Waterfowl hunters are gleefully oiling 12-gauges, throwing dummies for their retrievers and stocking up on shotshells as word of what could be a very good fall-winter season circulates around the scattergun fraternity.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife waterfowl section manager Don Kraege said things are looking pretty good as fall approaches, on the northern breeding grounds and in-state production areas as well.
It will be a record production year for the mid-continent, Kraege said, and not a record but very good for the Pacific Flyway. Estimates by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put the North American duck population this summer at 48.6 million birds, 3 million more than last year and a record high for the survey.
Duck production in Alaska and western Canada was down perhaps 20 percent last year, Kraege said, but has since rebounded.
“Our local breeding populations look good too,” he said. “The numbers are up this year throughout the state, with mallards looking particularly strong.”
Hunters around the country harvested a record 522,600 ducks last season, but Kraege said the state harvest, while good (and up from the year before), was not a record. “We had more hunters in the 1970s, so some of those numbers are higher,” he said. “The weather last season was against us, too, with the whole month of September mostly calm and clear.”
Kraege said the late hunt last winter, particularly the final two weeks, was excellent and pretty much saved the season harvest.
Snow goose hunters had a banner year last fall and winter, because of a high percentage of juvenile birds coming down from northern breeding grounds. Prospects for this season are uncertain right now, Kraege said, because the usual Russian biologist on Wrangell Island is not in place and so the information pipeline is not functioning.
Brant hunters also had a good year in 2011-12, Kraege said.
The total number of hunting days this season has been set at the usual 107 by the USFWS, and the state has set the season, within those parameters, to run Oct. 13-16, and then Oct. 20-Jan 27. The special youth waterfowl hunt this year is scheduled for Sept. 22-23.
Bag limits are similar to last year, except that restrictions on scaup have been liberalized to allow three birds in the general seven-duck limit, and the shorter season has been eliminated.
“That should please hunters,” Kraege said. “We get pretty good numbers of scaup along the Columbia River and around Puget Sound.”
Hunters who failed to return report cards on brant and/or snow geese will for the first time be hit with a $10 fine, assessed when applying for a 2013 permit, as spelled out at wdfw.wa.gov/hunting/regulations.
The number of hunters age 16 and older in the country increased 9 percent between 2006 and 2011, according to a report from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, reversing a recent downward trend. Quoting figures released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the NSSF said the hunting population increased from 12.5 million in 2006 to 13.7 million in 2011, spent an average of 21 days afield in 2011 and ponied up a total of $34 billion on trips, firearms and equipment, licenses and other items to support their hunting activities that year.
Local chinook closure
It was a great ride while it lasted, but soaring catch rates of clipped chinook in marine areas 9 and 10 forced the state to close the fishery Sunday night — 12 days earlier than scheduled — to keep incidental mortality of wild-stock kings within preset limits.
State salmon policy coordinator Pat Patillo said chinook catch rates in the very popular fishery were running two to three times those of last season, and so were encounters with wild fish. As of Aug. 12, anglers in the two areas had taken 8,728 hatchery chinook, compared to 5,006 total last year.
On Sunday, the last day of the fishery, state personnel at the Port of Everett ramp counted 155 anglers in 71 boats with 20 chinook and 18 coho.
King salmon fishing on the lower end of the Columbia River started strong, faltered for a few days, then picked up again over the weekend to about a half-fish per boat or slightly better. State biologist Joe Hymer in Vancouver said the best fishing moved above the Astoria bridge and over toward the Oregon side from where it had been — from the bridge downstream to the church hole.
Creel checks over the weekend showed 644 anglers with 145 chinook and 30 coho. Hymer said the chinook were averaging 15 to 25 pounds.
The buoy 10 season runs Aug. 1 to Sept. 3, two salmon (1 chinook) or hatchery steelhead or one of each.
Farther up the Columbia, steelhead are currently the target, and Drano Lake is the place to be. Boat fishermen there last week averaged slightly over one steelhead per boat, plus a few fall chinook. Saturday morning there were 80 boats counted in the area.
Baker Lake sockeye
Fishing definitely has slowed to a degree on Baker Lake, according to Kevin John at Holiday Sports in Burlington, at least in part due to warmer water, more anglers over the fish and sunny days. “Sockeye are a little spooky and scattered,” John said, “and a lot of the guys are going smaller and lighter. Some are lengthening their leaders to 18-24 inches, going to the old bare-hook setup, and/or very small, trimmed-down hoochies.”
John said most fish are hanging at 35 to 60 feet, although there are a lot of exceptions, and that the fleet has tended to move back over to the south, Noisy Creek, side of the lake.
Good but not great, yet, was the word on coho fishing in the Strait of Juan de Fuca over the weekend. Checks at Olson’s Resort on Sunday showed 75 fishermen in 29 boats with 50 coho.
Nick Barr, spokesman for MarDon Resort on Potholes Reservoir, listed the top prospects for this coming weekend: Trout fishing, trolling a Rapala Shad Rap or Luhr Jensen Hot Lips crankbait in 20-30 feet of water off Medicare Beach or in front of the state park, for fish to 5 pounds or better; or using small jigs tipped with a nightcrawler off the MarDon dock for limits of perch and bluegill, and a few crappie. A lot of interest has also been shown in night fishing for big catfish (to 20 pounds) off the dock, running a nightcrawler ball on the bottom.
There’s a short window of opportunity in the Brewster Pool of the upper Columbia now for chinook, before they get too dark, trolling Super Baits, Plug Cut Super Baits, or plug cut herring. Anton Jones of Darrell &Dad’s Family Guide Service in Chelan recommends the “mountain dew” color Plug Cut Super Bait, filled with oil-base tuna and dipped in Pautzke’s Krill scent, 42 inches behind a big rotating flasher. If you use herring, make sure it’s fresh and well cured to stay on the hook in warm water conditions.