Connecting Kids with Kokanee
It’s seven o’clock in the morning and radiant light is in play and the shadows are long. I’m aft in a large pontoon boat on Heron Lake near Chama, New Mexico, a stone’s throw from Colorado. Light winds fetch up little silver waves that slap at the hull. I’m baiting white shoepeg corn bathed in anise oil on a Double Whammy lure. It’s an interesting concoction that smells like quesadillas of corn tortillas and biscochitos blended together in a tin can. It’s a pleasant smell, but doesn’t necessarily make me hungry.
Don Wolfley is at the wheel, steering his boat to deep water where he knows fish will lie. An island is the landmark toward which he steers. The sound of water in the live-well tinkles in a coarse drip; a four-stroke outboard is at a smooth, low, no-wake hum. My boy Carson is forward, leaning on the rail. He’s taking in his first boat ride on flat water that hasn’t involved a paddle. His chatter, reciting everything he sees, is the articulation of his young mind at sail. He doesn’t miss the finest of details that we as adults seem to have turned our eyes away from. He wonders out loud, why are there bubbles on the water? Why does it get breezy when the sun comes out in the morning? Why is the water green?
The green water is in essence why we are here. Heron Lake is rich in plankton, microscopic plants and animals that give the water its green murk. In the murk below are kokanee salmon, and it’s that murk which they literally eat.
A moving landscape frames Heron Lake. This morning, the purplish San Juan Mountains stand in solemnity in one corner. Shadows bend around yellow rays that play on the 11,000-foot mountain tops revealing their three-dimensional shapes. Brazos Cliffs are firm and stoic like Kerouac’s “Desolation Angel” in the North Cascades. Nearer to us, the dry stratified flat-top mesas hover close to shore, unassuming. This cirque in the bottoms is filled at full-pool with 6,000 acres of Heron Lake’s green water.
This reservoir provides domestic water downstream, and it provides Don Wolfley a living guiding anglers who seek kokanee, lake trout, and rainbow trout stocked by the Hotchkiss National Fish Hatchery. He’s been at it since 1997, after a successful career as a public school administrator.
At first blush, it seems odd to find kokanee salmon in New Mexico. Kokanee salmon are not native here. Kokanee salmon were introduced in a select few New Mexico lakes in 1963, for the express purpose of providing more fishing opportunity. Heron Lake is a place well-suited for them.
The kokanee salmon is the landlocked form of the sockeye salmon. They are both the same species, just two different forms. It’s the same as the differences with rainbow trout and steelhead; one goes to sea for part of its life (the steelhead), the other does not. Kokanee salmon (and sockeye) are native to the inland Pacific Coast drainages from Idaho and Washington, northward, rimming around to Japan.
Wolfley steers his boat over 140 feet of water near an island and we course slow, trolling with down-riggers to get the bait deep, to about 30 feet where the fish show themselves on a fish-finder. We troll slowly, and at depth, a flashy lure wobbles drawing attention to itself from the weak light than penetrates from above.
His admixture-bait that reminds me of tortillas and cookies endemic to Hispanic New Mexico, tipped to flashy pink and yellow steel, proves its worth. A bending rod shudders under the pull of a fish. The tug and lunge at 30 feet is transmuted to the boy’s forearm. In moments, the sun radiates silvery from the flanks of a fine fish. This 18-inch kokanee is white on the bottom so predators from below, like lake trout, can’t see it. It’s olive-green and speckled from above so fish-eating osprey can’t see it and sink talons into it. The reservoir is habitat for boaters, anglers, fish — and osprey. The fish’s chrome flanks out of water are mirror-like in this morning’s light, almost painful to look at it’s so shiny.
We kept all the kokanee we caught to eat them—15 in all. We boated and released a 30-inch lake trout. No rainbow trout were to be found today in 30 feet of water. You can palpably see the wonder in young eyes with writhing fish flesh in young hands. Perhaps no better way exists to introduce children to nature than with a full-immersion experience, not as an observer of the ecosystem, but as a participant.
I can’t tell you why I think this way, but to my mind it seems counter-intuitive that an animal that eats microscopic things can grow big and fat. But whale sharks do it, paddlefish do it—they both grow to immense sizes eating things that won’t cover the head of a pin. So do kokanee salmon, converting the sun’s gold angular radiance from the green murk of chlorophyll to fine, fat orange filets for the grill. The green water stimulated by sunshine provides a living for locals, and the experience on the water stimulates young minds.