State Fish and Wildlife has forecast a decent sockeye return of 35,377 to the Skagit/Baker river system this summer.
Now the main focus by state fishery managers and sport-fishing constituents is how the sport share is split between the Skagit River and the much popular Baker Lake fisheries.
“The forecast gives us a harvestable range of about 13,500 sockeye (about 1,500 are needed for spawning escapement goals),” said Brett Barkdull, a state Fish and Wildlife biologist in the northern Puget Sound region.
“We probably have enough sockeye that we could split it into a short river and lake opportunity,” Barkdull said.
At the state fisheries salmon forecast public meeting last Monday in Olympia, the sport fishing group supported some type of river fishing, but very limited by time and bag limit so as not to jeopardize a Baker Lake fishery.
Others prefer a lake-only fishery, and by putting roughly 13,000 to 15,000 sockeye into the lake would create a pretty good fishery.
Also discussed at the public meeting was a proposal to raise the daily catch limit from three to four or more by Aug. 1 to allow anglers to harvest a higher percent of the sport allocation. In the past only about 50 to 55 percent of sockeye put into lake was actually harvested.
“The million-dollar question is how many will eventually show up at the (Baker River) fish trap,” Barkdull said. “Last year we didn’t have very good lake fishing because not that many fish returned. We ended up putting about 6,300 into the lake, and it was a short-lived fishery.”
Fishery managers have a difficult time deciding whether or not to open the Skagit River for sockeye since they don’t see actual numbers until they hit the fish trap above.
The first ever Skagit River sockeye fishery in 2012 surprisingly resulted in more than 4,000 sockeye caught by bank anglers from very dirty and high water.
There was no river fishery last summer due to a low forecast.
There is better news for sockeye returns in 2015.
“We saw the biggest out-migration of 775,000 juvenile sockeye,” Barkdull said. “When you throw in an 8 percent survival rate that will give you a ballpark number of what will be coming back (in 2015).”
The sockeye are native to Baker Lake and Baker River, but a dam completed in 1959 blocked fish passage, and since then fish have been trucked to the lake for spawning.
Much of the dramatic boost in sockeye production at Baker and Shannon lakes is attributed to Puget Sound Energy’s two giant barge fish collectors anchored on each lake.
Since the 1920s, annual adult sockeye returns to Baker River averaged about 3,500. In the early 1980s, returns plummeted, falling to just 99 fish in 1985. In 2012, an all-time high of 48,014 sockeye came back to the river.