KODIAK — I’m delighted to report a momentous weekend. My wife and I visited a favorite beach and connected with our first pink salmon! They’re few and scattered now but with each passing day more and more will be converging along our beaches. By the end of the month, there will be hordes almost anywhere you go near a river.
What a great way to move into the heart of summer and lazy days on the shore. With the run extending for roughly the next two months, it promises lots of fishing and picnics with family and friends. Mix a few searun Dolly Varden with the pinks, and it’s fishing to remember.
The best thing about pink salmon is their sheer number. They return to Kodiak in the millions, following the shorelines within easy casting range and congregating in dense schools at river mouths. If you’ve always wanted to see the “rivers black with salmon” of legend, the pink salmon run is just the thing come August.
Perhaps even better than their sheer numbers is their cooperative nature. When conditions are right and you do your part, they’re downright easy to catch. Pinks are perfect for neophyte anglers young and old. I don’t know of any other fishery where beginners can score so well.
If you want to hook your kids on fishing, the pink salmon run is your best chance. If you’re new to angling and looking for action, they’re your fish too.
Even seasoned anglers can have a ball with pinks. But first, you have to turn your sights and adjust your tackle away from the more glamorous sockeye, king and silver salmon.
Pink salmon average only around 3 ½ pounds, and the tackle used for other salmon is too heavy to let the smaller salmon really show their stuff. “Trout” gear is perfect, with ultralight gear letting them battle with all the spirit of silver salmon. Sure you can catch them on heavier gear. But why?
There’s actually better reason for using lighter tackle for pink salmon coming under the heading of “when conditions are not right.” Pink salmon are most certainly easy to catch until they’re not. At times they can develop lockjaw to rival all the other salmon.
That’s when the light tackle will save the day. Any time pinks quit hitting your usual offerings the solution lies in switching to smaller lures and moving them slower. The little 1/8-once or ¼-ounce lures required for reluctant pinks won’t cast far enough on heavier tackle.
You need an outfit balanced around 8# test line at the most, and 4# test will serve you even better for casting those tiny spoons far enough to reach pinks laying a little further offshore. It’s a happy coincidence that such light tackle also lets the pinks really show their stuff on the end of your line.
While you can find them longer, I prefer lightweight spinning rods down in the 5’ to 6’ length for pinks. Since most of the time you’ll be beaching them to land them, the shorter rods work better than rods in the 8’ to 9’ range.
It’s worth returning to my point about smaller and slower lures.
Pink salmon around river mouths in particular can move into belly-scratching shallow water. Even small versions of the ever popular Pixie spoon tend to sink too quickly and snag bottom when moved slow enough to do the job.
My pick in the same weight range is a Crocodile spoon. The design is different and they stay relatively close to the surface on slow retrieves, making them much better for shallow water work.
It pays also to carry a variety of colors, as well as sizes. The first pinks arriving in early July are most certainly still feeding, and you’ll find colors that resemble baitfish work better than the garish colors that work so well later in the run.
My picks are plain silver, silver/blue and silver/green on overcast days, with gold or gold/green working better on most sunny days. Later in the run you’ll have better luck by moving to chartreuse, pink, orange or red.
Interesting enough, I’ve never done well for pinks when using spinners. I can’t explain it, but they almost always prefer spoons. Certainly try spinners if you have them in your box on days they’re not hitting much else, but be ready to switch right back to spoons if they don’t work.
If you are just starting with fly fishing, pinks are the perfect medicine for you too. Pinks hit flies readily, usually even better than spoons.
As with spinning tackle, stepping down from traditional silver salmon fly rods to trout gear is the most fun. A 7- or 8-weight might be your choice for silvers, but you’ll be lots happier if you encounter pinks with 4- or 5-weights. We reserve our heavier rods for stormy days when they’re better at beating wind, but it’s always a relief to go back to the lighter rods on nice days for more fun.
In my long experience flies offer huge advantages over spoons because they’re lighter and don’t sink so fast, and because you can use much smaller versions. Whether fished under a casting bubble on a spinning rod or with fly rods, you can switch without penalty to smaller flies and move them slower without fear of snagging bottom.
It’s worth pointing out though, that about the worst thing you can do with a fly rod is mount it with a sink tip fly line. Move your fly slow enough to interest pinks and it snags bottom. Move it fast enough to avoid bottom snags, and the pinks won’t be interested.
I like flies too because they’re available not only in smaller sizes, but also a much wider range of styles and colors. You can carry a lot of flies in a small fly box and be ready to experiment with alternative patterns and colors any time the pinks start refusing your bigger offerings.
Since pink salmon feed on both small baitfish and on crustaceans, such as krill, it pays to carry both streamer fly patterns and shrimp patterns with you. My favorite streamers are Bucktails and Clausers in sizes #4 through #10 and colors including black/white, brown/white, olive/white, chartreuse/white and blue/white.
Shrimp patterns will often save the day when pinks move off of streamers onto a crustacean diet. I have the best luck in sizes #4 through #10, with the best color being a darker or lighter shade of pink. But red, orange, chartreuse or white shrimp flies have their days too.
Timing is important with pink salmon along beaches, no matter what tackle you hold in your hand. They move offshore once the tide starts to fall and stay there until it starts coming back in after low tide. We have our best days when we arrive on the water near low tide and fish through the first few hours of the incoming tide. Fishing can fall off in the last hour or so of rising water, so it pays to refer to your tide book and concentrate on the first few hours right after low tide.
The glut of pink salmon and our liberal five salmon limit may tempt you to bring home limits. You may regret that choice if you don’t take very good care of them on the shore and back home in the freezer, because their flesh is much more delicate than that of other salmon species.
In fact, their flesh is more like very good trout, softer than other salmon and finer in texture. It can be the best “trout” you ever had, but don’t expect the firm textures and stronger flavors of other salmon.
Pink salmon also doesn’t fare well if you let it lay on the shore to heat up on sunny days, then sloppily package it for freezing. If you want great pink salmon this winter, keep it cool in an ice chest on shore, then fillet it and vacuum seal it for freezing and winter meals.
The delicate flavor of pink salmon is easily overwhelmed if you get carried away with the chips in your smoker. We find it best to limit the smoke to 1 or 2 hours in an automatic smoker like the Bradley or a single pan of chips in a Big Chief or Little Chief or the equivalent. Such a light smoke produces terrific results with flavors of the fish balanced nicely with the smoke.
We find pinks to be really versatile on the table too, whether smoked or not. Preparations, however, should run along the lines of premium trout recipes. We love fillets poached or broiled. Smoked pink salmon is a treat crumbled over salads, folded into dips or sandwich spreads, and especially by the handful as a snack.