Sunday, 18 December 2016

Chinook Behaviour

If a saltwater troller were to understand only one species of salmon, it would have to be chinook. That is because they are in our local waters ten to twelve months of the year, whereas, the other four species are in our waters about two months per year, and in the case of pinks, it’s two months every second year.

So our bread and butter fish is chinook. There are three patterns for chinook. First, before they come on shore, chinook are found in mid-water levels in the open ocean unrelated to structure, because there is no structure in deep water. They are the feeders that have left our shores in spring, and still keeping close to lunch out in the open ocean. As they move toward shore, they take on their structure-conscious behaviour once again and so display this characteristic most of their lives.

On the west side of Langara Island in Haida Gwaii, if you fish west of Lacy Island you are intercepting chinook that are about to make first land fall, meaning they are not lined up with structure yet. The strategy is to put out 85 pulls of line and troll a cutplug. Because the bottom is 250- to 300-feet deep, and you are taking them well above the bottom, this is the evidence they are still green fish. 

Once chinook are lined up with structure, you will take them on surf line rock piles all around Langara. Cohoe Point and McPherson Point are just two examples. On a big flood, the chinook are blown away from land, following the feed and so angler boats will follow the tide lines until they are many miles out into Hecate Strait and south of the two points.

And chinook can already be structure related far out to sea. The 13-mile bank off Gillam Channel, Nootka Sound is only one example. Another is The Rat’s Nose off Ucluelet which is 25 miles out and 250- to 300-feet deep. You fish the bottom layer at 250 feet, and once when we were out there, a strong flood blew all the bait and fish off the bank. We took halibut and chinook miles off the bank that were at the same depth, but in 500 feet of water. Halibut don’t spend much time 250 feet off the bottom, evidence of the strength of the tide. 

We went in circles, picking up a fish every 15 minutes or so. Behind us, on the Nose, radio chatter made it clear that no one was catching fish. Again, this is evidence that the tide had moved the fish, not that the fish intended to be in mid-water, off the bank. So there is a difference between open ocean chinook, not structure-aligned, and on-shore chinook that have returned to being structure conscious.

The earlier phase of being structure conscious, occurs during the feeder stage once chinook have moved from their estuary, where they may reside as much as six months, unlike other salmon species. A good estuary example is the bank off Lulu Island where we fly into Vancouver, approaching from the west. So they are structure conscious from freshwater until they move offshore, as much as two years later, as three year fish. They present themselves for our fishing as winter feeders, the season we are now in.

We all fish deeper than in summer, usually 100- to 150-feet deep in the Juan de Fuca to Sidney waters where Victoria anglers commonly fish. An example would be putting the rods out at 110 feet half a mile off Constance Bank, then trolling to intercept the northwest corner. The edge of the precipice is about 110- to 125-feet deep (the shallow top of the bank can be only 65 feet), but the approach water is about 300 feet deep. You only catch fish right at the edge of the bank, not in the deep water. That is, the fish are only where there is structure.

But feeders will follow bait that is mid-water and that moves around based on keeping close to its own feed. When herring stage in February off Ogden Point in 200- 225-feet of water, suspended at 110- to 140-feet, this is a spawning related position in deep water, a ripening period, not a feed issue. The feeder chinook are found with them because the herring are lunch. 

The point being, if you are not registering bait on your depth sounder, you should move toward bottom structure, i.e., shallower water. I have noticed over the years that the pattern of fishing 140 feet in 180 feet of depth, is less common off the Waterfront than it used to be in the ‘90s. Part of the reason is there are fewer salmon and the other part is there are fewer herring. Feeders will not stay where there is nothing to eat. If they did we’d call them strayers, not feeders.

The third phase of a chinook’s life is the summer migration of three- to seven-year-old chinook for spawning. These fish migrate much closer to shore, and hence, we fish them in shallower water, usually up close to shore structures, like Otter Point, the Trap Shack and so on. Chinook tend to migrate on-shore within about 100 miles of home waters, so the theory goes, tasting the water for their own river.

So the Rat’s Nose fish are likely mostly American headed for the open Pacific shore rivers south of BC. However, as pointed out above, the chinook found off points of land in Haida Gwaii such as Kano at Rennell Sound, and Cape Henry around the corner from Englefield Bay, can and do migrate as far as California – you pick them up in May at Englefield. 

When Tasu Sound has a lodge, the tight to the wall fish can be caught in the spectacular vertical point just out of the Sound’s opening. Truly one of fishing’s most iconic spots, the Wall is so deep you are fishing so close to the rock your rod tip is almost touching. In part of the Wall, you are actually underneath the over-hang of rock, just above your head. You bob up and down with the surge as much as five vertical feet, your heart going, as Peter Gabriel put it in Solsbury Hill, “Boom, boom, boom.”

And this mixture of behaviour/spawning destination occurs at surf line rock piles the entire length of remote BC saltwater trolling. A good example on Vancouver Island is Ferrer Point in Nootka Sound. This is a fishy spot all summer long for chinook migrating down the Pacific Northwest. Then by the third week of July, and on into late September, local Conuma Hatchery chinook come to dominate the stocks. You tell them apart by colour. The darker black the tinge of their skin colour, the likelier they are from the Conuma River, close at hand.

But the pattern changes the closer the fish come to home. Once having turned the corner, say at the Nitinat Bar, all the chinook are now for either Puget Sound or BC destinations. Note that Swiftsure, thirteen miles south, is both a nursery for feeders, and a nip in bank that has chinook destined for US Pacific shores.

Robertson Creek chinook occasionally overshoot Barkley Sound to the Nitinat Narrows, and Nitinat fish overshoot to Port Renfrew. And the latter would be distinguished from the, on average, larger Harrison River chinook, in that few to none are ‘white’ chinook, or forty pounds plus. But, the point is that by the pre-terminal phase, chinook are on-shore, and we fish them all the way in to their natal rivers on shore. Chinook destined for the Fraser, which includes the Harrisons, are fished for at Saturna Island, and then are picked up on the Fraser side of Georgia Strait, that they find by crossing water, without being structure related.

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