Skagit sockeye river fishery at halfway point

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 21, 2014 

The Skagit River this month has dual salmon fisheries going on, one from Rockport to Marblemount targeting hatchery spring chinook homing on the state's fish production facility, the other in the lower Skagit zeroing in on sockeye bound for the Baker River system.

These sockeye, a.k.a. reds, heading for Baker Lake and it's fish production facility at the upper dam are the focus of 16-day personal use angling opportunity - now half over - between Mount Vernon and Gilligan Creek.

With some 27,500 reds of the anticipated 35,300-fish heading for the Baker considered harvestable, the lower system in-river opportunity will be one of two hook-and-line cracks at 2014 Baker run.

The second will be in the upper of two Puget Sound Energy reservoirs when Baker Lake opens Thursday, July 10 for the taking of adult sockeye.

As of now these are expected to be the only Western Washington freshwater options for sockeye this year as Lake Washington's run is forecast to be well below the spawning escapement goal, and the Ozette River's stock also is off limits.

Skagit anglers of old should take note that the former sockeye fishery below Concrete has been discontinued.

This year's Baker sockeye run is expected to number more than 35,300, exceeding 2011's return by about 9,000 adults, which was until the past two years, by trap count, the largest Baker sockeye run in 40 years.

The sockeye fishery section is 17.4 mile miles long, bounded by the Memorial Highway Bridge (State Route 536 span) in Mount Vernon (river mile 11.4) on the downstream end and Gilligan Creek (river mile 28.8) on the upstream end.

River mile measure starts at the mouth, sometimes designated by monuments but always defined as the line drawn between the two outermost points of exposed land on the right and left banks of the stream where it enters saltwater.

For reference the Gardner Road ramp at Burlington is 18 miles upstream from the Skagit's mouth while the Highway 9 Bridge southwest of Sedro-Woolley at river mile 22.5.

THE SOCKEYE BASICS

The daily or bag limit for this fishery is set at two sockeye (12 inches or longer). Chinook and all other salmon landed by anglers must be let go without being harmed.

Besides the salmon species, anglers also are allowed by rule to keep two trout, minimum of 14 inches long, each day including hatchery (adipose fin-clipped) steelhead (20-inch or longer sea-run rainbow) or wild bull trout that are 20 inches or longer.

Any sturgeon caught by statewide regulation now must be released as well.

For fishing in this section of the Skagit, anglers are permitted to use bait, however the basic anti-snagging rule goes into effect on Sept. 1.

Specifically the anti-foul hooking rule mandates that hook set-ups on non-buoyant lures are limited to one single-point hook with a maximum gap (between point and shank) width of 3/4 inches that must attached to or below the bait or lure. The anti-snagging rule also spells out the attachment points for sinker weights.

Besides the gear restrictions there is a night closure imposed on this fishery allowing angling only from one hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset each day.

You'll the anti-snagging rule verbiage together with other legal definitions on pages 10-11 of the 2014-15 Fish Washington pamphlet.

THE LEGAL NECESSITIES

Youth age 14 and younger may fish for free but to legally partake of this opportunity all others, both resident or non-resident alike, need some form of a 2014 Washington fishing license.

These include annual versions of the combination (salt- and fresh-water) or freshwater only documents. Temporary (one- to three-day, lower priced) fishing licenses will do as well.

Also, to be able to keep landed sockeye, all anglers, even the young ones, must obtain and carry a free multi-species (for salmon, steelhead, sturgeon and halibut) catch record card. CRCs must be held by all anglers regardless of age and license status.

Immediately upon retaining and killing a Skagit sockeye or one of its chinook, all fishers are required to record certain information. Cards documenting an angler's harvest of these four species must be turned in each April. This documentation requirement is universal for salmon in Washington no matter where they're caught and applies to the three other aforementioned game- and food-fish.

WHERE AND HOW

As with pinks and chum, timing plays a big role in angling luck for river sockeye.

Reds tend to scoot up lower river areas quickly, so being on the river with gear in the water when a school of sockeye passes your location is critical to success.

