Winter saltchuck salmon fishery resumes

Home waters saltwater salmon fishing is back starting Monday, Dec. 1, when Marine Area 7 (the greater San Juans and Strait of Georgia) reopens to recreational anglers.

Known to its hardcore practitioners as the winter blackmouth fishery, this off-season opportunity targets the cultured-origin versions of greater Puget Sound basin’s myriad largely federally protected Chinook stocks.

Throughout the winter until its end of April closure, in this and many other inland marine zones open for selective retention of Chinook, anglers, by regulation, may keep only Chinook that do not have an adipose fin and release unharmed all wild fish.

Salmon with get-off-the-hook-free passes are identified by the intact, fully formed adipose fins on their lower back (between the dorsal and tail fins). Anglers are not even allowed, again by formal rule, to remove these fish from the water when disengaging from them.

The popular appellation blackmouth for this fishery comes from a distinctive characteristic of king or Chinook salmon, the engrained grayish-black lip gloss they sport in their gums. By contrast, coho, second-tier salmon royalty, have white gums.

Many of the kings of winter caught here categorized as smaller ‘feeder’ or yet-to-mature Chinook that may be working their way out to the Pacific. The behavioral tendency to go ‘pelagic’ or head for open ocean waters is not a completely understood phenomenon but seems to be done more by Chinook smolts who leave their natal freshwater in their first year.

It is young Chinook who stay in rivers until the following spring that often tend to stay ‘littoral’ or closer to continental shores feeding in big estuary waters such as Puget Sound or coastal inlets to the north that contribute the bulk of the catch. Native early or spring-entry Chinook stocks such as those in the Nooksack and Skagit have a noticeable percentage second year emigrees.

Hatchery rearing cycles can artificially precipitate this life history vectoring by holding juvenile fish back an extra year. This has been done with Green River-origin fall Chinook in the so-called Puget Sound enhancement program.

Managers trace many of the fish caught in Puget Sound and elsewhere with the aid of microscopic bits of etched wire embedded in the noses of young fish at a hatchery at the same time their developing adipose fins are clipped off.

That’s enabled them to factually determine the hatchery of origin of many Chinook caught in the winter saltwater stanza.

Growing kings that came from upper Columbia River hatcheries, Puget Sound native Chinook restoration programs such as the Nooksack’s one at Kendall Creek and salmon production facilities on Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland routinely turn up in winter fishery creels.

State managers monitor zonal recreational fisheries in Washington throughout the season by checking anglers landing salmon.

Encounter rate information and tag recoveries from these interviews, coupled with other data are recurrently run through complex computer programs to determine when maximum acceptable impact thresholds to ESA protected stocks are reached.

That’s the point when managers will order a marine area fishery closed, occasionally in advance of the date listed in the permanent fishing regulations.

It this now built-in uncertainty about season duration that makes it in every avid blackmouth fisher’s interest to go fishing as early and often as winter weather, work and other matters allow.


With less than a week to cast off, none of the 100 entry chits remain available for the Resurrection Salmon Derby set to go Friday and Saturday, Dec. 5-6, out of the San Juan Island port of Friday Harbor.

A guaranteed purse of $15,000 including the $10,000 top fish prize is up for the taking in this winter season opening event organized by the Puget Sound Anglers Fidalgo-San Juan Islands Chapter.

The $400 boat entry fee allows up to four fishers aboard each to vie for the cash. Contestants may plumb only the waters of Marine Area 7

Promoter’s chose the name to exemplify their desire to rekindle competitive winter salmon fishing in Washington’s northern inland water while saluting its heritage, passed down from the renown salmon contests of the past such as the Rosario Derby.

Additionally, it’s their intention to demonstrate that salmon hatchery-sustained recreational fishing can take place even as the region’s protected wild Chinook salmon populations recover and that these mark selective opportunities can contribute materially to local economies.

Actual calendar dates notwithstanding, the Resurrection Salmon Derby is the second contest in the Northwest Marine Trade Association’s 2015 Northwest Salmon Derby Series.

That’s meaningful to its contestants and winners who will have their names tossed into the drawing pool for next year’s sport-fishing combo package.

Following this technically ‘fall’ fishing event, the next up winter blackmouth derby is Roche Harbor Resort’s Salmon Classic Invitational in early February.

This, too, is a limited-entry, stay-over angling event with a 100 team tickets sold and there are still chits available at $810.75. Top prize is $10,000 but there is a huge bonus bump if the winning king tips the scales over 30 pounds.

For details call or email 360-378-5562 or market@rocheharbor.com.


The next razor clam dig, a seven-day opening, set to start Wednesday Dec. 3 has been green-lighted by state health officials.

For this sequence Long Beach and Twin Harbors sectors will be open each day while the Mocrocks sector will be open Friday, Saturday and Sunday only and Copalis Beach just Saturday.

One more five-day December opening is ‘penciled’ to start Friday, Dec. 19.

State shellfish managers also have announced a slate of four eight-day evening dig sequences for early winter on coastal beaches. Their tentative start dates are Wednesday, Dec. 31, Saturday, Jan. 17, Friday, Jan. 30, and Sunday, Feb. 15.

Each will be preceded by testing to determine if marine toxin levels are below their ‘unsafe’ thresholds.


With Thanksgiving now past, hatchery steelhead will be inbound to the Nooksack. In fact, this latest high water is likely to have invited vanguard fish in.

The Nooksack is open from the Lummi Nation boundary upstream and into the North, Middle (lower reach) and South (also lower reach) forks. Selective gear rules apply on some upper sections, but baits okay on the mainstem.

The Lower Samish River also is open to hatchery steelhead taking but just to Dec. 31 and under more restrictions. Selective gear is needed here, too.

The Skagit River is open for steelheading upstream to Gorge Powerhouse, though on the upper river only hatchery steelhead may be retained. The Cascade and Sauk rivers also are open for hatchery steelhead.

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.