Homing reds and humpies fair game soon

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 7, 2013 

Two popular sport freshwater salmon fishing opportunities are set to begin this month.

With nearly 12 percent of the expected 2013 Baker River sockeye now in the hatchery and upper reservoir, this year's Baker Lake sockeye fishery gets underway Wednesday, July 20. An opening for Nooksack River pinks begins Tuesday, July 26.

Baker Lake's opening for reds runs concurrently with its trout and kokanee season, but will stop Monday, Sept. 2, while the Nooksack's fishery for humpies broadens Sept. 1 to include coho.

BAKER LAKE BOUND REDS

Puget Sound Energy's upper reservoir in the Baker River Valley opens Wednesday, July 10, to the taking of sockeye, and anglers can retain two fish longer than 18 inches each day. The 18-inch measure is the legal dividing line between adult sockeye salmon and the non-migratory, lake-dwelling kokanee.

Sockeye angling takes place in Baker from the log boom near the dam uplake to where the Baker River enters.

The adult sockeye may be kept in addition to the daily trout limit of five (kokanee of 6 to 18 inches) and other designated trout species (cutthroat, rainbow and eastern brook). Bull trout (native char) are protected and must be released unharmed.

On Saturday, July 6, at 3 p.m. the lake surface elevation was 726.89 feet above sea level which is very close to the reservoir's nominal full pool level of 727.77 feet, so all boat ramps are in play.

As of Wednesday, July 3, the total intake at the PSE lower Baker trap at Concrete was 2,528 sockeye. Just over 1,000 have gone into holding ponds or the lower artificial spawning beach, while 1,476 of these reds splashed into the lake.

Trolling is considered the most effective way to catch these fish.

Opinion varies on the terminal tackle. Some trollers pull a simple commercial troll rig, a bare (and red) Gamakatsu hook tied on behind a medium to large flasher. The key to this set-up is to use stiff monofilament line (40-50 pound) between the flasher and hooks to make sure the flasher action translates to the hooks.

Anglers who won't embrace the bare hook approach will attach a pink mylar hoochie (squid) or a large bright streamer (bucktail) pattern as the business end of a flasher.

All fishers-in-motion change speed and depth until they start provoking strikes out of the reds.

Sockeye in the lake, once they get their wits about them following their Burpee Hill taxi ride, are likely to congregate in schools and therefore will readily show up on sonar sets as aggregations of blips larger than typical kokanee school returns.

They also can gravitate to a thermal layer or single depth, though with as much snowmelt water as can at this time of year flow into it, the lake might not be rigidly stratify by temperature.

Also, if the influx of glacial runoff is significant, look to the upper reservoir reach at least above Boulder Creek and perhaps even above the mouth of Swift Creek in the old natural lake area where the water chemistry may be more conducive to the sockeye.

While it's now open for gamefish angling over virtually all its length, the only free-flowing Skagit reach open currently for salmon is the Rockport-Marblemount section. That fishery closes Tuesday, July 16.

The Skagit then will be closed for the taking of salmon until the river below Gilligan Creek opens Thursday, Aug. 1, for pinks.

ANGLERS TO SEE PINKS

The Nooksack River contingent of pinks is expected to number 154,000 adult fish, well in excess of the 55,000 humpy run-size considered necessary to perpetuate adequate future returns.

This humpy contingent to Western Washington's northernmost large stream basin, though prodigious, is expected to be just a small percentage of the overall 6.2 million pink return to Puget Sound rivers.

About 22 miles of river starting at the Lummi Nation boundary near Marine Drive Bridge upstream to the State Route 544 bridge at Everson Nooksack will be available for hook and line fishers. The remaining Nooksack mainstem up to Deming opens for salmon Sunday, Sept. 1.

THE BOOK ON NOOKSACK HUMPIES

Humpies as a whole and Nooksack pinks in particular have several characteristics setting them apart from other Pacific salmon.

First, as a species, humpies differ from all other salmon returning to the North American continent in that they come back only every other year. From the mid-British Columbia coast south, big pink runs happen in odd-numbered years. To the north in Alaskan waters, the biggest pink runs occur in even calendar years.

Another trait unique to pinks is that they are the shortest lived, in that they return to spawn as two-year-olds. Chinook, by comparison, can be seven and even eight years old when they return to spawn and most chum salmon runs have a combination of three-, four- and five-year-olds.

Nooksack humpies are the earliest to spawn in Washington waters (sometimes a month before the peak spawning in the nearby Skagit), with the largest portions of the run going to the North and Middle fork and some to the South Fork. Only native spring chinook precede humpies in their spawning runs.

With pinks being the smallest of all Pacific salmon, the Nooksack's humpies have the further distinction of being the smallest of the small, individually, in stature of Puget Sound's pink stocks.

A typical Nooksack pink from the lower river may check in to a creel at three to five pounds. But elsewhere in Puget Sound, runs can produce some behemoths, including the current state freshwater record, a 15-plus pound pink taken from the Skykomish River in 2007.

Pinks get their "humpy" nickname from the distinctive distended head and arching back males develop just before or shortly after entering the river. Like other salmon in their freshwater phase, both male and female pinks have very sharp teeth erupting from their jaws that turn into weapons on the spawning grounds to defend redds (female to female battles) or to fight for spawning rights (male to male combat).

WHERE ON THE HOME STREAM

By mid-July, the first of 2013's pinks will be through the lower river. But fair numbers remain for catching if accessible river bank space from which to cast or a place to slip a boat into the current can be found.

Increasingly sensitive to public intrusion on their property, landowners along the Nooksack have taken to posting their property against trespass, even at longstanding angler haunts.

To avoid conflicts and the potential for breaking the state trespass law (RCW 9A.52.080), stick to the publicly owned riverside lands between Marine Drive and Everson.

