By Tony Floor
What is it about big salmon?
I mean big salmon in the 25-50 pound class that brings an angler to the pinnicle of happiness. As reported in this column, I’ve invested around a half century chasing chinook and coho salmon in Pacific Northwest waters, not including Vancouver Island and SE Alaska. I have come to the conclusion, as elusive as big fish can be, they are cool.
Part of my job, as the Director of Fishing Affairs for the NW Marine Trade Association is
to manage and execute the NW Salmon Derby Series. There are 16 salmon fishing tournaments
in this year’s 8th annual Derby Series, which means hanging out at events which are founded
upon a contest of catching the largest chinook salmon (predominately fin-clipped hatchery pro-
duced) or in some cases, coho salmon. This awful work task allows me to witness some real
beauties, I’m talking big fish here, and grins synonomous with winning the lottery. For these
anglers, big fish are way cool.
At this time of year, I don’t focus on the chances of catching a very big fish. Afterall,
winter-spring blackmouth traditionally range in the 8-12 pound class, perfect for my barbeque.
A couple of weeks ago, fishing off the west tip of Orcas Island, a big blackmouth buried my rod
tip and the game was on. For this cat, in 34 years of winter-spring blackmouth fishing from
Sekiu to Olympia, I have broken the 20-pound class once, out at Coyote Bank, boating a
21 pounder. My lips did not meet for three weeks.
As I am doing the Tony do-si-do around the back of the boat, from one side to the
other, I am concentrating on the punching, counter-punching as the tug of war ensues. I
began to be thinking about a big wild chinook, bearing an adipose fin, requiring release.
Yet, I am wishing for a release into the cooler. With most big chinook salmon, they tend to
use their heavyweight advantage and stay down. The counterpunch is steady pressure,
constantly aiming the rod tip at the fish and making sure you are on top of the fish, versus
the line angling underneath the boat and the fish being on the other side. So far, so good.
My analogy is similar to a boxing match. The first 12 rounds belong to the fish. The last three
rounds are mine, meaning I increase the pressure as I interpret the fish tiring and coming to
the surface more regularly. Patience is important and remember, never attempt to net a fish
before it’s time. It’s time is defined as the fish being on the surface, and your partner with
the net is ready to drop the net under the fish, entering the net head first for the final play.
No adipose fin and welcome aboard. Prepare for a one way trip to Olympia. Back on
the scale on Henry Island, a hefty 27 pounds. My lips havn’t touched since.
Granted, I have been fortunate to hook and land king salmon, during the summer
months of 50, 47, 45 and 40 in nearly a lifetime of saltwater fishing in Washington. All of
those jumbo king salmon came from Willapa Bay in the last 20 years. I can distinctly remember
every one of those big kings resulting in fantastic memories and stories repeated too many
times. But this Orcas Island fish was special, in mid-March and completely unexpected giving
me a new sense of the thrill of salmon fishing at this time of year.
And, it was just a week ago, at the Anacortes Salmon Derby when the top three
winners, each holding their 18-pound and change blackmouths, grinning in the winners
circle out of 1100 anglers. The biggest of the three paid out a cool $15,000. I understand.
On the end of the first day of fishing, I talked with Jennifer Payne from Friday
Harbor, who was distraught over what she thought could have been the winning fish on
the end of her string, only to lose it during the battle at the boat. Sometimes, seeing a big
fish at the boat or at the net, and have the fish successfully cruise away is a suffering similar
to removing a finger with a butter knife. For the angler, and the fish, there will be another
day. And, I hope for Jennifer Payne that the sooner she gets her worm back in the water,
the better the chance of doing business with Mr. Big again.
At this writing, we are only a few weeks away for the announcement of the new
salmon seasons effective May 1, 2011 through April 30, 2012. In discussions with WDFW
salmon biologists, this year may be the year of big chinook. Remember, chinook salmon,
sexually mature at ages three, four and five. Most of Puget Sound king salmon are three
and four year fish, traditionally , with more abundant five year old kings indigenous to
coastal rivers including the Columbia River. My trapline indicates good numbers of big
kings returning to Washington this year, meaning five year olds in the mid-20’s to high
30 pound class. Five year old kings over 40 should not be completely uncommon.
Ever heard of big fishitus? There is no cure but rest assured, it is not fatal. And, it
can be contagious, attacking all degrees of rational thinking. Don’t bother calling the doc,
as there is no known cure. The treatment? Yeah, go fishing and don’t fight the feeling!
Despite this La Nina fall, winter and spring, I am encouraged about spring and
summer fishing options in the months ahead. During this last month of winter-spring
salmon fishing, I’ll be headed back to the Islands and the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca
as often as possible, weather permitting. April can produce surprising results.
Next month, I’ll take an in-depth look at our summer salmon fishing options as
I develop my battle plan based on abundance of salmon by area and time. In the meantime,
see you on the water!