The tug on the line caught Kyle Eckles by surprise.
Could it really be a salmon?
Eckles saw a flash in the water and told his dad he had a fish. His dad thought he caught the bottom of Puget Sound.
“You’ve got seaweed,” Bob Eckles said to his son.
But the elder Eckles watched his son’s line get yanked away from the shoreline.
“Seaweed doesn’t fight back,” he said.
The experience of an 8-year-old from Oak Harbor catching his first salmon with his dad on the beach at Driftwood Park in Coupeville last week was more than either of the Eckles could have imagined.
The fish, which weighed about 3 pounds, was one of the early arrivals of an estimated 6.2 million pink salmon expected to return to Puget Sound this summer.
“We were just out practicing,” Bob Eckles said. “I wanted to give him some experience.”
“We caught a few trout earlier this year. I wanted him to experience the tug of a bigger fish.”
“It was really fun,” Kyle said.
Whidbey Island’s wildest fishery is about to unfold, sending anglers out in force along the beaches and on the water.
Pink salmon, or humpies as they’re commonly known, only return to Puget Sound in odd-numbered years, historically arriving in their greatest numbers in August, peaking by the middle of the month.
The pinks, however, are already trickling into the Sound and are legal to catch in Marine Area 9, encompassing Admiralty Inlet, on the west side of the island.
That means that popular shore fishing areas along the beaches at Keystone, Lagoon Point and Bush Point are fair game for anglers, who are able to keep two pinks and a combination of four salmon overall as a daily limit.
Chinook also are being caught. That fishery opened July 16 in Admiralty Inlet with boat anglers raving about early success near Fort Casey for that deeper water type of fishing.
Salmon fishing around the rest of Whidbey Island opens Aug. 1, just in time for the expected slam of pinks.
Ryan Lothrop, Puget Sound recreational salmon fishery manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said this year’s pink run will rank in the top three historically in the state since they’ve been keeping such records.
The largest return to Puget Sound, according to department data, was in 2009 when between 9 and 10 million pinks passed through, which was nearly double the expected forecast of 5.2 million.
“There’s going to be pretty good fishing up in that region,” Lothrop said.
To brace for fishery, sporting goods departments from Clinton to Oak Harbor are stocking up on fishing gear, filling the shelves with pink artificial lures and jars of smelly lotions.
Popular lures for pinks are Buzz Bombs (as long as you remove the treble hook and replace with a single, barbless hook) and Rotators. Among other devices anglers try are Gibbs Blizzards and Flutter Jigs, a creation of Whidbey Island’s own Chris Brooks.
The lure Kyle Eckles used to harness his humpy was a pink Crippled Herring within 15 feet of shore.
“Humpies like the color pink,” said Bob Crouch, a sporting goods employee at Sebo’s hardware store in Bayview. “It has a lot to do with shrimp. They eat shrimp and creel.”
Sebo’s has a huge display of pink fishing gear near the entrance of the store. Pink lures, even pink hooks. Anglers in South Whidbey like to glean bits of wisdom from Crouch, who’s been fishing for pinks off Whidbey Island since the early 1970s.
Crouch shared a tip by picking up a bottle of Mike’s Lunker Lotion.
Not only are humpies attracted to fluttering flashes of pink, scent also plays a role, he said. He advises lathering up a lure with the lotion using a pastry brush, not one’s fingers. The primary aim is to hide the human scent from the salmon.
Anglers believe in all sorts of quirks.
John Rudd of Clinton uses his own unique method, butting two pink beads against a pink Buzz Bomb. He fished the shores of Bush Point Wednesday night.
“I think it makes a little audible sound that makes my luck a little better,” Rudd said.
At the Ace Hardware store in Oak Harbor, at least one employee swears by pink Rotators. There is a large cardboard arrow that points to a tray stuffed with Rotators to make it easy for anglers to find the lure.
“Two years ago, it just exploded,” said John Hetherington, who works in the sporting goods department at Oak Harbor’s Ace Hardware. “People were calling us from boats, ‘Got any Rotators in?’”
“We were all sold out.”
Pink fever is unlike any other fishery on Whidbey Island. It’s a popular fishery because of the abundance of salmon and the ability for a novice angler to stand a good chance of catching one from shore with the proper gear.
Crouch said a beginning angler can get set up with a rod, reel and gear for under $50. Anglers also must purchase a state saltwater fishing license, which can cost about $32 when you include dealer fees.
The investment can reap pink salmon that average between 3-6 pounds.
But it is important to remember to use a single barbless hook, Crouch warned. Barbed hooks can be made legal by pinching off the barb with needle nose pliers.
Some anglers turn their noses up at pink salmon, complaining that the meat softens too quickly after being caught.
Others defend the pinks, saying as long as you “bleed out” the fish after they’re caught and throw them on ice, the meat holds up fine.
Crouch is one who sings the praises of pink salmon. It’s possible he might even do a dance if necessary.
He knows a nice downpour of rain is often the trigger that drives salmon to their freshwater destinations. Often after a rain this time of year, pink salmon enter Puget Sound in greater numbers.
“I thought I felt a sprinkle,” Crouch said as he walked out of Sebo’s Wednesday night.
Then he raised his arms to the sky.
“Come on rain!”