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Reel Time Fishing Northwest

Mark Yuasa covers fishing and outdoors in the Pacific Northwest.

November 2, 2011 at 10:08 AM

Tony Floor’s Tackle Box looks at winter fishing opportunities

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Tony Floor, longtime salmon angler and director of fishing affairs for the Northwest Marine Trade Association offers his monthly fishing report. Here is Floor’s Tackle Box:

The fish that will become kings.

Welcome to tweenerville. The summer salmon fisheries are in the rear view mirror, fall is at its peak and the winter fishing scene is only a month away. Will somebody please slow this train down!

Working my fishing trap line this past week, I heard the word “blackmouth” several times. Places like Jefferson Head, Kingston, Possession Bar, like clockwork, every year, they appear out of nowhere.

As a lifelong blackmouth fishing junkie, a lot has changed from the when, where’s and how’s of blackmouth fishing in Puget Sound. For the record, a blackmouth is an immature chinook salmon, likely becoming a mature chinook (king) salmon next year, or, in a few cases, in two years. Winter blackmouth range from just legal (22-inches) or about 4 pounds, to monsters into the 20-pound category. I caught my lifetime record fish last winter tipping the scale at 27 pounds.

Back in the late 60’s, and throughout the 70’s, the state held up to three million hatchery juvenile chinook salmon an entire year, past their natural outbound migratory time, which is the spring of their first year of life. Once released into Puget Sound from freshwater salmon hatcheries, these young blackmouth spent the remainder of their lives (usually two years) in the Sound, becoming what anglers referred to as “resident chinook salmon.”

Today, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife release less than a million of these delayed-release chinook. Logically, anglers might think that there are significantly fewer blackmouth available, but that’s not necessarily the case. About 30 million natural-timed hatchery chinook salmon are released in the spring of their first year of life into the Sound and an increasing number of these fish have chosen to become resident chinook salmon. Why? Good question. I link it to a phenomena of nature which is puzzling when considering the overall health of Puget Sound. Regardless, more of the natural-timed hatchery chinook are staying home. Therefore, the contribution of both categories of the hatchery chinook production to the Puget Sound sport fishery is about equal. Their survival rates have also become equal.

For this angler, I don’t give a rip if the 10-pound blackmouth, tugging hard on the end of my string is a resident or natural-timed hatchery chinook. It’s all under the category of “game on!”

The where-to has changed over time too. South Puget Sound, for the most part, continues to be a biological desert, possibly from a lack of food. As the further an angler is willing to go, from Seattle north, the greater the abundance and quality of the blackmouth.

The Seattle area, known as Area 10 has been open to blackmouth since October 1st. Area 9, immediately to the north to Port Townsend, opened November 1st along with the marine waters behind Whidbey Island (Areas 8-1 and 8-2). These waters in particular, provide some level of lee to the prevailing southerlies. I plan to fish these waters next weekend, in central Saratoga Passage during the two-day Bayside Marine Salmon Derby out of Everett. Last year, during the same timeframe, catches were decent for 10-12 pound blackmouth. Uh-oh, there goes the blackmouth grin, similar to a new red fox pelt carefully placed on Donald Trump’s head, but different.

Just for drills, I went back into some old WDFW Sport Catch Reports covering a three-year period, 30 years ago. Confirmed! Even back then, the blackmouth appeared in Saratoga Passage beginning in early November and built into a crescendo later in the month and during early December.

Following November, you know what happens next. If you guessed Christmas, take the penalty flag and drop back five yards. Try December 1st and the annual opening of winter blackmouth fishing in the San Juan Islands. Bear with me if your fishing-the-San-Juans-information-meter is pegged. Dude, this is where the chinook money lives. Islands and islands, as far as you can see, provide protection from the weather and the welcome light is on to hungry growing chinook salmon, putting on the pounds in the dead of winter. These fish will become the king salmon of 2012.

I went back to the WDFW catch record books, again, from 30 years ago when these books were available to the public. They provided wonderful data, of when and where, by days and weeks, where salmon were caught in Washington, broken down into the 13 catch areas. Oh baby, the book reads, the mother load of blackmouth hang in the San Juan Islands during November and December. Since November is closed, under the current fishing rules, guess where I’ll be on December 1st? I promise more in next month’s column.

In terms of the how-to, techniques have changed about as much as covered wagons evolving into F-18’s. Electric downriggers, 10-12 pound lead balls attached, trailed by dodgers, flashers spoons and hoochies, including the Ace High Fly. Sounds like an all-nighter around the card table, huh?

While I am always equipped with an entire arsenal of gear, I love to fish a plug cut herring. Small baits, red or green label sized herring, spinning extremely fast, with a tight tail rotation, maintaining contact or within five feet of the bottom. In most instances, that is where the blackmouth live, cruising off the bottom, looking up at the baitfish, calculating their attack.

Trolling speeds are directly related to the gear. With flashers and hardware (spoons, hoochies and flies), I’ve had great success between three and three and half miles per hour. Remember, the tides/currents are softer during the wintertime as soft tide exchanges occur during daylight hours and the extreme tides occur during the night, especially on or around winter solstice (December 31st).

When fishing herring, clearly, I slow it down to around two miles per hour, give or take a half mile an hour, related to fishing with or against the current. I prefer to fish with the current as much as possible, resulting in greater ease of maintaining contact with the bottom. But it’s all about the spin, fast, the faster the better, making that plug cut herring irresistible.

And, never lose sight of the common denominator to find success when fishing for winter blackmouth… schools of baitfish. Herring, sand lance (candlefish) is the primary food source for blackmouth. Yes, squid and a variety of other juvenile fishes, including shrimp, are not uncommon to find in a blackmouth’s stomach, along with a Dick’s double cheese burger (not really) during any time of the year.

The temperatures are falling and another La Nina winter is in the forecast. That means it’s time to go blackmouth fishing in northern Puget Sound. Giddy-up! See you on the water.

Click on Tony Floor’s Tackle Box to subscribe.

(Photo taken by Mark Yuasa)

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