Last week I looked at chinook and their relationship with structure. Here are a few more thoughts.
There are times when chinook are not related to structure. I mentioned open ocean fish far above the bottom, nursing, but there are circumstances closer to home. In Saanich Inlet, for instance, chinook mosey down the Bamberton shore glued to structure until they hit Sheppard Point. Conventional wisdom would have them bear right and thence to Stone Steps and McCurdy Point.
When I started fishing in the ‘70s, I would turn that corner, avoiding the reef that veered out from Sheppard between the two points to try and catch your gear. Often I would see the old timers simply carry on in a straight line and cross Squally Reach aimed directly at the other side and McKenzie Bay (Saanich regulars did not go by the ‘correct’ name of McKenzie Bight).
I thought it was because they were fishing a full spread of Peetz wire-line rods and it was easier to go in a straight line, crossing the fishless deep water, and then pick up structure and fish on the McKenzie side. But I was corrected and told that chinook often simply went in a straight line there and crossed the deep water, that, in fact, they caught lots of fish ‘high’ in the water way above the 700 foot depths.
In other words, instead of following structure, the fish did not change direction and crossed deep water with no relation to structure. I did not receive a good reason, only that they did so, and so I picked it up and, yes, caught fish in mid-channel unrelated to structure.
One explanation seems reasonable to me, but there would be more. In March to early May, some years Chinook in the 16- to 22-pound range came into the Inlet and seemed to follow it, swimming around the structure from top to bottom. My SS Guppy II 24-pounder was one of those fish. After several years of our catching them and giving creel reports and heads, DFO eliminated retention for those fish in Saanich and anglers were not impressed.
It turned out these fish were from the north and south Nooksack and Samish rivers in Puget Sound, a genetic pool the Americans were trying to save – and Victoria Waterfront retention was also closed for this reason. The behaviour we saw was crossing deep water, and circling the perimeter, but not leaving.
The best explanation is that, as Jimmy Gilbert and Charlie White put it, Saanich Inlet is a giant, natural fish trap. Wain Rock to Cherry Point is the opening, and fish migrating south simply pass into what is an 18 mile long ‘trap’. Genetics made them stay deep in the inlet, milling around, and not think to migrate back 18 miles to the north to get out of the trap and off south to Puget Sound. That made them available for a long time for anglers, and it was well known that they would migrate the perimeter and each successive day’s angling was hottest ahead of yesterday’s hotspot.
The same structureless pattern often happens in September. The Cowichan chinook, and, more-so, coho, can be found in Squally at 250 feet mid-channel, particularly on blue-sky high-pressure dog days of summer. Still prevails. That is why there is a closure in the Inlet – to protect the remaining Cowichan fish.
Another example is where migrating chinook cross deep water pushed by their genes. Some years ago, a young angler in the Pink Salmon Festival received the biggest fish of his life almost out in the shipping lanes, fishing with pink hootchies for pink salmon high in the water. That fish was likely crossing Juan de Fuca to a Puget Sound river. The same pattern prevails for chinook that hit Tumbo reef off Saturna or Active Pass. There is thirty miles of deep water that must be crossed to get to the Fraser River side.
Now, the fishing in deep water would set up a fish highway that you could follow by GPS marks, provided there was only one opening on our side of Georgia. Let’s say only Active Pass existed. It would pass all the fish, tens of thousands in a summer.
Finally, this phenomenon exists even though chinook tend to stick to shore in the last 100 miles from home. Our late chinook, the white Harrisons, are typically Island Outfitters leader board fish in September, into the forties. They are caught on the Owen Point ledge at Port Renfrew that is a stone’s throw to shore – ditto for Aldridge and Creyke points, also flood tide waters, in Sooke – even though when passing into Georgia they cross deep water unrelated to structure.
One last thing: I have often caught chinook absolutely perpendicular to a point of land. McCurdy Point and Trial Island are such examples. Tide pushes quicker passing round a horizontal point, and one would expect the fish to be swept into the downstream eddy. But darned if they aren’t in the faster water off a point. So fish past a point rather than hauling your lines and moving, on days the tide will let you pass the point; days when it won’t, don’t waste time trying to get by, just move.