Baker Lake Sockeye Tips

So, you wanna put some socks in the box at Baker — may we be of assistance?

With nearly 6,200 trucked up to the North Cascades lake (catch code: 825) so far this summer — most just this week — here’s a roundup of articles and fishing info for the season that opens tomorrow, July 23, for three-adult-sockeye limits and fishing with second rods — provided you have the two-pole permit in hand.

Mr. Wayne von Krusenheimer of The (Everett) Herald:

Baker Lake looks like a bent finger, pointing toward the east, and the best fishing last year was on the upper “joint,” between the bend and Noisy Creek, over the old river channel. Kevin John at Holiday Sports in Burlington said a rule of thumb is to start at a depth of 15 or 20 feet and to drop deeper at 10 feet per hour. He said that for the first couple of weeks, most of the fish will be caught between 20 and 60 feet, on a very slow troll.

Rig with a size “0” big-ring dodger in chrome, 50-50, or UV glow or pearl, 12 to 18 inches of 30-pound leader, and tandem 2/0 hooks in red or any combination of red, orange, pink, or glow. Dress the hooks with krill or shrimp scent, and perhaps a piece of prawn on the top hook. Mini-hoochies in pink or UV pink also will catch fish, John said.

Mr. Doug Huddlesteinhausenstadt of the Bellingham Herald:

Trolling is the most effective method for these newly arrived fish. For terminal tackle try the bare red Gamakatsu hook, a pink mylar hoochie (squid) or a large bright streamer (bucktail) pattern all towed behind a medium to large flasher, depending on visibility at depth.

Adjust speed and depth until you start getting strikes. Also these fish are likely to congregate in schools and therefore will readily show up as sonar sets as aggregations of larger blips. They may also gravitate to a thermal layer or single depth though with as much snowmelt water as is coming into the lake it may not be stratifying according to temperature.

Look to the old natural lake section above Boulder Creek where the water chemistry may be more conducive to the sockeye.

Mr. Mark Yuasagerode of the Seattle Times:

As for tactics to catch sockeye, (WDFW biologist/angler) Barkdull says to go with what was best last summer.

“I would start with where you left off last year as for the gear type used,” Barkdull said.

The pink mini hootchie squid seems to be one of the go-to things to use, and some were also catching them on kokanee gear or Smile Blades with a couple of red beads down on a leader then baited the hooked with a piece of pink dyed shrimp.

The traditional two bare 2/0, 3/0 or 4/0 red, blue, pink or black hooks on a short 9- to 12-inch leader trailed behind a 0-size chrome dodger also worked and caught its fair share of fish.

The best area last summer was in the middle of the lake or right off Noisy Creek.

The preferred depth will be 30 to 45 feet, and to your boat troll very SLOWLY.

Last year the thing that might have made it tough to fish (especially with colored bare hooks) is the lake had a bit of glacial color. It was a whitish/bluish tint of color.

Both Northwest Wild Country and The Outdoor Line radio shows promise live reports from experts on the water tomorrow.

And lastly — and for more reasons than one — a certain Mr. A. von Walgamottingentalberburgberg in two previous posts and in the July issue of Northwest Sportsman magazine:

CONCRETE, Wash.—Read through the fishing rules and you’ll come across this line for Baker Lake: “SOCKEYE To be determined pending inseason update.”

Despite the regs’ ambiguousness, it’s “pretty likely” there will be a season, only the second ever on the pretty lake in Washington’s North Cascades. Several thousand were caught last summer by anglers using gear and tactics similar to those used on the state’s other two some-summers sock hops, Lakes Washington and Wenatchee, and it may go annual.

“We’ve had a lot more smolts going out and that really helps the odds right there – having the juveniles in the first place,” says Brett Barkdull, the district fisheries biologist for the state Department of Fish & Wildlife.

That’s a function of all the salmon enhancement work that Puget Sound Energy has done on the Skagit River tributary as part of their relicensing agreement to operate Baker and Shannon Dams.

In the 1990s, the hydropower utility built a spawning beach on Baker Lake and improved it recently. Two years ago it dunked a floating fry-collection system into the lake at the dam and immediately set a new record for downstream migration (343,000, the bulk of this year’s returning adults), a mark that was overtopped last year by 150 percent. And a new fish trap on the Baker River and hatchery facility on the lake came online last summer.

The hatchery and gravel beach could produce as many as 11 million fry a year, 400 percent above the previous capacity, PSE says.

And while this year’s probable fishery is based off a forecasted return of 23,954 sockeye, the utility boldly predicts that – with another collector placed on the reservoir below Baker in 2013 – runs of “50,000 to 75,000 are not unrealistic to expect in coming years.”

If there’s a caveat anywhere, it’s that managers are not quite sure how many fish the lake can produce and how many are needed back to ensure escapement goals are met.

In the meanwhile, Barkdull places the odds of a run of 5,000 or fewer back this year at 15 percent, a return of 5,000 to 10,000 at 30 percent and a repeat of last year at 40 percent.

“If they return to the lake at the survival rates we’ve seen over the past 20 years, we could have anywhere between from roughly 5,500 to 95,000,” he laughs. “Now, I doubt both those numbers – they’re both unlikely. Anywhere in the 10,000 to 30,000 range is more likely.”

