July, the eve to the peak of the summer. King salmon on parade, from SE Alaska to the doorstep of the Columbia River. Ilwaco, Westport, La Push, Neah Bay, Sekiu, Port Angeles through the San Juan Islands, followed by north Puget Sound from Port Townsend south beginning in mid-July. Mercy! And if that doesn’t get your adrenalin running, try a little Dungeness crab between the cheek and gum, also beginning July 1st in Puget Sound.
Reflecting on the passage of time, for this angler, I fell into the addiction of king salmon fever during July up at Neah Bay, in the mid-70’s. Check that. I did a swan dive into king salmon fever with a baptism to fishing the edge of kelp beds, along the breath taking cliffs and the rugged coast of Cape Flattery, near Neah Bay. I learned and was schooled by salmon biologists, my colleagues, in the Department of Fisheries, who had mastered the sport of luring big king salmon out of the kelp beds to woof down a tight spinning plug cut herring while trolling slowly at the first signs of light. On July 12th, 1977, a monster-sized king salmon made that fatal mistake of inhaling my brother-in-law’s herring. After a 45-minute chase and battle, the sumo-sized king pegged the scale at Far West Resort in Neah Bay at 53 pounds. I was wrecked for life.
As many anglers know, Neah Bay is the first stop of the July migration back to Washington from northern waters as Columbia River and Puget Sound king salmon separate and continue their long migration back toward their natal rivers. For the Columbia River-bound fish, they continue down the coast past Umatilla Reef, La Push and onto the summer feeding grounds near Westport. These Columbia River chinook stocks, according to the coded wire tag (injected into the snout of about 4 million of hatchery produced fall chinook salmon, 10 million, statewide for fall chinook salmon), are the most significant stock to contribute to coastal sport fisheries. Yes, there are many other stocks using the coastal highway, including north coast rivers, Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay. But the Columbia River stocks, again, according to the tag, are the bread and butter fish. And do they ever like a plug cut herring, morning, afternoon and night!
Meanwhile, all Puget Sound king salmon stocks take a hard left at Neah Bay, migrating east down the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Some do a soft left into and through the San Juan Islands, the remainder break south at Port Townsend into Admiralty Inlet and Puget Sound.
Selecting a fishing strategy, based on these migration routes can be mind boggling. Which way to go and when?
I have spent significant time, in my sport salmon fishing career to best understand the when’s and where’s. I have examined run timing by location year for year during the last four decades, based on catch data from the tag, attempting to drill down on where to best invest my time and effort. What I have learned, is that the presence and run-timing of many chinook stocks, by area, is an in-exact science. And, when I think I have it figured out, something changes.
Take for example the mass migration of Columbia River king salmon in mid-August. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, it was around August 24-28th. Today, or at least during the last 10 years, the peak has been a week to 10 days earlier.
And, there is always the “Hey, we whacked ‘em on the 15th of July at Skagway Rock so let’s do it again!” Maybe, maybe not.
In June, a year ago, on the opener for hatchery only chinook salmon out of Westport around the end of the first week of June, it was some of the hottest king salmon fishing I have ever witnessed. This year, or just last month, the opener, during the same time frame, was as cold as the Bering Sea in January.
To learn from these experiences, developing a fishing network on-line with buddies, guides, or related fishing tackle outlets is the best way to understand and make best use of your fishing time. And information, from my perspective, is a two-way street. When one of my fishing buddies feeds me, I remember that and do my best to return the favor.
Back to Neah Bay. While the Columbia River king salmon run is migrating south, a significant number of important chinook stocks, largely hatchery-produced chinook salmon stocks are moving east, down the Strait of Juan de Fuca during July. Sekiu, Pillar Point, Freshwater Bay and Port Angeles are in their prime, offering fabulous king salmon fishing. While this zone opens on July 1st, I like the mid-to-third week of July to set up my decoys. Ka-boom! A big hatchery produced king salmon just hit the deck!
The San Juan Islands also opens to retention of king salmon on July 1st. The San Juans can be a tough egg to crack, especially if you don’t live in the Islands or that region. They can migrate up and around the west side of San Juan Island, or hit the Salmon Bank and into the Islands passing Goose Rock, or come up the east side of the Islands and into Rosario Strait. The answer? They use all of it. I think it makes good sense to find the abundance of bait, especially around Obstruction Pass, Pointer Island, Eagle Bluff and Pt. Lawrence and put in your time. Again, good intel is priceless.
If you’re still breathing by mid-July, then here comes the opening of Port Townsend (Mid Channel Bank, Craven Rock), Admiralty Inlet and Possession Bar beginning July 16th. Since this area re-opened to hatchery-only chinook salmon fishing about seven years ago, it has been a fantastic alternative to staying close to home, work and the fam while getting great chinook salmon fishing time in short bursts.
Still standing? Then take this… the summer Puget Sound Dungeness crab season opens on July 1st too. I need a pill.
In discussions the last few weeks with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife shellfish biologists, the crab are there waiting. Test fisheries in Hood Canal and tribal catches during June in Puget Sound indicate another high survival rate of Dungeness crab is in rock and roll status. I just tipped over! Remember, crabs have Tuesdays and Wednesdays off (no crabbing allowed), so pick your days carefully. And, Big Brother continues to watch so make sure you can count to five and record your crab catch as soon as you welcome them aboard.
I’ve witnessed an ever-increasing interest from anglers about fishing for pink salmon. In fact, the first pink salmon derby will occur out of Vashon Island in mid-August (part of the Northwest Salmon Derby Series, NorthwestSalmonDerbySeries.com) as interest continues to grow about pink salmon. On July 13-14th, Cabela’s will offer, at their Tulalip and Lacey stores, pink salmon fishing techniques from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., on the hour. Check out www.cabelas.com/tulalip for more information.
In the meantime, I’m revved up as usual about king salmon fishing in July. I’m scheduled to hit it full blast this month chasing summer kings in the ocean, the Strait and north Puget Sound. Remember former Seattle P.I. outdoor reporter Blain Freer’s saying about “Haw’s Law.” If you can see your bait, you’re too late! See you on the water.
(Tony Floor is the Director of Fishing Affairs for the Northwest Marine Trade Association (NMTA) and a former 30-year veteran of state Fish and Wildlife. NMTA advocates for and promotes recreational boating and fishing in the region.)