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The Summer Sockeye Craze Has Begun

The Summer Sockeye Craze Has Begun

By Jason Brooks 
 
The summer sockeye run is about to hit the Pacific Northwest, and it is expected to hit harder than Mike Tyson’s upper hook. Get your Double D Dodgers and sockeye rigs ready becuase all indications are that July will usher in a sockeye season we haven't seen in years!
 
Bob Loomis from Mack's Lure is excited about the substantial numbers of sockeye salmon that have been coming up the lower Columbia River. It looks like the sockeye fishery is set to become a major attraction, given the abundance of fish that will be traveling to Baker Lake and up the Columbia River in coming weeks. Bob highlighted that due to restrictions on chinook fishing in the lower Columbia River, there has been a growing interest in the sockeye and steelhead fisheries as a bycatch. Bob's enthusiasm is contangious and it's clear that the sockeye craze is about to take off.


Here is why we are excited about this fishery.
By examining the Bonneville Dam counts from the final days of June, particularly when the sockeye salmon return is at its peak, it's evident that sockeye numbers are remarkably high, far surpassing official estimates made months in advance of actual returns.

On June 23rd, 50,413 sockeye crossed the dam, followed by 31,339 the day before and 38,289 the day after. In just three days, over 120,000 sockeye passed through the Columbia Gorge. As of June 24th, nearly 290,000 sockeye salmon had passed Bonneville Dam, with several weeks remaining before the run is completed. Looking over the past decade, the midpoint of the run, calculated when 50% of the sockeye have passed the dam, typically occurs in the first week of July. 

Therefore, even if the run was 50% complete by June 24th, simple calculations indicate a run of nearly 600,000 sockeye. This is comparable to the 2022 run, which peaked on June 28th with 663,253 fish. The original 2024 Columbia River sockeye forecast was 401,700, making the actual run almost one and a half times larger than projected. It's important to note that this forecast was made back in April, underscoring the need for anglers to access current and relevant information.
 
In short, this information is indicating 2024 will be an exciting year for sockeye anglers. Bob Loomis reported that anglers are discovering new areas to catch sockeye aside from the popular Brewster Pool. This ia a positive development as it will disperse anglers and make the sockeye fishing experience more enjoyable.

Anglers who anchor on sandbars in the lower Columbia River system to plunk Mack's Shrimp Rigs for summer steelhead have been inadvertently catching sockeye salmon. As Bob mentioned, now that anglers have figured out they can catch sockeye in the lower Columbia River, they are using the standard Smile Blade Sockeye rigs and are having success. 

It's expected Lake Wenatchee will open for sockeye fishing this year. Although bait and scent are not allowed in this Washington lake, you can use the same rigging without scent and catch plenty of fish. Baker Lake is also projected to have a significant return of sockeye salmon, and this fishery is popular with those who don't want to drive over the Cascade mountains to Eastern Washington. For some, the shorter drive to Baker Lake also provides cooler temperatures compared to the Columbia Basin fisheries. Similarly, Lake Wenatchee offers a reprieve from the heat. For some anglers these locations will be the ticket, however, Brewster Pool, remains the focal point for most sockeye anglers.

Brewster is the go-to location for fishing sockeye because they congregate here. The fish are migrating to Canada and the Okanagan region, a series of lakes starting with Lake Osoyoos. The sockeye comprises various runs and strains, with some stopping at Osoyoos, while others continue up the tributary rivers to OkanaganLakee near Penticton, B.C. Local First Nations in British Columbia collaborated with both governments to reintroduce sockeye to the lakes beyond Osoyoos, resulting in increased run sizes and genetic diversity in spawning. Some of the sockeye will spawn in rivers and creeks that feed these lakes, while others will spawn along the gravel lakeshores. Sockeye are unique in that they can spawn in lakes with cold water and sufficient wave action along gravel shorelines or in streams with cold and clean running water.

Cold water is crucial for sockeye, so they congregate in the deep Brewster Pool at the mouth of the Okanogan River. The river flows slowly and shallowly in the hot summer months, and can become so warm that if a sockeye enters, it will die before reaching the Canadian border. This is why the fish stay in the Columbia River, where anglers can target them for several weeks. However, if a summer rainstorm from the Cascades brings cool water and flushes the river, the fish will disappear as quickly as they arrived.

During the sockeye run, the town of Brewster thrives, and boat launches are limited and busy. Most of the time is spent putting the boat in and taking it out of the river rather than fishing, especially when the bite is good.

