One of the most peculiar occurrences in southern trout fishing is under way right now on the Nantahala River in western North Carolina — scarlet red Kokanee salmon are running upstream for a life-ending spawn.
Kokanee salmon are the landlocked version of the Pacific sockeye salmon, stocked in Nantahala Lake in the early 1960s as forage for a population of northern pike. The toothy pike are no longer around, but the salmon have been naturally reproducing ever since in the Nantahala River.
The average size of a Kokanee salmon in the Nantahala River is 18 inches with many fish over 20 inches.
Nantahala Lake is located high above the Nantahala River Gorge at a 3,000-foot elevation-a pristine and serene lake with just 30 miles of shoreline. The lake was created in 1942 by Nantahala Power to provide electricity for war efforts. Today the lake is regulated and maintained by Duke Power Company.
Anglers enjoy fishing the Nantahala reservoir due to the low number of boaters and the breathtaking scenery. Nantahala is the only lake in the South with a population of freshwater Kokanee salmon.
Sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) is the third most common Pacific salmon species. The name "sockeye" is an Anglicization of "suk-kegh," as the indigenous people called them.
The Nantahala strain is most often caught in the lake prior to the spawning run. Like their saltwater dwelling ancestors, once the Kokanee ascend the river and turn from silver to red, they are dying. Spawning in all that is on their minds and getting one to take a fly is very challenging, much the same as it is in Alaska during these runs.