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Caught in the act: When spawning kokanee salmon begin schooling in NM lakes, snaggers haul in big catches

University of New Mexico student Javier Gonzalez holds up a kokanee salmon snagged recently at Eagle Nest Lake in northern New Mexico. (Courtesy of Javier Gonzalez)

For University of New Mexico biology student Javier Gonzalez, snagging salmon in one of the state’s northern lakes is an annual event eagerly anticipated.

“It’s been a family tradition since I was maybe 10 or 12 years old,” he said.

As a matter of fact, he and his brother and father have already hit Eagle Nest Lake on Halloween, snagging a few kokanee salmon from its deep waters.

“Oh man, that is hands down my favorite lake,” said Gonzalez, 23. “The surrounding scenery is breathtaking.”

Unlike any other time of the year, and unlike any another fish, salmon from now until Dec. 31 may be snagged by using a heavy, three-pronged hook that snags the fish’s body, said Ross Morgan, northwest region spokesman for the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish.

“You’re taking these big treble hooks, with big weights, cast them out there, and jerk and reel, jerk and reel,” Morgan said. “It’s not a legal means of taking fish in New Mexico unless as designated by rule, which is salmon snagging.”

It is something that has caught the fancy of many anglers.

“It’s really become popular in New Mexico,” Morgan said. “On those dates it opens up, people are lined up shoulder to shoulder on the shore at midnight. And you’re throwing a big, lead-weighted treble hook out there so it’s definitely going to give you a workout.”

Gonzalez, a strong, athletic man, said salmon snagging is definitely different that a regular, lazy afternoon of fishing.

Salmon snaggers like this are used to hook spawning, landlocked salmon. The device is illegal to use for fishing in New Mexico except during salmon snagging season, and only for salmon. (Journal)

“If you snag for about an hour, your chest and arms are completely tired,” he said. “It’s way different from other fishing, throwing out your line and waiting until you get a bite. We went a few days ago and my chest area is still pretty sore. You have the snag at the end of rod and it’s a force. It hurts. It’s a lot more intense than regular bait fishing.”

Like their ocean-swimming sockeye cousins, at four years old kokanee salmon get the urge to spawn, forming large schools to do so before dying off. That’s the reason the

snag is allowed, Morgan said.

“The salmon are not native, but they thrive in deeper and colder lakes that produce plankton,” he said. “When they turn four, large schools of them spawn and then die. We go in there and collect the spawn then rear them in hatcheries and put them back into lakes. The reason we allow the snagging is they are going to die anyway. It’s a great food source for New Mexicans. A lot people can them.”

The kokanee salmon can be found at Abiquiú Lake, Rio Chama – El Vado Lake to the west boundary of Rio Chama Wildlife and Fishing Area, Navajo Lake – excluding buoyed, no-wake areas and the shoreline within the no-wake areas at the Pine River Boat Ramp and Simms Boat Ramp – Pine River, El Vado Lake, Eagle Nest Lake, Heron Lake and Willow Creek. The bag limit is 12 per day and 24 in possession per person. A valid state fishing license is required.

The fish are generally about 12 to 14 inches long, but Gonzalez said he’s pulled salmon up to 20 inches long at Eagle Nest.

“It’s fun. It’s intense,” he said. “Some years, there are hundreds of fish in the school. It’s a huge mass of bulk coming through the water. When you see a school, you bring the whole family over. It’s better whenever you have a group of people. Since they swim in schools, we all kind of throw in that area, and hopefully we hit that school.”

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