlantic and sockeye.
Generally, Atlantic salmon are only available in private waters owned by lavish sporting lodges that serve lobster and champagne. Most anglers would have to take out a second mortgage or sell their first-born child to afford to fish there. The sockeye runs in the Lower 48 have declined so far that most rarely open for fishing anymore, forcing would-be salmon smokers north to B.C. and Alaska.
However, there are other options for anglers with the salmon urge. Across the country, hundreds of lakes and rivers contain consistent runs of the often-introduced, adfluvial versions of these two popular species. Though only distantly related, these two fish require similar methods are both great to eat.
What Are Landlocked Salmon? Just like the steelhead of the Great Lakes, landlocked Atlantic and kokanee salmon are freshwater-bound forms of anadromous Atlantic and sockeye salmon. Instead of migrating to the ocean like their cousins, these fish use large lakes and reservoirs as surrogate seas. They spend most of their lives in these large bodies of water, fattening up on the freshwater forage and growing to adulthood before running up rivers to spawn. There are introduced, freshwater versions of Chinook, coho, and pink salmon in the Great Lakes and elsewhere as well.
Landlocked Atlantic salmon are found throughout the Northeastern U.S., predominantly in New England, sharing range with their mostly-extirpated anadromous counterparts. They are so intricately linked genetically that they are considered the same species, and landlocks live a life cycle that is almost identical to the Atlantic salmon. They are both born in the river, beginning their lives as small parr feeding on invertebrates and small insects before growing into smolts and migrating to larger bodies of water. The only difference between the two is access to the ocean. While these freshwater salmon do occur naturally, they have been stocked in many other places as well.
Landlocked salmon share the same distinct silvery color and sparse black spots of the true Atlantic salmon, though they don't grow as large. Most fish returning to the rivers range in size from 3 to 5 pounds, though specimens of over 10 pounds can be found in certain waters.
Native to the Western U.S., kokanee salmon have been successfully introduced to lakes and reservoirs all over the country. Many scientists believe that despite genomic connections between sockeye and kokanee, the two fish evolved into two distinct species. Evidence suggests that the two separated from each other some 15,000 years ago at the end of the Ice Age when melting glaciers left behind many freshwater lakes and blocked passages to the Pacific Ocean. Like other landlocked salmon, kokanee don't grow nearly as large as sockeye due to less enriching forage in freshwater. Kokanee rarely exceed 20 inches.
However, the two fish are alike in almost every other way that concerns anglers. Like the sockeye salmon, kokanee spawn in the autumn in massive schools and then die shorty after. When they enter rivers to spawn, the fish change as they migrate upstream from their translucent silver to the distinctive bright red.
How to Fish for Landlocked Atlantic Salmon Landlocked salmon have two distinctive runs during the year. Like other salmon species, they return to the rivers from which they were born in the fall to spawn, but some groups run in the early spring. This spring run is more productive for anglers. Unlike in the autumn when salmon are concentrating on spawning, in the spring they are coming to feed. Spring salmon follow schools of baitfish such as smelt and alewives as they move upstream to spawn. Feeding as predators makes the salmon extremely aggressive and willing to smash a lure or fly. They also make for better tablefare this time of year, because they are less emaciated than during the spawn.
Personally, I prefer to swing flies on a 5-weight single-handed or Spey rod for landlocked salmon. There is an Old World connection to swinging flies for salmon, a romance that recalls images of aristocratic Scottish gentleman in tweed coats and tartan caps working salmon beats with polished bamboo rods and elaborate hair wing flies. You can practically hear the echoes of distant bagpipes as you cast.
Just like with their anadromous cousins, there is a long and storied history to fly fishing for landlocked salmon, especially in northern New England. Unsurprisingly, some of the best flies to use for landlocked salmon are the classics like the Grey Ghost and the Magog Smelt. Other flies that can be quite effective are the Muddler Minnow and a white or gray Wooly Bugger.
Anglers wishing to use spinning gear for spring run salmon in rivers and lakes will do very well with a variety of trout lures. Spinners produce, as do small, flashy spoons like the Eppinger Daredevle and Thomas Buoyant. The hands-down best lure for salmon I've found is the classic floating Rapala in black and silver. You can swing it in the current as well as retrieving across likely areas.
