Sockeye salmon in
by Glen Ogilivie
July to September, is the season Island anglers have opportunity to hook into sockeye salmon as they return to spawning beds. In the south and the north ends of our Island these fish are headed for the Fraser River and its tributaries - most notably, the Adams River which continues to host a huge run of sockeye. Along the west coast of the Island, anglers intercept fish destined for the Somass River systems. Between these two runs, sockeye number in the millions.
The run of Somass River fish this year is estimated to be around 700,000 - a healthy number for this run and anglers in the Alberni Inlet are eager for them to arrive. The daily limit of four sockeye will probably remain throughout the season. The Fraser River run of sockeye is expected to be less than previous years but a sport fishery is allowed.Sockeye (Oncorhynchus nerka) are the most valuable commercial salmon species and are the best eating. They provide good sport for their size and are often considered a light tackle fish.
Ocean-feeding sockeye have a blue-green back and silvery sides which soon changes to a bright red with a green head once they enter freshwater to spawn. Sockeye display few or no black spots in all stages of life and are toothless in the ocean dwelling state. The jaw bones of the males become grotesquely elongated and they grow large teeth during spawning. The deep red flesh of the sockeye is easy to recognize. Average weights are 2 to 3.1 kilograms with specimens up to 6.3kilograms.
Sockeye are slow to reach maturity and spend between one and three years in freshwater before going out to the sea. For this reason they favour spawning rivers with large lakes in the system which they use as nurseries.
It is only in the last 20 years that sockeye have begun be be targeting by anglers Before that they were considered uncatchable and even commercial fishing was done with nets. Special tactics are required to make sockeye take a trolled lure and these methods have been developed and refined in recent years.
The keys to targeting sockeye are to go shallow and slow. They tend to remain in the upper 50 feet of water and can be either caught close to shore or off in the tidelines. They are occasionally taken by shore casters at Otter Point in Sooke and other land-based interceptions. These successful locations are evidence that these fish are just passing through on their way across the Strait to the Fraser River. In the Alberni Inlet, a criss-cross pattern will cover the most ground as the sockeye try to make it back with the least effort.In the ocean they'll feed on small squid, plantons and tiny crustaceans.
For most anglers trolling is the way to take sockeye and small hootchies in bright red or pink colours are the preferred bait. MP15 (bubble gum pink) is a popular finish in the Alberni area. Any small pink or red squirt or mini hootchie can be used. Each season local manufacturers produce a new assortment of finishes specifically designed to appeal to sockeye. These lure should be trolled behind a dodger or flasher with a steady wobble being the desired action.
The key to getting the right action is the slow speed. About half the speed you would troll for chinook or coho is what will attract sockeye. If you're not catching them when other boats around you are, slow down. If you are unable to troll slow enough try putting the kicker into neutral periodically and drift a bit. Make some sharp turns to let the lure catch up to you. Often sockeye will hit just at these points when the bait drifts to a stall speed. Try a zig-zag pattern across the tide lines - this will give the fish a chance to catch up to the lure. When it slows and drops sockeye make their move to take it. Possibly they are eager to catch it before it gets away from them again.
Some anglers are able to catch sockeye using jigging lures like Buzz Bombs and Rip Tide Strikers in bright pink finishes. These catches are more common when you're fishing for coho and pink salmon.