By Tony Floor I was looking back in time, a few days ago, to previous March columns and not surprising to me, the common theme in those writings was my focus on the “banks” in the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca. Clearly, from a saltwater salmon angler’s perspective, it is a time of the year when resident or migrating hatchery produced chinook salmon, which become king salmon for this year’s cycle, actively feed on sandlance or candlefish abundant on many of these banks.
During my career at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, I spent significant time attempting to learn the feeding and migratory habits of these hatchery produced chinook salmon primarily in Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The foundation of the data, is derived from a tiny microscopic metal tag, injected into the snouts of about 10% of hatchery production , before they are released from the fresh water of their origin. This tag, once recovered by WDFW personnel who check fish landed at boat ramps and docks throughout Washington, are examined under a microscope and identified, relative to their hatchery release. Year after year, the migratory patterns of these hatchery chinook salmon are very similar, governed by the hand of Mother Nature who controls survival rates.
Back to the banks. The north end of Middle Bank, the south end of Hein Bank, Coyote Bank, and Salmon Bank have been the most popular fishing areas by anglers willing to run to these underwater sand and gravel habitats in search of baitfish and chinook salmon. Predominately, ebb tides on the fore-mentioned banks produce the best fishing and catching results. To be successful on Middle Bank, for example, look for an outgoing tide, fishing a downrigger five feet of the bottom, in 120-140 feet of water, with a plug cut herring spinning about 25 feet behind the downrigger ball. Money! I start on the northeast corner, trolling west to the U.S.-Canada line, and turn south on the northwest corner following the contour of the bank for a mile or two. Repeat the strategy on the ebb tide to slack. When the current begins to slow down, heading toward slack, is when the blackmouth go on the bite. Women and children are not safe.
Coyote Bank, adjacent to the U.S.-Canada boundary line, located on a northwest, southeast line between Victoria and Dungeness Spit is my favorite place to fish in March. If five boats show up to join you, on an ebb tide during flat water conditions, that’s a crowd. The technique is identical to my description above on Middle Bank. Start on the east end of the bank, in 110 feet of water and troll west, down the bank, following the depth contour to 140 feet and repeat. Abundance of baitfish is uncommon here, but do not let that fool you as the chinook salmon will be in the neighborhood. They cruise, I believe, on or around the bank, in search of small schools of sandlance and a rare plug cut herring. A very light tap-tap-tap on the end of the rod tip, followed by reeling down hard and fast until the rod buries into the water and it’s game on. Always fish with the current on these banks and it is
mandatory to stay within 10 feet of the bottom; five feet is perfect.
As much as I like to fish these banks in the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca, March weather can be very unstable. I am looking for winds in the eastern Strait forecasted at 5-15. It is fishable at 10-20, barely, but uncomfortable and inefficient. Pick your days. The fish will be there.
As I reported last month, I planned to spend time at the Roche Harbor Salmon Classic and the Olympic Peninsula Salmon Derby (formerly known as the Discovery Bay Derby, or the Iron Man Derby headquartered out of Gardnier on Discovery Bay) on President’s Day weekend. In summary, 67 hatchery produced chinook salmon were entered in the Roche Derby with a record setting 28 pound, 10 ounce “blackmouth” chinook, caught by Derek Floyd from Stanwood. It was the largest chinook ever caught in the eight year history of the Roche Harbor tournament and produced $21,000 for my new friend Derek Floyd. The top five chinook salmon weighed between 18 and 28 pounds. That’s incredible considering last year’s winning fish was in the 16-pound class. What’s my point? Easy, this is the winter of big blackmouth which has been the theme since the San Juan Island region opened to winter chinook (hatchery produced, fin clipped only) fishing on December 1st.
A week ago, at the Olympic Peninsula Salmon Derby, an 18.9 pound chinook produced first place honors, again accounting for the presence of larger than normal chinook salmon during this winter season. The message is plain and simple for this cat. I’m headed to the Straits to bury a few rod tips of my own!
In the meantime, a big spring chinook run is forecasted for the lower Columbia River which opens in a few days. Check the Fish and Wildlife website for details. However, this fishery should get going in the next couple of weeks, usually teeing off around Cathlamet, as the “springers” migrate their way upstream to Columbia River and Snake River hatcheries. The very end of the month should, if the forecast is accurate, light up the Columbia like Cherynobyl did to the Soviet Union.
On the political side of fish news, you may have seen a Seattle Times story in mid-February where federal fishery biologists have declared the importance of “king salmon” to the diet of ESA-listed southern resident Orca whale. They have learned this science from chasing pods of killer whales and scooping up “fish poop” for diet analysis. I think I’ll stick to my day job. This announcement may, I repeat may, result in extracting another slice from the annual salmon harvest pie, ensuring Orca whale are ensured fresh king salmon. The good news in this announcement, is that Orca, again, according to limited science, prefer some of the Queen’s Fraser River king salmon, which are not in significant abundance in Washington waters, with the exception of the northeast region of Area 7 around Pt. Roberts. The process will result in discussions and meetings, hosted by the fed, to discuss this issue with the tribes (who intercept Fraser River king salmon stocks in their northern Washington gillnet and purse seine fisheries), the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife,
along with sport and commercial fisheries. The road to a decision will be controversial and take months, if not a year or two.
One more time, back to March. It’s time to visit the banks. Blackmouth, baby, in their prime. See you on the water.