With so many depressed or endangered salmon populations, pinks are the bright spot because their populations are healthy and they’re 99.9% wild. Some river systems see such a high number of returning pinks that anglers fishing for other species grumble it ruins the fishing. Too bad all salmon populations weren’t that way.
In Washington the bulk of the fish return to seven Puget Sound rivers ranging from the Skagit, south to the Nisqually. Something as yet unexplained or understood by biologists is the explosion of pinks in the Green River. At one time, the fish was thought to be extinct from the entire watershed. For years the river returned 13 adults (not a typo) at the most. That number jumped to 10,000 in 1999, and in 2015, the estimated number of returning fish is 1.2 million, down from the all-time high of 2.9 million (again, not a typo). One theory is pink salmon tend to stray or colonize new rivers more than any other Pacific salmon species. Whatever the cause of this dramatic population shift, targeting pinks from pontoons in the Duwamish Waterway or farther upstream on the Green, is a great way to get plenty of action. The fish will not be evenly dispersed, as they tend to move through in pods, so it helps to move until you locate fish, then stay with them for some arm-tiring action.
Grab your DeLorme Atlas or Benchmark maps and trace the Skagit, Stillaguamish, Snohomish, and Skykomish rivers. Look for boat ramps, city, county, and state parks, bridges, and parallel roads. Do the same for the Green and Puyallup rivers. Go exploring. Look for well-worn turnouts and parking pullouts along the rivers. The choices are almost endless. If you find a piece of water that’s somewhat restricted, pontoon boats, rafts and drift boats solve the issue, just be prepared to handle your own vehicle shuttle.
But to find the freshest fish, before they become weary battling currents on their migration upstream, look to the saltwater. Using that same DeLorme Atlas or Benchmark map, scan the shoreline from Tacoma’s Commencement Bay north past Seattle and Everett, all the way to Skagit Bay. Let your eyes drift over to Whidbey Island. Take note of all the place names that include the keyword “point,” “spit,” or “head.” Browse the internet, both Google Earth and the park department websites for Skagit, Island, Snohomish, King and Pierce counties. Plenty of likely looking spots will reveal themselves.
Easily accessed spots like Seattle’s Lincoln Park and Tacoma’s Brown’s Point draw crowds, but there are places where it’s just you and the fish. A small boat equipped with a kicker motor really opens up the possibilities, but there are terrific wading areas too. Do whatever fits your style.
Once you find a location, then it’s time to find the fish. Unfortunately, pink salmon are like icebergs—what you see is only the tip. When one fish broaches or jumps, know that the rest of the school is swimming out of sight. Like all saltwater fish, they are always on the move, their movements chaotic and unpredictable to the human mind. In truth, there is little randomness in the saltwater world. The fish are looking for food, cruising with the current, moving with the tide towards their freshwater destination.
Knowing this, finding fish in the salt is like solving an algebra equation where the variables are water temperature, tide, current, bait, amount of light, wind and predators. Solving the equation means a fish on the end of your line. Experienced saltwater fishers keep a detailed journal of what worked and, equally important, what didn’t work on the days that turned into casting practice—discernible patterns when both favorable conditions, like strong tidal exchange, and unfavorable conditions, like slack water, emerge. No matter the existing conditions, the best time to go fishing is when you can, but try to make it on an incoming tide as it drives the food towards the beach and the fish follow.
A cautionary word: the Puget Sound saltwater and coastal river fishing regulations are complicated at best and unintelligible at worst. Read them carefully with a map in one hand and a calendar in the other. Then check www.wdfw.wa.gov for any emergency regulations that alter the printed word.
HOOK: Daiichi 2546, sizes 4 to 8.
THREAD: Fluorescent Pink UTC 140.
WEIGHT: Eight to ten turns of .020 wire.
TAIL: Fluorescent pink marabou or rabbit fur and four strands of pearl Flashabou.
BODY: Fluorescent pink STS Trilobal Dubbing.
