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Reel Time Fishing Northwest

Mark Yuasa covers fishing and outdoors in the Pacific Northwest.

June 22, 2012 at 2:14 PM

All indications point to possible banner sockeye salmon returns

LakeWashingtonSockeye.jpg

This summer could very well be the “Year of the Sockeye Salmon.”

Sockeye returns are bountiful in the Columbia and Skagit river systems, but the unexpected highlight is the early robust counts for Lake Washington.

“The outlook on each of those fronts is really positive, and all seems to be playing out well and consistent for sockeye,” said Pat Pattillo said. “You can’t help but get excited when you see good returns, but we don’t want people to get too worked up about any kind of fishery just yet on (Lake Washington).”

Through Thursday, 23,546 sockeye have been counted at the Ballard Locks, which is more than half of the preseason forecast of 45,871 in just the first 10-days of counting. Usually peak counts vary each year, but occurs between July 7 and July 15.

The single-day counts are: 1,633 fish on June 12; 687 on June 13; 532 on June 14; 2,183 on June 15; 3,062 on June 16; 1,724 on June 17; 1,515 on June 18; 2,241 on June 19; 6,421 on June 20; and 3,548 on June 21.

“At this point we have twice as many fish coming back to Lake Washington than we saw in 2006 (when a sport fishery last happened),” Pattillo said.

During that same time frame in 2006, only 12,785 sockeye had returned, but the bulk ended up surging in quite later than normal. That year, 470,000 sockeye allowed an 18-day sport fishery. Other fisheries occurred in 1996, 2000, 2002 and 2004.

The big urban lake has an escapement goal of 350,000 sockeye before any fisheries are considered.

“It’s the highest number we’ve seen at this point including 2006 when we last had a fishery in Lake Washington,” said Frank Urabeck, a longtime sport-fishing advocate and Cedar River Council member. “I think it will come in quite a bit stronger than the (preseason forecast of 45,871).”

“We need to reexamine that goal, and see if it can be lowered to 200,000 or 150,000 fish,” Urabeck said. “It’s an involved process that needs to be addressed between the tribes and state. If we can lower it then we’ll be a lot closer to having more fisheries in the future.”

Since 2006, sockeye returns have dropped close to historic lows, and the run last summer ended up at about 43,000.

Back in 2009, the sockeye fry entered the lake in low numbers so this summer’s adult return wasn’t expected to be that good.

One positive factor is these fish could be reaping benefits from an excellent ocean and freshwater conditions.

“If we get more fish in the hatchery, it will help us toward recovery, and eventually build up numbers to a point where we can have a fishery again not too far into the future,” Urabeck said.

The new permanent hatchery on the Upper Cedar River just below Landsburg Dam can produce more than 34-million fry, but last year it only got 25 percent of that figure from spawned sockeye.

On the Columbia River, a record 462,000 sockeye are expected this summer, and so far the counts at Bonneville Dam are well above par as 137,925 have been tallied through June 21.

“Sockeye counts are definitely on the rise, and things are tracking pretty well,” Joe Hymer, a state Fish and Wildlife biologist who said the record was in 2010 when about 288,000 returned.

“The sockeye were just pouring over the dam, and (Friday) they were counting 130 fish every seven minutes on one fish ladder alone,” Hymer said. “In fact, they were seeing more sockeye than shad (1.9-million have been counted through June 21) so the counters were really excited.”

On June 16, the single-day count at Bonneville was 11,955, and has continued to increase with a high of 22,164 by Thursday.

Hymer says they checked quite a few sockeye caught this week in the sport fishery down in Longview on the Lower Columbia, which means more are still heading upstream.

The huge Columbia sockeye return is due in part mainly to excellent production on the Okanogan River where the bulk of more than 430,000 are expected back.

“They’ve been doing some excellent production work in British Columbia’s Okanogan system at places like Lake Skaha,” Hymer said. “Much of this stems from additional rearing areas and improvements to water management.”

The newly implemented Lower Skagit River sockeye fishery opened on June 16 with fairly good success for sport anglers.

“I am so happy in the river fishery when the bank guys catch more fish than the boat guys, and these fish are moving up near shore so they’re really accessible to the bank guys,” Pattillo said. “We’ve just gotten scant information on how things are shaping up for the sockeye in the Skagit system, and it seems to be tracking consistently with forecast.”

Those fish are part of a return of 35,366 headed for the Baker River, a tributary of the Skagit, where through June 19, 165 fish have been trapped and 135 transferred to Baker Lake.

The Upper Skagit Tribe conducted their first test fishery last week and caught three fish, but this week it ramped up to 45.

Baker Lake will also open for sockeye fishing on July 1, but the action won’t likely pick up until mid-July.

(Photo by Seattle Times photographer Steve Ringman)

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