This year’s low return reminds us that despite the explosion of odd-year salmon in increasingly developed Pugetropolis, humpies are still affected by floods, ocean conditions.
Editor’s note: This is an expanded and updated version of an article that appears in the October 2017 issue of Northwest Sportsman magazine.
By Andy Walgamott
You may not recall Sunday, October 20, 2003, but it sticks in my memory for two reasons:
1) At shooting light – or what passed for it that gloomy-ass day – while sitting in the rain under a leaky poncho I flubbed an excellent opportunity at a nice Methow muley due to the puddle in my scope.
2) Indeed, it rained like hell that day – several inches there in western Okanogan County, 5 inches at SeaTac Airport, 10 and change on the slopes of Glacier Peak.
I went home venisonless; on the other side of Washington’s North Cascades, freshly dug Skagit River pink salmon redds were utterly destroyed.
Yes, it’s all ancient history now, but if you’re wondering what happened with Puget Sound pinks this year, the Day of the Deluge is a useful starting point.
A Duwamish River pink salmon thrashes on the end of the editor’s line during 2015’s run. Humpies bit amazingly well in the salt and rivers that year, masking what was a smaller run that was then hit hard by repeated floods, leading to this year’s forecast of just over 1 million, the fewest expected in Puget Sound in nearly 20 years. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)
THAT FALL, SOMEWHERE around 867,000 humpies made it back to the gravel on the Skagit and its tribs. (Just under 310,000 were harvested beforehand.)
By Oct. 19, most had spawned and were well on their way to assaulting the olfactory organs of everyone from Mount Vernon to Marblemount.
Then Oct. 20’s atmospheric river hit. An atmospheric river is what meteorologists call the long, continuous band of moisture that gets sucked out of the central Pacific and is jet streamed to the Northwest, where it becomes terrestrial rivers that run willy-nilly. (Pineapple Expresses are those that originate near Hawaii.)
Floodwater, silt, sand, trees – all sorts and manner of debris washed away or covered the redds.
It was a disaster for Skagit pinks. Two years later, 2005 saw a run of just 83,000 limp back to the mouth of the river, with an escapement estimate of a mere 60,000.
The next run of the odd-year fish improved, with 300,000 hitting the gravel, though harvest actually declined to roughly 15,000, state stats show.
It wasn’t until six years after the big flood, 2009, that the Skagit was back in business as a prime producer of pinks, thanks to a run of 1.6 million.
The U.S. Geological Survey gauge for the Skykomish, an undammed river pouring out of the Cascades east of Everett, shows the four fall 2015 floods that hit pink and other salmon species’ redds. Scientists say repeated scour events like these are increasing to the detriment of the fish. (USGS)
FALL 2015 WAS not unlike Oct. 20, 2003, in several ways. It didn’t see one monster flood; it saw four big ones, all again after that year’s pinks had spawned. The first downpour arrived on Halloween, with another two weeks later, followed by a third just four days after the second, and the last coming in mid-December.
Flood heights vary by river system and where each storm hits, of course, but to use the Skykomish as an example, 2015’s quartet crested at Gold Bar at 70,000 cubic feet per second, 60,000 cfs, nearly 100,000 cfs and 80,000 cfs, respectively. Not all-time records, but not insubstantial either — flows on the South Fork were the third highest on record. The average for the Sky that time of year is between 3,000 and 4,000 cfs. Systems controlled by dams saw similar surges.
The Northwest is of course floodprone, especially in mid to late fall as the jet stream migrates back south for the winter and we get rain-on-top-of-snow events the deeper into the season we get. Salmon have evolved to deal with that, spreading their spawning runs out, but scientists say we’re seeing increasing numbers of sharp flow fluctuations this time of year. That’s not good news for fall salmon – even for pinks, which have adapted to spend very little of their lifespan in freshwater.
“Nooksack, we have a preliminary estimate of 24,000. Just barely got done with surveys there. We are not done (theoretically) with spawning surveys on the Skagit, but by the time we can get back visibility, the fish will likely be done spawning. Doesn’t matter, it’s bad. Best guess is about 40,000, but don’t hold me to it. Last night’s storm probably wiped half of what spawned. Upper Skagit tribs all blew up. Sauk blew up … We have a huge hole to dig out of now.”