Gear & Flies
Through trial and error, you’ll determine your gear selection varies by fishing location. For example, slinging 15 feet of T14 to reach the fish at Humpy Hollow requires a heftier rod than casting a floating line off the beach or river bank. As successive pink runs produced seemingly larger fish over the years, my rod choice went from a 9-foot, 5-weight trout rod to a 7-weight saltwater rod. The power and length help make the longer casts needed when the pinks are avoiding the shore. Two-handed rods offer an even greater advantage, but that added rod length sometimes makes releasing a fish a challenge. Dragging a fish across the sand or rocky shore scrubs off both scales and slime, exposing the fish to injury and disease before it has a chance to spawn.
Backing is cheap so I fill my reels with 150 yards of 18-pound test Dacron, not because a pink, even a big male, will pull out that much line, but because a steehead, coho or blackmouth may decide to eat the fly before a pink does.
Saltwater does nasty things to gear, so if your bank account allows, buy (or use) a rod and reel designed for saltwater use—anodized or otherwise armored against saltwater corrosion. Look for flies tied on stainless, nickel-plated or duratinned hooks that resist corrosion.
Leave the soft and supple trout leaders at home. Saltwater leader material must withstand barnacle-encrusted rocks, woody debris, oyster beds and other hazards that slice through soft nylon. Marine fish live in an eat-or-be-eaten world and they are not leader shy. Use 8- to 12-pound fluorocarbon tippet so the total leader length is 6 to 10 feet. After a day on the water, liberal applications of freshwater are key to maintaining your gear. Rinse, and then dry the rod. Soak the flies and let them air dry. Remove the spool from the reel, strip the fly line off and swish the reel, spool and line in freshwater, then run the line through a soft cloth when spooling it back onto the reel.
HOOK: Daiichi 2546, sizes 4 to 6.
THREAD: Pink Flymaster 3/0.
WEIGHT: Eight to ten turns of .020 lead-free wire.
TAIL: Eight strands of pearl Krystal Flash.
BODY: Pink Estaz.
Jimmy Lemert of Patrick’s Fly Shop swears the only fly needed to catch pinks is the Pink Flashabou Comet. British Columbia fly fishers love the Pink Fuzz Bug. Not to be overlooked, the Pink Worm, Puget Pink and Pink Clouser Minnow all share a common color palette and take their share of fish.
Pink, hot pink, and cerise are all excellent fly pattern colors, though you can throw chartreuse and purple into the mix for when fish are tired of pink. Pink salmon teeth are not designed to catch and munch baitfish. Like other creatures with bad teeth, pinks eat slow-moving or soft foods, so fishing for them means you can forget the food pyramid. Pink salmon food comes from two food groups: small, pink crustaceans or larger, soft, pink mollusks. For those channeling their inner biologist, crustaceans include euphausiids, amphipods, shrimp, and crabs. Mollusks are squid and tunicates.
Within each food group, the variations of tying materials and applications are endless. Fly crafters are inveterate tinkerers, though the best pay homage to “if some is good, then less is better.” Small and slender-bodied flies are better than big and bulky. Size 4 through 10 will cover the bases.
Crustaceans are slow-moving creatures so the fly retrieve should match. Pinks will feed on and near the surface, and a floating line is the ticket. Use short, slow strips with plenty of pauses. On the other hand, imitating mollusks calls for long, fairly fast pulls followed by pauses that goad a fish into striking.
Interestingly, pinks even offer something for the dry-fly purist. A spun deerhair pattern like a Pink Polliwog, originally designed for coho, can be downsized and fished over pods of pinks in both the ocean and rivers.
Fortunately, fly color selection doesn’t change when following the fish into freshwater, though once the fish have run the gauntlet of pink buzz bombs, Dick Nite spoons, and flies, it makes sense to add chartreuse and purple to the repertoire. The same could be said for fly size with one notable exception. Snohomish River pinks want their flies small, typically in sizes 6 to 8.
It’s been two long years since pink salmon swarmed back from Alaska. Soon the drought will be over and fly fishers will again get their fill of pinks on the fly. Don’t get left out. See you on the water.
David Paul Williams is a writer from Bellevue, Washington. His latest book is Fly Fishing for Western Smallmouth (Stackpole Books, 2014).