For several reasons, it's best to be on the water before sunrise. Sockeye, like their landlocked cousins, the kokanee, are sensitive to light and tend to disperse and move around once the sun is high in the sky. Early mornings and late evenings are ideal for fishing, as daytime temperatures exceeding 100 degrees make it a morning fishery.

Brewster also hosts an annual salmon derby during the summer. Unfortunately, this year has seen a lower-than-expected return of chinook to the Brewster Pool, leading to its closure until the run estimate is updated. If you plan to fish for both chinook and sockeye salmon, it's best to visit another fishery on the Columbia River. Always make sure to check the updated regulations, as they can change daily.
 
How to catch sockeye in almost every water and fishery in the Pacific Northwest can be both simple and frustrating. A few years ago, while fishing in Brewster, we saw other anglers catching fish all around us. After a quick call to Bob Loomis for some expert advice, we adjusted our gear by cutting our 18-inch leader in half to fish with a 9-inch leader, and this expert change led to us catching our limits. Sockeye can be quite picky, which presents a challenge, but once you figure out what they prefer, catching them becomes much easier. Sockeye's preferences can vary, including scents, baits, colors, and, as we found out, leader length. Their preferences change frequently, which keeps anglers learning and refining their strategies year after year.

Using a long and flexible rod is essential because sockeye tend to thrash around, and the rod's action can help keep the fish on the line. The setup involves using a sliding dropper on the mainline, which should be heavy enough to keep the gear close to the boat. It's important to keep the gear near the fish and avoid tangling with other anglers. A 36-inch leader is ideal for allowing the dodger to do its work.

The Mack's Double Dodger 5.8" paired with the Smile Blade Sockeye Pro lure is now the standard setup for fishing sockeye. The Smile Blade Sockeye Pro comes with super sharp red hooks. Anglers should also have the original sizes of Double D Dodgers, the 4.4 for smaller sizes, which work well in faster water, and the 7.6, the largest size for lakes and slow water, to add more action.

The Double D Dodger has holes on the front end, which allows for adjusting the action and extending it out to the side, making fishing with multiple rods much easier. 

Anglers have also learned to use Mack's components to make their own sockeye lures. When permissible, using a size 4 red treble hook as the trailer and a size 2 octopus hook as the leading hook, along with a cured coonstripe shrimp (or its tail) and a couple of red beads, and a Smile Blade, has shown good results.

Color choice is crucial when it comes to fishing sockeye.
Smile Blade colors that work well for sockeye salmon are RedPink, Orange, and Chartreuse, along with Silver Mirror. Each year and even each day can bring different results. When rigging your outfit and tying your own lures, it is best to use a 20-pound monofilament as the short and stiff leader will give a lot of action to the lure trailing behind the dodger. Another way to change colors is to use different colored dodgers, with Pearl UV being particularly popular. Other good dodger colors to try include Green, Pink, and Orange. Mack's Double D Dodger Decals offer a quick way to change the color of your dodger.

It recommended to add some scent to the dodger to attract the bite. (Remember no bait or scent is allowed in Lake Wenatchee.) Two of the best scents for attacting sockeye salmon are krill and anise, which are both found in the Mack's Sockeye Slammer Gel. To keep the bite going in the warm water of the Brewster Pool, where it can be challenging to keep the cured coonstripe shrimp on the hook, adding scent can be helpful. Keeping the coonstripe shrimp cold by storing it in a cooler with ice is also essential. The same goes for the sockeye once caught - it's recommended to bleed the fish by cutting a gill and then placing them in a cooler or a fish bag filled with ice. Some anglers even make salted ice slush in a thick-sided cooler by filling it with ice, adding salt and water, and mixing it up to keep the fish colder for longer.

Speed is another crucial factor when fishing for sockeye salmon.
It's important to fish slow, to the point where it feels like you're not moving at all. The target speed for sockeye is 0.7 to 1.1 miles per hour, which can be challenging on windy days. A drift sock can help slow you down when pushed by the wind while fishing in the current, such as below a dam on the Columbia River. Look for soft water and back eddies, and be ready for a quick bite. It may seem like a certain spot in the river is where the fish are biting, but in reality, it's the one spot where your gear is working at the correct speed. Since going slow is crucial, and some fisheries are in lakes or very slow water, small boats and personal watercraft are often seen amongst guide boats and even ski boats. Everyone who has a way to get on the water can catch sockeye.

With a run already surpassing run estimates and on track to break records, July will be the month of the sockeye craze!

Next article Mack's Kayak Angler Tips & Tactics: Jim Davis