Kokanee Salmon – Montana Field Guide

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  • Home – Other Field Guides
    • Kingdom – Animals – Animalia
      • Phylum – Vertebrates – Craniata
        • Class – Fish – Actinopterygii
          • Order – Salmon / Trout – Salmoniformes
            • Family – Trout – Salmonidae
              • Species – Kokanee Salmon – Oncorhynchus nerka

Kokanee Salmon – Oncorhynchus nerka

General Description

The kokanee is the landlocked version of the sockeye salmon. Kokanee were first introduced into Montana in Flathead Lake in 1914 and are currently fairly widespread in the western half of the state on both sides of the Divide. Kokanee can achieve sizes of 3 to 5 pounds but 1-pounders are most common. The size of kokanee in Montana waters is a function of two factors, their own population density and the abundance of their available food supply. Kokanee are strictly plankton feeders and they can rapidly overpopulate, resulting in large numbers of stunted fish. Kokanee spawn naturally in many Montana waters. They either run upstream from their lake habitat or spawn along the lake shorelines in the fall. Most kokanee reach sexual maturity in their fourth year of life and they then undergo a dramatic transformation prior to spawning. The silvery specimen seen here becomes a smooth-skinned, red-colored spawning fish with large hooked jaws and teeth on the males. All the adults die after spawning, making for a tremendous food source for bald eagles, grizzly bears, and other animals. Kokanee are very sensitive to water temperature and school in lakes at a certain depth. Once located, they are readily caught and provide excellent sport as well as table fare.

Diagnostic Characteristics

The anal fin has 13 to 17 rays; its base is longer than the base of the dorsal fin. There are 29 to 40 gill rakers on the first arch.

Species Range

Observations in Montana Natural Heritage Program Database

Number of Observations:


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Relative Density



This species often ascends tributary streams to spawn. The runs may be as early as September and October.


Habitat consists of cold, clear lakes and reservoirs and Kokanee Salmon are found at all depths. They spawn over loose rubble, gravel, and sand in lower portions of tributary streams or along lake shores (Holton 1981, Brown 1971).

Food Habits

The diet consists mostly of plankton. Micro-crustacea are most important, but midges and other aquatic insects are often taken (Brown 1971). Daphnia thorata is a principal food for all size classes in Flathead Lake (Leathe and Graham 1982).


Construction of Lake Koocanusa has been very favorable for populations in the Kootenai River. They are now common in the reservoir, but did not occur prior to inpoundment (Huston et al. 1984).

Reproductive Characteristics

Kokanee sexually mature usually in 4 years and spawn in pairs during November-December. Eggs are laid in redds and hatch in 110 days at 43 degrees F. Fry emerge in spring and enter the lake. Adults die soon after spawning (Brown 1971).


  • Literature Cited AboveLegend: View Online Publication
    • Brown, C.J.D. 1971. Fishes of Montana. Montana State University, Bozeman, MT. 207 pp.
    • Holton, G.D. 1981. Identification of Montana’s most common game and sport fishes. Montana Outdoors reprint.
    • Huston J.E., P. Hamlin; B. May 1937-; Montana. Dept. of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks.; United States. Army. Corps of Engineers. Seattle District. 1984
    • Leathe, S.A. and P.J. Graham. 1982. Flathead Lake fish food habits study. Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. 137 pp.
  • Additional ReferencesLegend: View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we’re missing?
    • Johnson, R.L. 1962. The yield and standing crop of fish in Dailey Lake, Montana. M.Sc. Thesis. Bozeman, MT: Montana State University. 25 p.
    • McClelland, B. R., and P. T. McClelland. 1986. Bald eagles and kokanee salmon: a rendezvous in Glacier National Park. Western Wildlands 11(4):7-11.
    • Opitz, S.T. 1999. Effects of whirling disease on recruitment of brown trout in the Ruby River and Poindexter Slough, Montana. M.Sc. Thesis. Bozeman, MT: Montana State University. 97 p.
    • Rahrer, J.F. 1963. Age and growth of four species of fish, Flathead Lake, Montana. M.Sc. Thesis. Bozeman, MT: Montana State University. 16 p.
    • Spinelli, J.P. 2010. Spatial and temporal entrainment of fish from Hauser Reservoir, Montana. M.Sc. Thesis. Bozeman, Montana: Montana State University. 107 p.
  • Web Search Engines for Articles on “Kokanee Salmon”
    • WorldCat
    • Google Scholar
    • Google Books
    • Science.gov
  • Additional Sources of Information Related to “Fish”
    • American Fisheries Society

    • American Society of Icthyologists and Herpetologists

    • FishMT – Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks

    • Montana Chapter of the American Fisheries Society

    • Natural Heritage MapViewer (Statewide Database of Animal Observations)

    • VertNet – Vertebrate Collections Network


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