In the realm of the kokanee king

Mark Swann has achieved that rarest of angling feats, setting two state records for a species within the same month. The species is the kokanee salmon, Oncorhynchus nerka, a modest-sized fish with silvery flanks and a reputation for mystery, at least in these parts.

A man, a fish, a moment in time: Mark Swann of Black Mountain caught the state-record kokanee salmon not once, but twice this summer courtesy N.C Wildlife Resources Commission

After nearly a decade of pursuing the kokanee, Swann caught his first one, which turned out to be the state record, on Aug. 3. It weighed in at 2.48 pounds. Later that month, a 9-year-old angler named Levi Towery shattered Swann’s record, reeling in a kokanee that weighed two-tenths of a pound more.

Undaunted, Swann returned to Nantahala Lake on Aug. 27 and caught a kokanee from the lake’s inky depths like no one had ever seen before. It weighed 3.07 pounds and blew minds at the Ingles in Bryson City, where he took it to be officially weighed.

The kokanee is a West Coast species that was introduced to Nantahala Lake in the 1960s to provide forage for other game fish. It has persisted there in the lake’s cold water, living according to its own rhythms and rules. The kokanee’s ocean-going counterpart, the sockeye salmon, is known for its vivid spawning colors and the grotesque hooked beak the males develop before swimming upstream to perform their scaly love act.

Swann is surprisingly approachable for a state record holder. Here’s what he had to say when Xpress reached him by phone at his home in Black Mountain.

Mountain Xpress: Describe this record fish.
Mark Swann: I caught it on Monday, Aug. 27. It was the only fish I caught that day. I actually lost four other ones and was about to go home when I caught that one. Right away I knew it was the biggest one I’d hooked. I had a little hand-held scale on the boat and it ended up a little over 3 pounds, so I figured it might be the one. It kind of looks like a trout, but is all silver, with no spots. They’re really pretty fish, although some people might find it hard to believe that a fish can be pretty.

MX: Without revealing your secrets, can you share how the average person can to learn how to catch a kokanee salmon?
MS: Well, I have a biology degree and go about it from that angle—learning their habits and just anything I can read about them. There aren’t many people who fish for them, and not many people are going to share anything specific. Sometimes you can pick up tips on Web sites. Some things work; some things don’t.

MX: What did you do with the fish?
MS: It’s in my freezer right now. I’m going to get it mounted. The fellow that’s going to do it is Sam Loftis. He’s mounted fish for ages and is really well-respected. I’ve got fish he did 20 years ago that look brand-new.

MX: So you’ve caught some other trophy fish?
MS: I’ve got a few. I’ve got a 9-pound brown [trout] from [Lake] Jocassee and a bass out of Lake Lure, both mounted.

MX: Why are you spending your time fishing for a fish no one’s heard of?
MS: They’re just kind of an exotic thing. I like to lake-fish and there’s just one lake, Nantahala, that has them. It’s interesting to go after things that are a little bit out of the ordinary. A lot of times, you’re just making things up as you go. It was just a unique thing to catch and put on the list.

MX: Does it make you a little sad that this species is from the West Coast and is kind of stuck over here?
MS: Well, I guess, in a way. From what I understand, the Wildlife Commission is kind of indifferent to them. They’re something that were put in there and have just kind of held on. A lot of times, when fish are introduced to places it can be hit-or-miss. It can be a really bad thing, displacing other things. But in this case, they’re not causing any problems.

MX: How does your wife feel about your love affair with the kokanee salmon?
MS: [Laughs] She’s encouraged me on my quest. You know, it’s always good to have that support. It’s always been my thing; I’ve fished since I was 12 and I’m almost 48, so it’s been awhile.

MX: Do you think there’s a bigger one out there?
MS: Possibly. I think the state biologist said they can get up to 5 pounds on their spawning run. I’ve seen pictures of ones that were caught up in the [Nantahala] River, and they looked even bigger. In the river, they actually start to turn color and look like the sockeye salmon. They’ll get red-and-green heads and tails, and their heads elongate into a hook.

MX: Heaven forbid that your record should fall. But if it did, are you prepared to go out again and raise the bar?
MS: It would be nice to, but it’s one of those things that I might only get one shot at. But yeah, I’m definitely going to keep fishing for them. I really enjoy catching them. It’s kind of similar to the way I fish for trout, but it’s also different in several ways.

MX: Ways that we won’t go into here?
MS: [Laughs.] Right.

MX: Does a kokanee behave like a trout on the line?
MS: Well, some of the things I’ve read said they’re not very good fighters, but the first one I caught jumped twice and fought hard. All of them have fought hard. I’ve lost maybe seven or eight of them and caught only a few. You’ve got to be real careful playing them; they come off the line easily.

MX: They fight like they belong here?
MS: Yeah, they’re definitely well-adapted. They’ve put in their time up there: They’ve been there for almost 50 years. Just a real pretty, healthy-looking fish.

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