Bluebacks return to SE

Posted: Sunday, June 02, 2002

Blueback fishing is outrageous.

I still recall the time I caught and released 100 bluebacks, more commonly referred to as red or sockeye salmon, on Solstice night. Every fly in my box worked that night - including a bare hook with only a bit of thread remaining on it, the rest torn away during battle.

Then there was the early Juneau morning with 23 hookups, one of which wrapped my line over a limb at least 3 feet above the water. Wow, that fish got some serious air!

It's the time of year when anglers in the know are getting that itch, the craving to battle the bluebacks, one of the most flavorful Pacific salmon around.

More commonly referred to as the red or sockeye salmon, these fish are one of the more long-lived species of Pacific salmon, normally reaching 5 and 6 years of age. On the Pacific coast, bluebacks inhabit marine, river and lake habitats from the Columbia River north and west to the Kuskokwim River in western Alaska. Run timing ranges from late spring to early fall and in Southeast Alaska, bluebacks generally start nosing around their natal streams in early June and are well on their way to spawning by early July.

Like other salmon, adult bluebacks will search out optimum stream gravel for spawning but are unique in that they also spawn along lake shorelines in areas of upwelling and adequate substrate. After depositing eggs, females tend to guard their nests, called redds, from predators while males have the habit of drifting about in search of other mates until death. Soon, the only evidence of their presence is in the form of carcasses covering stream banks, shorelines and lake bottoms. These carcasses that provide the nutrients necessary to sustain rearing juveniles in the years to come.

Deposited eggs must avoid floods, winter ice and predators such as Dolly Varden and cutthroat trout, sculpins and even birds. Healthy eggs hatch and produce fry that emerge in spring of the following year. These tiny fish are no more than a half an inch in length and must continue to battle predators and environmental conditions for another one or two years before going to sea as smolts ranging anywhere from 2 to 4 inches in length. If these young salmon can survive their first few months at sea, the chances are good for their return two to three years later as mature adults to be harvested or to spawn, die and continue this amazing life history.

Running 6 to 8 pounds as mature adults with firm and tasty flesh and with runs numbering in the millions in some areas, bluebacks have economic and cultural importance throughout Alaska, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon.

From a recreational perspective, this fish has few rivals. Although some anglers pursue them in marine waters, most recreational fishing in our neck of the woods takes place in the freshwater zone. On the Kenai River of Southcentral Alaska, recreational fishing for bluebacks has reached unprecedented levels. People stand side to side, "combat fishing" in pursuit of these fish. Fortunately, there is much less competition among anglers in Southeast.

At times fishing for bluebacks can be difficult. They can be finicky and small, sparsely tied flies are the most effective means of getting a fish to bite. As tight-lipped as they can be, it does not always best describe a blueback's behavior. Sometimes they will strike lures especially as spawning approaches and aggressive tendencies swell. But in most cases, your chances of snagging a fish versus hooking one in the mouth are greater using means other than flies. My blueback fly box has an assortment of flies that vary in size and color but No. 8 hooks and green dominate by far.

Once you have hooked a blueback, the effort is quickly forgotten. With a chrome iridescence and mirror-like sides, these fish are energetic fighters characterized by acrobatic jumps and blistering runs. If you manage to land one, then you are bombarded with thoughts of sacrificing the fish for a savory meal. This is one option but another is to practice catch and release and support a local gillnetter possessing a catcher-seller permit and buy a fresh caught salmon directly from them if you are interested in a fine meal.

I have caught bluebacks as early as May 26 in Southeast Alaska and surely they are lurking near their creeks of origin once again. Along the Juneau roadside, bluebacks are can be viewed at Steep and Auke Creeks, yet these areas are strictly closed to blueback (sockeye) fishing. For angling, there are several spots around town that offer ample opportunity to try your luck at catching a blueback salmon.

For further information concerning sport fishing opportunities or regulations in the Juneau area, call the Division of Sport Fish at 465-4270.

Ed Jones is a fisheries biologist who loves to fish.

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