By Mike Carey
Sockeye are one of the best tasting salmon you can catch. Their deep red flesh holds high levels of oils which, when barbequed or baked sizzle and bubble to the surface, signaling "dinner time" like no other salmon. We in Washington are blessed with a stellar sockeye year for 2014, as a record number of over a half million sockeye flood up the Columbia river. In addition, Baker Lake is rebounding from a poor year last year and has a forecast of 36,000 fish. Lake Wenatchee has a good chunk of those Columbia river fish returning, with a forecast of 40-60,000 fish. That's a lot of fish for a 2,440 acre lake! On the horizon anglers may someday look forward to fisheries on Lake Cle Elum, and perhaps Lake Washington will again produce numbers sufficient to target. Things are indeed looking up for sockeye fishing in Washington.
With all these fish flooding in to our state you have no excuse to not get in on some of the hot action out there. Good fisheries on either side of the mountains mean most anglers can travel less than 150 miles and find a first rate fishery to target. A boat is a necessity for fishing sockeye. To date reports of shore anglers being able to catch these fish are non-existent, except for anglers plunking from the banks of the Skagit, which is a limited fishery and ended as of this article. I have seen no reports of Columbia river shore anglers having success for sockeye.
OK, so a boat is a requirement. I have seen many of floating vessels catch sockeye in Baker Lake. Canoes, kayaks, and rafts will all get you out on the water. Sockeye are unique in a couple regards for anglers in these small vessels. First, a fast troll is not a requirement. A 0.8-1.2 mph trolling speed is all sockeye require, meaning arm-propelled anglers, rowing or paddling can and will catch sockeye. Second, sockeye are generally a trolled fish. I have not seen any reports of them being jigged. That said, having a downrigger is not needed to troll for sockeye. The tried and true method of a 3-6 oz banana weight will work. A word of warning - if you're long lining please don't cut in front of boats trolling with downriggers. And if you're trolling with downriggers, watch to see if the boat you cut behind is long-lining. Let's all avoid those on the lake gear taggles. Best practise, when approaching bow to bow, pass to the right whenever possible, and if over-taking a slower vessel it's your responsibility to pass safely to either side. Don't be crossing at ninety degrees to the trolling fleet!
There will be lot's of sockeye in these various lakes/rivers, but not all of them will be "on the bite" at the same time. I've lowered a camera down while saltwater fishing for coho and have seen salmon swimming behind my gear, mesmerized but not in an aggressive bite mode. Suddenly, one fish will make a commitment and attack the gear. Why? Frankly, who knows. I just know when that bite comes and the rod tip starts violently jerking it's a real adrenaline rush!
Sockeye will run 3-6 pounds in the Columbia River/Lake Wenatchee area, and 4-10 pounds at Baker Lake and Lake Washington. By the way, the state record for Washington is 10.63 pounds taken out of Lake Washington in 1982. So we aren't talking huge salmon, but don't let that fool you. They fight like crazy, with multiple arieal displays, runs and general craziness at the boat. I personal witnessed one fish jump a good 5-6 feet out of the water when hooked. It was a sight forever burned into my memory.
Because these fish are so crazy wild when hooked, I like to have a medium action rod, with some back bone for control. When you're in a fleet of other boats it's only fair to your fellow anglers that you have gear that allows you to control your fish. For mainline I'll go with 15-20 pound line, the same as I would use for silvers in the Sound. My reels are Shimano level wind. Whatever you have that has a good drag system will work fine. I like my reels because they have clickers. There's nothing that will catch your attention better than the scream of a reel clicker when you're daydreaming waiting for that next (or first) fish.
Lures and attractors required for sockeye couldn't be easier, and the variations are up to the angler. We all have our own "Secret" set-ups and scents that we think are the reason for our success, and maybe they are, but maybe it's just being in the right place at the right time. That said, let's look at what you'll need to put those sockeye in your boat.
Back in the early days of sockeye fishing everyone used flat fish plugs. Then one day someone came up with the idea of trying bare red hooks behind a dodger. My hat's off to that person, because it revolutionized sockeye fishing. As the years went by the bare red hook and dodger further evolved to tandem hooks, different colors, and a variety of dodgers. Most recently the trend has gone to more detailed small pink hoochies, yarn and tied flies on those hooks (which range from size1 to 4/0). The preferred leader length is 12-16", and a stout 20-25 pound leader is OK.
The fish aren't leader shy and the heavy line allows more action to be imparted from the dodger to the lure. In all cases, the key is pink/red, which sockeye seem to prefer to all other colors. As stated earlier, anglers are always in a quest for the ultimate lure, so don't be afraid to experiment. That weird color combination/lure may be the next hot sockeye rig. Oh, and when all else fails, try going back to an orange/red/pink flatfish or plug. It may be just the ticket to entice a sockeye to bite. It's worked for me.
A couple more tips to increase your success rate - at least, they've helped mine. First, bait. While in those early days of bare red hooks I don't recall reading or hearing much about bait, now it's more and more common to add a piece of shrimp or scent up your gear. It falls under that "it can't hurt" category.
I also like to bring my gear up every 45-60 minutes and at the least re-scent, or better yet change my bait. Keep it fresh and keep it smelly. Also, it's good practice to be checking for weeds or little shaker kokanee. In Baker lake these little guys can be a problem and if you don't see their little tap tap tap you may be dragging one around for awhile. Next, Baker and Wenatchee will have specific regulations to pay attention to. Lake Wenatchee this year is up to three barbless hooks and no bait or scents, and requires knotless nets be used. Baker is two rods, up to two hooks, barbs OK, bait and scent OK. I strongly encourage you to take advantage of the two rod endorsement if allowed. That extra rod will double your odds and you can cover more depth. Sometimes you'll find the biters shallow, sometimes deeper. In general on the lakes I've found most fish in the 20-50 foot range. Sometimes though the biters will be deep. I have caught fish in Lake Washington and Lake Wenatchee all the way down to 90-110 feet. Again, it pays to have two rods to fish. The old adage of start shallow and drop your lines deeper as the sun comes up is pretty reliable with sockeye. I like to run my gear back about 20-25 feet from my clips. It's not because these fish are shy of the downrigger cable/weight, because in my early years I would only run my gear back 8-10 feet. Now, I run my lines back farther to allow the fish to run when hooked to get away from the boat. I keep my drags set a bit lose as well. I want the fish to be able to take line and tire out. I've found that decreases some of the crazy energy sockeye have as they get close to the boat. It's important to not horse these fish in. They will run circles around your gear and make crazy jumps, and you'll lose that fish. So let em run!
The methods and techniques for the Columbia river are pretty similar with the lakes, except that you won't be fishing as deep. You'll also be fishing with a LOT of anglers around Brewster, but here's a bonus. Chinook. Yes, chinook will hit your sockeye gear, meaning you can be catching tasty sockeye and next thing you know you're battling a 20-30 pound king salmon. Again, check the regs to know what's legal to keep. What a bonus that is!
I hope this overview of sockeye fishing techniques will help you get in on the action and catch your first Washington State sockeye. Trust me, they rank in my mind as of of the most fun salmon to catch, and definitely one of the tastiest.
Editor's Note: This article was first published in 2014 on WashingtonLakes.com