Dec 2013

Fishing the Unknown - "The 4 T's"

A major inspiration for the big fish year is to challenge myself to pursue fish species that I would otherwise not. It took me several years to become a confident salmon and steelhead fisherman and yet I am still far from mastering this fishery. The variables are many and change year to year and day to day which is precisely why I enjoy it so much. However, I have hardly dabbled in the numerous other fisheries that exist in the Cascadia region.

I’ve always believed that a confident fisherman catches more fish. For a number of species I am targeting this next year I don’t have any, or at least recent, experience with. Additionally, given time and financial constraints I may only have a two day window to catch a species. For the most part confidence comes with experience on the water but there are also other ways to increase your confidence in connecting with a particular fish. Namely research.

For every minute I spend on the water I probably spend twice that doing research. First and foremost and for any species you need to determine the “4 T’s”:
Timing, Turf, Tackle, and Technique.

Timing can be broken down into two primary components diel and seasonal behavior. Diel behavior is the change in an organisms daily behavior. Some species of fish are crepuscular and active primarily at dusk and dawn whereas other are strictly diurnal or nocturnal. Knowing what time of day is best target a particular species is key and can save you time and frustration. Seasonality is another major factor in most temperate fisheries. Here in the PNW shifting water temperatures can turn off or turn on different species of fish. Additionally, with the presence of several anadromous and migratory species in the region knowing which season to target a fish species is important.

Turf can broadly be categorized into three distinct scales: macro, meso, and micro. The macro scale refers to the specific body of water. Not every body of water supports all fish and even though many lakes and rivers support a diversity of fish particular lakes and rivers tend to be more productive for a particular fish than others. The mesoscale refers to the relative location within a particular body of water. For instance in general some portions of Merwin Lake tend to be more productive for kokanee trolling than others. Lastly is the micro scale which refers to specific depths or benthic features that will hold fish. These are generally kept secret by most fisherman but a lot can be gleaned from charts and a fish finder.

Tackle and Technique are the final two components. You can be in the right place at the right time but if you do not have the right lure or technique then failure is likely. There are literally hundreds of articles in print and online that offer advice what to use catch a particular fish species. The main thing to remember is that there is typically more than one way to catch a fish and it is best to be prepared to use multiple techniques when pursuing new species.

Put the 4 T’s to good use and you will put more fish in the boat or on the bank.




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Water, water, everywhere.

A major challenge of this big fishing year is keeping the financial costs associated with this quest to a minimum. A simple way to this is to fish in waters close to home. I live in Ridgefield, WA and am surrounded by water. From my bedroom window I can see the Warrior Rock lighthouse where the Columbia, the Lewis, and the Lake Rivers merge. Within a 30 minute drive or paddle from my house are numerous lakes and rivers that support a diversity of cold and warm water fisheries. In 2014 at a minimum I hoping to catch 50 species and with some luck I could get half-way there within 30 minutes from home!

  1. American Shad
  2. Black Crappie
  3. Bluegill
  4. Brown Bullhead
  5. Brown Trout
  6. Bull Trout
  7. Channel Catfish
  8. Chinook Salmon
  9. Chisel Mouth
  10. Coho Salmon
  11. Columbia River Smelt (maybe - proposed changes may allow for harvest in 2014)
  12. Common Carp
  13. Cutthroat Trout
  14. Largemouth Bass
  15. Northern Pikeminnow
  16. Peamouth
  17. Pumpkinseed
  18. Rainbow Trout (both resident coastal subspecies & steelhead)
  19. Signal Crayfish
  20. Sockeye Salmon (anadromous and land-locked kokanee)
  21. Starry Flounder
  22. Tiger Muskie
  23. Walleye
  24. Warmouth
  25. White Crappie
  26. White Sturgeon
  27. Yellow Perch
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Hal-ibut 2.0.14

256px-HAL9000.svg
The New Hal-ibut 2.0.14

Me: “Hal can you tell me where I am most likely to catch a halibut near shore from kayak? I would prefer to catch a big one.”

