SAN JUAN ISLANDS – The breathtaking views on the boat ride to the fishing ground snakes through a passageway surrounded by islands studded with fir trees and wildlife.
Seals bob in the wake, seagulls cackle, eagles soar majestically in the sky as hordes of seabirds search for fish.
While the wildlife viewing is unsurpassed, the reason we’ve come is the rich salmon fishing opportunities that occur almost year-round.
Resident chinook 5 to 15 pounds are the main target from December through April, and the fishing action has been steady during the past few winter seasons.
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What makes the San Juan Islands even more attractive is the drive from Seattle takes a little more than an hour to reach Anacortes, the stepping-off point to this “Happiest Place on Earth” for salmon anglers.
The adventure begins
I arrived at 7:30 a.m. on one of the few rainless days in March as the sun slowly crept over the eastern horizon at the marina near Anacortes.
I met Captain Derek Floyd, our guide, who has operated Anglers Choice Fishing Charters for three years in the San Juans and also owns Reel Class Charters in Sitka, Alaska.
As Floyd steers the boat out of the marina, he gives us a rundown on how salmon fishing has been lately and the roughly 50-plus trips he’s made this winter.
We arrive at the sandy underwater shelf located between the eastern side of Orcas Island near Doe Bay and Boulder Reef on the north end of Sinclair Island.
Floyd sets up the three rods to the downriggers. One rod is hooked up with a leader and whole herring, and the other two poles have a flasher with squid and flasher with a Coyote spoon.
The water is flat calm and the air warms as the sun begins to rise higher, and we begin our trolling pattern.
Floyd, who grew up in the Snohomish-Skagit County area, is a fishing machine, and keeps his eyes sharply fixed on each rod tip as the gear bounces along bottom in 120 to 130 feet of water.
He moves from each rod, adjusting the depth as needed to ensure the presentations are hovering right where the fish and bait schools are located.
After 30 minutes, the rod on the starboard side with the herring rig jerks unnoticed by us, but Floyd tells my fishing partner to grab it out of the rod holder, and reel quickly to set the hook. After a short battle, we release a 6-pound wild chinook.
A nice salmon
In most marine areas of Washington, anglers can only keep hatchery-marked chinook with a missing adipose fin, which ensures the protection of weak wild salmon stocks.
Another 45 minutes pass before we lose a nice salmon that spits out the hook about 10 feet from the boat. Then action comes alive, although luckily the other dozen boats around us haven’t noticed our fruitful event.
Our first 9-pound hatchery chinook once again comes off the starboard rod with the herring as we slip the net under the fish.
We then release another 10-pound wild chinook, and less than 15 minutes later get a double hook-up that includes a 9-pound hatchery chinook and another that measures 21 inches, falling shy of the 22-inch minimum size limit.
The biggest fish of the day, a wild 12-plus pound wild chinook, takes the spoon a little before noon.
Then the bite goes off, leaving us one shy of our one chinook per angler daily limit.
We move closer toward a buoy near Point Lawrence, and nothing bites except two rockfish.
Floyd ponders moving in the island chain, but decides to stay where the morning action occurred.
It pays off ,and at 1:30 p.m. we hook another 6-pound hatchery chinook on the line with the herring.
With limits in hand, we take a quick tour of famous fishing holes in the San Juan Islands, which are open to fishing through April 30.