Lessons on catching the landlocked sockeye from Merwin Reservoir on the Cowlitz River.
ARIEL, Cowlitz County — Guide Cameron Black says he still has plenty to learn about kokanee fishing at Merwin Reservoir, but he does often put a couple of dozen a day of the tasty landlocked sockeye in his boat during the finicky winter and early spring months.
“I wouldn’t call it the Bible of kokanee fishing, but it’s what works for me,” said Black, a Woodland resident and operator of Gone Catchin’ Guide Service.
He often fishes with five rods at a time, depending on the number of clients. By using a different lure on each rod, it allows for experimentation and on-the-water testing.
Black offered his advice to Merwin kokanee anglers in a January seminar at Bob’s Sporting Goods in Longview. Here’s a condensed version of what he told a standing-room turnout:
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Rods: A Lamiglas CG70DR has been his preferred rod, but he’s tried a Lamiglas XCC 762 UL GH and is switching over.
Reels: A line-counter reel is a must, although many line-counter reels are a bit beefy for kokanee gear. Several low-profile line-counter reels are coming on to the market, he added.
Line: Black prefers monofilament, because kokanee are known for having a soft mouth. Maxima Ultragreen in the 10- or 12-pound strength are his staples.
Dodgers: Sling Blades, Arrow Flash and Simon Kokanee dodgers are his top choices.
Lures: He’s mostly a spinners and hoochies angler. If limited to a single lure, it would be an orange hoochie, Black said.
In his hoochies, Black wants the trailing hook behind the skirt material.
“When you troll by them, those dodgers call them into look, and then they see that hoochie or spinner or whatever you are using, then there’s that little dangling piece of white corn. I think that’s just the final part for them to hit.”
Hooks: Dropshot hooks (also called splitshot hooks) are much superior to the traditional Octopus style hook, said Black.
He prefers sizes No. 2 or No. 4 and whether they are red or black does not matter.
Bait: Green Giant white corn is his choice of baits. He also likes to take a can of Chicken of the Sea chunk light tuna and drain some of the juice and a bit of the tuna mush into a zip-lock bag, then soak the corn.
If he’s not getting strikes, he changes his trolling speed, depth or lure color before worrying about scent.
“Usually scent is not the first thing I’m going to switch. It’s important, but not everything.”
Black also likes a single corn kernel per hook. Additional kernels can dampen the action of the hoochie.
Rigging: His main line comes to a pair of duo snaps. Then he has 3 to 4 feet of 10-pound monofilament to the dodger followed by 8 to 12 inches of 10-pound monofilament to the hoochie.
If he’s using a lead sinker, it is attached between the duo snaps.
Ten-pound monofilament is not off-putting to kokanee and doesn’t break as easily as 4- to 6-pound mono.
Snubbers are not necessary, but if you use them place them right behind the sinker. Snubbers will dampen the action of a dodger if tied too close, he said.
Technique: Black is not a believer in making “S” turns, which cause the lines on one side of the curve to drop and the lines on the outside to rise.
“I throttle up or down to get that action, and it applies to all the lures, not just those on one side of the boat.”
He also trolls with the wind, or against it, but not sideways, which is more likely to result in tangled lines.
Fishing the right depth is the key to catching kokanee in Merwin.
“You can have the best lure, best dodger, best presentation, but if you can’t get it in front of the fish you’re not going to catch them.”
The right depth is a combination of water temperature and light intensity, he said.
And while it varies from day to day, if the light is intense, try fishing about 10 feet deep on March 1, 15 feet on April 1 and 20 feet on May 1.
This year, water temperatures are above average and the kokanee might start going deep earlier, he added.
He said his trolling speed is normally 1 to 1.4 miles per hour, with 1.2 to 1.3 mph being best most often.
Early in the year, it may be necessary to have a lot of line out — perhaps 120 to 180 feet behind the boat, he said.
“When you are targeting fish early in the year, you will probably not be seeing fish on your depth finder due to the fact those fish are 5 to 10 feet down and when that boat goes over them they’re going to be pushing off to the sides.”
Black uses downriggers once the water gets into the 56- to 60-degree range. He often fishes his downriggers at 40 to 60 feet.
Merwin Reservoir can be challenging because the kokanee schools move a lot.
“This year, fish have been scattered all over, hard to find, and not in same place two days in a row. We’ll spend two hours of looking for 30 minutes of catching.”
But the fish also have been a nice size considering it’s winter.
“If the growth season is starting right now, they’re going to be huge by summer,” he said.