Both boat and bank anglers out for Skagit sockeye are going to choose either pink No. 4 wing-bobbers or No. 6 Corkies with a whole sand-shrimp slung below.

If bait's not an option _ and demand can make it scarce during the season _ anglers can accent the hard bait with a small pink hoochie skirt.

Being creatures prone to conserving their energy, sockeye often avoid deeper or faster flowing water when on the move instead exploiting the 'softer' fringes of current including cutting across the shallower upper contours of river bend bars.

Unlike some streams and even other sections of the Skagit, the Mount Vernon to Gilligan Creek reach has quite good accessibility for public fishing.

In part, this is due to the cities on its banks securing and setting aside portions of their river frontage as parks. One other lengthy section quite popular with fishers has a county road running along the top of its embankment.

Anglers should be aware that on diked stretches of river where you can get tantalizingly close to the flowing waters either the diking district itself or the landowner on which the levee is located restrict or deny access. Would-be fishers are obligated to know the status of riverbank property and always seek permission before venturing out to fish.

At Mount Vernon, Edgewater Park on the west side of the river just below the Memorial Bridge provides boat fishers access to the lower end of the sockeye fishery. Be careful not to keep sockeye until you are upstream of the bridge, though.

The fish and wildlife department's Young's Bar access, also in West Mount Vernon, and the city's Lion's Park off Freeway Drive are alternative sockeye accesses.

In Burlington, ample bank space can be had in the city's lengthy Skagit River Park complex that starts just above the Burlington Northern Santa Fe bridge at Johnson's Bar and runs up to the Roger Tjeerdsma Access and its broad concrete ramp at the foot of Gardner Road off East Rio Vista Avenue. Additional street accesses to this park are off Whitmarsh and East Gilkey roads.

One of the best river sections for boat-borne fishers is the broad, slow-moving stretch of water just above and below the Gardner Road launch.

Sedro-Woolley-area fishers should look to southside river banks along the South Skagit Highway upstream of the State Route 9 crossing for the best places. Anglers can start at the bank under the state bridge itself.

Besides the few private homes along that stretch, anglers may not fish within 100 feet of the Skagit County PUD intake building.

On the north side of the river in the vicinity of Sedro-Woolley, the venerable Stink Hole at the foot of Fruitdale Road is the best spot for unrestricted access. Tribal and private ownerships predominate elsewhere on north side banks.

The City of Sedro-Woolley's Riverfront Park on River Road east of Township Street also has a good launch ramp, though it can be in the current sometimes.

The Skagit's sockeye opportunity lasts 16 days or up to Sunday, June 29 when the lower section closes for salmon to reopen for again the first of September for coho.

The upper river section open for spring chinook closes Tuesday, July 15.

REDS AT BAKER LAKE

Thursday, July 10, around the time some of the initial returns of adult sockeye start splashing into its waters, Baker Lake legally opens for the taking of the bigger version of sockeye.

The minimum keeper size for adult sockeye in the lake is 18 inches.

Kokanee, the landlocked form of the sockeye species up to 18-inches in size, have been creelers since the spring trout season opened April 28.

Trapped at Concrete below Shannon Dam near the town of Concrete, homing adult sockeye are regularly hauled (often daily during peak recruitment) via Puget Sound Energy's tanker truck up to the hatchery/spawning beach complex below the upper dam.

Those sockeye not destined for either the artificial spawning beach or the hatchery's egg-take will go into Baker Lake. Loads are typically put into the lake at West Pass Dam.

HUNTING SEASON SUGGESTIONS

The Wildlife Program of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is now accepting suggestions for 2015-17 hunting seasons.

You can find out more about the process, the six year game management plan preparations and even submit a proposed regulation at wdfw.wa.gov/hunting/regulations/seasonsetting/.

I have an idea for a grouse season change I'm going to submit and will tell you about next week.

Public comments and suggest changes can be made up to Friday, July 18.

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://pblogs.bellinghamherald.com/outdoors.

Skagit River anti-snagging rules updated on June 25, 2014.

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