If you haven’t had a chance to go fishing for kokanee salmon in the Gunnison River, plan a trip, particularly in fall.
The landscape surrounding the Gunnison is some of the prettiest you’ll lay eyes on, and the energetic fish are as colorful as the turning aspens.
Of course, salmon aren’t the only fish species to call this river home. Wild and stocked rainbows and cutthroats and wild browns can be caught here. And the Gunnison is home to the state record cutbow, which measured 33.5 inches. The fish was caught by Patrick Duke in 2014, so it’s safe to say that you’ll be putting your flies in front of some large trout while fishing for salmon.
It’s widely known among experienced anglers that kokanee salmon, like all salmon, don’t feed after they go through the chemical and physical changes required to spawn. This change in feeding behavior is why many conventional anglers use weighted treble hooks in an attempt to snag salmon on the side of their body. The problem with that is many Colorado rivers have catch and release regulations, so once the salmon have made that short trip out of whatever reservoir they were raised in, they’re no longer accessible to those using snagging as a technique.
Some give anglers an opportunity to keep salmon after a certain date, but by then the kokanee are spawned out and beat up, and I can’t imagine a decaying fish tasting that great. If keeping a salmon is something that intrigues you, the date when the regulations turn from catch and release to catch and keep in the Gunnison is Oct. 31. From Aug. 1 to Oct. 31, all salmon must be returned to the water immediately.
For those who still want to feel the tug of one of the stronger freshwater fish in Colorado and don’t mind releasing them, there’s good news. Spawning salmon can be caught easily in the corner of the mouth. That’s because a kokanee transforms from something that looks like a silver-colored trout to something that’s bright red with a row of razor sharp teeth.
A male kokanee takes it a step further as its nose grows elongated and turns inward. This “hook jaw,” also known as a kype, is two to three times the size of a traditional salmon’s mouth, making male kokes an easier target. Combine that with the fact that salmon often collect in a run or deep pool in high numbers and you have an ideal situation for flossing a salmon.
Flossing is when you are nymphing and your leader goes across a fish’s open mouth. After your leader/tippet material connects with the salmon’s mouth, your strike indicator pulls under and the resistance from the current pulling against your indicator and fly line causes your leader to slide across the mouth until the hook connects with the corner. It’s a technique I often describe as foul hooking a fish fair, because you’re playing the fish from the mouth like you would if it ate your fly.
Anyone who’s nymph fished long enough for trout has done this – some having never been aware of it. Use a long enough leader and enough weight to get down to the bottom and wait for your indicator to pull under before setting the hook. Make sure that your indicator is large and buoyant enough to hold up a lot of weight. I prefer the large thingamabobbers. Bring plenty of 4x and 5x fluorocarbon leaders and tippet.
Combine flossing with the next strategy, which is to use brightly colored orange and red fly patterns. Many aggressive animals seem to attack the color red, and salmon are no different. Add a good baetis nymph such as a Juju Baetis or bwo Barr’s Emerger as a dropper, and give yourself the opportunity to catch a large trout in the process.
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