Hal 2.0.14: “I’m sorry, Tyler, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Me: “Stupid computer!”


Introduction

A major goal of this year’s big fishing year is to connect with a halibut from a kayak. I have almost no experience with halibut other than occasionally eating them beer-battered with fries and a frosty beer. While some fisherman scoff at the idea of learning to fish from the internet I really have no choice in this big year attempt. I only have so much time and resources to allocate to a particular fish species so it is imperative that I do everything I can to maximize the probability of catching a target species. You can fish with right tackle at the right time but if you are not in the right place you are just wasting time.

Each year the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) does a stock assessment of halibut off our coasts in July. To assess stocks they use a systematic sampling scheme (Fig. 1) and at each grid they deploy approximately six “skates”. A skate is nothing more than a long fishing line 1800’ long with a 16/0 circle hook every 18’ for a total of 100 hooks/skate. Total halibut catches (over and under 32”) and weights are recorded for each sampling grid. This data is made publicly available on the
IPHC website. You can download a data table in a pdf or in an Excel document but it really isn’t that useful for those like me who are visual learners. Additionally, I have an unhealthy obsession with maps and can spend many hours staring at them so I decided to combine my obsession of fishing, maps, and data analysis to answer the question that Hal-ibut 2.0.14 could not.

Halibut_Survey_Locations
Figure 1. The IPHC sampling design off the OR and WA coasts. A total of 47 points were sampled off OR and 49 off the WA coast.


Methods & Results

I will not get overly carried away in the detail here but I think it is useful to understand how I processed the data. First I georeferenced the IPHC sampling grids into a GIS (geographic information systems) program and attributed each point with catch data. The most important variables I was interested in were
halibut abundance and the average weight of each halibut caught. While just looking at the data in this form was useful it didn’t tell me a lot about the space in-between the sampling points which is what I was really interested in. Next I used a simple kriging algorithm to fill in the spatial data gaps. What this does is to interpolate the missing data by looking at known halibut catch data. The basic assumption is that if all the neighboring points had lots of halibut odds are they are lots of halibut in-between and vice-vera when your have a cluster of points with no halibut then the space in-between likely doesn’t support large numbers of halibut. The caveat here is that the further the points are apart the less certain you are about the accuracy of your guess of the space in-between.

Halibut Abundance

I figured first and foremost if I want to catch a halibut I would need to fish where there are fish and they need to be close to shore. Looking at the interpolated halibut abundance data maps I immediately noted that there were 4 primary areas where there are estimated to be large numbers of halibut nearshore (Fig. 2). These include the Neah/Makah Bay region, the wild coasts north of La Push, WA, the Gold Beach/Brookings region, and to a lesser extent off the mouth of the Columbia River. That isn’t to say there are not fish to be found elsewhere (the blue regions) but the model is simply predicting fewer fish to be present in those regions given the IPHC data. For those not kayak bound, like myself, there are large concentrations of halibut 30-50 miles off Wesport, WA and the central Oregon coast.

Halibut_Abundance
Figure 2. Halibut abundance (per 6 skates) off the OR and WA coasts.


Halibut Size

Nobody wants to catch smalI fish (they don’t make for very interesting Facebook photos) and with retention set at one fish you want to make it count. First I estimated the mean halibut weight by dividing the total catch weight by the number of halibut caught on the IPHC stock surveys. Looking at the mean weight of halibut off the PNW coast reveals a much different picture than the halibut abundance maps revealed (Fig. 3). The largest concentrations of large near shore halibut were found primarily from Brookings, OR to the Umpqua River mouth with fish averaging nearly 40 lbs. To a lesser extent large halibut were found in areas near La Push, WA and off the Quinalt River. However, remember from earlier that the relative abundance of halibut was much lower in general off the Oregon coast. In other words there are fewer fish off the Oregon coast but the ones that remain generally are large which might speak to problems of recruitment (reproduction) of halibut in the Oregon halibut fishery.

