Cuckoo for Kokanees

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I was in Idaho last weekend on bass business, which still seems a bit odd because although they have exceptional fishing for both largemouths and smallmouths – it consistently takes over 20 pounds to win local tournaments – few of the locals seem to care about America’s most-chased freshwater gamefish.

Of course, the light pressure is probably part of what makes lakes like Pend Oreille and Coeur d’Alene so good. A local tournament angler told me that a big derby up there might be 50 boats, and that you’ll rarely have two on the same day. Even during the most heavily fished periods, you’re likely to have a whole bank, cove or section of the lake to yourself. Tell that to anglers on Guntersville or the Potomac River or even massive waterways like Erie and Okeechobee and they’ll probably look at you like you have a Helicopter Lure protruding from between your eyeballs. That’s the stuff that dreams are made of.

There are certainly plenty of outdoorsmen up there, but bass is by and large NOT the name of the game. After leaving Becker’s Tackle Shop, I walked maybe a hundred yards over to the more generalist Black Sheep Sporting Goods megastore. To be fair, Black Sheep had a fine selection of mainstream bass gear, but it appeared that far more space was devoted to trolling tackle to be used for kokanee salmon. Indeed, despite the fact that they have plenty of options up there besides bass and salmonids – everything from crappie to sturgeon – the locals just love to slow troll around the pond with all sorts of gaudy things, trying to catch a meal of these little landlocked sockeye salmon that average somewhere around 12 inches apiece. Thus, you can get all of the dodgers, flashers and Wiggle Hoochies you want, unless the hot lick models are already sold out.

Why kokanees? Perhaps a better question is “why not?” but the bass-centric skeptic in me (who notably has never caught a kokanee) presumes that trolling for them is not nearly as exciting as flipping into a mat, that the strikes are not quite as explosive as a 10-pound largemouth crushing a Whopper Plopper, and that the fight is nowhere near as difficult as a bulldogging 5-pound smallmouth tempted from the deep. If those assumptions are true, then a huge part of the explanation must be that “It’s what we do around here.”

That may seem silly (“We’ve always done it this way, so we’ll keep on doing it”), but it’s not just the dominant paradigm in the northwest – it exists in many other regions. In Minnesota, walleye is king. On the coast, many anglers love flounder. Neither appeals to me as much as bass, musky, redfish, or tarpon, but to each his own – even if the primary reason for their popularity is cultural or the result of peer pressure.

During a recent episode of Mike Iaconelli’s “Fish My City” which took place in Austin, Texas, Ike met up with a group of hardcore carp heads who used a variety of surf rods, alarm systems melon ballers (not really) and grain products to put him on a smallmouth buffalo. There, in the heart of bubba bigmouth country, these dudes were following their carpish passion. I’m sure they’ve been asked why they’re chasing “trash fish” more than once, but it didn’t deter them. What allows someone to overcome cultural barriers to entry and choose a fish outside of their expected lane? If you’re a hardcore bass angler and your kid comes to you sheepishly, head down, and says, “Dad, I want to become a competitive perch fisherman,” you’ll probably look at him condescendingly, but at least he’s keeping it real. Get over it.

Why are bass so popular, anyway? They don’t fight particular hard compared to some other species, they don’t grow to exceptional sizes. Is it just that they’re widespread and we’ve built a micropterus-industrial complex around them? Or as there something more? I write this as someone who is obsessed with largemouth, smallmouth, and (to a lesser extent) spotted, and also as someone who thinks a lot about these largely inconsequential matters, and I really don’t have an answer. I know that if I lived in the northwest I might fish for salmonids more, and if I lived in Venice or Florida I’d probably be an inshore fiend, but I’d like to think that there’s something special about bass that wouldn’t let go. There’s something biological about the species that inhabit our dreams, and the anglers who can overcome peer pressure often have the best of both worlds – exceptional fisheries, and few others sharing the best water.