The near-wilderness setting and the huge, looming presence of blindingly-white Mount Baker alone are worth the price of admission. Add the sweet smell of wood smoke and wisps of mist turning pink in the early morning sunlight, and you eliminate a lot of would-be competitors. Then plug in the salmon, those rich, deep-red, gourmet-level fish which practically beg to be taken home to dinner, and you have a winner, hands down.
It's unique. It's a classic Washington experience. It's there for the taking.
But first you must get your boat in the water.
The Baker Lake summer sockeye fishery is beginner-friendly to a fault. You don't need a 20-foot Bayliner to play. Downriggers are helpful, but not necessarily essential. There are plenty of fish around, showing you where they are by splashing and rolling, and they're not particularly wily critters. If you put in your time on the water, doing what you should be doing, with the correct gear, you're likely to catch a sockeye or two.
But first you must get your boat in the water.
The sockeye season, which opened on July 1, is coming up to that magic mid-July point at which 3,000 or 4,000 salmon have been trucked to the lake from the trap on the Baker River, below Baker Dam. And it's the rule of thumb for enough fish in the lake to ring the dinner bell.
But first you must get your boat in the water, which could be the most difficult part of the whole operation.
Lines of anglers waiting to launch, particularly on weekend mornings during the late-July peak of the season, can be truly horrendous. The Mount Baker Ranger District estimated fishermen spent 9,000-plus angler-days on the lake during last year's first-ever sockeye season and that 4,000-plus rigs/trailers jammed parking lots. Forest service personnel estimated up to 300 boats using launch facilities during peak weekend mornings.
There's no perfect plan to avoid the crowds completely, but some anglers reserve a campsite, so they can put their boat in the lake the day before. Others try to fish during the week when lines are shorter. Fishing the evening bite can be a good bet, after the major crowds have gone home.
There are five boat ramps on Baker Lake, as follows, from the dam end and moving uplake:
• Kulshan Campground *80-plus trailer parking spots), managed by Puget Sound Energy, with no day-use fee, but roughly a nine-mile boat ride to where the fishing starts at the lake's upper end;
• Horseshoe Cove (30 spots), U.S. Forest Service, about 3/4-mile above Kulshan;
• Panorama Point (17 spots), USFS;
• Swift Creek (20 spots), USFS;
• Shannon Creek at the upper end, USFS, but at which launching and parking are reserved for registered campers.
At the USFS public ramps, anglers can purchase day-use passes for $5 per day or $30 for the season. Overnight fees are $9. Discover Passes or state Fish and Wildlife Department access tags are not honored.
The crowds could be worse this year. State biologists are predicting a record run of some 35,300 adult sockeye to Baker Lake, a one-third increase over last year's excellent fishery. If you look at Baker Lake as an inverted boot, with the "leg" portion running north-south and the "foot" portion running east-west, with the toe pointing east, then most of the fishing will be done in the "foot."
Avid angler and Arlington resident Sam Ingram said this year's cool temperatures and plentiful rain is setting the Baker Lake fishery up as a copy of last year's event.
"The fish probably will be well scattered in the upper portion -- the short arm of the "L" -- and not just holding off the south shoreline, over the old river channel," he said. "As the season progresses, they tend to move closer to the far east end of the lake, where the river comes in."
The daily limit is three adult sockeye, and two rods are legal with purchase of the proper endorsement. You'll need to be on the lake and fishing at, or before, dawn, or during the late afternoon and evening hours.
Ingram said a popular and effective setup would be: a size "0" dodger (Gold Star chrome/mylar or Les Davis hammered chrome) on the end of your mainline; 12 to 14 inches of 30-pound test fluorocarbon leader; a pink mini-squid or a Gold Star mini-sardine in pink/white double glow; a red Gamakatsu double-hook tie (so the hooks are about a half-inch apart), size 2/0 or smaller; and plenty of scent -- Dick Nite Kokanee Gel or Pro-Cure shrimp Super Gel, used liberally on both the lure and dodger.
Use downriggers, a 6-ounce banana sinker, or a diving plane to start at about 15 feet deep in the early morning, going deeper as the day gets brighter, to a max of about 45 feet. Troll as slowly as you possibly can.
Ingram said sockeye are very soft-mouthed fish and that many are lost right at the boat as they thrash to avoid the net. A long-handled net, he said, does away with much of that problem and will definitely put more fish in the boat. Also, he said, be prepared to bleed and/or clean your salmon as soon as they're in the boat, and put them on ice. Fresh sockeye are one of the best wild foods the Northwest offers, but only if you take proper care of them.
Cleaning your fish over deep water serves also to keep the shoreline and campgrounds clean and to help prevent bear problems.
*Correction, July 10, 2012: The original article included in incorrect number of parking spots at Kulshan Campground.
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