The sockeye salmon watch has started across the state with two local returns sputtering out of the starting gate.

Sockeye counts at the Ballard Locks were a dismal 533 sockeye through Thursday. This summer’s forecast is 166,997 sockeye.

“It has gotten off to a poor start, and worse than any other year since 2006,” said Frank Urabeck, a longtime sport fishing advocate and Cedar River Council member. “It is startling to see how low the counts are, but it’s still too early to make any assumptions on why this is happening.”

The breakdown of this summer’s return has 54,348 hatchery and 50,464 wild sockeye headed for the Cedar River, plus another 62,185 moving up the Sammamish River.

While this summer’s forecast falls well short of the 350,000 spawning escapement, the returns have waxed forecasts in past years. If the predictions are on target it would be a significant improvement for the third year in a row.

Summer fishing in Western Washington’s largest urban watershed is doubtful, but many are hoping these strong returns will boost populations in the near future.

There have been ongoing talks between state and tribal fisheries managers about lowering the minimum spawning escapement goal. A new threshold figure could be announced as early as next month.

The last time Lake Washington was open for sport sockeye fishing was 2006.

Skagit River

To the north of Seattle, a section of the Skagit River opened last weekend for sockeye fishing with lackluster catches.

“It was slow with anglers scoring a whole bunch of zeros,” said Brett Barkdull, a state Fish and Wildlife biologist. “The water conditions look way better than it (was) two years ago (when the forecast was similar to this summer), and water flows are half of what it was at this same date.”

A state Fish and Wildlife check June 14-15 showed 361 anglers with seven sockeye.

“That is not very good, and it has to get better,” Barkdull said.

The peak time and/or midpoint of the run is around July 17.

The Skagit from Highway 536 at Mount Vernon to the mouth of Gilligan Creek is open through June 29 with a two-sockeye daily limit (a 12-inch minimum size limit) and a night closure.

Baker Lake and River

The Baker Lake fishery is open July 10-Sept. 7, and the daily catch limit has been raised to three sockeye compared with two last summer.

While most anglers are focused on this summer’s return, the out-migrating juvenile salmon are smashing records left and right in the Baker River.

“They’ve collected close to 900,000 juvenile sockeye and 75,000 coho (at fish collectors on Baker and Shannon lakes through June 13), and it is possible we might get to a million young sockeye,” Barkdull said.

“The sockeye are getting all the attention right now, but the big success story is the coho,” he said. “That is a lot of juvenile coho, and should translate into plenty of coho coming back as adults.”

About 75 percent of the out-migrating sockeye will return two years from now, though the average fluctuates from year to year.

Record salmon numbers?

More than 1 million sockeye, chinook, coho and steelhead have been collected through June 11. The previous record, set in 2013, saw 827,274 young sockeye and coho migrate out to the ocean.

“Everything is trending upward,” said Barkdull. It’s a far cry from the mid-1980s, when the salmon population was almost extinct.

The completion of an advanced hatchery near Upper Baker Dam four years ago and the high-tech surface fish collecting system have boosted salmon production.

In British Columbia, a staggering 27 million sockeye are expected to return to the Fraser River. That allowed state fisheries managers to add a bonus daily sockeye catch limit in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and San Juan Islands this summer.

To the south, the Columbia River is expected to get a huge return and will allow anglers to target the tasty fish all the way up to the Upper Columbia River mainstem and Lake Wenatchee this summer.

The Wenatchee River return of 63,400 could be a record, and another 282,500 sockeye are headed to the Okanogan River.

The Columbia from Priest Rapids Dam up to Wells Dam and from Highway 173 Bridge at Brewster to Chief Joseph Dam opens July 1 for sockeye fishing.

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