It’s high noon and discharge at Priest Rapids Dam is 100,000 cubic feet per second., I drop my anchor in 10 feet of water and put two rods out. Each is baited with a red prawn on a double-hook rig, above which spins a pink-and-silver Mack’s Smile Blade behind a six-inch dodger. My preference is to fish spinners – favorites lay dormant in the tackle box – but not at these flows. Rod tips pulse slowly. A light breeze rustles the water surface.
One hour and two changes of bait later, fish on! My reel sings, a mint bright sockeye jumps twice and thrashes at the surface, attracting a trio of American white pelicans. Five minutes later I lead it to the leeward side of the boat and net it cleanly on the second stab.
Sockeye salmon aren’t the biggest fish in the sea, but I would argue they are one of the prettiest. With scales are as bright as a newly minted silver dollar and flesh pigmented red from a diet of tiny ocean krill their condition is rivaled only by spring-run Chinook salmon.
Anglers got spoiled with last year’s record run and 3-fish daily harvest limits. While numbers are much lower this year, upstream passage counts over Bonneville Dam were holding near 10,000 fish per day at the end of June. That’s over 400 fish an hour, which are good odds if you put the right lure with the right action in the right location.
Why is the 2023 summer fishery “off to a slow start” as WDFW regional fisheries biologist Paul Hoffarth,” recently reported?
First, every year is different when it comes to salmon. Elevated water temperature is one factor. Low flow and less current to work gear also create challenges. Water surface elevation is down an average of three or more vertical feet, leaving some hot spots high and dry.
Sockeye swim so close to bounce off your ankles in the high gradient Russian and Kenai Rivers of Alaska. They also favor the shoreline and swim near the bottom in the Hanford Reach. Given their long journey to upriver spawning grounds in Lake Wenatchee, Lake Osoyoos, and Okanagan Lake, they stay on the move.
My knowledge of salmon fishing pales compared to dedicated anglers who put their boat in at 4 a.m. to secure a place for the morning bite. Looking back through detailed notes, I note three-hour gaps in action, often followed by a series of bites when a school passes by. Patience is a virtue, along with willingness to tolerate midday heat.
My standard approach is to locate a current seam near a drop-off to anchor my boat. I lean back in my seat, watch my rod tips, and wait. Daydream. Make notes in my journal. Listen to Pandora. Mumble to myself. Eat snacks. Pretend I don’t care. Revel in the sounds and sight of nature. Cuss the wake of passing watercraft. Imagine where sockeye swim. Read the owner’s manual to my sonar. Think ahead to other possible anchor locations. Change lures. Refresh bait. Move the anchor rope.
These things I do until a rod smashes against the gunnel and the zing of fast-moving line off a level-wind reel snaps me to attention. There is no rush to set the hook though. Either sockeye salmon are on or they are off. With luck, at least one hook is buried deep in their jaw.
The moment of truth always occurs at the net. When fishing alone, it’s one hand on the rod and one hand on a walleye-size net, keeping my rod tip in the water to prevent the sockeye from thrashing on the surface.
Let me count the ways a sockeye salmon can toss the hook: on the second head shake, the first jump, or when they first twist and turn at the surface. They get off if your drag is set too tight or too loose. There’s a good chance with two or more rods out that lines will cross and tangle when a sockeye makes its initial run. Maybe your leader wraps around the rod tip or a lead ball, dodger, or hook gets tangled. Worse yet, your fishing buddy knocks your prize off with a wild stab of the net.
In other words, don’t get on your cell phone to invite neighbors over for fresh grilled sockeye until the fish is bled out and laying on a bag of ice. And, pay attention. The next whack can occur at any given moment.