What’s behind the surge of monster kokanee in Northeast Oregon
will there be more?
his world-record Lake Wallowa Kokanee
By Terry W. Sheely
Shortly after 5:30 the Sunday morning calm of Wallowa Lake was shattered by a pounding strike that catapulted Ron Campbell and northeast Oregon into the world record book, crushed the state kokanee salmon record for the third time in as many months and triggered the question why?
Why has bucolic Wallowa Lake in the far northeast corner of Oregon, for decades at best a sub-par kokanee producer, suddenly exploded with record shattering-size kokanee; freshwater kokanee that are bigger than their ocean-going cousins sockeye salmon?
ODFW’s Bill Knox, assistant district fish biologist at Enterprise may have an explanation.
And Ron Campbell has the new world kokanee salmon record.
It was June 13, 2010.
In Campbell’s words, “I was trolling shallow using a Shasta Sling Blade with a Shasta Pee Wee hoochie, fishing alone when I hooked the fish. I had my hands full. A kokanee of this size can rip line off your reel with a heart pounding run. I
thought he was going to spool me. I was using 10-pound test high visibility P-line on an Ambassador level-wind reel.
“After I netted the kokanee and put him in my cooler. I looked at him several times and said to myself, ‘Wow that is a big fish.’ I finally found my digital scales
which said over 9 pounds. After the local stores opened I got the certified weight 9.67 pounds.”
The official weight, as registered by ODFW is 9 pounds 10.72 ounces, which eclipse the International Game Fish Association’s (IGFA) 22-year-old world record of 9-pounds, 6-ounces caught in 1988 in British Columbia.
Campbell’s world-beater kokanee is 27 ¾ inches long with a girth of 17 ¾ inches. In late October it was officially certified as the new IGFA All Tackle World Record, and the line class world record for 12-pound test. With the world ranking it automatically became the United States record and the Oregon state record, Campbell said.
Kokanee are freshwater landlocked sockeye salmon. Most are pansize 10 to 17 inches long. Campbell’s fish is bigger than most sea-going sockeye salmon.
For comparison perspective on how big Campbell’s monster kokanee is, consider thatWashington’s kokanee record at 6.25 pounds is three pounds and change lighter.
Campbell’s kokanee is also bigger than Washington’s saltwater sockeye record of 9.37 pounds caught by John Stebly at Sekiu.
Washington’s freshwater sockeye record, which is an anadromous fish that had migrated into freshwater to spawn, is 10.63 pound just a pound and few ounces bigger than Campbell’s kokanee. Oregon doesn’t have a state record for saltwater sockeye salmon.
I asked ODFW biologist Knox, Why are Lake Wallowa kokanee growing to sockeye salmon size?
“I’m not certain,” he said, “but there are two things in particular that may account for it.” Three straight winters of brutal cold and snow cover on the ice at Wallowa Lake reduced the lake’s kokanee population substantially. At the same time there was a high population of mysis shrimp, a high-protein food source introduced in the 1960s.
Fewer fish plus more food equals bigger fish—it’s a rare combination of factors that, Knox said, it’s a formula that could have produced the sockeye salmon sized kokanee.
It’s also possible the biologist said, that some of the super-sized kokanee being caught Wallowa Lake may be 7 years old. Most kokanee spawn and die at 4 to 5 years old, but in the 1990s ODFW conducted monitoring surveys at Wallowa that found 6 and 7 year old kokanee.
The extra years do not always equate to extra size, the biologist cautioned, pointing out that some of the lake’s 5 year old kokanee were only 9 inches long, while other 5 year olds were 19 inches. Knox says he doesn’t think the added year(s) “is that big a deal,” because of the growth variances.
More likely, he says, is that the bigger kokanee have “figured out how to feed on the shrimp. Shrimp move up in the water column at night and down in the day, and some of the kokanee seem to have figured out how to utilize this movement, to feed at dusk and dawn when the shrimp are near the surface.
“I think that these are the fish that are getting bigger. The kokanee that haven’t figured out the shrimp movement don’t eat as many shrimp and are normal size.” Knox said. He noted that ODFW has not attempted to determine the age of Campbell’s world record.
At 283-feet deep, 1- mile wide, 5-miles long and located at an alpine elevation of 4,372 feet Wallowa Lake has a short growing season with “a low abundance” of kokanee and has never enjoyed a reputation as a top kokanee producer until the triplicated string of record breakers last year.
Will it last?
Will next year produce another bigger world record?
Campbell predicts, “This spring will be interesting. Will all the big fish spawn and die, reverting back to small fish. It is my opinion that some of the large fish will remain and will be monsters this spring. I predict that a 12 pound kokanee is in the lake. I believe this enough to step up to 12-pound test P-line. I had a monster fish break 10 pound test when he jumped.
“I have been fishing Wallowa Lake for years along with my brother who caught the state record kokanee in 2000,” Campbell told TRN, adding, “I had the kokanee dialed in and caught a 7-pound, 10 ounce the week prior (to setting the world record).
“One day I caught 18 kokanee and kept three that were all over 5 pounds. If you hook one of these kokanee you better have good gear and a large net. If not you will be saying what the "H" was that! Think silver salmon size.”
ODFW’s Knox believes it’s possible, too. “I can’t swear there won’t be some big fish still caught, a handful will still be around, next year, but I kind of think that based on our surveys the kokanee population numbers are back up considerably from where they’ve been and I think we’re probably going to catch more fish but not as many big fish.”
All Wallowa Lake kokanee are from natural spawn in the Wallowa River or in lake shore gravel and Knox said that he’s never seen a kokanee larger than Campbell’s.
Come next May and June a lot of kokanee fanatics will be looking for one at Wallowa Lake, fishing hard on what could be the last big chance to shatter the world
That’s one fact you can count on.