Now in its 85th year, Tengu Blackmouth Derby celebrates Seattle and Japanese-American community’s salmon fishing heritage
With winter fishing open in central Puget Sound, anglers come together in West Seattle to “mooch” and swap fish stories.
WEST SEATTLE — With uncharacteristically calm waters on Elliott Bay and a glorious sun rising behind the Seattle skyline, on Sunday, January 9 members of the Tengu Fishing Club gathered for what’s believed to be the longest-running fishing derby on the West Coast.
The Tengu Blackmouth Derby was started by Japanese-Americans in November of 1937 with about 250 members, but was put on hold at the start of World War II.
Once the war ended the derby resumed in November of 1946 as Japanese-Americans returned from internment camps across the West Coast, and has been ongoing in Seattle’s Elliott Bay — except for 2015 when the bay was closed to fishing and in 2020 due to COVID and an early-season closure.
The club and derby are named after Tengu, a fabled ancient Japanese mythical character who stretched the truth, and just like Pinocchio, Tengu’s nose grew with every lie.
“The derby is a nice way to see old fishing friends, and all the new faces, too,” said Doug Hanada, current president of the Tengu Club. “It’s a way for us to come together with a common interest in a fishing style, mooching, that dates back more than four generations.”
WDFW Public Affairs staffers were glad to be in attendance Sunday morning to chat with local anglers and support the venerable event.
The Tengu Blackmouth Derby is held in winter when salmon are usually sparse in Elliott Bay, and bad weather is often a factor. If that’s not challenging enough, there’s no trolling with downriggers, flashers or artificial lures allowed. Derby participants may only use a traditional technique known as “mooching”; where a simple weight and hooks baited with herring are dropped to the bottom and brought up with intermittent reeling and subtle pauses.
Now used successfully from Alaska to central California, and with a budding resurgence in popularity among anglers seeking a more “hands-on” fishing style, mooching evolved a century ago in Elliott Bay.
In the early-1900s, Seattle’s Japanese-American anglers (first generation immigrants known as “Issei”) learned an effective way to fish for salmon by slowly rowing or drifting in a boat with enough movement that their herring bait spun and flashed, and this technique was called “spinning” which eventually progressed into “mooching.”
The Tengu Derby boundary was initially limited to fishing only the inner portion of Elliott Bay, but in the late 1990s was first expanded to the outer perimeter of the bay and most recently to inside a line between West Point and Alki Point.
This past weekend Tengu Club leaders decided the derby would temporarily be open to fishing throughout Marine Area 10 (Seattle/Bremerton area).
“I was very surprised at the turn out and you can tell from that just how excited everyone was to see each other,” said Hanada.
Known as “blackmouth” due to their dark gums, resident Chinook are a component of both hatchery and wild salmon runs that remain in the Salish Sea instead of migrating out into the ocean. Anglers may encounter Chinook of various sizes, and these winter-caught salmon are known for being both aggressive feeders and delicious table fare.
The Tengu Blackmouth Derby produced the most fish caught in 1979 when 127 club members caught 234 salmon, although total catch data between 1946 to 1949 wasn’t documented. From 2010 to 2020, the catch totals began to dwindle with a low of two salmon in 2020 to a high of 23 salmon in 2012. One Chinook was weighed-in by derby anglers on Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022.
The largest Chinook salmon ever caught in the derby’s history was by Tom Osaki that weighed 25-pounds, 3-ounces in 1956. The largest fish since the turn of this century was caught by Marcus Nitta and weighed 15-pounds, 5-ounces in 2008.
Reflecting on the event’s century-old urban fishing legacy, Hanada noted that three generations of his family have participated in Tengu. Many others fishing Sunday or chatting over hot ramen at the City of Seattle’s Don Armeni Boat Launch afterward were fathers and mothers with sons and daughters, or friends new and old passing on Seattle’s salmon fishing heritage to new generations.
“The ages of our club members historically have ranged from as young as six-years-old to club members who are in their late 80s,” Hanada said.
“It is a very special event that we’ve tried to host every year as long as the fishing allow us to do so. I had guys asking me if we can do this again before the fishing season ends.”
Central Puget Sound opened Jan. 1, 2022 for winter salmon fishing on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays only with a daily limit of one salmon. Chinook minimum size is 22”. Other salmon species, no minimum size. Wild Chinook must be released and cannot be brought aboard a vessel. Be sure to check for emergency rule changes before hitting the water.
For more information and detailed tips on salmon fishing in Puget Sound, please visit: wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/basics/salmon.