Last week, James and I took two days off to fish the Skagit River before it closes on the 31st of January. We fished out of a jet boat—always nice on a giant river like the Skagit. The flow was ideal at around 25,000 cfs in Mount Vernon, and the river had the perfect milky green color. Our confidence was high. We fished the first couple of long runs with no action. Then we hit a smaller, faster little high bank pocket near where I had seen a fish jump a couple weeks earlier. Eventually we moved to a very long run, with a defined break and the top, which yields to a long, slow belly and picks up into a nice tailout. James positioned himself in the middle of the run run, began casting about 80 feet, where there was a good bit of current, and began fishing his way into the slow water. I stayed behind in the boat, which was parked in the tailout, to have a snack. A few swings in James yelled "I got one," or something like that. My pulse quickened as I knew this could be a coveted, and fairly rare, January Skagit steelhead. This fish would earn James a permanent place in "The January Club," made up of those who have caught fish in January on the Skagit or Sauk. I headed upstream to check out the action. From what I could tell, and from the relative silence of James' extremely loud Hardy reel, this fish wasn't doing too much. I saw his rod buck up and down a bit, but that was about it.
"I think it's a dolley," James said.
It wouldn't be surprising at all to catch a dolley, really an anadromous bull trout, on the Skagit, as they are quite common. A few minutes later James had the fish close enough to grab the Megastrong Fluorocarbon leader, and pull the fish close, into the shallows where we could get a look at it.
"It's an damn Atlantic," James exclaimed, dejectedly. "I can't believe it".
Sure enough, James had caught an Atlantic Salmon in the Skagit River. How did the fish get there, you might ask? Back in August, a net pen farming operation owned by Cooke Aquaculture ruptured, spilling as many as 260,000 non-native farmed salmon into Puget Sound. A fairly massive local effort, spearheaded by the Lummi Indian Nation, sprang up to net and otherwise catch as many of these fish as possible. Tens of thousands of the fish were thus removed from Puget Sound. But many still remained, and by the fall they had largely disappeared from Puget Sound, leading many to believe the fish had all wasted away. About that time tribal fishermen netting salmon for brood stock in the Skagit began catching Atlantics in their nets. In fact, one day they caught more Atlantic salmon than anything else, including suckers. Clearly the fish are still alive and well in the Skagit. And if they're in the Skagit, they're probably in the Nooksack, Stillaguamish, Skykomish and beyond.
One of the main concerns people have with farm-raised Atlantics is the risk that they will establish a population and compete with native Pacific salmon. Luckily, this worst-case scenario is extremely unlikely. The WDFW actively tried, back in the 1980s, to establish a fishery for Atlantic salmon. They released cultured Atlantic salmon smolts and did not see one adult return. Furthermore, this is not the first large-scale release of Atlantic salmon from a net pen operation: in 1996, 1997, and 1999 there were escapes of approximately 107,000, 369,000 and 115,000 Atlantics. Subsequently the fish failed to establish themselves in Puget Sound Rivers. Chile has also seen large numbers of escapees over the years, but the Atlantics, unlike their Pacific cousins the king and coho, have failed to take root.
James dispatched his salmon with a rock, and we continued to fish. James caught one small bull trout and we returned to our cabin to watch a program about black holes. The next day we returned to the same run where James had caught his "frankenfish". I headed up to the top of the run, which is an absolutely beautiful piece of water, at a perfect walking speed, and about 5 feet deep. I could not possibly have felt more confident fishing for steelhead. With my 13'2" 7 weight rod and a 400 grain Commando Head, I had great control over my swing, and I just felt at every moment that I was going to get obliterated. It didn't take long for me to make contact. I felt a pluck. Nothing violent, but definitely a bump. It quickly faded and my line went slack for a split second. Then I felt a slow pull, and I instinctively pulled back on the rod, slowly and to the side. My long rod bent deeply, and I felt a head shake. I was in to a fish. I was hoping for a screaming run, with a cartwheeling steelhead turning the whole run to froth. But all I got were throbs. One, two, three, four times my rod would buck, determinedly but not violently. I could tell this was no steelhead. Sure enough, I brought the fish in and found it was an Atlantic salmon. Like James had done, I killed my fish. I didn't want to eat mine, however, and so I left it on the bank for the many local eagles, who need the fish far more than I.
We had caught two decently-sized fish on the Skagit, so the trip wasn't a bust. We couldn't help thinking, however, that had there been a steelhead in some of the same places, we would have caught them. It really seemed like there weren't many steelhead around. Local reports confirmed this. January was slow this year.