Woe is us.
These changing leaves and cooler nights should signal the heart of salmon season in Pugetropolis.
But for many anglers here it may seem like there will be nothing to fish for — let alone reason to exist — these coming days and weeks and months.
With coho expected to be low-shows, the ocean, straits and inland saltwaters are now ghost towns, the rivers shut down.
In the South Sound, Chinook are off the table, as access to the Skoke’s been choked, the Puyallup walloped, while the Nisqually closed as fishing was set to get jolly.
In the North, there’s no humpy to thumpy.
Sockeye are already in their Christmas suits, while chums are just starting to shop for running outfits.
And fishing derbies have been scrubbed or pushed well down the calendar — and targeting a different species altogether.
By god, it’s September and September means salmon fishing in these parts!
Or at least used to anyway.
Before that bastard The Blob and North of Falcon negotiations kiboshed fisheries for the season (several seasons?).
So much for hucking chrome Buzz Bombs from my new all-time favorite coho beach.
So much for dragging herring strips off Whidbey, bucktails off Sekiu.
It’s led longtime Puget Sound angler Ryley Fee to coin a new verb.
“I never thought I’d have to ‘summerize’ my boat,” he laments.
But with his favorite marine areas closed as of mid-August, that’s just what Fee’s had to do.
He parked the craft for a time of year it’s usually more at home rocking in the waves, awash in coho blood.
“It really stinks for us saltwater fishermen and -women who only got to fish in Puget Sound for a little less than a month this summer. Now, the boat has to be put away until blackmouth season,” says Fee, who is also a WDFW sportfishing advisor for the region.
What’s more, he’s hung up his river rods till winter steelhead season arrives, even with some decent options for summer-runs still available, he says.
September does arrive with whispers that some coho are in, and what’s more they’re fat and sassy.
So what are the chances of an emergency opener? Extremely unlikely under the state-tribal fisheries agreement. I can’t even bend my mind around all the cogs that would have to come together precisely to allow one possible hail-mary scenario to be pulled off in any timely manner.
Yeah, we completely understand that if there aren’t any coho coming back, there ain’t gonna be any to catch. And if there’s ever a year it was critical to get as many spawners to the hatcheries and spawning grounds as possible, it’s this one, what with last year’s disaster.
But in some ways the current state of play isn’t fair either.
Not unlike one North Sound national forest district’s bid to close a pair of logging roads to most recreationalists but not others, while most of us are stuck futzing around the house, some still get to harvest salmon.
“It’s really depressing to sit on the shore while I know the comanagers are continuing to fish throughout the Sound,” Fee says.
Sure, we could go to Buoy 10 — which Fee has — or the Lower Columbia, but those are also a long damn haul for most of us.
We want to fish.
And we want to fish here.
For us this is even worse than the mid-1990’s coho and Chinook crash on the coast.
It’s the Boeing bust.
Will the last person leaving Seattle unplug all the smokers.
BUT BEFORE WE ALL SLIT OUR WRISTS, let’s take one last, desperate glance across the landscape for something, anything – please, God, we’ll be better this time, we swear – chromy to catch in September.
As it turns out, there actually is a fair amount of opportunity to be had this month, a mix of fisheries just leading off, coming into their prime or maintaining August form.
Yes, you will have to travel for most, but when was the last time a salmon swam up to your doorstep anyway?
Much is written about the Humptulips, and a great deal more will be. That goes with the territory of being a pretty reliable river for fall kings, both hatchery and wild, with good bank and boat access. That can make for combat fishing, and with all the conservation and other closures in the region this year, expect a veritable Battle of the Five Armies meets Tet Offensive and Siege of Stalingrad when things catch fire on the Hump.
September marks the start of the Chinook and coho runs, with October representing the peak for both stocks. Running the river before the crowds arrive sometimes pays off. Eggs under a bobber are a favorite here, but consider adding sand shrimp too. There are four ramps from Highway 101 (as ever, beware the slot just above the Stevens Creek salmon hatchery) down to Highway 109, and bank spots off Kirkpatrick and Ocean Beach Roads.
