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Originally published Saturday, May 4, 2013 at 5:20 PM

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Fish collector could boost Baker Lake summer sockeye numbers

Puget Sound Energy work crews launched a second 1,100-ton barge fish collector this spring, which could result in dramatically larger numbers of summer sockeye.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Reel Time Northwest

Seattle native and lifelong angler Mark Yuasa blogs on fishing in the Pacific Northwest.

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Baker Lake summer sockeye could soon see a dramatic boost in returns.

Puget Sound Energy work crews launched a second 1,100-ton barge fish collector March 1, anchored just above Lower Baker Dam on Lake Shannon.

"If you're a sockeye fan, this is yet another great thing for the (Baker-Skagit river) system," said Brett Barkdull, a state Fish and Wildlife biologist in La Conner.

The huge floating barge has netting that draws migrating juvenile salmon into a funnel where they're held in tanks and evaluated. Fish are then transferred by trucks below the two dams, and eventually released into the river to complete their outbound migration.

A similar floating surface collector (a 130-foot barge) has been in place on Baker Lake since 2008 and is much more efficient at gathering young salmon.

The new systems can collect about 90 percent of the young salmon, compared to the old one that pulled in just 50 percent.

More than 500,000 juvenile salmon (about 425,000 to 430,000 were sockeye) were collected last spring and early summer, which was a record. Those fish will return as adults in 2014.

"We don't know yet what the Shannon collector will produce, although we'll have a much better idea after this year," Barkdull said. "One thing that hasn't been talked about is the number of young coho collected has also gone sky high, and that means more coho around, too."

Survival rate from smolt to adult is above average, and the old collector wasn't nearly as efficient. Before the new system, Baker had some of the worst survival on record. It has jumped from 1.3 to 1.6 percent to 10 to 12 percent.

Sockeye production has also been boosted by the construction of the Puget Sound Energy Fish Hatchery and an improved upstream fishtrap in 2010.

Later this year, a second Lower Baker Dam 30-megawatt powerhouse is expected to be completed. This will provide better control of dam outflows into the Skagit River and will reduce the rate of water withdrawal from the river to provide better protection to fish enhancement and restoration.

Since the 1920s, annual adult sockeye returns to Baker River averaged about 3,500. In the early 1980s, returns plummeted, falling to just 99 fish in 1985.

Last summer an all-time high of 48,014 sockeye returned to the river (35,366 was the forecast). That, along with returns of 37,264 in 2011 and 22,767 in 2010, rank as the highest returns to the Baker system.

The Baker Lake sockeye forecast this summer is 21,557 and is a product of the 207,000 smolts that out-migrated two years ago.

This summer's return will be strong enough to open a fishery in Baker Lake starting July 10 with a two-sockeye daily limit. A sockeye fishery won't occur in the Skagit River as it did last summer.

Since 2010, the river and/or lake have seen lucrative summer sockeye fisheries luring thousands of anglers.

"The river fishery was surprisingly good last summer considering the (lousy water) conditions, and we saw lots of happy people and effort," Barkdull said. "The lake fishery was a little different, and the fish weren't ripping gear off the downriggers like they normally do. It wasn't quite as fast and furious like in previous years."

Bass Pro Shop opening in 2014

Local anglers, hunters and outdoorsmen will soon have another place to shop for their gear. The Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World plans to open its first Washington store, a 170,000 square-foot site in early summer 2014, off I-5 and 72nd Street in Tacoma.

"This will be a wonderful marriage for our store, and a perfect fit for the area," said Katie Mitchell, Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Marine communications manager. "The selection of merchandise, and even the store's theme will be customized or related to the Pacific Northwest.

"While we haven't set a time for groundbreaking yet, we're excited about coming to this region," Mitchell said.

The Springfield, Mo., company — founded in 1972 by Johnny Morris, a former pro bass angler — has 77 stores in 26 states and Canada, and eight more opening this year.

The store will not only sell fishing and hunting gear, but also offer equipment and clothing for hiking, backpacking, wildlife viewing, camping, outdoor cooking, furniture and more.

The massive store will be built with log and rock work; indoor aquariums stocked with native fish; fish and wildlife mounts; and local related photos and exhibits.

Mark Yuasa: 206-464-8780 or myuasa@seattletimes.com

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