They are called sockeyes in Alaska. Or reds. Or bluebacks. Anadromous fish, they run up mighty rivers by the millions. They drive whole economies, and stir the passions of bank anglers who try to time their days off each June to meet the run. When I think of salmon, I think of June in Alaska, heading up the Sterling Highway in the drizzle to fish for my limit on the Russian River. But this fall I have been hearing stories of salmon at Alcova and Pathfinder, my local stomping grounds. I’ve discovered images of what appears to be pairs of spawning sockeyes in our very own North Platte. And on various social media platforms, I keep seeing stringers of brick-red fish with green heads bound for the smoker. Because that’s what people think they should do with salmon—smoke them. All of them.
Yet these Wyoming salmon are not exactly sockeyes. They are kokanee salmon, landlocked relatives of the wild sockeye you purchase at Sam’s Club. Kokanee are cousins to sockeye salmon which, by landslide or earthquake, had their routes to the open sea cut off 15,000 years ago. Limited to lakes and inland watersheds, kokanees don’t reach the same size as a pelagic species. The diminutive kokanee survives solely in freshwater by feeding on plankton and invertebrates. They run up streams and inlets in the late fall to spawn. They evolved to meet their circumstances. When they spawn, their silver bodies go through dramatic changes. Their jaws elongate; their teeth lengthen. And they become outrageously red—Nebraska Cornhuskers red—which makes them stand out. In Alaska they call salmon in such conditions “Christmas Trees”, due to their red bodies and green heads.
Over the years, the Wyoming Game and Fish, in recognition of the popularity of kokanee fishing, have redoubled their efforts to stock kokanee fry into our local lakes and reservoirs. They are expanding the kokanee’s range, stocking fry in lakes that previously never held salmon. A recent article by the Game and Fish’s Robert Gagliardi explains that our biologists used to collect kokanee eggs from wild populations. But recently they have found success rearing kokanee brood stock at the Tillett Springs Rearing Station near Lovell. Gagliardi writes, “Game and Fish stocks nearly 1.7 million kokanee annually in Wyoming waters, formerly relying on fry from wild fish. That required fish culturists to capture kokanee in the wild, spawn them on-site and release the fish back into the water. But, as demand for kokanee grew, so did the pressure on wild populations.” The unique brood pond at Tillett holds its temperature at around 54 degrees, the sweet spot for kokanee. Now, the Game and Fish has the means to raise millions of kokanee from a single, disease-free source. This is great news for anglers who want to catch salmon in the Cowboy State.
Let’s be real--2020 was not the best. In fact, most of us are itching to hit the reset button for a better 2021. I decided to close the year out on a positive note and claim a small victory. Bill Mixer and Thomas “Fish” Chojnacki of the Wyoming Fly Casters had been wearing out the “kokes” at Alcova. The word on the street was that they were in thick. Anglers were catching them off the bank, hauling them home to their smokers, giving them away as gifts.
“Would they take a fly?” I asked. See, I wanted to believe.
That’s all I needed to set out one slate-grey, December afternoon with my dogs and some reasonable hope that I might land my first Wyoming salmon. With Mixer as my guide, we drove my truck out upon the receded lakebed.
“During the summer we’d be forty feet under water,” said Bill.
It was true. Alcova was so low I hardly recognized it. The ferruginous rock formations that tower over the reservoir seemed far away in the gloom. We checked a few of Bill’s go-to spots only to find that the salmon had vanished. Finally, we found a school of about 200 along a rocky peninsula. They were all in Christmas tree mode, making redds with their broad tails, chasing each other, hovering over piles of gravel. In a few casts I was hooked up. The fish struggled and wobbled under the surface. It was a male with a grotesque kype, just like an Alaskan sockeye, only in miniature. Bill said that the males were more aggressive, and that they were more likely to chase a fly than the females. He was just guessing, I could tell. This buck weighed maybe two pounds, whereas the Alaskan version goes about eight. My duck-dog, Henry, leaned in, not sure what this new being was. He licked it.
I let the fish slip back into the water to rejoin his schoolmates. I didn’t want to smoke the salmon, or anything else. The day was too dreary for that. It occurred to me that I had fished the lakes around Casper from ice-out in late April, to December. In a few days there would be a solid inch lid on Alcova, and no one would see a kokanee, or anything else swimming along the shoreline for months.
We caught several more bucks, but no hens. The light was falling. It felt more like a duck hunting day, than a fly fishing day. Both of us had duck stamps but hadn’t done much waterfowl hunting. We talked about swinging by a few of our spots to see if the mallards were finally down from the North. On days like this, it’s sometimes totally reasonable to drive around Natrona County with no real purpose. We drove to the school section near the Alcova Dam to see what the Canada geese were up to. There was a scrim of ice-fog lifting from the river’s surface. Snow as beginning to accumulate on the road. I wanted to stand on the bridge, like so many of us fly fisherman do, and look down into the current for trout. In the spring you can stand there and watch the large rainbows staging for the spawn. But someone had beaten us to it. I saw boot tracks running along the bridge railing where an angler, or just some curious rancher, had walked to the middle of the bridge and stopped. Perhaps he was a fly fisher too, or a writer looking for a story. It was time to go back to town. Whatever was down there in the roiling eddies would have to wait until next year. The air was swirling with millions of snowflakes. The boot tracks in the snow were already filling in.