This has been the year of the king salmon for my wife and me, to the point that catching these great brawlers has dominated our fishing.
But in recent days we’ve had to change our tactics. Larger baits and lures and faster trolling speeds have helped get around those pesky pink salmon, but each day more and more of the smallest of our salmon species is coming between us and the kings.
Wait a minute!
What’s wrong with this picture?
It occurred to me over the weekend that we’ve been blinded by the glamor and brawn of king salmon. And certainly a 3- to 4-pound fish is little more than a nuisance on tackle intended for fish that might top 50 pounds.
Following that realization, another thought dawned on me.
Why not hang up the king tackle, park the boat and take the time to enjoy the pink salmon on suitable tackle?
Pink salmon certainly can’t show their stuff on heavy trolling tackle, but the picture changes dramatically with suitable tackle. Certainly after mind-numbing hours of trolling, it will be a welcome switch to wade and cast with tiny rods.
Pink salmon are appearing along most of our shores in growing numbers. And this year’s run promises to be especially strong.
Sure pinks are easy to catch in comparison to our other salmon, but only when you’re in the right place at the right time with the right tackle.
Timing is actually fairly critical with pinks in the ocean. In almost every location I know, fishing is best on the incoming tide, and the fish virtually disappear once the tide starts to fall.
In a further elaboration on that trend, even when you manage to find the pinks on a falling tide they don’t hit nearly so well as they do once the tide starts coming back in.
I’ve encountered pinks recently right in the mouths of rivers and actually watched a few start moving upriver. In a matter of weeks the river mouths and the rivers themselves will be black with their hordes.
But for now the fish are mostly scattered and feeding rather than running upstream.
It’s always a good bet to start at a river mouth, but be prepared to move out along the adjacent beaches in search of fish. In my experience it pays to focus on the ocean waters downcurrent from the river, as the pinks generally swim into the ocean current along the shore as they approach their home river.
But don’t be discouraged if the pinks aren’t right at the river mouth. Look for the nearest flock of kittiwake seagulls wheeling and diving close to shore.
That’s a sure sign of needlefish or sand lance, and the odds are excellent that pink salmon are among the hungry mouths converging on the school.
Even on shorelines far from a river mouth you stand a good chance of finding pink salmon if there are signs of food present. But there’s one other thing to watch for in your search for them.
Look for “jumpers,” pink salmon leaping clear of the water. I’ve never heard an explanation that I can buy, but for whatever reason pink salmon are in the habit of jumping clear of the water as they move along a shoreline.
You might only see one fish jump, but that usually indicates there are lots more beneath the surface. The trick is to reach them and get a hook in front of them before they move on.
“In front of them” is a key to catching pink salmon. If you can figure out which direction they are moving, a cast in front of the school has a good chance of connecting, while one into or behind the school is likely to come up blank.
My favorite spinning outfits for pink salmon are quite light and balanced around 4- or 6-pound line. Not only do such ultralight outfits allow the pinks to do their best in a fight, they also aid in casting. Most of these are designated to cast light lures.
Very often you will need to cast a good distance to put your offering in front of the fish, whether they are moving along a shoreline or feeding on needlefish tantalizingly close but out of usual casting range.
Without question spoons are better than spinners for pink salmon. And if the fish are the least bit reluctant to strike, often switching to a smaller spoon will pay dividends over larger ones. Long casts with light spoons is yet another very good reason to use a fish with a light outfit having line no heavier than 6-pound test.
While Pixie spoons are a universal favorite for pinks, I actually have better luck on slow fishing days when using Crocodile spoons. That’s because Crocodiles can be retrieved much slower than Pixies without sinking to the bottom, another key ingredient in catching reluctant pink salmon.
Color choices for pink salmon lures will be less specific in another couple of weeks when the main run shows up and the fish begin to run up river. While florescent colors like pink, green and orange will be tops then, you’re better off right now to think in terms of what the pink salmon are eating.
Silver, silver-and-blue, silver-and-green and gold spoons are top producers for feeding pinks, simply because they more closely resemble food fish.
If you prefer to fly fish or are just learning how, pink salmon are the fish for you.
They hit small steamers and shrimp imitations with abandon, and a fly rod makes it possible to cast very small, light flies with ease. When the fish are playing hard to get, the small flies and slow retrieves have it all over a spoon. It’s possible to use flies so small and light that they sink very slowly, allowing you to use a creeping retrieve without fear of snagging bottom.
My favorite fly outfits for pink salmon are light. So light, in fact, that the rest of the world would call them trout rods rather than salmon rods. Rods as heavy as 8- or 9-weight that are ideal for silver salmon are just too heavy for pink salmon.
Things get a lot more interesting when you switch to a 7-weight, and even more interesting as you step further down the power scale. A 5-weight, the universal trout rod in most parts of the world is just about perfect for pinks, which average 3-4 pounds, but often grow larger.
If the wind isn’t too bad, you can have even more fun on a 4- or 3-weight fly rod. I’m here to tell you that a pink salmon on a 4-weight compares very favorably to a silver salmon on an 8-weight. You can count on the larger pinks to take you into your backing, and don’t imagine that you can land them any faster than you can a silver on a heavier rod.
My favorite fly patterns for pinks are Clausser Deep Minnows and pink shrimp patterns in size No. 6 and smaller. Top colors for the Claussers right now are green-and-white and blue-and-white, but you can add pink or chartreuse to the list once the run starts entering the river.
I’ll save it for another column, but there’s another very good reason to use a fly rod for pink salmon — dry flies!
That’s right. Pink salmon will rise to the surface to take a fly, often more readily than they will take a subsurface fly. Best of all, you can catch pink after pink from dense schools without snagging a single fish.
Think about the fun that promises, and look for the details in a future column.