The Ballard Locks fish ladder is the place where Lake Washington sockeye have their biggest audience. There's no where else to see them really, now that you can't catch them.
The fish are disappearing. The last time Lake Washington welcomed sockeye fishing was in 2006. This year, however, some fishing advocates say it's time to re-open the lake for sockeye season.
"This is the last opportunity we're going to have with a run this size. You look at what's in the pipeline, the next couple years there's almost nothing," Frank Urabeck said.
Urabeck is nicknamed "Mr Sockeye." He and many others have fond memories of catching sockeye with their kids and grandkids. Sockeye are often considered equalizers among fishermen. Whether someone has expensive or simple gear, sockeye are easy to hook. Plus, they're fun to catch.
In 2006, Lake Washington was crammed for two and a half weeks.
"I bet there were two or three thousand boats if not more on the lake when that opened, and that was open for 18 days. This was one of our best fisheries ever and that was our last fishery," Urabeck said.
That year, 450,000 swam through the Ballard Locks. Only 60,000 came back last year, but this year more than 100,000 are expected back, and Urabeck says, it's now or never.
He doesn't believe a one or two-day fishery will hurt the overall outcome for the sockeye.
At Ed's Surplus and Marine, sockeye aren't just good eating. They're great for business.
"It would be a madhouse if Lake Washington open up," Dan Stauffer said.
Stauffer pointed to an empty space where he'd normally sell sockeye gear. The fishery brings in millions of dollars in state revenue.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is hesitant about discussing the idea of a sockeye season, however.
"Right now, with the decline of the stock, it's not replacing itself," said WDFW Fish Program Manager Ron Warren.
WDFW requires 350,000 sockeye pass through the Ballard locks before a fishery opens. Warren believes a short fishery could raise interest in conservation, which he admits WDFW can't do alone.
"What we're doing either from an environmental perspective in the lake and rivers isn't working or what we're doing in the marine areas isn't working," he said. "Sockeye need all three."
Officials are counting the sockeye returning through the locks, and WDFW will have to find agreement with tribal co-managers for any fishery.
Warren understands the interest and excitement.
"I love to catch them," Warren said. "In the 1980s I participated in that fishery as much as I could."
He believes the fish will number about 50,000 by early July. Even if the fish hit a final total of more than 100,000, it's still a far cry from the required 350,000.
"It's been so long since we've had a Lake Washington fishery, there's a whole generation of kids who have never seen it or heard of it," Stauffer said.
It's lost history, some worry, will mean less concern about the future.
"I call it a token fishery for old time's sake, to let people know what it was like, and maybe just one or two days, to get people excited and maybe motivated to do what we have to do to try to save this run," Urabeck said.
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