The beach was quiet along the Keystone Spit near Driftwood Park Sunday.
Ordinarily a buzz of human activity this time of year, nature was stealing the show as diving ducks darted below the water and a pair of porpoises surfaced so close that you could hear them exhale through their blowholes.
The missing component at this small beachfront park was people, whose absence on a weekend afternoon in early August was as startling as the words printed on a sign posted next to a pile of driftwood.
“AREA 9 CLOSED TO ALL SALMON FISHING.”
For many salmon anglers who live on Whidbey Island, the months of August, September and even October are highly anticipated. They are the rewarding months when salmon are most abundant in the area and one or more species of salmon are typically allowed to be caught.
But these next three months will be more quiet than many anglers can ever remember experiencing.
Fishing for chinook salmon closed this past Friday in the waters of Admiralty Inlet, the last remaining area around Whidbey that was open to salmon fishing. Since no coho will be allowed to be caught in Puget Sound this year, that means there will be no salmon fishing of any kind in Whidbey waters until November.
“There are a lot of people who are bummed,” said longtime angler Amanda Daher, who hears from plenty at her job at the Coupeville Country Store. “I’m mad that I spent money on a license.”
Daher normally would be gearing up for coho, or silvers, which generally start showing in greater numbers off Whidbey’s western shores later this month and continue to be caught through October. She fishes from the beach and enjoyed a great season last year, averaging about three coho a week.
“Now, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Daher said. “I’ve been doing a lot of crabbing.”
Many anglers enjoyed a strong coho season that followed only a mediocre run of pinks, which only come through in odd-numbered years. A sharp decrease in the number of fish expected to return this summer led to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife closing the Puget Sound coho fishery in all waters except Hood Canal.
In March, the state announced that about 256,000 Puget Sound coho were forecasted for 2016, which is about one-third the size of the run predicted for 2015.
The decline is blamed on unfavorable ocean conditions, such as warmer water, and drought conditions in freshwater rivers in recent years.
“If this truly is what we have to do to increase the future run, I’m all in,” said Oak Harbor’s Jody Lee, an avid shore angler.
Lee was a regular at popular fishing spots on Whidbey’s west side in Coupeville and also fished at North Beach near Deception Pass.
He said he’s already feeling the withdrawal of not casting artificial lures.
“I always fish this time of year so, as you can imagine, my honey-do list has gotten very large,” he said. “So this year I’m painting my house to get through the pain.”
Sporting good stores are feeling the pinch, too.
At Oak Harbor’s Ace Hardware store, re-stocking artificial lures such as Buzz Bombs and Rotators hasn’t been necessary.
“A lot of customers are very disappointed but it is what it is,” said Mike Hobbs, who works in sporting goods. “Sales have been down quite a bit from what it was in the past. We’ve had a lot of freshwater activity than we normally would have. Fishers still like to fish where the fish are.”
Bob Crouch, manager of Sebo’s Do-it Center store in Bayview, said sales of salmon fishing tackle are down and there’s a “big sense of disappointment” from customers about the chinook fishery shutting down early and the coho season not existing at all this summer.
He said a customer came to his counter last week after gathering about $300 worth of poles, reels and gear, excited to start the coho season only to put everything back on the shelves.
“He said, ‘You should have seen the silvers jumping in front of my house,’ ” Crouch said. “I said, ‘You can’t fish for those.’ He had no idea.”
Sales of saltwater fishing licenses statewide are taking a mild hit, too. About 1,400 fewer saltwater licenses have been sold compared to 2014, the most recent non-pink salmon year, said Greg Sallis, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s sales and marketing manager.
Sallis reported better results for freshwater fishing licenses and said that license sales are up overall over the past fiscal year.
“It’s always hard to say,” said Sallis, trying to assess saltwater fishing license sales. “There are so many variables.”
Crouch, who’s fished the waters around Whidbey since 1973, said he couldn’t remember another salmon fishing closure like this one during the summer’s peak months. He’s certain he’s never seen it in his 17 years of running sporting goods departments.
“I’m sure getting a lot of things done around the house, that’s for sure,” Crouch said.
Fishing for chinook salmon continues in some parts of Puget Sound, including Marine Areas 6 (east Juan de Fuca strait) and 7 (San Juans) but won’t resume in waters around Whidbey until November.
Whidbey Island is surrounded by four different marine areas defined by state Fish and Wildlife, each with their own set of restrictions.
Ryan Lothrop, Puget Sound Recreational Fishery Manager with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said he hopes the conditions that impacted this year’s low coho forecast will be a short-term problem and not affect next season.
When coho experience poor survival rates, they often recover more quickly than chinook, Lothrop said, adding that he hopes that will be the case this time around.
Lothrop said he doesn’t expect any counts of coho that come in higher than forecasted to create a late coho fishery this season partly because of how it would impact incidental catches of more depleted stocks of chinook.
“Any big numbers stronger than what has been forecasted (for coho) bodes well for next year,” Lothrop said.
Addressing rumors that the pink season could be in trouble next year, Lothrop said he expects numbers to be down from 2015 but said there will be a pink season in North Puget Sound in 2017.
And for those who might be out tossing a line in the water, thinking catch-and-release is OK, Lothrop said that isn’t the case.
“Closed means closed,” he said.