The best places to find landlocked salmon are in long, slow runs where the river current is traveling about the same speed as a fast walk. The tails of slow pools just upstream of faster moving water are also great spots to toss a line. Salmon will hold in these spots looking to ambush baitfish as they travel upstream. Be sure to work flies and lures through the entirety of most pools because you never know where a big salmon may be hiding.
How to Fish for Kokanee Salmon In most places they inhabit, kokanee begin to enter rivers in late summer as they prepare to spawn. Enterign the river they change from an iridescent silver to the classic bright red bodies and green heads associated with sockeye.
Out in the lakes, kokanee live an open-water, pelagic lifestyle, mostly feeding on a diet of tiny invertebrates, insects, and freshwater shrimp smaller than the head of a pin. Like with sockeye this can make them difficult to find and catch, but there are some hacks to simplify the process.
Most serious kokanee fishing in lakes is done while trolling. In order to cover water and find schools of fish, kokanee anglers often deploy smaller versions of the same tackle seen in coastal salmon fisheries like flashers, dodgers, and gang trolls to attract fish, followed by small spinners, spoons, and flatfish. Good electronics are key in discerning the depth at which the fish are holding. Many fishermen use downriggers to get their gear at exactly the right depth, be it 10 feet or 100 feet. It's sometimes possible to mark fish on sonar and vertically jig to them using small jigging spoons and darts.
When kokanee migrate upstream in the fall, they only have one thing on their mind and can become quite aggressive. The fish will lash out at anything that comes within range. So, the best lures and flies an angler can use to catch them are ones that capitalize on this aggression.
Brightly-colored lures with a lot of movement and vibration such as a Blue Fox Spinner or Acme Little Cleo spoon in colors like hot pink, yellow, and red, will draw reaction strikes. Anglers can also drift lures and baits such as small soft-plastics like Minnow Grubs, corn, live-worms, or just plain red hooks underneath a bobber through pods of migrating salmon to entice a strike.
Fly anglers will benefit from the same strategy. Using small but bright and flashy streamers like the Clouser Minnow can be very effective. Dead drifting flies such as worm and egg patterns and bright attractor nymphs like the Zug Bug, Steelhead Hammer, and Hot Head Pheasant Tail work well too.
Kokanee tend to stack up in shallow gravel-filled pools and riffles. Their bright red bodies make them fairly easy to spot. Anglers targeting kokes simply have to walk the river and look for likely holding locations. Once a clutch of spawning fish has been spotted, start casting around the fringes of the school with a lures or flies, varying your speed and presentation until the salmon react. You can also drift flies and baits down the middle of the school, lifting anytime the indicator or bobber slows down, twitches, or vanishes.
How to Cook and Eat Landlocked Salmon Though these fish are smaller and not as rich and fatty as true anadromous salmon, they are still delicious. With a light and slightly oily flesh, they'll work well with any of your favorite trout or salmon recipes.
I've always preferred to cook landlocked Atlantic salmon whole, either smoked, poached, or baked. Cooking an entire Atlantic salmon rather than just the fillets is a traditional method in Europe, and it's considered a celebration of prosperity—a fitting way to celebrate your success on the river.
Kokanee salmon are some of the most delicious fish in freshwater. Their meat is brighter and richer while fresh than any salmon you can find in a store. Kokanee will also go well with almost all of your favorite salmon recipes, but I have always found them to taste best when they are lightly grilled over charcoal or smoked. The sweeter aspects of their meat are brought forth by the smoke of an open fire.
Why Landlocked Salmon? There is an aura to salmon fishing. Regardless of anadromy, all salmon have a mystique that separates them from other gamefish. They run the rivers only once or twice a year, making them both a rare treat to anticipate all year.
These freshwater fish offer a way for us to live out our salmon fishing dreams nearer to home. Visions of cold, iridescent, and fast flowing rivers, leaping silver fish, and hearty, healthy meals provided by the river otherwise might only be available to us in our angling daydreams.
Feature image via Tosh Brown.