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September 16, 2010

6 Great Adventures: San Juan Islands

Washington's San Juan Islands are a Pacific Northwest Nirvana for private boat anglers

San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau (above); John Beath (below)

In the middle of the gaping strait that separates Washington state from Canada's Vancouver Island sit some of the country's most boater-friendly and perennially popular islands. If one were to grade Washington's beloved San Juan Islands on accessibility, facilities, ease of use and quality of fishing, the report card would have to show straight A's.

For private boaters, the San Juans are a northwest nirvana - a world apart, yet one that begins only a few miles west of the closest jumping-off point on the Washington mainland, Anacortes. Launch ramps and sling hoists allow boaters ready access from the mainland, though trailer boaters also have the option to launch right in the islands, coming in on one of the state's regularly scheduled ferries.

Given the popularity of these islands, an angler knowing no better might assume they'd get fished out. In fact, thanks in large part to years of aggressive hatchery rearing of salmon by the Washington State Department of Fisheries, catch success overall has remained ­phenomenally high.

Salmon Success Story
"Some of the best chinook fishing we've had in 25 years" - that's the way Larry Carpenter at Master Marine in Mount Vernon, Washington (, sizes up opportunities in the islands. A hard-core salmon-fishing enthusiast himself who has worked in the industry locally for decades, Carpenter has the sort of perspective that makes him appreciate just how good fishing has become.

Without hatchery fish, salmon seasons would be woefully short to protect populations of wild strains that biologists judge are on the ropes for various reasons, habitat degradation often high among them. But annual infusions of 60 million fin-clipped chinook ensure an abundance of salmon from (and eventually bound for) hatcheries; these fish allow anglers to catch chinook most of the year - all but November, May and June.

At a glance, anglers can see whether a salmon retains its adipose fin (meaning it's a wild fish and must be released much of the year) or not (indicating a fin-clipped hatchery fish, ready for the net). The state's long-standing regulation allowing only barbless hooks keeps release mortality of wild fish at low levels.

July and August offer plenty of shots at trophy-size chinook. (During prime months of July and August, both wild and hatchery chinook may be kept.) But for the fastest fishing, hit the islands in winter. From December into early spring, fishing is outstanding for blackmouth (the local term for chinook that have gone to sea to return three or four years later, in the fall, to spawn). These "local" chinook run a respectable 8 or 10 pounds to 20 or more.

San Juan salmonThe majority of salmon fall to spoons or plugs pulled behind flashers on downriggers. The traditional technique of mooching herring remains very effective, but Carpenter points out that dogfish can be a moocher's nightmare, particularly in summer.

Winter fishing demands warm clothing, but winter visitors will find no crowds to contend with, and some days prove delightfully calm. Also, with so many steep slopes and pockmarked shorelines, anglers can find lee places even on blustery days.

Flourishing Facilities
Full-service marinas and waterside resorts abound. Among the larger such operations, Carpenter mentions Deer Harbor Resort and Rosario Resort & Spa on Orcas Island ( and; Roche Harbor Resort ( and many facilities at Friday Harbor ( - "the big city of the San Juans") on San Juan Island; and Fisherman's Bay on Lopez Island ( Smuggler's Villa Resort ( midway on northern Orcas is less well known but offers a nifty hideaway for small boaters. Ditto, says Carpenter, for Snug Harbor ( on the west side of San Juan.

Those who prefer to live aboard can tie up at a marina or to one of the many anchoring buoys. Also, the state offers 16 great boat-in parks with camping - find them all, with detailed information, at; under "Find a Park," click on "Regional park maps" and then on the San Juan Islands inset.

While small boaters generally do just fine in these waters, Carpenter does remind readers to "keep in mind the tides." Depending on tide and time of year, tidal flow can vary as much as 12 feet or more between low and high. Check out a tide chart before you plan to put a boat in or come back out on a launch ramp. Also, be cautious when a heavy ebb or flood tide builds up against a wind going the other way, as nasty rip lines can develop.

For more, general information, go to

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