My first thought was, holy moly, we’ve found the resident coho hot spots!
My second was, what the heck kind of schools of fish are those anyway?
Numerous pods can be seen in aerial images of Puget Sound from last month.
One set of shots was taken in upper Henderson Bay, off Allen Point and the waters just south of the Purdy Spit, the other on either side of Keyport, on the Kitsap Peninsula.
The photos were included in the Department of Ecology’s latest Eyes Over Puget Sound report, a monthly check-in on environmental conditions in the inland sea.
It tracks water quality, freshwater inputs and coastal upwellings, comparing them across the years.
Also monitored are surface conditions, such as those bright-orange “tomato soup” algae blooms that are turning up, as well as marine debris, sediment plumes, jellyfish and the aforementioned schools of fish.
My interest primarily revolved around the old fisherman’s refrain: coho love baitfish, so where you find bait, you find the salmon.
The question was, which prey species would be good to approximate in one’s lure selection?!
Were those herring? I asked James Losee, a WDFW South Sound fisheries biologist. There are several known spawning beaches down his way.
Sandlance? Surf smelt?
I’ve caught Puget Sound coho utterly stuffed with herring; on this year’s June 1 opener I somehow snagged a sandlance with my Buzz Bomb/Yo-Zuri squid set-up; and last year I landed a silver that was digesting a pile perch.
When Losee got back to me, it was with the name of a species I would not have guessed.
“The majority of these groups of fish are anchovies but are also composed of other forage (bait) fish,” he told me via email.
Anchovies? In Puget Sound?
Say what, James?!?
I consider myself a fairly close observer of the Northwest’s natural world and I initially did not recall ever hearing of the thin, filter-feeding plankton eaters in Pugetropolis, except as a pizza topping option when ordering from Pagliacci’s.
I do know that anchovies are an important ocean salmon feedstock up and down the West Coast, moving into the mouth of the Columbia River and other bays to spawn.
It turns out that at one time they were also “a predominant forage species” in what is the Lower 48’s largest estuary by water volume, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
In December 2016, their Western Fisheries Research Center spotlighted the Whulge’s forage fish in a report that includes this 1894 quote from an anonymous observer:
“The anchovy come to Puget Sound in enormous quantities, and … every bay and inlet is crowded with them … I have known them to be in such masses at Port Hadlock that they could be dipped up with a common water bucket.”
As you may have guessed, anchovy abundance is believed to be way down from historic levels, as everything good here is.
But in recent years it’s actually been increasing — “dramatically,” says USGS.
Back in 2009, a longtime flyrodder posted he was noticing more.
In May, the Northwest Treaty Tribes blogged that an anchovy population boom in 2015 might have helped more Nisqually steelhead smolts sneak past all the harbor seals.
And last year, “thousands” turned up dead on a Hood Canal beach after a heat wave.
When I pulled up more Eyes Over Puget Sound monthly reports to see if schools showed up in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 late-spring aerials, the answer was:
Jellyfish, yes — and how;
Fish, not really, till this spring.
There’s a lot of grim news out there about Puget Sound these days — drugged-up mussels and Chinook, starving orcas, too much shoreline armoring, etc., etc. — but WDFW’s Losee says that “exciting things” are also happening here from “a prey resource point of view.”
“The fluctuating patterns of plankton association with pink salmon abundance and the increasing numbers of forage fish and ‘resident’ life histories like blackmouth and resident coho,” he clarified. “Still a lot to try and understand as patterns are complex but seeing schools of anchovies is a good start.”
I know that seeing them from the air is pretty cool too.