Crazy for fishing Koocanusa


Wisps of clouds moving over the mountains to the west spit droplets of rain on Lake Koocanusa Sunday, and strong winds kicked up dust storms from the dunes exposed on the shorelines. 

Two lone boats bounced and bobbed in the rough waters, trolling for kokanee salmon and rainbow trout. 

The wind licked whitecaps out of the rough water, and muddy water from runoff complicated matters for anglers in the fifth annual Lake Koocanusa fishing tournament. This was a weekend for dedicated fishermen only. Nearly 400 anglers turned out for this event and to try their luck at big fish and big cash payouts. First place in the rainbow trout category paid $2,195 to Washington angler John Scott, who turned in an 8-pound 10-ounce pound kamloops rainbow. The top salmon brought in $784. While the salmon wer bigger this year, it was the smallest winning rainbow trout in five years.

Fishing was slow this year, due mainly to water levels, tournament organizer Randie Burch said.

Lake Koocanusa is an impoundment of the Kootenai River between Libby and Eureka, and just before the tournament, the lake level was dropped about 15 feet, according to Burch.

"It was really tough fishing," Burch said, "but everyone had an awesome time."

Anglers from Montana, Washington, Idaho, Arizona and Wyoming showed up to compete in the tournament. There were 147 boats entered. "We had a great bunch of people," Burch said. "It's like a big family reunion."

Lake Koocanusa is a bizarre landscape to western Montana: one of sand and wind and big water. The lake stretches some 90 miles through narrow gorges and wide bays, from Libby up into Canada. The exposed dunes create miles of hiking, camping and off-road vehicle use. As a fishery, it takes some practice to have success here, but with some practice and good advice, it's a fishery you can do well on.

While trout fishing in the tournament was a low spot this year, kokanee made up for it. " The salmon fishing was really good," Burch said. The best salmon fishing, she said, is at the lower end of the lake, near the dam. Trolling with cowbells or flashers behind leaded line is working well, although jigging could produce fish as well. You'll want to tip your offering with bait, such as maggots or corn, and use a rubber "snubber," to keep the hook from tearing out of the soft mouths of the salmon.

This year's salmon are bigger than usual, with many kokanee over 14 inches being caught. "I've never seem them this big," Burch said. "They're very healthy."

It's the big kamloops rainbow trout and bull trout that most anglers at Lake Koocanusa hope to hook. These big fish are caught several ways, from plugs pulled behind downriggers, to planer boards and long-lining with monofilament behind the boat.

Although fishing at the tournament was slower than usual, things should pick up, Burch said. The lake is coming up about a foot a day, and will level off about 10 feet below full pool, she said. Starting June 1, anglers can begin fishing for bull trout on Lake Koocanusa. Currently it's illegal to fish for bulls, but with a free "catch card" from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, anglers can legally fish for bull trout on Lake Kooocanusa and keep up to two fish per year.


Results from the fifth annual Lake Koocanusa Marina and Resort fishing tournament

Rainbow trout

1. John Scott, eight pounds 10 ounces

2. Brian Berger, eight pounds six ounces

3. Dan Armstrong, eight pounds two ounces

4. Cory Barker, seven pounds eleven ounces

5. Sandy Moran, seven pounds five ounces

6. Dick Timlick, seven pounds 


 Kokanee salmon (weights based on 20 fish per angler)

1. Gene Gregg, six pounds 12 ounces

2. Vic Crace, six pounds nine ounces, four grams

3. Jack Emard, six pounds nine ounces two grams

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