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:
What is it about salmon fishing stories that stoke the flames of the sport? At the end of the day, it’s always about the big one, the big one that got away or the big one that ended up in the net. Too often, the stories are embellished as I’ve known anglers to turn a 20 pound king salmon into a 30 pound king within 24 hours and ultimately, over time, it somehow became a monster of 40 pounds.
I’m going to spend some time, in this writing, to tell you a story about a monster king salmon that cruised our waters in the central Strait of Juan de Fuca, near Pillar Point, decades ago, that did not get away. This huge king salmon is the current and all-time largest sport caught king salmon caught and verified in Washington. It remains today, the Washington State record of 70 pounds, 8 ounces. It is, the king of kings!
Turning back the pages of time to September 6, 1964, let me introduce you to Chet Gausta, his brother Lloyd and Chet’s uncle, Carl Knutson, who were working the waters off Pillar Point, located about 7-8 miles east of Sekiu. This region was particularly famous for big king salmon during the summer months of that era, as the waters were very friendly to small boats in the 16-18 foot range. The strategy is simple: work the kelp beds early, at daylight, fishing in 40-80 feet of water, then, as the sun came up, work deeper into the 100-150 range.
Chet was fishing deep that day, using 12 pound mainline and a 15 pound leader, definitely considered light fishing tackle for king salmon, even today. His bait was a whole herring, barely a snack for the king of all kings. Similar to today, the king salmon back then averaged 20-25 pounds, some pushing 30 pounds, or slightly larger. Even back in the 60’s, it was rare to break 40 pounds and a 50 pounder might happen once or twice during the entire summer. The word of a 50 would spread like wildfire. “Who caught it? Where did they catch it? What were they using?” Some things never change.
When the big king woofed Chet’s whole herring, nothing happened. Chet thought he had hooked the bottom. Then, surprisingly, the bottom took off toward Canada. Maybe a halibut? No, it was the largest king salmon ever hooked and landed by an angler in Washington. If your breathing has shortened, your foot is now twitching and you’re focused… stay with me. According to the story, told in the Bremerton Sun (today, the Kitsap Sun), the huge king salmon made six runs, staying deep as big kings often do, and nearly spooled Chet’s reel each time. Yet, the three anglers continued to chase the big king and stayed with the fight.
In just under an hour, they saw the fish for the first time as it cruised by the boat. It was massive and they agreed, that their standard salmon landing net would not do the job. Chet continued to keep the pressure on and with the fish completely exhausted, the three anglers manhandled the fish into the boat. I said manhandled into the boat! Game over. History was made at that moment. When was the last time you “manhandled a big king into a boat?” Are you kiddin’ me! That’s how Chet told the story, reported six years ago by Kitsap Sun fishing and hunting columnist Chad Gillespie on Chet’s 90th birthday.
I spoke with Chet about his monster fish, about 25 years ago during my career at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. He was a wonderful man, soft spoken, humble yet proud of setting the record for a king salmon caught by an angler in Washington. Nearly 50 years later, the record and Chet’s king of kings continues to stand.
‘Ol Chet left the planet just over a month ago, at the young age of 95. I read a story of the legend passing away. And the story of the greatest king salmon ever caught in our state lives on, and so will Poulsbo’s Chet Gausta. Congratulations to you Chet Guasta, wherever you are, and may the story of the greatest king of kings live on, through all salmon anglers who continue to search for the big one.
I’ve decided, in memory of Chet, and in recognition of my mentor Frank Haw, who turned 80 a month ago, to return to the waters of Sekiu and Pillar Point this month. I don’t expect to find Mr. Big during the month of March, but I do expect to find blackmouth working on becoming king salmon this summer or next year.
My introduction to the Sekiu area began in the late winter and early spring months back in 1978. As a young buck, I thought I knew a few things about salmon fishing, coming off summers working in SE Alaska during my college years. What I did learn, after spending my first day on the water with my Lordship Frank, is that I didn’t know squat. Frank taught me about the benefits of light leaders, sharp hooks, light sinkers and a single-hooked plug-cut herring that spun faster than your washing machine on spin cycle. He taught me to find the bait, and find the chinook salmon. He taught me about working the plug-cut herring, up and down in the water column. So often, the chinook salmon would inhale the bait while free spooling toward the bottom. I would learn, that chinook are suckers for a falling bait.
Unlike fishing the banks in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, or the San Juan Islands with it’s ever changing bottom contours, fishing in the Sekiu region is simple. The bottom is forgiving and changes in depth are minimal, if you can maintain an east-west or west-east drift, depending on the direction of the current. The last piece is fundamental: find the bait, and you’ll find chinook salmon, all day long, but particularly at current changes.
Historically, February, March and April can be very good in the central/western Strait of Juan de Fuca. In fact, looking at some old coded-wire tag data, the timing between mid-February to mid-March, in most years, offer peak fishing in the region. Uh-oh, the calendar says it’s March… time to saddle up for Sekiu. I’m outta here… see you on the water!
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(Photo courtesy of Gerald Chew of Mercer Island)