Editor’s note: With this week’s opener, I’m digging this story on sockeye fishing in the Upper Columbia River from last year out of our blog archives; for more, see the July 2011 issue of Northwest Sportsman.
Here’s Leroy Ledeboer’s story from the July 2010 issue of Northwest Sportsman, on what’s brought about this year’s whopper run — now forecast at nearly 400,000 back to the Columbia-Snake — and how to fish ‘em:
BREWSTER, Wash.—Sixty thousand sockeye over Wells Dam on the upper Columbia River has long been that bottom line number to consider opening a season on the Brewster pool, a number that has been unattainable except on occasion.
Then came our amazing 2008 run, over 213,000 strong, three-quarters of which climbed the Wells Dam ladders, then stacked up at the mouth of the Okanogan for a few weeks before that final dash into their Canadian spawning grounds. Last year had a nearly as strong run, and now early predictions are that 2010 could see 110,000 BC-bound sockeye back to the Columbia.
SO WHAT’S BROUGHT about this remarkable story? John Arterburn, fisheries biologist for the Colville Confederated Tribes, stationed in Omak, says we can’t focus on a single entity.
“Actually, five factors have come together,” he says. “First, up in Canada they’ve been doing several things right. They have a new fish management tool in place, which essentially gets water managers to talk over critical decisions with fisheries managers, and make decisions that don’t harm our resource. Instead, they work together to make sure both sides come out OK.
“Then the Okanogan Tribal Nations Alliance has been running a big hatchery program at Skaha Lake, raising and releasing hundreds of thousands of juvenile sockeye every year.
“Skaha is above the current fish barriers. Juveniles can get out, but adults can’t re-enter. Eventually, they may change that, simply by removing the barriers, which would create lots of new spawning and rearing habitat, but now it’s all out of Osoyoos, the next lake downriver.
“But that’s been the third real positive. We’ve had very good natural production out of Osoyoos in recent years, primarily because so many adults have returned. So between Skaha’s artificial production and Osoyoos natural production, tons of juveniles have been heading out to sea each spring.
“Then, the fourth factor, when they get out into the ocean, conditions have been favorable, so here again survival rates have been high, leading to these good returns.
“And finally, our sockeye have a weak commercial harvest. They can’t really be targeted in the Lower Columbia because Snake River sockeye are on the endangered species list, and once our fish get past that confluence, there’s very little netting.”
Plus sockeye tend to come in a big pulse, arriving by the thousands, swamping the gillnetters, but then they keep moving, Arterburn adds.
“Yeah, netters might load up for a few days, taking hundreds, but then the sockeye are gone, and it’s a real small percentage of the total.”
ANGLERS TOO HAVE a hard time targeting these delicious little salmon – that is until they stack up in the Brewster Pool, primarily at that broad mouth of the Okanogan. In recent years, 2008 gave us a partial season while last summer’s run brought with it a relatively generous four-adult-fish limit.
Anyone who has repeatedly targeted those huge Chinook in this pool knows that a 2-pound sockeye will whack a mighty big target, a hefty cut-plug herring, a tuna stuffed Super Bait or even an oversized FlatFish with a sardine wrap.
But now, even after only a couple of seasons, sockeye techniques are emerging that work particularly well in the pool.
“Last year was the first time we actually targeted sockeye,” says Bob Fately at Triangle Shell and Bait Shop (509-689-3473) in Brewster.
“Essentially, what we found was that smaller is better. A 2 or 4 ought silver dodger and anything red worked real well. We used a small 2-inch red hoochie skirt, no more than 20 inches back from the flasher, then trolled at 1.1 to 1.3 mph. You could still catch sockeye at faster speeds, but that seemed to be optimal.
“And other small lures worked behind those flashers too, particularly small silver spoons like the Dick Nite,” he says.
“It’s real critical, though, to be at the right depth because most sockeye are in a definite water column. Last year it was 20 to 24 feet, but that will vary year to year, depending on water temperatures. Four friends came over for a long weekend and limited three days in a row. That gave them lots of great fillets to take home.”
Arterburn, who fishes the pool regularly for kings and steelhead, says he also had sockeye success last season by downscaling.
“They make a smaller, narrow Bait Buster, about ½ inch wide, that worked pretty well,” he explains, “and you can do the same thing with plugs, go to smaller versions of FlatFish or Kwikfish than you’d use on kings.
“But this is such a new fishery, I’d encourage anglers to innovate, try new methods, maybe variations of what works on sockeye in other places. We’re still in the learning stage here.”
SO NOW, if the run really comes in and 100,000-plus sockeye top Wells Dam, it should definitely be “Fish On!” again. How long will it last?
“That’s always a good question,” Arterburn says. “Sockeye stack up at the mouth of the Okanogan because the water in that river is still too warm for them to make their final run up to Canada.
“But if we had some early cold rains or just any kind of early cold snap, they could be gone overnight, cutting our season short. Last year a friend and I went one day, limited, came back the next and zero. The fish were just gone.”
Hopefully that won’t happen, and anglers can enjoy at least a few weeks of excellent angling before that mass migration above the Highway 173 bridge, where all salmon fishing ends.
AND WHAT DOES the future beyond a summer season hold? Part of Arterburn’s job is monitoring the salmon smolt runs that taxi down the Okanogan, heading for two and in some cases three years of life in the Pacific Ocean.
“Right now there’s just tons of juvenile sockeye streaming past my office,” he told me in late May, “so that production will again be very strong. But none of us can really look into the future and predict what two years in the ocean might bring.
“If conditions out there remain good, we should have another excellent run in 2012. If not, particularly if ocean conditions get real bad, we could be back to square one.”
That part is of course uncontrollable. In the meantime, we can be thankful that a combination of good fisheries management and a big helping hand from the elements have created another fine fishing opportunity.