Nearly four-fifths will return as two-salts while one-fifth will be threes, with the remainders one-salts, fours, fives and sixes, he says.

If the run is as good as 2010, Barkdull says he’ll try and get a three-fish limit for anglers.

LAST SEASON on the 3,100-acre impoundment below iconic Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan, there was an extreme catch inequality: You were either among the few haves or the many have-nots. Call it socke-alism, but we aim to redistribute the wealth here.

“It’s a technique fishery. If you get it figured out, they bite pretty good. You gotta have the right presentation and the right speed and the right depth,” says Barkdull, who admits to being “just barely in the haves.”

One private boat in particular seemed to have it dialed in perfectly.

“They were a machine out there,” he says.

Afterwards, he chatted up one of the crew and was told that not only did the bite change by the day, but by the hour.

RYAN BENNETT was also amongst the havemores, perhaps because of how he focused on boat speed, bait size and how water flowing through the upper lake affected his setup.

CLIENTS OF GUIDE RYAN BENNETT WITH A LIMIT FROM LAST SEASON. (REAL DEAL GUIDE SERVICE)

“I was throwing the wind socks out to keep my speed down,” says the owner of Reel Deal Guide Service (360-840-1155). “There’s the current in the lake. I think that threw people – dodgers spinning instead of turning.”

Fishing exclusively with downriggers, he targeted water as little as 11 feet down early in the morning to as deep as 67 feet. He used an 8-inch Sling Blade from Shasta Tackle, but pulled a Gary Miralles, modifying the dodger.

“I peeled the stickers off and fished it in all chrome,” he says.

Bennett tried all the usual baits, but the ol’ red-hook trick that sockeye anglers learned from a commercial fisherman working the San Juans decades ago – and helped along to widespread fame by our Dave Workman, then on the desk of Washington Fishing & Hunting News – didn’t work as well.
“I caught them on all the standards, but the fish came on larger presentations,” Bennett tips.

So, what, a U20 FlatFish?

“A little bit, a little bit, but not a whole lot.”

Bennett is loath to give all his tricks away, but says he stuffed pink Silver Horde Gold Star Mini Sardine FG 193s with dough bait.

“I was just literally rolling up PowerBait into a ball, just like trout fishing, and shoving it in the squid,” he says.

John used bait at times as well, a sand shrimp or cocktail shrimp on a double-barehook setup.

As with other sockeye anglers, he too stresses the slow approach, from .7 to 1.2 mph speed over ground.

“An electric motor is almost a must,” John says.

By the end of the season he says he was adding a Mack’s Lures Smile Blade, which turns at very slow speeds, in front of his hooks.

That said, sockeye are flukey fish. Kicking up his speed a half a knot one day, Barkdull suddenly found himself in fresh socks.

“We sat there and limited in front of 80 other boats not catching anything. Just that little change, four in a half an hour,” he says.

John adds that you can go with or without scent, but if you do use it, try shrimp or krill.

IF 2011 FOLLOWS 2010, the best spot will be about halfway down the shank of Baker Lake’s dogleg right.

“About 99 percent of the fish were in front of Noisy Creek,” says John.

That could be a function of depth, water temps, where the fish were staging for the final leg of their spawning run or just where somebody saw or heard someone else catch a fish and pretty soon the whole fleet converged on the upper end of the lake.

He started closer to shore and gradually moved out, following the fish, even dropping his gear as far down as 110 feet to nab one.

But Noisy’s not the only spot.

“I spent a few evenings on the water, and you could catch fish in other places,” hints Bennett.

Though the lake is 9 miles long, its boat ramps are well spaced, with two near the dam, two at midlake and one near its upper end. The best launch with the most parking – PSE’s Kulshan – is the furthest away from the hot spot.

“It’s a 6- or 7-mile run, but it’s nothing in the morning,” says Barkdull.

John says it’s best to make your initial run in daylight as there are islands and snags “in areas you typically wouldn’t expect them – like right in the middle of the lake.”

The closest ramp to the action, Shannon Campground, only has a handful of parking spots, and – unlike last year – only those spending the night there will be able to use it.

“We’re limiting it to those folks who are camping there, figuring they’re fishing anyway,” says Jon Vanderheyden, the U.S. Forest Service’s district ranger.

The fishery’s popularity last year caught him by surprise, and he’s now scrambling to satisfy families out for a quiet campout in the mountains and the large numbers of anglers who want to get on the water for the first-light bite.

“We had folks running around at 5:30 in the morning looking for parking spots. There were definitely some ticked-off campers,” he says.

Vanderheyden says that workers have paved and striped additional parking at the Panorama Point Campground and are hoping to do similar at Horseshoe Cove.

“Once one fills up, you’re going to have to go to another launch,” he says.

There will likely be increased Forest Service patrols and ticketing for parking in bad spots.

USFS PAMPHLET SHOWING RULES FOR BAKER LAKE, LARGELY OWNED BY THE FEDS. (USFS)

One other thing of note is that while USFS will not issue any new commercial guiding permits for Baker, five guides who were granted one-year permits last summer will be allowed to use theirs until they expire.

“It’s going to take a little while for all of us to work the bugs out. It’s good to see a fishery, but we’ve got to respect the users and the resource,” Vanderheyden says.

With the sockeye runs that PSE and Barkdull expect in the future, angler cooperation will go a long way to keeping things running smoothly for all parties. NS

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