The fall run of kokanee salmon should be heading up the creeks on the east side of Kawkawa Lake.
These are a version of sockeye salmon, which have lost the urge to spend part of their time in the ocean. Like its sea-run cousin, the kokanee’s body takes on a red colour when spawning and the head turns dark green. Males develop a bigger jaw and humped back.
Locals have known about the Kawkawa kokanees for many years but few, perhaps, are aware that the lake has another species of Pacific salmon that has lost its wanderlust and is happy to live full-time in the lake.
If you’ve ever caught a spotted fish in Kawkawa Lake that you know wasn’t a cutthroat or rainbow trout, it probably was a non-anadromous or “landlocked” coho, says Nick Basok of Rosedale.
Basok spent 25 years as a fish culturist at the Fraser Valley Trout hatchery in Abbotsford before retiring and taking on a job at Chilliwack Dart and Tackle. He continues to serve as a public advisor for the Freshwater Fisheries Society of BC.
“I first fished Kawkawa in 1961 with my dad,” said Basok on Monday. “The lake at that time was stocked with rainbow and they actually grew quite large — two to three pounds — and there was a good amount of kokanee also.
“I believe the stocking was halted in the late 60’s or early 70’s and that eventually the rainbow disappeared and the kokanee became the dominant preference for fishery.
The coastal cutthroat that are present in the lake are probably derivatives from some sea-run cutthroat that at one time made their way into the lake and started a residualized population that has leveled off to what the lake can support.”
After the mature kokanee have spawned and died off, sea-run coho and chum can be seen in small numbers in the east-side creeks. It’s these sea-run coho that Basok believes have started a resident species.
“When coho go through lakes to spawn, their smolts spend their first year in the lake before going to the ocean — but there’s always that 10 per cent that want to stay there,” he said. “It happens in Cultus Lake, too.
“I think they have formed their own population in Kawkawa Lake — male and female. The numbers are so high, at least half the size of the kokanee population,” he estimates.
And these aren’t sea-run smolts, which Basok estimates are 15 to 20 grams when they leave the lake to migrate to the ocean. These resident coho would fit nicely in a frying pan. Problem is you might be on shaky legal ground to keep them, says Basok.
“Coho retention in the lake is a gray area, as there are no regulations that I know of keeping them in a lake rather than in a river, where all wild coho must be released.”
The gray area comes from the fact that these coho have no interest in going to the ocean, where they come under the realm of federal fisheries.
Basok’s photo of a kokanee and lake-based coho showed a clear difference.
“The kokanee is more tuna-shaped and is silver but the coho has solid spots from one end to the other and on the tail,” explained Basok. “I have always told people to release the coho, just to be sure they don’t get fined.”
“Anglers who have tried them, thinking that they were trout or kokanee said they were great tasting. The kokanee are also amazing table fare regardless if you pan fry, bake, barbecue or smoke them,” said Basok.
“It’s the best kokanee fishery in the Lower Mainland — by far,” he added. “It’s a wild system that works so well, we don’t want to fool with it.
“The creeks on the far side are perfect for spawning. They’re spring-fed, with a constant flow and there’s not a lot of development out there.
“There’s also tons of zooplankton in the lake. You need that for kokanee.”
If we can observe resident coho spawning in the creeks in November and December, we’ll know more about this unusual population.
Basok has many tips on fishing the lake, which will be shared next spring after the annual December to February closure.