Streamflows are creating good conditions for salmon

It appears that our summer and fall weather around Puget Sound has been very good for chum salmon.

A chum salmon navigates its way upstream in Chico Creek past new weirs installed at Kitsap Golf and Country Club.
Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan Reid

I’m getting reports that good numbers of chum are swimming up into sections of streams where they have not been seen for years. This means that conditions are ripe for watching salmon. Check out our salmon-watching map of the Kitsap Peninsula, and read my latest reports in the Kitsap Sun and Watching Our Water Ways. Also, Kitsap Visitor and Convention Bureau has created a special website for visitors who want to see salmon.

Jon Oleyar, who counts salmon in the East Kitsap streams for the Suquamish Tribe, offered the example of Johnson Creek, which flows into Poulsbo’s Liberty Bay.

“These chum were thick from the mouth all the way up,” Jon told me after checking out the stream this week. “There was decent flow, and I was amazed to see them all the way up.”

Reports of unusual numbers of salmon have been coming in from other streams as well, including Strawberry Creek, a small, heavily impacted stream that flows through Silverdale.

Most of these salmon appear to be coming in much earlier than normal, Oleyar said.

With about 10,000 fish already swimming upstream in Chico Creek, tribal fishing was opened in Chico Bay for eight hours on Tuesday and again Thursday this week, noted Rob Purser, fisheries manager for the Suquamish Tribe. Normally, fishing is not opened until mid- or late-November, if at all.

The goal for Chico Creek is 20,000 chum, he said, and fish are still coming into the system, as revealed by test fisheries in Puget Sound.

“If we’re comfortable that more fish are coming, we will be adding more time (for fishers),” Rob told me.

Oleyar speculates that the weather is what brought the chum in early.

“We’ve had three big rain events,” he said. “The first one gave them the smell, and the second one kept them coming in.”

According to rainfall records kept by Kitsap Public Utility District, Silverdale received 1.3 inches of rain on Oct. 9, followed by 2.2 inches from Oct. 23 to Oct. 25 and 1.6 inches on Nov. 1.

This is the kind of weather that is ideal for salmon: occasional rains that fill the upper portions of the streams and help maintain steady streamflows in most tributaries. So far, we have seen no heavy floods, which can scour fertilized eggs out of the redds where they were laid. Also, rains during the summer may have boosted groundwater levels, so we are finding more seeps and springs than usual.

Even Gorst Creek, which usually does not see many chum until late November, is getting fish now. Will the run continue past Christmas as usual? It’s too early to say.

The big question of the day is whether the size of the chum run is larger than originally estimated for this year or whether the same number of fish are just arriving early. So far, salmon managers have not raised their estimates of the total run size to an appreciable degree.

While conditions for chum spawning look good this year, coho salmon are another story. They are not showing up in significant numbers anywhere except in northern Puget Sound. Biologists are a bit shocked, but so far nobody seems to know why. It’s not because the fish were never there, because large numbers of smolts were counted leaving the streams two years ago. Something must have happened to the tiny fish in Puget Sound or the ocean.

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