Sport Fishery

Anglers off Mercer Island - 1988
Sockeye anglers fishing off Mercer Island during the 1988 season.
Fishery Management

Fishery management is simply those human-originated decisions or processes undertaken for the purposes of affecting fish populations. Regulating manner, place, or time in which fish can be taken; establishing catch and size limits; defining gear used to take fish; deciding what species, how many, and in what waters fish can be planted; these are some examples of fish management.

Harvest managers subtract the number of fish needed on the spawning grounds (350,000 in the case of Lake Washington sockeye) from the estimated number returning to the lake. Any surplus above the spawning goal is potentially available for harvest, however, some minimum number of harvestable fish is needed to provide a "meaningful fishing opportunity" for treaty and non-treaty fishers. The estimated numbers of harvestable sockeye, will dictate the nature of fishing regulations if there is an opportunity to open fisheries; e.g. , daily limits, days open, length of season, etc.

Why Can't More Be Harvested?

The number of adult sockeye returning to the lake (recruits) per each parent year spawner is a measure of the stock's production rate (total survival). Average production rate for Lake Washington sockeye is less than 1½ fish returning for each parent spawner; i.e., for every sockeye harvested, at least two others have to escape to successfully spawn, just to maintain the run. This is an extremely low production rate. Fraser River sockeye, for example, average 4 returning adults per parent spawner. Reasons for the low production rate for Lake Washington fish are not yet fully understood. Whatever the cause, the low production rate means that the sockeye are delicately balanced between success and failure. That is why negative impacts like flooding can so directly affect production and the opportunity to fish.

Fishery Decision: Yes/No ?

Managers apply locks counts to the update model (that estimates run size) and determine if the season can be opened. In most years, this decision can be made by the end of the first full week in July. If an opening occurs, news releases are sent to the television, radio, and print media. WDFW maintains a telephone "hotline" for regulations at (360) 902-2500. News releases and rule changes are also carried on the agency's website.

Fishing Gear

Original "Lake Washington sockeye rig" was a flame red flatfish-type lure of size U-20 or smaller, tied on 15 to 20 inches of 20-30 pound monofilament behind an "O" (ought) size dodger. This combination was affixed 20 inches or more behind a 4 ounce (banana shaped) mooching lead on 30 pound monofilament line. Similar lures in reds, silver, and gold, or patterns incorporating those colors also proved successful. Later, various light weight silver/chrome spoons were found to work well, too.

Everyone had their own idea of the ideal sockeye lure until August 1988 when The Seattle Times outdoors columnist, Brad O'Connor, sprung the "non-lure lure" on the lake's anglers. In several of his articles that year, O'Connor wrote of fishing parties consistently catching their 6 fish limit (in effect at the time) without a lure ....... just a single, bare hook!!! As incredible as it seemed, the "secret" lure was a red, blue, or black bare hook fished behind an attractor (dodger or flasher). Red fingernail polish was quickly in short supply in the Seattle area. To view two Brad O'Connor (Seattle Times) articles from 1988 see Fishing Articles.

The Fishing Technique

Another sockeye in the net during the 1996 sport fishery.
Another sockeye in the net during the 1996 sport fishery.

Data analysis from 1972 showed it took P.M. (afternoon and evening) fishers twice the hours to catch a sockeye as it took A.M.(morning) anglers. Fishing speed is critical, too; troll veeerrry sloooowwly. In a mild breeze, "kill" the motor and it may be that the "wind drift" is enough to do the job. Past acoustic surveys , showed a decided sockeye preference for depths from 30 to 60 feet (71% of the fish were located between 35 and 55 feet depths), but ranged to depths of 90 feet. Peak abundance was at approximately 40 feet. Downriggers allow anglers to place their terminal tackle at a known depth if they have calibrated the counter dial on the downrigger.

Sockeye Anglers

Information gathered in the past, indicated less than 8% of the sport fishery participants had traveled more than 55 miles round trip. In the early 1970s, average sockeye fishing trip lasted slightly less than 4½ hours. Apparently the folks enjoyed their experience in 1988, because anglers averaged 8 sockeye trips to the lake that year. The "discovery" of bare colored hooks may have shortened average trip length. Even so, the 1996 fishery generated almost one million angler hours of recreation in a matter of a few weeks time.

The Catch

The first year when a directed Lake Washington sport sockeye catch was identified was 1970, although some anglers probably caught sockeye prior to that. Interestingly, this is a very "clean" fishery; i.e., very few species other than sockeye are caught. This is an important understanding in light of the listing of Puget Sound wild chinook as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). In 1982, checks occurred on 19 of a 32 possible sampling strata (time periods), and the state samplers observed only 1 chinook. Similarly, observations in 1983, when 33 of 49 possible sampling strata were checked, only 2 chinook showed up in the catch. In more recent years, regulations have required all chinook to be released, but these past sampling data indicate few would be expected to be encountered by anglers, anyway.

The Fishing Rules

If a sport fishing season is opened, specific fishing rules will be announced. The following are examples of some of the regulations that have been applied during past sport fisheries for sockeye.

Catch Limit: Past daily catch limits have ranged from 1 to 6 fish. Quantity of fish available for harvest and knowledge of past catch rates are considered in establishing the daily limit. The "standard" limit in most years has been 2 per day.

Size Limit: A 15 inch minimum applies to the lake to distinguish between kokanee and adult sockeye. Although the very same species (sockeye migrate to sea, and kokanee don't), they have different management needs. Studies in the lake of fish lengths have found the 15 inch size can separate these two fish. This regulation protects sockeye in years when the run size numbers too few fish to allow a season, but kokanee may be kept under trout fishing rules.

Closure Areas: Open fishing area is usually confined to the portion of the lake south of the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge, because in most years north lake tributaries receive too few fish to meet their spawning targets. Waters within 1000 feet of the Cedar River mouth are closed in an effort to reduce fishing rate on the early spawning component of the run, and like the 100 yard closure around the floating bridges, it serves to eliminate snagging concerns.

Fishery Sampling

Data collected by fishery samplers are essential to manage this run. Catch rate, combined with fishing effort, allows biologists to estimate harvest. Length measurements have helped separate kokanee from sockeye; scale samples can tell us age of the fish and they can be used to identify Lake Washington sockeye from Fraser River fish in test catches to manage Fraser fisheries; otoliths (a small bony structure in the fish's inner ear) tell us fish age, whether it was a wild Cedar River fish or produced by a hatchery facility.

Why cooperate with samplers? Some folks recognize it is the ethical thing to do, and it is a responsible act that shows respect for the fish resource. For the others, they need to know the law requires it. "It is unlawful for any person [....] to fail to comply with the directions of authorized department personnel related to the collection of sampling data or material from food fish or shellfish." (Section 220-20-010 (18) of the Washington Administrative Code)