Winter and the holiday season are here for real. While boaters may have vessels blocked up in their beds, visions of blackmouth and Dungeness dance in our heads! Nothing puts me in the Christmas spirit more than hauling in some resident Chinook and pulling up crab pots in the snow for a festive feast. We can get some beautiful days in the Northwest this time of year, with not nearly as many other folks on the water.
It can also get downright nasty too, so make sure your boat is running well, has all safety and survival gear, and is ready for cold conditions. You don’t want your sleigh ride to be towed by eight tiny reindeer or an expensive captain in rain gear. Be prepared. Dress like you’re going skiing is my rule of no numb thumbs (or fingers). Speaking of rain gear, make sure to have some quality stuff on board. Being cold is bad. Being wet and cold makes things exponentially worse.
Blackmouth, or resident Chinook, are always the biggest draw in the salt during December. Many areas of Puget Sound should be open for these fish. Troll near the bottom with spoons, hootchies, or bait. If there are a lot of undersized, or “shaker,” Chinook around, switch to big plugs such as Tomic or Silver Horde. Check the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website for regulations, rule changes, and emergency closures before you go. Many marine areas in this fishery can close when a predetermined guideline of “encounters” with salmon is met.
Crabbing is open in areas of Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands through December. Christmas crab is always a nice addition to the holidays. There are not as many big tidal swings this time of year, but still remember to weight your pots heavily. Many folks who think a Grinch stole their pots actually had their gear swept away by the tide. Also, bait heavily. If you have some of the more inexpensive pots, crab sometime will be able to just walk out when the bait is gone. This explains some incidents of “no bait, no crab” when pots are pulled. Crab and pot theft does happen for sure, but it’s not the only explanation for empty or missing traps.
Sea-run cutthroat trout can be great sport this time of year. Usually caught on a fly, they provide a hard fighting opportunity for the bug chucker. These fish spend most of their lives in the salt, cruising the beaches looking for baitfish. When the tide runs in or out, they’ll use structure to get out of the current (just like their freshwater cousins do in rivers).
I’ve got a new six-weight fly rod, and I’m itching to try some stripping and twitching out on cutthroat. Just about any point with beach access around the mid- to southern-Sound can be a candidate for cutties. One of the local tackle and fly shops in the area can point you in the right direction of what flies to use. These shops are usually very helpful and willing to offer advice.
Resident coho can also be found in South Puget Sound in December. Be careful with fish identification when going after these silvers. Small resident coho can look like shaker Chinook.
This fishery is often the realm of the fly fisher, and shares many tactics with the sea-run cutthroat trout pursuit. These fish may be found a bit further from shore, so traditional fly trolling with light tackle can produce some fun fights with these fish. This old-school tactic is also called “bucktailing.” It’s basically trolling larger salmon flies behind a boat at over three knots in, or close to, the prop wash. A bit of weight or sinking fly line is used to get the offering down some, but this is a surface tactic. And, yes… it’s a fun as it sounds!
Hatchery steelhead storms local rivers this month. These “brats” as they are called are usually smaller than their wild cousins. They show up earlier and move up their natal rivers very quickly to the hatchery region from whence they came. They do provide good sport and good eating, keep in rivers that are open to fishing, and have hatchery production. Hiring a guide is a great way to experience a day of steelhead fishing on one of the Northwest’s rivers.
Next month kicks off another new year with the opening of one of my favorite fisheries, San Juan’s winter Chinook. Big time derbies, big time money, and big time fun! Until then, get in the Christmas spirit, get out on the water, and go get some!