Hank Pennington

Are you having a hard time finding and catching pink salmon or humpies this year?

You’re not alone!

A smaller pink salmon run was expected this year, but in all my years on Kodiak, I’ve never seen so few pinks.

More have been appearing in the last few days, but so far this year the big roving schools of salmon simply haven’t materialized.

The good news is that most of them are lots bigger than last year. When you finally hook one, it’s even money that it will be bigger than any you caught last year.

In fact the average size is so large, my wife and I have stepped up the size of our tackle.

In past years our favorite fly rods have been whippy little 4-weights. Some folks consider a 4 a little light for average trout fishing, but they reliably turn 3-4 pound pink salmon into trophies on par with silver salmon.

It took only one fight with a pink to send my wife back to the truck for one of the 6-weights we normally bring along in case of wind. I traced her tracks through the sand for my own 6-weight after landing my first humpy of the year, a solid 8-pounder.

We’ve done the same thing when using spinning rods. It’s still a good idea to leave your silver salmon rods at home, but those huge pinks are a little too much for our ultralight trout rods.

We’ve discovered another advantage to stepping up a notch in rod size. We’ve had better luck with larger offerings than usual for pinks.

We’ve come to rely on ultralight spinning and light line for tossing the small spoons that always produced better in previous years. You can simply cast 1/8 ounce and lighter spoons lots further with the diminutive gear designed for it.

But if you try tossing 3/8 ounce and ½ ounce hardware with 4-pound line, you’re going to snap some off any time you put a little extra muscle in a cast.

Along the same lines, our usual flies for pink salmon are #6 and smaller. Especially on bright sunny days we even dropped down to #10 or #12 flies in years past.

This year size #4 flies are “small,” and we’ve had much better luck on #2’s. 

Those are the sizes we usually rely on for silver salmon!

The pinks still prefer slow retrieves over fast, so choice of spoons is important when you’re trying to increase your odds of connecting.

You want spoons that don’t sink too deeply and snag bottom on slow retrieves.

Our favorites are Crocodiles, both for their higher “ride” through the water on slow retrieves and their sleek forms for longer casts. I’ve never been a particular fan of Pixie spoons, simply because they’re more prone to snagging bottom on slow retrieves.

Pixies and Kastmasters are fine when the pinks are in deeper water, but you’ll be buying extra tackle in the rocky shallows.

We use flies more than spoons simply because they work better.

With floating fly lines and lighter flies you can move flies slower than spoons with almost no danger of snagging bottom.

Even better you can pause your retrieve and allow a fly to hover in the water, even sink slowly toward the bottom. That pause, and especially the slow sink is as irresistible to pink salmon as to silver salmon.

My all-time favorite fly for all species of salmon is a Clauser Deep Minnow. Specific for pink salmon, I prefer to use those tied with lightweight bead chain eyes rather than lead barbells. They retain the great fishy shape and behavior without sinking too quickly.

My favorite colors when the pinks are still actively feeding away from the river mouths are chartreuse/white and blue/white. The blue/white usually works better on sunny days, while the chartreuse/white is more reliable with overcast.

Once the pink salmon arrive off the mouth of their home river, their color preferences can switch.  I still catch them on blue/white or chartreuse/white but catches improve dramatically with a switch to brighter colors.

In this case pink/white Clausers are best on overcast days, while orange/white or red/white are better in direct sunlight.

But Clausers aren’t the only game in town for pink salmon!

At sea they eat a lot of plankton, and especially krill.

Flies that resemble those foods are still wildly successful when the pinks reach shore.

If Clausers aren’t producing, a switch to “shrimp” fly patterns will usually turn the tide.

My favorite is pale to medium pink on overcast days, with a switch to dark pink or fuchsia on sunny days. It’s always worth trying white or chartreuse shrimp if the pink or fuchsia aren’t producing, but they’re not nearly so effective for general use.

There’s another change in the pink salmon this year along with the lower numbers and larger size. And it can dramatically affect your fishing results.

The pinks aren’t jumping.

In years past the most reliable way to find pink salmon was to watch for their jumps. The splash of a single “jumper” often revealed the presence of a large school of pinks beneath the surface.

You’d often see the effects of that trait on rainy blustery days.

Anglers would lurk in their vehicles overlooking the shoreline, warm and comfortable in their wait for the salmon to arrive.

Interest would rise with the splash of jumpers offshore, and with the first splash within casting range, car doors would slam and the fishing would begin in earnest.

Waiting for jumpers is nowhere near so reliable this year.  Perhaps due to the smaller schools or even the warmer water, the pinks simply aren’t jumping as a general rule.

But all is not lost.

You simply have to look closer for other signs of passing schools.

Pink salmon often swim very close to the surface. In the process they can leave telltale signs on the surface.

I’m sure you’ve seen it as they enter their home rivers. Wakes form over the shallow school, and you can follow their progress upriver simply by spotting the wakes.

Wakes are important to spot this year in saltwater, too. If the pinks get close to the surface as they often do, the wakes can still reveal their presence.

In fact, those subtle wakes may be your only sign of fish on windy or rainy days, and you have to look hard to spot them. Note the direction of movement and cast 5 to 10 feet in front of them, and your odds of scoring go way up.

But distinct wakes aren’t the only sign of pink salmon. You need flat calm days to spot it, but also watch for what tropical anglers call “nervous water.”

Even when swimming 2 or 3 feet below the surface, pinks can leave distinct signs on the surface. You won’t be able to spot it without glassy calm waters, but the surface will be broken by what looks almost like a gentle wind riffle.  Call it a “wake wannabe.”

Why work so hard for pinks when they’re scarce, even if they’re big?

We still relish the sweet flesh of pink salmon taken while silvery bright in the ocean.

No, it’s not as firm as that the other salmon species, but in fact it’s a very tasty break from a steady diet of the others.

If you treat pink salmon more like trout in your recipes and preparations, you’ll be rewarded with the best “trout” you’ve ever tasted.

That calls for fewer and milder seasonings on the stove top, and lots less smoke in the smoker. Our goal is to find that right balance between seasonings or smoke that allows the sweet flavor of the fish to shine through while complimented gently by the other flavors.

Pink salmon season is most certainly upon us, even if the catching is more challenging than usual.

But when you put that sweet pink salmon on the table, all the effort will seem worthwhile.

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