Like clockwork, every February, saltwater salmon fishing for winter blackmouth gets better and better in the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Sekiu east to Smith Island. As the microscopic tag, inserted in tip of the snout of about 10% of Washington’s hatchery produced chinook salmon indicates, these winter fish that gather in the Strait at this time of year come from all directions. However, a high majority of them come from Puget Sound and Hood Canal salmon hatcheries. Your tax dollars at work!
This month, I intend to dive into this late winter and early spring fishing phenomena, particularly focusing on the banks of the eastern Strait. Take it to the bank, baby!
Winter blackmouth are the result of Washington’s impressive chinook salmon hatchery production, as noted above, entering their third and fourth year of life. They will become sexually mature in the next few months, when we then refer to them as king salmon, bound for the salmon hatcheries of their origin at the end of the summer, primarily in late September and October. During these early fall months, they will make babies for future generations of chinook salmon. Thank you very much.
Turning back the pages of time, I was introduced to winter blackmouth salmon fishing in the late 70’s by my mentor, Frank Haw and some of his Top Gun salmon fishing colleagues at the Washington Department of Fisheries. Mooching for blackmouth was the game back then, which was a wonderful introduction to understand blackmouth fishing techniques, such as the feel of the bite, then reeling down and driving a single hook into the jaw of a feisty winter blackmouth. We free drifted the currents back then, from 80 to 120 feet of water between Sekiu and the mouth of the Hoko River, trying to find schools of herring in the water column, working our plug-cut small herring from the surface to the bottom. Ninety percent of the time, that light tapping of a chinook salmon, which had come to our baits, happened while free spooling and dropping toward the deck. Uh-oh, customer! Reel down fast! As fast as you can until the line got tight with the chinook…..game on.
Frank planned those trips, usually in mid to late February as the winter blackmouth were arriving in the western Strait of Juan de Fuca. It was a blast and I learned significant skills on my way to becoming a better blackmouth angler. The fish were uniformly in the seven to 12 pound category as they are today, some 35 years later.
Unlike those salmon fishing glory years, you can hear a pin drop in Sekiu today, as this isolated rural community struggles to stay alive. In the evolution of winter blackmouth fishing, most anglers have discovered great fishing, much closer to home. With that said, however, the blackmouth still live at Sekiu from mid-February through early April (opensFeb. 16 and closes April 10). You want quality blackmouth fishing? Trailer your boat and make a trip to Sekiu during this timeframe and you’ll have the fishery to yourself.
I did exactly that, last March with fishing buddy Dan Tatum from Discovery Bay. I think we went through three props on his outboard in two days as the result of vicious attacks by blackmouth! Okay, not quite that level of smoking hot fishing, but catching our limits of blackmouth up to 14 pounds in a half hour is more accurate. Yep, Dan and I are going back.
As my addiction to winter blackmouth fishing became full blown crisis in the 80’s, thanks to Frank, I met Mike Schmidt from Sequim, who wore a badge for the Department of Fisheries when not fishing. Although Mike rarely put the heat on another angler, violating the fishing rules when we were fishing together, we did handcuff countless limits of winter blackmouth, fishing the banks in the eastern Strait. My oh my, did Mike ever take me over the edge!
I think it was somewhere around ’86 or ’87 when Mike first introduced me to Hein Bank on a blue bird March day. Hein Bank, for simplistic purposes, sits on a line drawn from the easterly tip of Dungeness Spit to the west side of Salmon Bank, on the south end of San Juan Island. From Dungeness Spit, following that line in a northeasterly direction, it is about two-thirds of the distance toward Salmon Bank, or about 14 miles in open water. With today’s gps technology, and mapping chips, it seems like I’m describing it’s location writing from a cave in the Himalaya’s. Sorry about that.
Mike and I, as old as we are becoming, did not discover Hein Bank. The bank was actually discovered by A.D. Bache, Superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey Program back in 1854. How’s that for a piece of history available via Google! ‘Ol A.D., or whatever his name is, named the bank after his dispersing agent Samual Hein, which makes it okay to refer to Hein Bank as “Sammy’s Bank.”
What A.D. and Sammy did not know at the time, was that Hein Bank would become one of the most productive feeding pastures for chinook salmon at least for the first half of every year.
Back in those years when Mike and I pounded the bank, we mooched it from the southeast corner, drifting west across the southerly tip in around a 120 feet of water, working our plug-cut herring up and down in the lower 20 feet of the water column. Fish after fish after fish was common as they bit like crazy on those ebb tides, running at about a foot per hour.
Today, nearly three decades later, you’ll hardly find a boat on the south end of Hein Bank. The fishery, while still productive on an outgoing tide, is a downrigger show, trolling a 12 pound lead downrigger ball a few feet from the deck, fishing with the current. Now, anglers start on the north end in about 100 feet of water or less, maintaining a southwesterly course while managing for a depth from 100 to 140 feet of water. And the fish are there. I’ll bet money that they are there now, as you’re reading this column. Mercy!
As a side note, never overlook this area in July, as it can be lights out for king salmon migrating east down the Strait of Juan de Fuca. I fished it in late July last summer and my wrist is still sore. Don’t you love fish induced pain? Herring won’t work in the summertime as the Strait is inundated with dogfish. Slap on the spoons or hoochies and you’ll be in the game.
While a plug or whole herring is very effective at this time of year, trailed 20 feet behind a downrigger ball in what some call a “naked herring,” Coyote and Coho Killer spoons, or a white hoochie following a flasher by about 38-40 inches is extremely effective. Using the word extreme in this description is accurate. Some anglers like to put a tiny strip of herring on the forward hook, when using a hoochie which is a lethal technique.
Other banks in the eastern Strait can also be equally productive during the next two months. Trolling along the sandy bottom on an ebb tide at Salmon Bank, close to the ledge of the east side of the bank is usually a slam dunk. Never overlook the SW corner of McArthur Bank, or the NE corner of Eastern Bank (ebb tide) and of course Coyote Bank (ebb or flood), located about 5 miles west of Hein Bank are my favorites in today’s bank fisheries. Clearly, all of these locations are driven, in productivity, by the presence of baitfish. And when we talk baitfish on the banks, we are talking about sandlance (candlefish). Gobs and gobs of sandlance, swarm the banks either as feeding juveniles or reproducing as adult sandlance in a preferred habitat during the late winter and early spring months. Predominately, as noted above, moderate ebb tides are ideal and most productive.
As long as we’re zeroing in on February fishing opportunities, you might want to consider the upcoming Roche Harbor Salmon Classic, February 6-8, paying out $25,000 in cash prizes. If it’s not sold out yet (100 boat cap), it is, in my view, the premier annual blackmouth fishing tournament in the San Juan Islands and the kickoff to the NW Salmon Derby Series.
The Roche Harbor tournament is followed immediately by the Olympic Peninsula Salmon Derby, February 15-17. This derby, with a history of nearly 40 years, is known formerly as the Iron Man Salmon Derby, or the Discovery Bay Derby, which draws about 800 anglers every year, competing for the largest blackmouth worth a cool $10,000. I like cool! The fishing boundaries for this tournament expanded a few years ago taking in most marine waters east of the Port Angeles region and including Admiralty Inlet waters. It is one of the most popular winter tournaments and the second tournament in the NW Salmon Derby Series. All participating anglers are elgible to win a new 21-foot River Hawk grand prize boat, fully outfitted and powered by Mercury 4-stroke outboards for a total value of over $60,000!
Enough of this talk about this February blackmouth fishing. I can’t take it anymore! I’m headed north for the banks! See you on the water.