Mean Halibut Weight
Figure 3. A map of the mean halibut weight (lbs) off the OR and WA coasts.


Hal-indices of Success

While the thought of hooking into a big halibut from a kayak is enough to get my blood pumping I also know I would much rather catch a 15 or 20 lb fish then no fish at all. From the above maps it is clear that halibut abundance and mean fish weight are not necessarily correlated. To look more at how those two variables interact I developed a “
Hal-indices of Success” by multiplying the mean fish weight by the abundance of each fish at the IPHC points and interpolated as before. This is roughly a measure of halibut biomass with the idea being the more halibut meat under my boat the better my odds of bringing it on board. The Hal-indices map (Fig. 4) shows a strong correlation with abundance map suggesting biomass is driven largely by abundance (duh!). Again the hotspots are the Neah/Makah Bay, La Push, Brookings/Gold Beach, and Columbia River regions.

Hal_indices

Figure 4. The “Hal-indices of Success” which is an approximate measure of halibut biomass off the OR and WA coasts. Concentrating your efforts in yellow and red regions should lead to a successful outing.

Abundance and Mean Weight in Relation To Depth

Another concern of mine was the depth at which halibut can be found. Kayak fishermen are limited in the distance they can fish from shore and by definition have limited access to deep waters. Depth (fathoms) readings were made at each IPHC sample point. Using this data I explored the relationships between depth and mean halibut weight and abundance by plotting each against one another. The depth versus abundance data revealed that the majority of halibut were concentrated at depths between 30 and 150 fathoms (Fig. 5). More importantly for me there are large numbers of halibut available in certain locations in depths between 30-50 fathoms which are easily accessible from a kayak. However, no sampling was done in less than 30 fathoms so its difficult to know for sure what halibut abundance might look like in the shallower waters.

Abundance_Depths
Figure 5. The relationship between halibut abundance and water depth. Larger numbers of halibut are found between 30 and 150 fathoms.


Mean halibut weights versus depth paints a slightly different picture (Fig. 6). Halibut averaging 10 to 30 lbs can be found in depths from as shallow as 30 fathoms to extremely deep at more than 200 fathoms. However, the three sampling locations that averaged halibut at or in excess of 40 lbs were in shallower water between 30 and 80 fathoms suggesting that there are big fish to be had inshore.

Weight_Depth
Figure 6. Mean halibut weight versus water depth. Medium sized (10-30 lbs) halibut can be found in a wide range of depths but the largest averages (~ 40 lbs) are found primarily between 30 and 80 fathoms.


Conclusion

I am big believer that a confident fisherman catches more fish. Near shore halibut fishing is nothing new in the PNW and accomplished halibut fisherman have been targeting these fish for a long time. Using this information I believe that my best chances at connecting with a halibut from kayak this next season is going to be off the Olympic peninsula, Columbia River, or southern Oregon coasts. Typically seasons are set for halibut in March so for now it is a matter of waiting for the seasons and quotas to be published. Then all I need to do is find a window where the fishery is open with safe ocean conditions and the fish are biting. Easy right? While I know that this analyses far from guarantees success it does give me confidence to peddle out on the big blue and take on a beast from the deep.

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Countdown Begins

December is already here and 2014 is almost upon us. I have been pouring over regional fishing websites, how to articles, fishing books, and watched so many YouTube fishing videos that my eyeballs are about to melt. Through this process I’ve developed a database of over 80 sport and food fish and invertebrate species that could be targeted in the Cascadia region during the 2014 year. Along with each species I have associated locations, seasons, gear, tackle, and techniques that have been proven by countless others before me. I feel confident but I know that reading about catching a fish is a lot different than actually doing so. I know with certainty that there will be failures but failure is necessary to frame the thrill of success.

The countdown is on. I’m ready. Bring on the fish! <*))))><
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