A kayak outfitter offers tours of Miller Bay on the Kitsap Peninsula, a place well-suited to get up close to spawning salmon.

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MILLER BAY, Kitsap County — The autumn backdrop. The trail of floating leaves from cars whizzing by. A sign of fall? Nah. You’re in salmon country now. That signals the start of chum runs here. Time to grab the binoculars and polarized shades and set out by kayak to witness the return of a Northwest icon.

Some watch from the shoreline, eelgrass dangling from their rubber boots. You can smell the tide rushing in from here. You can see the salmon jumping.

“You see fish up to 25 pounds splashing their way up the stream, returning to their place of birth,” said Paul Dorn, a local biologist, known around these parts as “The Salmon Guy.”

It’s that time of year when these schools of chum return to Puget Sound, through Miller Bay on the way home to Grovers Creek Salmon Hatchery.

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Some organized salmon-run activities take place along Miller Bay, between Suquamish and Indianola on the Kitsap Peninsula, an hour ferry ride and drive from Seattle:

• There are organized kayak trips to track salmon runs, such as the recent outing we joined.

• Visitors can rent a room at a waterfront home, aptly named Salmon Run House, and watch from the back dock.

• Grovers Creek Salmon Hatchery offers informal tours by appointments.

• And in January, a 55-gallon salmon aquarium and a salmon-rearing pond will be open for public viewing at a new tribal salmon research center.

These activities take place off a three-mile stretch off Miller Bay Road Northeast, dotted with salmon-shaped mailboxes and a “Preserve the salmon habitat” sign.

Many thousands of fish

As we pulled up to the hatchery recently, a salmon jumped in the recovery pond after swimming up the four-step ladder.

This hatchery, owned and operated by the Suquamish Tribe and headed by tribal biologist Dorn, releases 500,000 each of chinook and chum salmon every spring into this creek, which feeds into Miller Bay. Dorn tags the salmon before their release and tracks their trek to the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Alaska and British Columbia, before they return five years later through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and into Puget Sound.

Each year, Dorn said, up to 5,000 chinook and 5,000 chum return in the fall.

With the recent chinook runs completed, all eyes turn to the chum returning. And the best way to view them is from a kayak.

Chum “are so striking with their purple and green stripes on their sides,” said Spring Courtright, a veteran kayaking guide based in Port Gamble, who leads paddle outings all around the Kitsap Peninsula. The coho and chinook look nice, but the chum “are the most beautiful salmon species, I think.”

Courtright has led 35 salmon kayaking tours, mostly around Miller Bay and to Chico Creek in Silverdale. “It’s exciting when you see a salmon jumping completely out of the water. I never get tired of it. No matter how many times I do this.”

Peak season for chum

November marks the peak time to watch chum swim home through Miller Bay, located in the northwest corner of Port Madison. It’s mostly Suquamish country here, ancestral land of Chief Seattle, the city’s namesake.

The bay, surrounded by old second-growth cedars, firs, maples and hemlocks, looks spectacular in autumn, enough justification to just paddle along the shoreline and call it a fall foliage trip, a good consolation prize if you don’t see any chum.

In recent years, a conservation group, Friends of Miller Bay, raised $225,000 to purchase 18 acres to preserve the area’s wildlife. That 18 acres is now part of a 50-acre wildlife preserve, located on the southwest of corner of the bay.

Miller Bay is well-suited to salmon viewing. Parts are shallow and clear, and narrow passages at the bay’s entrance and at its head make for easy tracking of fish.

Since everyone, including tribal members, is banned from fishing salmon inside the bay around this time, that ensures salmon will make it home — if they can avoid the flying predators. Near the kayak launch site, 500 feet up a fir, sits a bald eagle’s nest, one of many in the area. Bald eagles will snatch a salmon right out of the water, said Dorn, who witnesses eagles devouring salmon at least twice a week.

Kayaking ahead, he pointed to an osprey, the “most awesome fish-eating bird.” They aren’t as strong as the bald eagle, so they hunt for salmon weighing less than about eight pounds — and they do it with flair. Osprey will grab a salmon with the fish’s “head aimed in the same direction as it’s flying, so there is less drag as it flies,” Dorn said.

During spring and summer, great blue herons feast on baby salmon leaving the hatchery.

On these kayaking trip, all eyes are glued to the water for salmon. But with bird preying stories like that, you should also look for eagles and ospreys. You should most definitely look up.

A chum splashed ahead. Chum travel in schools of 30 to 100, Dorn said. At a distance, “it looks like a dark torpedo, launching out of the water.” But up close, in shallow water, “you can see the greenish, brown or purple color on them. It’s very good camouflage color for their survival.”

Immersed in his work

A Seattle native, Dorn lives by the bay. He even used to kayak to work. “Kayaking is an unobtrusive way to glide across the water and see wildlife up close,” he said. “Motorboats are just fast and noisy. If any birds are on the water, they will be startled and take off.”

In January, Dorn will help launch a tribal salmon-research facility, the Cowling Creek Center, located within the wildlife preserve. It will include a freshwater aquarium filled with young coho, chum and chinook salmon, plus cutthroat trout, free for public viewing. Visitors will also be able to view salmon eggs hatching.

But that’s next year. It’s chum runs now, attracting Dorn’s attention as he kayaks along the shoreline.

“If you drift along, you will see salmon below the kayak, swimming upstream. They will be in the area. There will be a good chance for you to see them jump out of the water.”

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or tvinh@seattletimes.com

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