–WDFW Nooksack-Samish-Skagit Fisheries Biologist Brett Barkdull, October 19, 2017
Fall 2015’s four floods probably had an outsized impact on pinks for two more reasons. If you recall, that year was the height of the Blob, which really ought to be a four-letter word around these parts for what it did to Northwest fish, wildlife and habitat. That year’s run was starved at sea, and so they came into Puget Sound smaller than usual. The females produced fewer eggs. It’s also likely the fish weren’t able to dig as robust redds as usual.
Meanwhile, the previous winter had been warm, with rain falling even in the high mountains, leading to a failed snowpack, with spring and summer runoff setting new all-time lows. By fall, pinks had no place left to lay their diminished supply of eggs except in what essentially was the middle of river channels, where scour is typically greatest. And scour the floods did that fall. This year’s paltry preseason forecast of 1.1 million pinks is largely a reflection of that, say state biologists.
That’s not to discount the ocean, so important in the pinks’ lifecycle. While the Blob faded and we rejoiced, as it turns out, it left the Pacific with a massive hangover – species in the wrong places, prey-switching up and down the coast – that also affected this year’s Columbia Basin sockeye and steelhead runs. Unlike those stocks, however, pinks are almost entirely wild, so how long it will takes the runs to rebuild is a good question.
A WDFW graph shows the brief spike of Puget Sound pink salmon returns in the mid-1960s and the spike in the 2000s as South Sound rivers came on line as the basin’s primary pink producers. (WDFW)
WE WERE SPOILED beyond imagination, we Puget Sound pink salmon anglers, by the flood of fish. We had it good – better than good. We witnessed the most productive and greatest expansion of humpy fisheries of the modern era. It is unlike anything seen in the Northwest salmon world.
Since 2001, the Dawn Of Humpydom, in which yours truly recalls sitting in a leaky canoe off downtown Snohomish with a friend and utterly killing it one day, this millennium has provided a streak with no equal in WDFW records that stretch back to 1959.
There’s just a single spike in pink runs and catches in the 40 years between the end of the Eisenhower Administration and the end of the Clinton Administration, and a whole lot of blah not unlike this year’s forecast and fisheries.
Outside of 1963’s where-in-the-hell-did-that-come-from? run of 7 million, the best years produced 2 million and change, while the worst years – 1969, ’75, ’81, ’97 – barely reached half a million or fell decidedly short of that mark.
But starting in 2001 with Humpzilla and Humpzilla’s slightly bigger brother, Puget Sound became the Bristol Bay of the humpy world.
We saw returns of 3.8 million pinks that year, 3.3 million in ’03, 2 million in ’05 and 3.2 million in ’07, when the standing state-record 15-plus-pounder was caught.
Then things really got sideways: ’09, 10.3 million; ’11, 5.3 million; ’13, 8.75 million; and ’15, 3.7 million. Those last four runs alone – 28 million fish – roughly equal how many returned between 1961 and 1999.
State records for pink salmon started falling fast in 1999 when in the month of August alone, at least seven topped the standing saltwater record, then in 2001 freshwater records started toppling before Adam Stewart set the benchmark at 15.4 pounds in 2007. (WDFW)
The explosion of salmon primarily occurred in three rivers. While the North Sound’s Snohomish, Stillaguamish and Skagit had long accounted for all but the tip of the pinks’ hump when it came to production and harvest, South Sound rivers suddenly came into their own.
There is literally no catch data for the Duwamish until 1999 when five dozen pinks were recorded. That figure and all those in this section include sport, commercial and tribal catches in the river and marine areas. It was followed by 790 in 2001, then 8,646, 18,491, 30,249 and in 2009, things went nuclear – 393,806.
There appears to have always been pinks in the Nisqually and Puyallup but numbers didn’t blow up until recent years. All of one fish was recorded as reaching the former river during 2001’s run, but by 2013 it produced a harvest of 101,676. The Puyallup’s 1999 take was just 179 fish. By 2009 that figure climbed to 298,485 and it still has yet to drop below a couple hundred thousand. Well, until surely 2017.
And it wasn’t like those North Sound rivers gave up either. The Nooksack lit up, producing back-to-back harvests better than any seen in Whatcom County in 50 years. The Snohomish yielded 1.13 million alone in 2013, the Skagit 720,000 that year.
Our Little Chiefs couldn’t keep up with the bounty; all the salmon smoking we did helped push CO2 levels over the 400-parts-per-million mark. Not really, but still.
