Sunday, 1 May 2016

Juan de Fuca Chinook

Jeff Betts: When do the summer chinook start returning down Juan de Fuca Strait toward Victoria?

A: These days the first mature chinook heading for their natal rivers start at the end of April. Those destined for high in the Fraser – beyond Prince George and beyond the Shuswap – take a long time to ascend the river and thus the extra time ensures their presence on spawning beds hundreds of kilometres inland – the Fraser is 1,368 km long (though spawning populations don’t reach the upper end).

But the fish that we begin fishing for in May are spring and early summer Fraser chinook. Those are from the interior of the province and include stocks in the Nicola, lower Shuswap, Deadman and Bonaparte rivers. These are the 4-2s and 5-2s we typically fish for.

I have looked at the Kingfisherman contest results from the ‘60s and ’70s – at one time I had protector status for some of Alex Merriman’s scrapbooks and files from his long tenure at the TC as sport fishing writer – and there were literally hundreds of smilies – 20 pounders - and tyee – 30 and above – listed in our local paper. It is sad indeed that these many years later, the runs are scarce.

The SFAB and other historical files from Tom Cole that I am slowly putting out for a wider audience, show that in the mid ‘60s, DFO was of the opinion that chinook and coho would not bite a fishing lure and thus there was no point there being a sport area in Juan de Fuca, but rather a commercial fishery only. It was in this time frame that sport fishers in Victoria began arguing that the commercial fishery would wipe the stocks out, and should be stopped – more than 50 years ago.

Times have changed, and these days most of the summer fishery for chinook is sport in our area, but there are fewer fish. The Columbians of legend are BC fish, rather than Columbia River, Oregon fish that dip into Juan de Fuca. May is the month to move west and intercept them first, as a Victoria area fishery, at Sheringham Point, before they migrate east to local shores and then beyond.

Rollie Rose, guide, Sooke Salmon Charters, has a brilliant photo of client and 50 pound Columbian – short, stubby, fat – taken in May out west: Chinook stocks also include those from Puget Sound that are not doing well this year. If you have followed the story, you will know that the natives did not reach a plan for sport numbers, and, at present, there may be no fishery in Washington State. A few of these fish are taken in our area, all the way out to the USA border.

As July progresses, more stocks for the Fraser come up Juan de Fuca from the West. While we think of the Harrison River stock as the ‘white’ chinook because of their genotype pale rather than pink flesh, many other spawning populations can be either/or. Smaller populations below Hope include the Birkenhead, Upper Pitt, Big Silver, Sloquet, Maria Slough and so on. Surprisingly, the Birkenhead can begin in-migrating as early as February.

These fish may be masked by the presence of greater numbers of American chinook for the North and South Nooksack and Samish rivers of Washington, that pass through in March, some down Johnstone Strait and some up Juan de Fuca. I hooked an unlanded fish last week on the Flats that I estimated at 20. As that’s in late April, it was probably a Fraser fish, a smidge after the US chinook.

Note that Saanich Inlet gets some Johnstone Strait divertees in April. They circle the inlet and it takes time to come all the way back out from 18 miles south because instinct keeps telling them to turn around and head deeper into the inlet. This is one reason why Jim Gilbert/Charlie White used to call the Inlet a giant fish trap.

The Chilliwack, aka, the Vedder, has several populations of chinook, the largest contingent being transplanted, and enhanced, Harrisons. The late summer Harrison stock contributes from Port Renfrew all the way through local waters into September. These are typically the big fish of September, some exceeding 40 pounds. Keep your eye on the Island Outfitters ladder board for large, late chinook.

If you want to find out more about the chinook stocks migrating to the Fraser, read the following report from DFO, pages 10 – 14:

One more thing: while our area gets some Cowichan and inside chinook in our winter fishery (although they have been fished commercially in October off Kyuquot Sound), we don’t get many in Victoria. I am guessing that they divert down Johnstone and thus, the September slop over into Saanich Inlet is from the north rather than the south.

Our area gets some of the Sooke River enhancement project fish, as they, like many chinook stocks, spread out beyond their river of origin, and then move back and into the river. I also queried the diversion of some Oregon Columbia River fish two years ago, down Johnstone Strait rather than down Van Isle’s west coast. My reasoning was that that run was so large, that even a 5% diversion, would result in an extra plus 100,000 big springs coming down the inside, rather than outside.

In this case, the fish would present in flood tide back eddies, rather than ebb tide back eddies as they would be moving through our area in the opposite direction to our BC, Fraser fish. While I caught a few in such eddies, I did not catch enough, or hear of others caught in flood eddies, to convince me that such diversion was likely.

Jeff also mentioned the ebb tide eddy, and this is a good way to find big chinook. Look at the charts where you fish, and find the points of land that stick out into the tidal flow. Any place that has a back eddy in the ebb, for example, Church Rock, fish would congregate at. Chinook tend to migrate at 1.5 knots, as in the least amount of energy to use in constant swimming. Thus they would not make it around a point with tide running against them at faster speed. When the flood begins, fish, continuing to swim at the same speed, would be pushed forward naturally.

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