Irony and chinook fishing

Irony isn’t a word much associated with recreational fishing but, in this early summer of 2018 around the Strait of Georgia, there’s cause enough to use “ironic” as an apt description of the current situation. As readers will no doubt be aware, the daily limit in the recreational fishery for chinook was reduced from 2 to 1 fish per day in Areas 13-19, 28 & 29, basically from central Johnstone Strait down to the Washington Strait border, east of central Victoria. This management change was implemented to lower the exploitation rate on certain chinook stocks of concern and the species more broadly.

Meanwhile, the chinook fishing in the Strait of Georgia in recent months can only be described as productive, at times highly so. The winter fishery in the central strait was very good and by late March went into high gear near Vancouver followed in April by some of the best chinook fishing on record off Nanaimo and which persisted right through May. Consistent with the pattern of the past few years fishing in the northern Strait of Georgia lagged behind but then it too turned on in early May. Further to the northeast from Campbell River, the fishing in Bute Inlet and the adjacent mainland shore has been possibly the best in twenty years or more.

Here are two recent local examples of this high-caliber chinook fishing. Last week I guided on a couple of afternoon tides for a large resort in the Stuart Island area, on the first of which 54 chinook were brought back to the dock. Admittedly there were 27 boats participating but the actual fishing time likely averaged only about three and a half hours, numerous fish got away and many more sub-legal fish were released. I don’t know the exact count on the second tide but judging from the activity at the cleaning table it looked similar, with the largest chinook coming in at just over 30 pounds, a big fish for the time of year. These fish were encountered over a wide area, from all around the lower half of Bute Inlet through a number of locations around Stuart Island itself and east as far as the approach waters to Toba Inlet.

In Campbell River on June 9th Royal LePage Advance Realty for the third time held its annual Salmon Derby. Although the boundaries were expanded this year to include Areas 14 and 15, almost all the contending fish were caught around the south end of Quadra Island in Area 13. Lots of chinook were brought to the weigh-in station and once again all of the largest 10 fish were over 20 pounds, with the biggest being 26.2 pounds – congratulations to derby winner Ken Bown! Final details are not available at the time of writing but once more participation was strong with 600+ registered entrants and funds raised for two local charities will likely match the $40,000+ generated at each of the past two events. Congratulations also to the organizers, this event has quickly become a fixture in the Campbell River fishing calendar.

There may be some thus far unknown big picture environmental reason or reasons for this strong chinook fishing around the inner southern BC coast, confounding forecasts, generating an “inside distribution” of fish, a phrase more usually associated with coho salmon. The Area G commercial troll fishery along the west coast of Vancouver Island in May was notably unproductive compared to past years at the same time and further way reports coming from places like Langara Island in Haida G’waii are similar so far this summer. In a place renowned for big chinook small fish, 10 pounds or less, are being encountered, something almost unknown in previous years.

Another unusual occurrence this spring and early summer is the high prevalence of marked chinook (i.e. adipose fin-clipped) being encountered in Bute Inlet and nearby areas along the mainland. One guide I talked to there said he’d caught 40 marked chinook already this year, extraordinary! Given that hatcheries in Canada only mark those chinook which contain a coded wire tag, usually about 5% of the production with higher rates (15%) applied on those which are indicator stocks under the Pacific Salmon Treaty (e.g. Quinsam River), this very high encounter rate with marked fish would imply that many of these fish are from the US. By law in Washington and Oregon all hatchery origin chinook are adipose fin-clipped, a practice known as mass marking, simply to denote they are hatchery fish enabling mark-selective chinook fishery management, whereby unmarked thought-to-be wild fish must be released.

Quite why there would be such a relatively large number of these fish, some big ones well over 20 pounds included, migrating to this part of the world is currently unknown but it is certainly a noteworthy occurrence. Obviously the fish are chasing feed and judging by the stomach contents of retained chinook there appears to be lots of herring around, but this is true also elsewhere around the Strait of Georgia. Perhaps a review of recovered CWT’s and of water conditions (temperature, salinity etc.) will produce an answer to this mystery, I hope so.

In closing there has been much negative comment about the cooler and wetter weather over the past couple of weeks, but not from this guy. As in so much of the rest of the world we seem to have lost all balance in the weather, dominated by extremes one way or the other. After getting an above average snow pack on local mountains this past winter it has largely melted away already as a result of drier and hotter than usual weather in April and May and I began to despair for the creeks and the fish life they contain. If you, like me, care about the freshwater survival of coho then this current weather pattern is just what is required and it can stick around for a while yet as far as I’m concerned.