Also note that before they reach the river, these salmon are available in the Humptulips North Bay Fishery, which is open through Sept. 24. Try standard estuary tackle in the channels.
The Chehalis River is better known for coho, but it gets some Chinook too. It opens on Sept. 16 for one adult hatchery king a day, and local state fisheries biologist Mike Scharpf told us that he is anticipating a good return this fall. Troll various styles of diving plugs lower in the river.
The East Grays Harbor Fishery opens starting Sept. 24. Find the two channels north of the Johns River and head east in them on the incoming tide, trolling your tight-spinning cutplug about a foot off the deck and slightly faster than the current.
Chinook and coho are caught on West End streams in September, but they’re more of an October opportunity, so we’ll save them for a later date.
However, to the south of Grays Harbor, September represents the peak of the hatchery Chinook fishery in Willapa Bay’s three major tribs, the Naselle, Nemah and Willapa, at least by angler catch – 396, 1,359 and 567 this month in 2013, the most recent year catch data is available for.
You can use two rods on the lower Naselle and Willapa, and expert LeeRoy Wisner suggests trolling large brass spinners or a cutplug with the tide, but these waters aren’t deep, so you’ll need to be very attentive to your rod to work around snags.
MOVING EAST INTO Southwest Washington, the Cowlitz produced the second most September kings in 2013 of any Westside river outside of the Columbia and which is also open this month this year. They’re headed for the salmon hatchery at Barrier Dam, and anglers target them free-drifting, running a diver and bait or hover fishing, all with cured eggs.
Most fishing is from the mouth of the Toutle on up, and harvestable though darker hatchery fish are released at Gus Backstrom Park in Tilton and in Packwood. (The Cow’s hatchery sea-run cutts also start returning this month.)
The Lewis, Washougal and Kalama also see returns of Chinook, and the first is, of course, where the fine art of hover fishing was born. Note that with management changes on the Kalama, hatchery kings are being collected at the weir near Modrow Bridge, limiting harvest opportunities on the stock to below there.
There are a couple rule changes in this neck of the woods too. For starters, coho limits have been sharply reduced this season, from as many as six hatchery adults to just two.
Secondly, a host of small streams are open for the first time for fin-clipped coho and Chinook. Now, hatchery salmon weren’t actually stocked in them, so there won’t be a lot caught. Rather, the idea is to reduce the number of strays and make our federal fishery overseers happier. The change affects 16 creeks and rivers.
HEADING BACK NORTH, while the Puyallup is closed for Chinook this year, the lower 2 miles of its tributary, the Carbon, opens Sept. 10. The glacial river runs on the milky side and anglers rely on the 4L method – luck, large Corkies and long leaders in hopes of connecting with fin-clipped kings returning to Voights Creek.
At least by the forecast, Hood Canal is the lone brightish spot for Pugetropolis silvers this year. Unfortunately, that doesn’t do you a lot of good since your calendar now reads “September.” Most of the fjord’s coho are caught in Dabob and Quilcene Bays and the Big Quilcene River in August, though some will undoubtedly be late. Those will be available for jiggers in the salt, while in the river, figure out when high tide is and get in front of the fish as they make the short dash to the federal hatchery.
The only other September saltwater fishery in all of Puget Sound and the Straits – usually CQ, PA, PT, Everett and Edmonds are solid coho choices this month – is in the San Juans, where Chinook are open. Go with large Silver Horde spoons or hoochies to try and intercept some of those big Fraser-bound kings.
And finally, this month marks the peak of Chinook fishing on the Samish. Though the Skagit County river has its issues – not the least of which is a nickname that rhymes with pitch and witch – there’s a niche for anglers who want to do it right. In a video put together by state fishery managers, biologist Brett Barkdull said its kings are partial to spinners such as Blue Foxes and Aglias in chartreuse or green, free-drifted eggs and roe under a bobber.
ON ONE HAND, this month marks the nadir of what The Blob hath wrought on Western Washington’s (and the region’s) coho stocks and the dispiriting results of this year’s North of Falcon negotiations for river anglers.
But on the other, there are salmon to be had.
Woe unto me and you and those who sit at home as fall fish return.