Here are the public lands situated in the July and August pink salmon reach (the left and right reference assumes you are facing downstream):

WDFW Nooksack Unit: Part of Whatcom Wildlife Area, it provides about 2.1 miles of left bank trail access between Marine Drive and Slater Road. Walk-in.

WDFW Tennant Lake Unit: Part of Whatcom Wildlife Area, it allows access to about 1.7 miles of brushy, left high bank access between Slater Road and Nielsen Road. Walk-in.

Whatcom County Parks Hovander Homestead Park: The county park has about 2.3 miles of left bank access from Nielsen Road upstream to near Main Street bridge. Below moderate flows there are two bars in this section. The only public launch for trailered boats is at the north end of this complex. Drive-up.

Ferndale Centennial Riverwalk and Vanderyacht city parks: These municipal parks provide about .8 mile of right mostly high bank access, but there is one expansive bar upstream of the railroad bridge. Drive-up and walk-in.

WDFW Harksell Road: Also listed as the Chappell Access, it provides very limited right high bank access but adjacent lands are privately owned. A WDFW vehicle access permit is required to park here and the area is closed during hours of darkness. Drive-up.

WDFW Guide Meridian: Also listed as the Degroot Access, it enables limited left bank access to a river bar; adjacent lands are privately owned. A WDFW vehicle access permit is required to park here and the area is closed during hours of darkness. Drive-up.

Whatcom County Roads Hannegan Road Bridge: This county road crossing has very limited left bank access on the county road right-of-way under the bridge. When river flow is low a bar forms that may be accessed upstream of the mouth of Kamm Creek. The south bridge approach is a high bank option. Drive-up.

WDFW Stickney Island Road: Also listed as the Proctor-Rupke Access, available by agreement with the landowners, this gated field road provides limited right bank access to a bar. Walk-in.

Everson Riverside City Park: This municipal park has about three-tenths mile of right riverbank access onto an occasionally expansive - depending on the river flow volume - gravel bar. The ramp was intended to serve trailered watercraft, but the river remains uncooperative, so only carry-in personal or paddle craft have access here.

Don't count on lands being posted to now be off-limits. If you have not visited the river for some years, it would be prudent to check out the ownership of the approach to your former favorite fishing holes. You can do that easily online at the county assessor's Web site.

Always get or renew permissions to enter private land and behave as if you own it. Pick up litter, close gates, do not drive on crops or pastures, do not build fires and be thoughtful where you park. Also offer the landowner some of your smoked catch as a token of appreciation.

TOP PINK SWAYERS

It's been said that if they are in a biting mood, humpies are sure to hit anything as long as it's pink. But they actually strike a broad variety of different colored terminal tackle.

As with gear selection for other river dwelling fish, lure or bait effectiveness depends on water clarity.

The general rule is: Start small in clear water and increase lure size as the clarity (visibility) decreases. Both scent and vibration probably play an increasingly important role as the water gets murkier as well.

Freshwater salmon fishers, especially on the Nooksack, need to pay heed to restrictions on the use of bait and the hook and/or point count found in the regulations when they outfit their tackle boxes or vests.

Whether you are plunking or casting and retrieving, here are some commonly used lures.

( FSTs: A longstanding lure brand that's a medium-sized, fluttery spoon that comes in thin-blade and a thicker (weighted) version for easier casting. There can be a wide selection of liveries (finishes, colors and patterns), but in our glacially clouded waters, pinks and whites are reliable fish getters.

( Dick Nites: Another well-known lure brand is an elongated, thin-bladed spoon type. Again, there can be a wide selection of liveries (finishes, colors and patterns), but many anglers like the basic metal finishes in chrome or brass. Smaller Dickies are preferred in clearer water.

( Wingbobbers: A tried and true plunking lure designed to spin on the leader's axis, there are several derivations of the original that work well either plunked (fished in place on the bottom) or cast out, drifted and retrieved.

( Guppys: Once molded locally, these old plastic wobbling-style lures have the same action as Flatfish and Kwikfish but get their action with a somewhat different and distinct shape. If you're old enough to still have some in your tackle box, use them wisely. Substitutes with the same type of action include Hotshots and other wobbly plugs as well as the aforementioned F- or K- models of flatfish.

( Fly Patterns: Bright colored (again pinks, reds and oranges) streamers such as bucktail flies or leech-type patterns tied with marabou are among the better pink enticers.

HANDLING YOUR CATCH

Anglers in the heat of the hook and landing are prone to toss their catches on the bank beside them and quickly get back in the action.

Doing that with humpies, especially in the summer midday sun, will put them at risk of turning into an uninviting and unpalatable mess.

To ensure they retain their quality, follow these steps immediately after landing keepers:

Quickly bleed them out by snipping a gill arch.

Removing the entrails is okay, but getting the fish (in the round) chilled as soon as possible is more important.

Put them on ice (cube or block) in a cooler. It's good to keep humpies from coming in direct contact with the ice or meltwater and certainly don't put them back in the river. Put them on a rack and cover them with wet burlap or a coarse cloth inside the cooler.

Given this care immediately upon landing them, Nooksack pinks can meet the strictest standards for a fresh barbecue. They also will retain their firmness and won't need as much time soaking in brine before cold or hot smoke curing.

OTHER HUMPY HOLLOWS

Coming in a little later than the Nooksack's pinks, runs in several neighboring Puget Sound streams become fair game in August and September in the Skagit, Stillaguamish, Snohomish, Puyallup and Nisqually rivers.

Doug Huddle, the Bellingham Herald's outdoors correspondent, since 1983 has written a weekly fishing and hunting column that now appears Sundays. Read his blog and contact him at http://pbogs.bellinghamherald.com/outdoors.

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