It is just a two-hour drive from Seattle to find the sacred fishing grounds of the San Juan Islands, a wintertime mecca for salmon anglers.
Nestled in the northern-most part of the state lies 172 named islands canvassed with elegant Pacific Madrona (known for its smooth, reddish brown trunk), Douglas fir and Western hemlock; abundant wildlife and sea creatures; and rocky shorelines that meet the briny sea.
While hordes of anglers head to these waterways every summer, many don’t realize the show can be just as delightful in the winter for resident chinook, and most of the time you can have an entire fishing spot all to yourself.
“I love winter around the San Juan Islands because there are so many options and places to fish, especially when the weather doesn’t cooperate,” said Derek Floyd, owner of Anglers Choice Fishing Charters in Anacortes. “The quality of your experience makes you feel like you’re in Alaska. Even when the fishing is slow, it’s so panoramic and such a gorgeous place.”
When the bite is on, the fishing can be fast and furious, and double-header hookups are not uncommon as I found out this past Wednesday when I fished with Floyd and my son, Tegan.
Knowing this made it difficult to get much sleep the night before.
The easy drive north on I-5 got us to the dock in Anacortes by 7 a.m., and it only took a 30-minute boat ride to the exposed salmon fishing grounds known as McArthur Bank — a fairly deep underwater shelf — located just south of Lopez Island.
Tegan Yuasa of Mercer Island reels in a chinook salmon he caught in San Juan Islands on Wednesday, Feb. 17. (Mark Yuasa / The Seattle Times)
We got two rods into the downriggers — a device with a heavy cannonball and stainless steel wire used to set a lure or bait at the desired depth — at a depth of 130 feet when the middle rod with a dodger and plastic squid laced to a herring strip jerked down hard.
“Fish on,” Floyd shouted out as Tegan grabbed the rod with a fish steaming out toward the horizon, trying to free itself from the barbless hook. In a few minutes, he reeled in a nice 8-pound hatchery chinook to the net.
We kept circling the small hole on the edge of the underwater bank, and in a span of one hour we hooked another larger hatchery chinook of 13 pounds, released four undersized chinook (only hatchery-marked chinook with a missing adipose fin longer than 22 inches may be kept) and lost one that was easily over 6 pounds.
There wasn’t a boat in sight, and after a brief lull we released two small chinook.
After boating a 5-pound hatchery chinook we continued our dance by releasing two chinook, and then got a double-header. My son and I awkwardly danced between each other, and I lost a nice fish while he managed to bring aboard a 6-pounder.
The one good thing about the San Juan Islands is that when the bite dies at one location, there is always “Plan B” where more fish could be willing to take your bait or lure.
By 11 a.m., the bite faded at McArthur after we released two more small fish, and decided to move further west in the Strait of Juan de Fuca to another expansive underwater shelf known as Hein Bank, located about 12 miles north of Port Angeles.
We finally passed the only other boat we saw the entire day on Hein, and after dragging the downrigger balls through the sandy bottom at 125 to 130 feet near the southern-most location of the shelf, we lost a nice fish that hit the herring on the boat’s port side.
Floyd quickly turned the boat around and headed back in the same direction and again the port side rod dipped down toward the water. We hooked and kept the 4-pound hatchery chinook to complete our limit of fish by 12:45 p.m.
Fishing doesn’t always go as well around the islands like we found it. Sometimes the wind or rain will keep you from getting to the sweet spot, and on other days it can actually be downright slow. After all, it is called “fishing,” and not “catching.”
But the temptation is knowing the islands offer a truly divine winter marine fishing experience unlike anywhere else in the Pacific Northwest.
If you go
Marinas and boat launches: There are numerous places to launch your boat, but the main points in Anacortes are Washington Park; Skyline Marina; and Cap Sante Marina. To the north, Squalicum Harbor in Bellingham and Blaine have good boat launch facilities.
Regulations: Salmon fishing is open daily through April 30 unless emergency rules close the season. Through early February, the San Juan Islands were about halfway through their total catch guideline. So far, 4,020 boats with 8,476 anglers have caught 1,792 hatchery chinook, and released 6,416. The daily limit is two salmon; release wild, unmarked chinook.
Top fishing spots: Exposed underwater shelfs like McArthur, Salmon, Hein, Coyote, Eastern and Middle banks provide decent action, but use caution in the winter when winds and rough seas can come suddenly. Other more protected places are Smith Island, Lopez Pass, Thatcher Pass, and the north side of Orcas Island from Lawrence Point west to Point Thompson, President Channel and Obstruction Pass.
According to state Fish and Wildlife statistics, the salmon fishing during winter is better than spring, summer or fall.
Original article: Seattle Times