Spring Kings Heat Up The Sound
September 29, 2010
To dedicated Puget Sound anglers, spring can only mean one thing -- the arrival of spring kings, and summer salmon right behind them. (May 2007)
Big smile! Jesy Howard is pretty pleased with this blackmouth she caught from Puget Sound. The fish fell for a green spatterback Ace Hi Fly tied 38 inches behind a green-glow Hot Spot Flasher.
Photo courtesy of Salmon University
May signals the start of better weather, warmer temps, and also a new -- and hopefully, hot -- salmon season. For anglers living in the Seattle-Tacoma metro area, it all starts on the salt waters of Puget Sound.
STARTS WITH SPRINGERS
As any Pacific Northwest salmon man will tell you, salmon season officially kicks off with the Columbia River's springer run, roughly from late February or early March until early May. But up on Puget Sound, things don't get kicking until May and the first part of June, as lesser-known, and less-fished, spring kings come into the Sound, and lingcod season opens.
Local salmon guru Terry Weist knows the waters well. Over the last few years, he's been the president of the South King County chapter of Puget Sound Anglers. So far, his biggest king from the sound is a 29-pounder.
Most anglers don't hit Puget Sound until as late as mid-July, but Weist points out there are fish in the water well before then -- spring kings in May. "They start showing, coming through Area 10 and 11," he said.
"These are fall-spawners, but they arrive early. You can fish for them along with blackmouth."
Chinook fishing opens in Marine Area 11 on June 1.
"You have to remember they don't go to the river right away," he said. "They actually don't spawn until fall or winter. When anglers start fishing the rivers in October, they'll get these dark kings. Those are the spring fish that have been in the river system for so long, and haven't spawned yet."
Summer kings are right on their heels. Later, we'll get the migrating summer kings that are also fall fish, but what most guys call "summer kings." They're in from mid-June on, right after the spring fish, with prime time being mid-July to mid-August. Then they hit the rivers in either September or October, he said.
EARLY FISH ON THE MOVE
Most of these early-arriving fish are bound for the Puyallup River. They and their summer-run cousins come in via the Strait of Juan de Fuca, turn south at Whidbey Island through Admiralty Inlet, and travel past Elliott Bay, where some peel off for the Duwamish River.
Most then make their way further south, feeding as they go, past Dolphin Point and Point Robinson, past Dash Point and Brown's Point in the south sound to the vicinity of Commencement Bay and the mouth of the Puyallup.
This is a good run of spring kings, "but it's not a huge run. They're not as abundant as summer kings, but they're there," said Weist. "I don't think that many people target them. But you can fish for them while you're fishing for blackmouth before the summer kings arrive."
If the largest portion of the spring-run kings is bound for the Puyallup, then around that area are the most productive places to fish.
"For spring kings, in terms of top places, I'd probably stick around the Slag Pile, or Brown's Point," said the salmon expert. "The fish have to go around there to reach the Puyallup. You have to watch the boundaries, because Commencement Bay isn't open until later in the season.
"Brown's Point is right before the boundary, and a great place to fish."
WHERE TO LAUNCH
To get on both the springers and the later-arriving summer kings, Weist tries to launch close to where he thinks the fish will be. If he's fishing the Slag Pile or Point Defiance, or across from Point Defiance at Point Dalco, he'll launch right at Point Defiance. If he's off to Dolphin Point, Beale Point, or later at Elliott Bay, he launches at the Don Armeni ramp in west Seattle. Des Moines has a great launch, too, but it's a sling launch.
If you have rollers on your trailer, you can get the slings at Des Moines under your boat. But if you have bunks on your trailer, or a keel as Weist does, you're better off putting in at Point Defiance.
For the later summer kings, Dolphin Point has been the hotspot for the past two seasons.
If there's herring in the water at Dolphin, stop and fish there. Either you'll see the bait busting on the surface, or you'll see bait balls on your finder.
Last year, the PSA South King County Chapter's annual Salmon Derby winner caught the winning fish at Dolphin with a green Hot Spot Flasher and green-and-white hoochie.
"Dolphin Point was the hot point for the last two years in a row," Weist said, "with a lot of bait there, and a lot of fish. And the bigger fish have been at Dolphin. The fish caught further south, like at the Slag Pile, were in the lower teens. At Dolphin, the fish got bigger, at 20-plus pounds."
He likes to hit Beal and Three Tree Point north of Des Moines, and fishes Elliott Bay when it opens in the summer for kings heading up the Duwamish. Through the summer, he also hits the south Sound standards: the Slag Pile, Point Defiance and Dalco. Puyallup and Commencement Bay are really productive when they open up, usually the second week of August.
WHEN TO FISH
No matter where you elect to fish, be sure to consult your regs for opening dates and retention rules for each marine area. Whether it's for early spring-runs, blackmouth or summer kings, Weist cites the Golden Rule of salmon fishing -- "There's always a bite on at first light."
"Blackmouth will always be on the bottom," he advises. "And you have to be hitting bottom to catch them."
But migrating kings aren't at the bottom. During early morning, you'll get them from 20 to 30 feet down. Then as the light comes on, they'll drop to 60 feet, then down to 80 and 90 feet. You'll be in much deeper water, but that's the depth in the water column where they're traveling.
After that first-light bite, it's a tide game. And that game isn't centered on highs or lows, but on tide changes.
Fishing is usually the best an hour or two before the change for high or low,
and an hour or two after the change. Seems like if you hit the tide changes, the fish bite, Weist said.
Salmon anglers have been plying the waters of Puget Sound since before any of us took up the call. The various methods they've developed and tested over time are as diverse as the anglers themselves.