WDFW Sunset Falls (SF Skykomish) Pink Salmon Count*
Oct. 19, 2017: 1,205
Oct. 15, 2015: 17,293
Oct. 17, 2013: 54,644
Oct. 20, 2011: 23,643
Oct. 22, 2009: 98,158
Oct. 18, 2007: 41,168
Oct. 13, 2005: 17,595
Oct. 16, 2003: 18,822
Oct. 18, 2001: 12,444
Oct. 21, 1999: 962
* Passage is typically greater than 99.7 percent complete by mid-October
THROUGH THAT LENS, there was no way 2017’s return was going to be anything but the redheaded, warty, mutant, split-tongued bastard cousin at the barn dance. The preseason prediction was the lowest since 1999, which produced a sport catch of just 35,067 for those hucking Humpy Special spoons and other OG lures.
I’ll be honest, I went ahead and bought Buzz Bombs anyway, along with 1/0 and 2/0 hooks and two different kinds of pink hoochies. I’m weird like that; it makes tackle shacks happy, and probably gives them a laugh about the fool and his money. But I’m an optimist and I had visions of catching pinks off my local beach all summer long. In the end I hooked coho and kings, but no humpies. It wasn’t just me: WDFW’s daily saltwater creel checks rang up a ridiculous number of goose eggs in the pink salmon column when the Straits and Sound should’ve been boiling with the buggers, even with a low run.
“We haven’t done preliminary estimates yet for the Snohomish or Stillaguamish, but all the indexes showed feeble peak counts. It’s going to be well below the forecast which was 171,000 Snohomish and 40,000 Stillaguamish, and much worse than the parent year of 2015 which had escapement of 389,000 Snohomish and 91,000 Stillaguamish.
“This coming weekend’s rain, with predicted flood stages on Monday, should be the end for pink spawning this year and will likely not be kind to eggs in the gravel.”
–WDFW Snohomish-Stillaguamish Fisheries Biologist Jenni Whitney, October 19, 2017
My initial late summer forays on the Duwamish River were also desultory, to say the least: one snag-up and someone dropped a deuce in my high-tide spot. Eventually I did begin catching some, big bucks easily twice the size of 2015’s.
It’s probable the fish just didn’t need to feed in our saltwater like two years ago, and when they get in the rivers they can be notoriously lockjawed. With far fewer coming back, it’s no wonder we caught so few. It was also a humbling reminder I wasn’t exactly the angler I thought I was.
A buck returns to the Duwamish to continue on its way upstream. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)
THE PINK EXPLOSION suggested, in a sense, we could have our pie and eat it too. Puget Sound Chinook, coho, sockeye, chum and steelhead runs are in increasing trouble from a king tide of habitat destruction, lack of political will to do much about it and an ever-growing human population that’s less and less attached to the water but is still willing to fund fixing things with “guilt money.”
That’s the term Oregon State University Professor Robert T. Lackey used in a decidedly pessimistic but perhaps more honest paper than what you otherwise hear from those of us in the trenches, whether at the state, tribal, federal or NGO level, or in the fishing industry.
Indeed, you can’t be a hook-and-bullet magazine editor and believe the sky is falling. It just doesn’t work well. I want to believe recovery really is possible. I want to believe the gravel parking pad my family had turned into a rain garden – and many, many more like it – will help, that a couple of the juvenile coho my boys have been stocking in a nearby tributary return and make more, and those will make more, etc.
Meanwhile, pinks were bucking it all.
Or at least did until flood and ocean conditions caught up with them too.
“Pink salmon are still spawning in the Green River and we haven’t finalized an escapement estimate yet. Our forecast was for about 120,000. The survey crew tells me it seems like a pretty robust pink return this year. Sounds like the pink run has a good chance of coming in close to, or slightly below our forecast — maybe this year’s escapement will be around 100,000 pinks. That’s the best guess I can hazard for now, though.”
—-WDFW Green-Duwamish Fisheries Biologist Aaron Bosworth, October 20, 2017*
No, they’re not one of the glamour stocks. They’re an every-other-year oddity that created a cottage industry for the makers of small spoons, hoochie jigs and other tackle. They provided big-number days for anglers of all abilities. They brought heaps of marine nutrients home.
Here’s hoping Puget Sound pinks recover faster than how long it took for the Skagit’s to get back on track after October 20, 2003.
* Editor’s note: Upon further consultation with Green-Duwamish River stream surveyors, WDFW district fisheries biologist Aaron Bosworth downgraded his expectations for pink salmon returns to the system and his quote was updated to reflect that.