Name something of an outdoor nature that Colorado has in common with other places in the world.
Mountains, forests, rivers, rafting, hiking, skiing, deer, bear and eagles.
Fish? Now we're talking.
You probably were thinking of trout. But did you think of salmon? Salmon are thought of as a fish of coastal waters — not of a landlocked state. Yet there are salmon registering as residents of Colorado.
Kokanee salmon, a landlocked Pacific sockeye salmon, referred to locally as "kokes," are artificially propagated in hatcheries, then stocked into several lakes in Colorado, including Blue Mesa Reservoir.
Most salmon of the world are measured in pounds, but mature Colorado kokanee will be 16 to 19 inches in length and weigh one to three pounds. The state record is a 27-inch, 7-pound, 5-ounce kokanee from Blue Mesa Reservoir.
Kokanee are not able to successfully spawn naturally, so they get some assistance from the Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Instinctively in the fall, spawn-minded adults leave Blue Mesa, migrate upstream into the Gunnison River and on up the East River to the Roaring Judy hatchery.
CPW volunteers gather kokanee, arriving by the thousands, to hand collect and fertilize the eggs. The delicate eggs are then incubated in the hatchery and the fry grow protected during the winter.
Come spring, the young kokanee are released into the East River at the hatchery, to migrate downstream into Blue Mesa Reservoir, which creates the natural imprint that will guide them to return later as spawning adults.
Growing and living in Blue Mesa until the fall of their third or fourth year, mature kokanee begin their upstream migration after which they die naturally.
Immature kokanee in the lake are silver colored, but when they begin their spawning run, males develop a very pronounced hook jaw and females are heavily laden with eggs. Both develop a very beautiful red to purple hue on their bodies, with a green cast on their head and fins, back, and abdomen.
As they travel up the Gunnison River to the hatchery, kokanee congregate in the deeper holes. A strange dark mass will appear to ebb and flow in the waters' depth. Fishermen can catch the kokanee, either by standard fishing techniques, such as using bait or flies, or by snagging.
Kokanee do bite or feed on their spawning journey. Try a nymph fly presented with weight deep into the holes, or an egg pattern fly of a bright orange or red color. Dead drift slowly through the holes. Keep a short, tight line. Bites are soft and difficult to notice.
When in doubt, strike, because even if it is a false alarm, you simply cast again. Salmon don't spook like a trout and disappear — they just move over a little.
Kokanee can also be found in shallow runs, often right next to the bank, and can be sight fished.
Snagging is a popular method of catching a kokanee.
Although there are some early fish in September, the masses generally migrate in October. Because of the need to have a significant number of fish reach the hatchery in order to collect eggs, snagging is not permitted in the river upstream of Blue Mesa before November 1. Snagging is permitted in the river downstream of Blue Mesa starting September 1.
Consult the regulation brochure for seasons and limits, as the rules for kokanee are different than for trout, and there are exceptions.
Snagging is best done with a stiff spinning rod and a closed face spinning reel, loaded with heavy test line, such as 15- or 20-pound test. Snagging hooks are a heavily weighted large treble hook. You'll lose some hooks, but when you find a hole loaded with kokes, more often than a river snag, it will be a kokanee snag. Hold on at first, because they are often snagged in the side, and can be difficult to bring in.
Most of the Blue Mesa kokanee exit into the Gunnison River upstream of Blue Mesa on their way to the Roaring Judy hatchery. Public access from Blue Mesa to Gunnison is good, but above Gunnison, there are only a few public access points. Kokanee also appear at side inlets all around Blue Mesa, and in the river below the dam, as well as a few strays that make a wrong turn into the Taylor River above Almont.
Pine Creek Trail leads to the Gunnison River below Blue Mesa dam. There is also access to the river below Morrow Point dam at Cimarron. Every year some kokanee show up in these downstream reaches of the river.
Catch them however you can because Kokanee are excellent table fare when smoked.