Atlantic salmon escape: Anacortes anglers reeling fish in like never before

ANACORTES, Wash. -- Days after nets imploded on Cypress Island, releasing more than 300,000 farmed Atlantic salmon into the Puget Sound, fishermen have one thing to say:

We've never seen anything like this. There are so many fish.

Steven Stout of Anacortes' Stoutfish Charters said Thursday his boat caught 15-20 fish that morning. The more than 100 boats out on the water caught at least the same. Boats were so loaded with fish they were leaving the waters early, he said.

"They were biting real aggressive," Stout said.

Many initially reported the fish weren't biting, and some worried the farmed fish were so used to pellets, they wouldn't be easy to catch and would starve. But by Wednesday, the non-native fish were practically leaping into boats.

Q13 News received many reports of dozens of Atlantic Salmon caught. The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife says there is no limit on the amount of Atlantic salmon being kept, and is encouraging fisherman to go after as many as possible.

Stout said he has seen the most success in Secret Bay near Anacortes in 30 feet of water. Fisherman are using Powerbait and small spoons to catch the fish, imitating the synthetic pellets the fish are used to feeding on. Stout said this kind of tackle doesn't often attract native salmon, and is more akin to trout gear.

"It's not your typical salmon hardware you see out here in the San Juan Islands," Stout said.

The fish are so thick in area, he's seeing a lot of snags, sometimes as many as 50 percent, he said.

Stout said the fish are jumping in the water, and seem "very healthy and aggressive."

But some of the fisherman on the water are still scared to eat the Atlantic salmon. Though the WDFW said the salmon are safe for consumption, some worry antibiotic treatments in the farmed fish are still lingering. Stout hasn't yet tasted the fish, but says the meat looks fine and he has friends who said the fish is quite tasty.

Still, he would prefer WDFW to state in stronger terms that the fish are fine to eat.

"A lot of the fisherman out here when you talk to them they have some concerns with the health of the fish," he said. "It'd be nice to get some clarification on that."

Stout suggested so many fish are caught, that if they are completely safe to eat, getting some of the fish to area food banks would be a win-win.

Stout anticipates more and more boaters will be on the water this weekend, trying to get the Atlantic Salmon. But he questions whether recreational fisherman will even round up one-tenth of the total fish accidentally released.

"There's a lot of people on the water," he said. "But I don't know if 100 or 200 fisherman can make a dent on 300,000 fish."

Despite the fun and easy fishing, Stout said the release of farmed foreign fish into the waters is kind of a "worst nightmare," fearing it could impact native fish.

WDFW said there have been no prior instances of Atlantic salmon mixing with native populations. But there has never been this large of cohabitation, either.