OLYMPIA – Tackle shops are buzzing, charter boats are booking up and coastal communities from Ilwaco to Neah Bay are scrambling to prepare for what promises to be the best ocean salmon season since the mid-1980s.
"The phones are ringing off the hook," said Leslie Eichner at the Westport Chamber of Commerce. "This is a very busy time around here."
The pace is bound to become even more frenzied by July 1, when the 2001 salmon fishing season gets underway along the Washington coast and the western portion of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Thousands of anglers are expected to turn out for the opening day of a salmon season that could last all summer long.
"It's going to be gangbusters," said Mark Cedergreen, who represents the Westport Charter Boat Association. "This is the payoff for all the people who toughed it out during the lean years."
The main cause for all this excitement is the projected return of 1.5 million hatchery-bred coho that are expected to pass by the Washington coast en route to the Columbia River this summer. By comparison, last year's return of hatchery coho to the Columbia was approximately 600,000 fish – also a fairly healthy run compared to previous years.
Nor is this upsurge confined to Columbia River stocks. Returns to other coastal rivers of both hatchery and naturally-spawning coho are also expected to be up this year, although ocean anglers will still be required to release any coho with an unclipped adipose fin as in recent years.
Under the state's selective fishing program, "keepable" hatchery coho can be easily identified by the absence of an adipose fin, which is clipped before the fish are released.
"This is a great opportunity for people to re-connect with the resource," said Jeff Koenings, director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). "We're pleased to have a situation where we can offer folks a great fishing opportunity and, at the same time, rebuild naturally-spawning runs."
Koenings noted that strong fisheries also provide an economic boost to coastal communities. "With fisheries like the one we are expecting this year, we could see a return to the kind of economic benefits those communities had in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s," Koenings said.
While hatchery coho are expected to be the big driver behind this year's recreational season, chinook salmon – the main attraction for many anglers – are also expected to be more abundant in the ocean fishery this year. Quotas for coastal fisheries established in April by the Pacific Fishery Management Council reflect the expected strength this season of both species:
- Coho: This year's quota for recreational fishers is 225,000 hatchery coho. Last year's quota was 75,000 fish.
- Chinook: This year's quota is 30,000 fish, compared to 12,500 last year.
"We expect the higher quotas to translate into a considerably longer season than last year," said Doug Milward, WDFW's coastal fisheries manager, who noted that last year's quotas were met by mid-August. "We also expect the fishing to be a lot better this year, because there's going to be a lot more salmon to catch."
That prediction is already being borne out by Washington's commercial troll fleet, which began fishing for chinook salmon off the coast May 1. After six weeks of fishing, the trollers have already reached their early-season quota of 17,000 chinook, Milward said.
"They really got into them out there," said Cedergreen, who has also been monitoring the troll fishery.
So why are the ocean salmon runs so strong this year?
Milward and other fish biologists attribute the apparent boom to improving ocean conditions, good freshwater conditions and the absence of scouring winter floods in the late 1990s.
"Adequate water in our rivers and streams is a big factor," said Milward, noting that freshwater conditions are critical to the rearing of natural salmon and to the outmigration of both natural and hatchery runs. "That could be a challenge for the next generation of salmon because of the drought conditions anticipated this summer."
This year's run is strong enough to support several new fishing opportunities, including opening the Sekiu area (Marine Area 5) July 1 at the same time as the ocean fishery rather than waiting an extra month. In addition, for the first time since 1997, anglers in Marine Area 5 will be allowed to retain one chinook per day until the 2,000-fish quota has been reach.
Other opportunities await anglers later in the season, including a three-salmon (including one chinook) daily bag limit beginning in mid-August during the Buoy 10 fishery inside the mouth of the Columbia.
Milward has several suggestions for anyone who plans to fish for salmon off Washington's coast this summer:
- Familiarize yourself with fishing regulations contained in the WDFW Fishing in Washington pamphlet, which is available at all license dealers and on-line at /fishing/regulations.
- Purchase your 2001 fishing license before you leave home to avoid potential lines at license dealerships on the coast.
- If you plan to book a charter boat, do so before you leave home and consider a weekday booking to avoid the crowds.
- Check the WDFW Fishing Hotline (360-902-2500) or website (see the address above) for in-season updates to the fishery.
"People have been looking forward to a fishing season like this one for a long, long time," Milward said. "The summer of 2001 should be one to remember."