My husband loves to fish. He comes from a Midwestern family of fisher folk. On my first trip to his parents’ we drove to a trout-fishing resort in the Ozark Mountains with his dad, mom and mom’s mom — who fished from a beach chair at age 80.
Grandma Ferne fished and hunted with her husband from Florida to Alaska and her recipes were catalogued in a binder by species, bear and grouper among them.
At first I was intrigued with keeping the family fishing tradition, but I’m too impatient. After a trial period, my attitude became: if I’m not catching anything then there must be no fish and it’s time to go home and get something done.
I am, however, very happy to eat fish — especially fresh salmon grilled by my husband, who inherited the family knack for cooking and passed it on to our daughter.
Local fisher-people are always excited for the opening of the Dungeness coho season each year on Oct. 16. My husband tells me fishermen line the banks at favorite spots shoulder-to-shoulder on opening day at “O-dark-thirty” — not a place for Grandma Ferne’s chair in my mind, but if she could she would.
This year the river is not blown out from storms, and the clear weather following a rain has been ideal for fishing. My husband carves hours out of the dawn or dusk to make it first to his favorite hole.
Many people love to fish the Dungeness. Thanks to the hatchery they can, because it’s illegal to keep a wild salmon.
The Dungeness hatchery was built in the mid-1900s to establish a sustainable “harvest” of salmon — in this case, coho salmon. License holders this year have the opportunity to keep up to four hatchery-born coho per day during the open season.
Also known as “silvers,” coho average about 6-10 pounds each, so when the catching is good, that’s a lot of meals.
The opportunity to fish for wild salmon in Washington is regulated by the state, but decisions about the number of days in the season and quota of fish per person are made jointly between state and tribal agencies.
Since Puget Sound tribes traditionally subsist on salmon, tribes co-manage the sport and commercial fishing industries with state agency biologists.
Besides hatchery coho and winter steelhead, all other salmon runs in the Dungeness River are wild — and their populations are endangered. This includes pink salmon, Chinook, chum and bull trout. Each run migrates up river at a certain time of year, in a certain flow level they’ve adapted to.
Salmon may be highly adaptable, but lack of streamflow during spawning season is one of the biggest threats to recovering historical Pacific salmon populations. In especially low snowpack years, spring snowmelt disappears quickly and the low-flow season starts early, affecting any salmon run that normally enters the river to spawn between June and October.
In addition to streamflow challenges, salmon face many other challenges during their 2- to 5-year life history, from eluding blue herons as juveniles to eluding commercial gill netters in the ocean.
New challenges resulting from climate change include declining prey and rising temperatures in the ocean, and declining habitat in the river.
Dams may not be an immediate issue for Dungeness salmon, but indirectly they add to the increasing challenge for Chinook running the gauntlet past killer whales (a.k.a., orcas) in Puget Sound.
Indeed, declining Chinook runs from the highly-dammed Columbia-Snake River system adds to the threat to populations from other salmon streams, since Chinook are the orcas’ favorite meal.
The Dungeness Hatchery exists to produce salmon for food, but hatcheries are not a silver bullet for wild salmon population recovery. Among other issues, they can harbor disease and affect biodiversity, both concerns biologists also have with Atlantic salmon net pens installed in Pacific salmon territory.
If “fish stories” bore you, think of the social story of salmon: they’ve been the nutritional base for native people for thousands of years. Or the ecological story, that salmon deliver marine minerals and nutrients upstream to the forest ecosystem. As the saying goes, “there’s salmon in the trees.”
Coho and other salmon are nothing short of iconic to the lives of humans and non-humans at home on the Olympic Peninsula.
The Dungeness is a great place to call home, and our salmon are its silver lining.
Geek (e.g., fishermen, weather trackers, water watchers) moment
For the 2018 water year (started Oct. 1):
• Cumulative rainfall at elev. 25 feet = 1.93 inches
• Snowpack at the Dungeness SNOTEL station, elev. 4,000 feet = 0 inches
• Dungeness on October 30=180 cfs, very close to the long-term median for this date. (1 cfs is just under 650,000 gallons per day)
• No flow in Bell Creek at Carrie Blake Park yet (see Contest); at the mouth of the creek at Washington Harbor is a low flow, 1-2 cfs.
Bell Creek Guess-the-date Contest
Win a prize if you pick the right (or closest) date Bell Creek starts flowing again. Submit your entry by email to email@example.com or call 360-582-5710 with your name, phone number, and date chosen. (One guess per person and you must submit at least a week in advance. Brief, intermittent flow doesn’t count: Flow must persist for 7-plus days in the channel along North Blake Avenue.)
Ann Soule is a hydrogeologist immersed in the Dungeness watershed since 1990, now Resource Manager for City of Sequim. Ann thanks her fisheries biologist husband, Dave Shreffler, for the inspiration and technical review of this article! Reach Ann at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her blog @watercolumnsite.wordpress.com.