Pinks or punches? Despite fisticuffs, anglers say fishing still a congenial affair

A fisherman who declined to provide his name tosses a cast Friday morning at Bush Point. The area has seen several assaults this month from quarreling anglers.

The humpy salmon season is reaching its peak and every day legions of anglers swarm Whidbey Island beaches for their share of pink gold.

And with an estimated 6.8 million spawning through Puget Sound, people are landing fish and good memories both. But is there a darker side to the much anticipated, every-other-year salmon boon?

While most say no, that the pink season is a delight for countless fishermen and their families, 9-1-1 calls indicated that some popular South End fishing holes have been rather rough places of late. In the first week of August, at least three assaults occurred at Bush Point alone, incidents that involved sticks, choking and angry anglers wrestling in the surf.

The area is a regional hot spot, and at certain tides Bush Point can get so crowded it can be a challenge for fishermen to find a place to call their own. It’s sometimes described as shoulder-to-shoulder combat fishing.

“Anytime you have a situation like that, you can expect some conflict,” said Sgt. Laura Price, with the Island County Sheriff’s Office’s South Precinct.

“If anything, I’m surprised we haven’t gotten more calls,” she said.

Overall, however, incidents resulting from the odd-year pink madness appear to be rare on Whidbey Island. The three assaults on the South End were the only cases this season, though more may have resulted that weren’t reported, Price said. Likewise, Jack Hartt, manager of Deception Pass State Park, another busy Whidbey fishing destination, said brawls among fishermen are almost unheard of. Because it is so busy, most try to be respectful of one another’s space.

“Because it is combat fishing, people know the rules,” Hartt said. “We never really have anything serious.”

“Everybody gets along pretty well, actually.”

Unlike some public fishing areas, alcohol is prohibited on state park beaches, which may be another factor in the rarity of incidents at Deception Pass, Hartt said. Price confirmed that two of the assault cases at Bush Point appeared to involve spirits. She also noted that two of the incidents involved the same two men — off-island visitors.

Those incidents were disputes about personal space. In the first instance, the two men were in a raft and floating toward the shoreline near Sandpiper Lane. While they blamed the current, they were directly in front of fishermen onshore. According to Price, one of the men on the beach decided to cast anyway and hooked one of the rafters in a finger.

“That set the guys in the boat off and there was a scuffle,” she said.

The same men got into it again a few days later with a father and his adult son near the boat launch. The details are unclear, but the father, described as an older man, was punched and his son intervened. A stick was picked up, and ultimately two of the combatants ended up in the water.

Price noted that in neither case did surrounding fishermen intervene or call 9-1-1.

The third incident was a dispute over alleged incursions on private property, another common cause of conflict during busy salmon years. Ron Burnett, who identified himself as a property caretaker, reportedly asked an angler to move belongings that were too close to a house. A fracas ensued, which ended with Burnett putting his hand on the man’s throat and them both tumbling into the water. Justin Burnett / The Record | Ron Burnett stands at the end of Sandpiper Lane at Bush Point. He was involved in a scuffle with a fisherman there earlier this month.

No charges were filed.

According to Burnett, Humpy years are tough for fishermen and property residents alike; most try to be respectful of each other but transgressions do occur. Sometimes it’s trespassing fishermen, and others overzealous property owners.

“Most of the guys are pretty congenial… but there is once in a while that person,” Burnett said. “It’s that guy that ruins it for everyone else. That’s a tragedy because a lot of kids catch fish from the beach. Often it’s their first fish.”

Joe Zante, a Bothell resident who described himself as a regular patron of the Clinton ferry during pink years, said Bush Point is largely a pleasurable place to fish. There are a few fishermen who don’t like to share space, and once in a while there is a run-in with property owners, but he’s never had those problems himself, he said. The key to staying out of trouble is to treat everyone with respect and remember a certain philosophy.

“It is a privilege to go fishing,” he said.

Also, it’s whole lot more fun to focus on the fish.