The day before my third of Five Fishing Trips in 10 Days to the Lower Skagit River the weather had been a beautiful sunny day in July, and the thought of catching one of those renowned huge king salmon had me drooling like a candy frenzied kid on Halloween Night.
It has been 16 years since one of the biggest river systems in Western Washington has been open for king salmon fishing.
Our guide Bill Meyer of Angler’s Guide Service had chatted along with my fishing companions Bob and Becky Hazel of Issaquah, and I about the legend of this fishery that we were about to embark on which dates back to the 1930s.
Back then this river had been known to produce some big, brawny chinook in the summer that will easily tip the scales at 60-plus pounds.
“We’ve all seen the pictures [and heard the stories] back from the day of those big kings,” Meyer said, which hopefully were right by us as he warmed up the engine on his aluminum boat.
We pushed away from the sandy boat ramp at 5:30 a.m. as some other boats came to launch along with the plunkers who had their lines out too.
Your heart tends to skip a beat as the thought of hooking one of these legendary kings swirls through your mind, and to think this isn’t another story from Alaska.
Meyer who usually heads north in the summer pointed out to Bob, Becky and I that this Skagit king fishery was one of the sole reasons why he decided to pass on trek north to Alaska.
I had made my calls, checked the Web site forums and heard from many sources that the Lower Skagit River opener [open since July 9] has been somewhat lackluster.
In all about five kings had been verified caught throughout the lower river among the hundreds of anglers whom had hit the water in the past few days, so expectations weren’t too high.
Our first stop was a couple miles upstream from the boat launch on a bend of the river that was anywhere from nine to 12 feet deep.
We quickly got the small kicker motor in gear and dropped down our 6 ounces of lead along with a “shrimp cocktail” that we back bounced as we slowly trolled downstream.
We were one of the few boats on this drift as a much cooler, cloudy summer breeze swirled over our heads.
Bob said he felt the twitch of his pole a couple of times, but outside of that we had nothing to accept as a legit bite.
“I think the majority of fish are still out in the San Juan [Islands],” Meyer said, as he too like I had heard the king bite in the island chain was fast and furious.
We kept up our drifts for about a little more than an hour before deciding to push further upstream. We got the big motor started and rounded the bends of the big river before stopping at a spot that gradually dropped off into some holes where hopefully the fish were hiding before migrating upstream.
Bill threw out the anchor on our second stop, and we set up the four rods with a variety of tasty morsels that would likely draw the fish to our lines.
The two outside rods were set up with a Flatfish and M-2 along with some scent, and sent eight line guides of fishing monofilament line downstream. The two middle poles were hooked to divers, and one had a prawn spinner and the other a cut-plug herring.
I had just downed my cup of coffee, and was wide awake and ready for our chance to hook-up with a big, bright chinook fresh in from the ocean.
“It doesn’t take long for these fish to push upstream from the saltwater on one of these tidal movements,” Meyer said. “That is the funny thing that people think it takes them time, but I know sometimes it could be just a matter of hours before they’re here from the tidal areas.”
The last time this fishery opened was 16 long years ago, and I can tell you this much, I wasn’t married yet, my two boys were long yet to be thought of on the baby sonar and I was punching in 100-plus days on the saltwater fishing scene.
Just like many other fisheries this well known producer of huge kings came to a close as pressure from the Endangered Species Act [ESA] put it under the “good old days” of salmon fishing stories.
Yet this past spring at the state Fish and Wildlife North of Falcon salmon season setting meetings I attended, I had heard a buzz that this fishery could once again become a reality.
Finally as the signatures were signed on the dotted lines between the state and tribes this fishery on the Lower Skagit River was finally official, and is open from noon on Thursdays to Sundays only from July 9 through Aug. 9 for all chinook, wild or hatchery.
Stories of the hey days began to fill the chat lines, Web sites, radio airwaves and fishing magazines of the Pacific Northwest that a predicted run size of 24,000 adult chinook was heading up the Skagit River and would be the first directed sport fishery for wild Puget Sound chinook since the ESA listing in 1999.
The hype was much bigger in the fishing world than that of Ken Griffey Jr. coming back this season to play with the Seattle Mariners or the sheer fact that the team would be four games over .500 and four games out of first place in the AL West prior to the All-Star break.
Our conversations on the boat went from how great the Mariners were doing to salmon conservation in our state, and then back to the Skagit fishery at hand. It was your typical banter on the boat when the fish aren’t biting.
We pulled the anchor at about 9:30 a.m. and moved even further upstream past the bank anglers, above a bridge and cable lines before finding another honey hole that was left unoccupied.
Down went the anchor again, and out went the same gear we used just downstream. We stayed in that hole as the dark gray clouds passed overheard and the dreaded rain clouds began spewing a few showers on us as we scrambled for our rain gear.
At around noon we threw in the towel and headed back to the ramp.
One fact I know for certain is that if you plan a trip to the big river make sure you bring along some mosquito repellent with DEET in it or else face what I got.
Nine huge bites on my exposed hands and neck. The two huge welts on the back of my neck looked as if I had pounded my sorry head on the side of the aluminum boat, which could have been the case since we hadn’t caught a fish.
But I am confident that sometime between now and Aug. 9 there will be anglers who will get a chance to talk about the fish they hooked like the good ole’ days.
In fact, our guide Bill Meyer had some clients in from San Diego yesterday afternoon [July 12] who fished the Skagit in the Big Eddy below the Cascade River mouth [which is open for hatchery chinook through July 15], and ended up catching two kings, one hatchery and one wild fish.
“It was not red hot, but I was feeling pretty good about that 28 pound wild king that was a show stopper, which we released and the three other decent bites we had,” Meyer said.
That next morning [July 13] Meyer took out Bob and Becky Hazel again to that same area and hooked them into a nice king as well.
This is well worth your time to try even for those who know the river well or those heading up for the first time.
A first timer would be wise to book a trip with someone who knows the river as this fishery doesn’t take just a drive up from Seattle to find the fish. It is a huge river and covers a lot of ground from the tidal waters down near Mt. Vernon clear up into the northern Cascade Mountains.
The lower river is open now through Aug. 9, from noon on Thursdays through Sundays only, from the mouth to Gilligan Creek above Sedro-Woolley. Daily limit is one adult king, wild or hatchery, and no selective gear rules are in effect.
For more information, go to Angler’s Guide Service or call 206-697-2055 or call Blake’s Resort at 360-445-6533. For other details on this fishery, call Three Rivers Marine and Tackle in Woodinville at 425-715-1575 or Ted’s Sports Center in Lynnwood at 425-743-9505.
(Photo by Bob Hazel of Issaquah and Bill Meyer of Angler’s Guide Service)