Fishing the Samish

I arrived in Washington too late this year for the king salmon season on the Samish River, but it's just as well.


On the forum, anglers refer to the Samish as "The Ditch" and "Shame Channel." It's certainly no Kenai River. The lower Samish, where the salmon fishing happens, flows sluggishly across the Skagit Flats toward nearby Puget Sound. At its widest, a five-year-old could cast across it. To prevent it from flooding adjacent farmlands, both banks have been diked. Nearly all adjacent land is privately owned, so access is limited to a few, intensely fished places.

One popular fishing area is near the mouth, where the tides affect the water level. Salmon often mill around there for a while, possibly working up enough courage to proceed upstream. In that constricted place, they make tempting targets for snaggers.

One way to hook these vulnerable fish is to flip a jig out a few feet and let it lie on the bottom. When a fish swims by and touches the line, the angler hauls back on the rod to set the hook. As you might expect, the hook often ends up some distance from the salmon's mouth.

Snagging fish is illegal in Washington. In past years, the state adopted some rules to reduce it, including:

* A basic rule defining and banning snagging. "Snagging" is defined as "Attempting to take fish with a hook and line in such a way that the fish does not voluntarily take the hook(s) in its mouth. In freshwater, it is illegal to possess any fish hooked anywhere other than inside the mouth or on the head."

* The "night closure," during which time fishing is closed from one hour after official sunset to one hour before official sunrise.

* The "Anti-Snagging Rule, which says, "Except when fishing with a buoyant lure (with no weights added to the line or lure), or trolling from a vessel or floating device, terminal fishing gear is restricted to a lure or bait with one single-point hook. Hooks must measure 3/4 inch or less from point to shank, and must be attached to or below the lure or bait. Weights may not be attached below or less than 12 inches above the lure or bait."

* The "Stationary Gear Restriction: The line, weight, lure, or bait must be moving (not stationary) while in the water."

Despite these strict rules, snagging remained so prevalent on the Samish that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFA) implemented more rules this year to reduce it. The new rules require anglers to release any salmon not hooked "inside the mouth," and to retain the first two salmon caught, if legal to do so, and then stop fishing. This last rule could force anglers to stop fishing after catching a couple of 15-inch "jacks."

Interestingly, on other Washington salmon streams, it's OK to retain fish hooked "inside the mouth or on the head." In the Washington Sportfishing Rules Pamphlet, "Head of a fish" is defined as: "Forward of the rear margin of the gill plate." The Alaska Board of Fisheries at least once considered this "on the head" rule, but nixed the idea. As I recall, board members thought that allowing retention of fish hooked anywhere on the head would diminish the sporting aspect of salmon fishing with rod and reel. But I digress.

I don't think I'll be fishing the Samish, given the pollution, the combat-fishing crowds, the depressing scenery and the demanding regulations. The best thing I can say about it is that it certainly makes Alaska look good.

Les Palmer is spending his first winter as a snowbird in Bellingham, Wash. He can be reached at


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