An experiment conducted two years ago could help Washington anglers take advantage of a salmon bonanza that’s beginning to take shape in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
This is a “pink” year for anglers, the biannual appearance of pink salmon, which return to Puget Sound in profusion, only on odd-numbered years.
In the past, when chinook and coho were abundant, anglers snubbed their noses at the lowly pink salmon. Cannery fish, they called them.
Severe restrictions on the dwindling kings and cohos are beginning to change the view. Now there’s research to help anglers harvest this bounty of pinks.
But the research two years ago didn’t have anything to do with pink salmon, at first. The state Fish and Wildlife department sponsored eight experienced salmon fishermen to experiment with techniques for catching sockeye, another virtually untouched sport fish, even though it is one of the tastiest of the salmon species.
The problem: Sockeyes are notoriously hard to catch on sport gear while in saltwater.
The volunteers fished daily during the first 17 days of August 1995, amassing 34 boat days of fishing effort and catchingg a total of 1,009 fish.
The state was hoping to find reliable sport methods so anglers could be directed to fish for the abundant Fraser River sockeye stocks.
Recreational anglers would have a new fishing opportunity, and the depressed resorts, marinas and small towns along the Strait of Juan de Fuca would have an infusion of much-needed tourist dollars.
Canadian anglers along the south Vancouver Island coast have been successfully catching sockeye for years, and the Washington test fishermen concentrated on tackle suggested by British Columbia commercial and recreational trollers.
The result was that these expert anglers, out of the 1,009-fish total, landed nine sockeye in two-plus weeks of pounding the strait.
Experiment coordinator Dick Geist says he still thinks the fishery is a viable one, but two major factors worked against it in 1995. First, the Fraser sockeye run was only about half its usual size that year. Second, it was a humpy year, and a big run of pinks was coming through the strait at the time of the test fishery.
It was almost impossible to fish sockeye tackle, at sockeye speeds, and NOT catch humpies before (presumably) sockeye had the opportunity to strike.
So in one way the experiment bombed. But in another, it presents an opportunity for recreational fishermen. The good news is that the test fishermen caught 863 pinks in the two-week period, for an average of 25.4 humpies per boat, per day.
“We fished mostly Hot Spot flashers with pink or red microhoochies off downriggers,” Geist says, “but there was nothing special about the skill or knowledge necessary to catch pinks on the strait other than a very slow fishing speed.
“If the gear is hooked up properly and fished at depths where the fish are located, it is the closest thing to a guaranteed fishing trip that I have seen in my years of salmon fishing.
“I would defy people to NOT catch pink salmon if they follow the techniques used by our test fishermen.”
Pinks - lots of pinks - are available to small-boat anglers along the strait at least two weeks before peak fishing closer to population centers, such as Humpy Hollow, south of Mukilteo.
Fishing for pinks makes a top weekend family mini-vacation. “There are a lot of campgrounds and low-cost motel accommodations available along the strait these days,” says Gary Ryan at Van Riper’s Resort in Sekiu. “Humpies are a great species of family fishing, particularly for kids, since there’s usually a lot of action and they’re relatively easy to catch.”
Another point is that pinks start to deteriorate the moment they decide to make their spawning run, and are in better table condition the closer to the Pacific they are taken.
“They’re great fish when you catch them out here,” Ryan says. “Assuming you bleed them the moment they’re in the boat and put them on ice immediately.”
Areas 5 and 6, comprising most of the strait, will reopen to salmon angling on Aug. 1 this summer, and there should be excellent humpy fishing available from the first day.
“There are a few scattered pinks being taken already,” Ryan says (the area closes for the month of July), “and by the last week in July there should be a bunch of them here.”
The favored gear among the test fishermen appeared to be a red or green Hot Spot flasher, followed by 27 inches of heavy (to keep twisting to a minimum) leader and a microhoochie or a bare red or black hook. The hoochies were pink, hot pink, or red, and were Golden Bait numbers MP15, MP16 and MP02. Ten feet between the downrigger cable and the flasher was an average distance.
The fish were caught at a wide range of depths, but results were best between 60 and about 110 feet or so. That means an angler without downriggers, trolling very slowly with 150 feet of line out and eight ounces of crescent sinker ahead of the flasher, could be within the optimum range.
Another very sporty method of taking pinks, according to Ryan at Sekiu, is to jig for them with light spinning gear and small, pink darts of Buzz Bombs.
“It amazes me,” Geist says, “that in recent years, 60 percent or more of the salmon record cards turned in annually to the department don’t have a single fish on them, yet only 12 percent of the anglers we had expected turned out for the last pink run, in 1995, along the strait.
“It certainly seems to me that if more of these quarter-million unsuccessful salmon anglers knew about this can’t-miss way to put a salmon or two into their boat and onto their barbecue grill, they would come to the party.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: STALKING SALMON For a free copy of the WDFW informational bulletin titled “A Recreational Test Fishery for Sockeye in the Strait of Juan de Fuca,” which also details techniques for catching pinks, send a note with your name and mailing address to Dick Geist, Fish Management Program, WDFW, 600 Capitol Way N., Olympia 98501. Info: (360) 902-2733.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.