It usually takes me a couple of weeks to sort out the priorities of this column each month as I drill down on what anglers can do for fishing opportunities versus what they can’t do. It might be me, but I sure get a sniff of an aroma that it’s more about fishing closures and what you can’t do. March and April are historically awesome months for this angler. You can find me, especially on decent tides, in the Strait of Juan de Fuca chasing the last chapter of this winter’s blackmouth season on the banks. Coyote, Hein, Eastern, and McArthur banks have become my favorites in recent years, as decent sized hatchery-produced Chinook salmon fatten up for their final year of life.
As most experienced winter blackmouth anglers know, these gorgeous salmon are eating about anything that moves including shrimp, squid, herring, and sand lance (candlefish). In fact, Derek Floyd, one of my fishing gurus who grinds fishing gear in about every square inch of the San Juan Islands and the eastern Strait, sent me pictures of small ratfish removed from the stomach contents of a Chinook salmon. Ratfish, dude! Thoughts of eating ratfish are about as repulsive as consuming chopped liver or a shot of Alaska fish fertilizer. Dig me?
First, I’m investing my fishing time on the banks hosting the most feed, obviously attracting salmon, based on reports from my trap line and observations of the right kind of birds on the water (Common Murres, Rhinoceros Auklets, and Cormorants).
Second, I think it’s very important to learn and understand how a bank will draw more blackmouth on each side of the tide, be it the ebb or a flood. For example, McArthur Bank fishes best on a flood, whereas Partridge, Eastern, and Coyote fish best on the ebb. To confuse the debate consider Hein Bank, which usually produces blackmouth at this time of the year on the ebb tide on the east side of the bank, or, as moochers know, has historically produced catches on the south end of the bank, drifting from east to west. Still with me? In the summer months Hein Bank can quietly produce some great king salmon catches starting on the north end in 50-60 feet of water west of the Hein Bank buoy and trolling southwest with the ebb current. Tight baby, hugging the bottom and drop your gear to within a few feet of the bottom while the current slowly pulls your boat into deeper water. Silver Horde Coho Killers behind a flasher are big money producers for a king salmon grab. Baby, I love it when that happens.
2017 North of Falcon
The annual North of Falcon salmon season setting process kicks off this month with a series of meetings following the state’s announcement on February 28 of Chinook and coho salmon population forecasts for 2017. If you have the luxury of not attending these meetings, historically, my counsel is to stay home. It is analogous with getting 20 cavities filled without Novocain. In recent years, the state takes suggestions and recommendations for potential seasons from the public, followed by sitting down with the tribes in an attempt to jointly sculpt a fishing package for both sides. During the six weeks of this season setting process, negotiations between the state and each tribe intensify as the puzzle of a season starts to take shape. For each side, the issues are as important as earth’s rotation around the sun. I continue to hope, as old and salty as I’ve become, that calmer minds prevail and fishing opportunities for both sides materialize.
As reported in this space last year, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) Director Jim Unsworth turned the tables and said “no” to tribal demands to curtail sport fishing, resulting in what should have been a halt to any salmon fishing effective May 1 until some kind of agreement could be reached. Several Federal agencies came running to the fire and guess what? The tribes were back on the water within a few weeks after the meltdown. I am assuming, with some level of confidence, that the experience witnessed a year ago will not be repeated.
My crystal ball shows a shot of optimism for the 2017 North of Falcon salmon season setting process. The Puget Sound coho salmon outlook is encouraging this summer, especially for the abundance of hatchery-produced fish. Early evaluations suggest an upswing in Puget Sound hatchery-produced Chinook stocks too, possibly allowing more negotiating room between the state and the tribes.
Although the forecasts aren’t final, biologists say that Puget Sound wild coho did not survive the very low water conditions in streams and rivers during the summer of 2015. WDFW has invested into a management tool for addressing this conservation situation: selectively harvesting adipose fin-clipped hatchery salmon that are protected in a hatchery environment from the lethal effects of low, warm water. However, I do anticipate arguments suggesting we can’t afford to risk even the small effect of releasing incidentally caught wild coho salmon in our sport fisheries. So much for the investments made into selective fishing and the millions of dollars spent by the state every year to raise hatchery fish for sport fisheries.
After at least a decade of above-average Chinook salmon returns to the Columbia, expect a decline in the 2017 fall Chinook outlook, as biologists over-forecasted last year’s return by around 30 percent. This is another example that forecasting run sizes in the fish management business is an inexact science.
If you are a short term or long term reader of this column, I would hope that you don’t recognize me as a bomb thrower or pessimist. Throwing bombs is easy. Participating to provide solutions and answers to our fisheries and fish management decision makers is more positive. That’s why I serve on the WDFW’s sport fish, the Dungeness crab, and Puget Sound shrimp advisory groups. We need solutions and policy leadership from WDFW that creates sport fishing opportunities. We need stability in our seasons that meet conservation objectives for these resources while fulfilling our allocations of crab, shrimp, marine fish, and salmon as directed by the Fish and Wildlife Commission. Also, we need to maximize selective fisheries that provide fishing opportunity while protecting wild Chinook and coho salmon.
Enough preaching and salmon politics! It’s time to go fishing for blackmouth in the Strait of Juan de Fuca as the Strait’s banks are paying dividends of gorgeous hatchery Chinook in March. See you on the water!