Red hot fishing for Chum salmon!

There’s no question about it, the fishing story this fall around northeast Vancouver Island has been the strength of the chum salmon run through Johnstone Strait and Discovery Passage to the inner south coast. Who can figure out salmon? After generally low returns of pink salmon to southern BC rivers and the record low return of Fraser sockeye the chum run through the straits this year has been the largest since 1998, perhaps even exceeding it. Final assessment will be months away.

To give a sense of how unexpected this year’s chum return is, copied below is the text by DFO describing the 2016 outlook for SBC chum salmon:
“While the main contributing brood years (2011-2013) showed improved parental brood abundances, recent early marine conditions have been variable. Indications of improved early marine survival conditions in 2013 (strong pink and coho returns in 2014) were followed by poor early marine survival conditions in 2014 (poor pink and coho returns in 2015). With an expectation of continued poor marine conditions and the high variability in chum returns, expectations are for average to below average fall chum returns.”

So much for the outlook, although given all the adverse news in recent years from the open ocean where chum salmon spend the majority of their lives – the warm blob followed by an El Nino event – prior to early October it seemed an entirely appropriate statement. Then came the results by the two seine boats conducting the daily test fishing in upper Johnstone Straits – there was a healthy spike on October 5/6th that exceeded anything seen over the past half dozen years but then the counts tapered off back down to more usual levels. However immediately after the Thanksgiving weekend a huge slug of chums must have come out of the ocean and entered the straits because the test fishing results went through the roof, with one boat making a set that caught an estimate of nearly 30,000 fish, an almost unprecedented number. This pulse too slowed down but there was another large spike in the results around October 20-22nd, showing the run is ongoing.

Likely there’s never a more apt phrase than “timing is everything” and in terms of catch this applied to this year’s Chum Derby put on by the Browns Bay marina. More than a few aficionados of this annual event – the 14th – wondered about the earlier than usual timing this year but it couldn’t have been better as it coincided with the transit of the very large pulse of chums through the straits and all participants had fishing of the kind dreams are made of. Well perhaps not quite as the weather was lousy, strong southeast winds and intermittent heavy rain. Although the reality wasn’t quite as bad as the weather forecast conditions undoubtedly depressed effort. Even so more than 800 chums were weighed-in with an aggregate weight of about 11,000 pounds! Congratulations to everyone who braved the elements and supported this event that raises money for local salmon and stream enhancement projects.

And the timing worked perfectly for the seiners, which gear type had their second opening for chums on the following Monday and Tuesday morning. The weather had moderated and they encountered the same pulse of chums in the straits. By the time the proverbial dust had settled their catch totaled about 877,000 fish, thought to be some kind of record. Such was the glut of fish into the processing facilities that they ran short of totes and some of the seine boats weren’t unloaded until the Saturday. And such was the abundance of chums that a friend, who was out on the water for other purposes, went sport fishing close to some seiners at the very end of their opening, in order to show his guest the net fishing process, and they still caught 6, loosing as many or more.

Since then the sport fishing has been very productive more often than not and even on the day of writing this (28/10) there are reliable reports of hot fishing for those anglers still going out. Astonishing really considering all the rain in recent weeks to attract chums out of the ocean and into their rivers of origin.

As of the final week of October the aggregate chum catch by all three commercial gear types (seine, gillnet and troll) in Johnstone Strait has been assessed at 1.268 million fish. The gillnet boats have just completed their final opening and a few trollers will be finishing their season by the 31st so there will be a few more chums to add to the total. Apart from knowing the commercial catch total the number should, in theory, provide a guide as to how large the run-size through the straits was in total. The management regime is supposed to cap the catch at a maximum 20% harvest rate, of which a quarter is allocated to First Nations food fisheries, test fishing and the recreational fishery while the remainder (15%) is shared amongst the commercial gear-types. Assuming the management regime wasn’t breached the commercial catch would imply a run-size in the range of 7 – 8.5 million chums.

Now the focus shifts to assessing returns to the rivers, no easy task in high coloured water. Updates will continue for weeks but already the Fraser River return is estimated at 2 million fish or twice the spawning escapement target, and could quite possibly be double that when the run is finished. Once again the rivers on southeast Vancouver Island (Nanaimo south, including the Cowichan, Chemainus and Goldstream) appear to be doing better than the mid-island rivers such as the Puntledge, and both Qualicum’s. There’s lots of time for fish to arrive at these rivers and many of the small systems are showing healthy chum returns as well. Look for them in your local creek, in this year of abundance chums could show up almost anywhere, including in those watersheds that don’t usually host them.

So all in all it has been quite a finish to the 2016 extended summer season along the northeast Vancouver Island shore, as a fishing community we could use more good news stories like this one!