For example, mooching with herring and a banana weight is a time-honored tradition at places like the Slag Pile and further north at Bush Point. But in the minds of many modern salmon anglers, trolling with downriggers just can't be beat for covering water and working up and down the water column.
The simpler the trolling approach, the more effective it seems to be. For Weist, trolling with downriggers is the way to go. And he does keep it simple. Trolling a whole or plug-cut herring, a plastic hoochie, a salmon fly behind a green -- on the Sound, it must be green -- or a Hot Spot 11-inch flasher are well-proven, high-confidence presentations.
Whole or plug-cut herring can have the disadvantage of attracting the Sound's vast hordes of resident bait-raiding dogfish. Perhaps that reason, squid hoochies and flies have become so popular. Army-truck hoochies --green and white and glowing -- are a top choice for anglers who prefer plastics. For Weist, however, it's been tough to find anything that outperforms salmon flies on the Sound.
"Silver Horde has a new fly called the Ace Hi Fly," he said. "It's like a bucktail fly. I also use the Grand Slam fly. That's been one of my favorites. But the Ace Hi is a combination of a bucktail and a hoochie.
"For some reason, I just haven't done as well on hoochies, but I've done really good on bucktails. A lot of guys I fish with catch salmon on hoochies, but I like that Ace Hi fly. I tried some prototypes and I've been very impressed with them."
Weist says his favorite salmon fly colors are greens and blues. He ties his own two-hook snell rig, using 3/0 and 4/0 hooks. "I don't like using bigger hooks," he says. "But what's most important is, you want that trailing hook slightly behind the tentacles, for short-strikers. You don't want to miss those. Sometimes I'll put beads in front of the front hook, to get that back hook back where I want it."
Leader material also makes a big difference with hoochies and flies, which don't have their own lure action, so that the action must be imparted by the flasher. Weist uses 30- to 50-pound-test PowerPro as the main line because of its thin diameter. Then from the flasher to the hoochie or fly, he uses 40- to 60-pound-test. Not for breakage, but for better action than he'd get with thicker, stiffer line.
Anglers put a lot of thoughtful strategy into trolling speeds for salmon. The general wisdom is to troll as s-l-o-w-l-y as you can for kings, and faster for silvers and pinks.
But the angle on your cable rather than miles per hour is the most telling sign of whether or not you're trolling at the right speed, said Weist.
"I usually don't look at the speedometer," he said. "But if I've got a pretty good angle on the line, not quite a 45-degree angle, then you're doing pretty good. You have to make the flasher work, and that's generally -- very generally -- around 2.5 mph.
"But don't look at speed. Look at line angle and action on the flasher. Just before you drop the downrigger down, you can see the flasher back there. Make sure it's working."
In terms of direction, Weist makes a point of either trolling with the tide or crisscrossing it. Don't go against the tide --fighting it, you won't cover enough ground and will limit your chances of finding fish.
If the tide's really running, fish it like a river -- going down with the tide, then picking up and running back up to start again. Then, depending on boat traffic, crisscross the tide on your way back to the start. But don't go against it. Once you hit a fish, mark that on your GPS, and try to hit that same spot again.
The south Sound has no monopoly on summer kings. One famous fishery (or infamous, depending on the catch) is for kings that bounce around near the Tulalip Bubble in Marina Area 8-2, between Hermosa Point and Mission Beach just northwest of Marysville. Most anglers launch out of Everett to fish the Bubble.
This fishery typically opens up on weekends, including Fridays and half-Mondays starting in early June, when the rest of Marina Area 8.2 isn't yet open. (Consult your regs.) The fishing can be hot or cold at any given time. The two hours before dawn are usually the best time to fish.
What makes fishing the Bubble worthwhile during the slow times -- which can be agonizingly frequent -- is the magnificent size of the kings you do hook. Fish exceeding 20 pounds are common.
Another tradition is mooching or trolling at Jeff Head in Marine Area 10, just across from Shilshole Marina. It's primarily for coho, but also produces kings, which you must release.
Once open, this area's early-summer catch-and-release fishing can be excellent. Admiralty Inlet, Marine Area 9, is usually closed to summer chinook, but open for winter blackmouth.
The lingcod opener in May can provide excellent sport. One proven way to get at these big, pugnacious bottom fish is to fill a livewell with sand dabs off West Point near Shilshole, then come back into Elliott Bay and rig them on a two-treble-hook rig. Put one barb of each treble through the back, so they can swim freely. Lower them to swim around the rock jetties at Shilshole Marina.
You won't be alone, because this is a popular ling fishery. But in these rocks, there are plenty of fish to go around. You'll know a ling is chasing your sand dab when your line starts slicing through the water.
The ling season runs for almost six weeks. In early June, it's a good combination trip to fish for spring-run kings in Marine Area 11 at first light, then go into Marine Area 10 at mid-morning to fish for lings.
Then you can finish off the day bouncing downrigger balls off the bottom for blackmouth.
No matter where you fish on the Sound, if the salmon are present and you're there at the right time, it's a matter of getting the presentation in front of the fish.
"Anything you can get in front of a hungry salmon on Puget Sound, they'll hit as long as the presentation is correct," said Weist. "These fish, they're predators, but they're not scavengers. They won't eat something that looks like garbage."
Be sure to smell it up, with scent like Smelly Jelly to make it smell more realistic and to mask your human scent.
(Editor's Note: Allan Dusty Routh, 46, died after a heart attack on Jan. 12 in Forks, Wash. Dusty had written numerous hunting and fishing articles for Washington-Oregon Game & Fish magazine over the years, and the staff profoundly misses his good humor and great work.)