First Shot At River Pinks This Sat.

Say you’re a shore-bound humpy fanatic who CAN NOT WAIT for the August and September river openers in Puget Sound — what do you do?

Well, you could join Andrew Moravec, formerly of Three Rivers Marine in Woodinville, Wash., who’s been catching the humpbacked ones up in Cordova.

Or you could save your Alaska air miles and just drive to Bellingham come this Saturday, July 16.

The Nooksack River just north of the city limits opens that day for pinks, daily limit four, and there should be some salmon in already.

Actually, when I read Doug Huddle’s column late last week that humpers opened this weekend, I was like, “No freakin’ way, that’s gotta be a misprint in the regulations or something,” so I immediately called the district fisheries biologist (and one of Huddle’s old coworkers) and asked what was up.

The longtime B’ham Herald outdoor reporter was, of course, correct

“They’re far and away the earliest returning population we have in Puget Sound,” says Brett Barkdull. “By September 1st, the fishing is over. They start spawning in mid-August and are done by mid- to late September. They’re done and gone by the time the rest of the run in Puget Sound is just getting started.”

The earliest the Skagit opens for the odd-year salmon is Aug. 1 while it’s Aug. 16 on the Snohomish, lower Skykomish and Puyallup, Aug. 20 on the Duwamish, and Sept. 1 on the Stillaguamish, middle and upper Skykomish and Carbon. Some runs stay worthwhile into early October.

So, what’s the deal with the Nooksack’s early-timed return?

It’s like that old beer slogan from the other end of Puget Sound — it’s in the water.

Mt. Baker’s huge ice sheets known as Coleman, Mazama and Deming Glaciers feed two of the Nooksack’s three forks, keeping them cold all summer — if not all year — long.

Barkdull says it has to do with “temperature units.” Each degree above 32 Fahrenheit represents a single unit, and pinks need to get their eggs in the gravel a certain number of them for the sacs to hatch into fry at just the right time that grits are available in the estuaries where the tiny salmon immediately head.

“Pinks in these really cold places spawn two months early, but the fry emerge at the same time as later spawners,” he says.

It’s the same deal with the Chinook that spawn in the glacial waters flowing off the northwest side of Glacier Peak in the Skagit system, Barkdull says.

So, I asked, what if Nooksack pinks said to hell with Mother Nature’s schedule and spawned at the same time as their humped brethren further south — when would the fry emerge from the gravel?

“May or June — and they’d be out of luck,” he says.

While the dreaded “ocean conditions” are a major determining factor for how many adult steelhead and coho return to Northwest streams, it’s inriver flows that affect pink numbers, he says.

For instance, a pair of monster October 2003 downpours — one of which completely soaked the second weekend of deer season in the Okanogan just to the east — dealt the Nooksack’s pink population a near death-blow.

“They were down to a couple thousand in 2005. We were concerned that with one more flood, they’d wink out on us,” Barkdull says.

They’ve since recovered, but the river’s population isn’t as robust as those elsewhere in Puget Sound. This summer’s return is forecast at 68,000, less than one tenth of how many are expected back to the Skagit and Stillaguamish, 5 percent of the Snohomish’s, and 3 percent of the Green’s.

Barkdull attributes that to lesser amounts of the right type of spawning gravel.

“The mainstem is poor for all habitat,” he says.

A glance around the valley — or rather above it — will tell you why perhaps that has come to be.

If there’s a drawback from an angler’s standpoint to the Nooksack humpies’ summer timing, it’s that it’s unlikely a new state record — let alone a 6-pounder — will come from it anytime soon.

“The early arrival screws them out of a couple months of good feeding in the ocean,” Barkdull says. “That last month is really, really important for salmon. The difference between a coho at Neah Bay in June and July is maybe 25 percent (in body weight).”

But then again, it also provides one of the year’s first shots at salmon in the rivers.

“It’s the first opportunity for Puget Sound pinks,” says Barkdull.

For more on how it’s done, the accesses, etc., check out Huddle’s excellent column.

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