You would think that with a freezer brimming with king salmon and red salmon, we would yawn at the pink salmon arriving off our shores.
Nothing could be further from the truth!
Whether for fishing fun or on the table, we relish pink salmon as much as their larger cousins. Pinks are a blast to catch, and they’re credible fighters on light tackle.
Give their delicate flesh a little respect on the stovetop, and they’re a treat on the table as well.
Pink salmon are just starting to arrive in reliable numbers on the road system. By that I mean there are enough around that I can leave home with some assurance that I’ll catch some, even if I still have to watch the tides and hunt for them at times.
In my eyes a pink salmon run is much like a tsunami. Not much is happening at first, but in the blink of an eye you’re suddenly awash in fish. It’s truly like a big wave, the fish arrive so quickly and in such large numbers.
But unlike a tsunami, the pink salmon don’t recede and disappear. They’re going to continue to increase in numbers through most of August, and they’ll accumulate to the point you’ll actually get a little sick of catching them.
In the meantime, those many weeks between the first pink salmon and the arrival of the first silver salmon late in August, you can count on world class salmon fishing almost anywhere you go.
Pink salmon are the smallest of our salmon, averaging only around 3.5 pounds per fish. You’ll run into lots bigger, but if you select your tackle for the average size fish, the big ones will really peg your fun meter.
For me the “right” tackle for pink salmon is trout tackle. The most common salmon gear on Kodiak is actually geared for silver salmon or even kings. On that kind of tackle, smaller pink salmon are at a distinct disadvantage compared to the larger species.
But if you think about it, trout gear is sized for fish much smaller than 3.5 pounds. Catching a trout that big is a memorable occasion and really tests your tackle.
Using the same tackle for pink salmon assures you of lots of “memorable” fish. It could also help you nab dozens in a day and hundreds of them over the course of a season.
My favorite spinning tackle features 4- to 8-pound line and a rod that’s rated for it. The lighter line not only keeps you honest when it comes to fighting pink salmon, it also is an aid in casting the small lures that work best for pink salmon.
Without a doubt the best all-around fly outfit for pink salmon is a 5-weight. It’s stout enough to cast flies in the wind, yet light enough to really let the pinks show their stuff. I frequently use even lighter rods, but have to move up to a 5 any time the wind blows.
One of the important features of a pink salmon run is their choice of migration routes.
Pink salmon love to stick close to the shoreline. They’re within easy casting range for hours every day. The single exception comes twice a day after the tide peaks and starts to fall.
In general pink salmon hug the shoreline as the tide is rising, but move further offshore as it falls.
All that changes around river mouths though.
Once pinks reach the mouths of their home rivers, they’re reluctant to leave. They may not hit quite so well as the tide drops, but they’ll certainly stay within casting range and reward you with a few hits even in the slow periods.
By their very nature, pink salmon tend to like smaller offerings moving slowly. That’s true whether you’re casting flies or hardware. The better able you are to throw smaller offerings and move them slowly, the more pink salmon will respond. The little rods and light lines pay bonus points simply because you can cast the little gear further.
For some reason pink salmon also tend to prefer spoons to spinners. I’ve caught them on spinners, for sure, but I always catch more on lightweight spoons.
Whether delivered by a fly rod or spinning rod with a casting bubble, flies often work even better than hardware, especially on overcast days. Too many times we’ve smoked the pink salmon on flies while the hardware casters around us struggled to catch fish. We’ve certainly made fast friends when we’ve shared flies at such times!
My favorite spoons for pink salmon are Crocodiles. As the run progresses they’ll show more interest in florescent colors like pink, orange, yellow or green, but for the time being plain gold or silver, or in combination with blue or green may be better. That’s because most of the pink salmon are still feeding on small needlefish.
Best streamer flies are usually #4 or #6 Clauser Deep Minnows in chartreuse/white on overcast days, blue/white on sunny days, and pink/white once the fish reach the river mouths. Especially as the tide first starts coming back in, pink shrimp flies in the same sizes may be even better.
Pink salmon are especially prime for young anglers or beginning anglers, but keeping spoons from hanging bottom can be a challenge on slow retrieves. You’re probably better off to rig their rods with flies and a casting bubble, simply because the flies are suspended off bottom and less likely to hang up if the retrieve is interrupted for things like eagle watching.
If you have access to a boat and enjoy trolling, pink salmon can be a barrel of fun offshore too. As with shore fishing however, leave your bigger tackle in the rod rack.
Pretend you’re fishing for trout and use trout gear instead! Spoons fished slowly just below the surface about 50 feet behind the boat can be deadly. You can also do very well with flies behind a ½ ounce or 1-ounce trolling weight. Very small hoochies in needlefish colors draw immediate strikes, too.
In boating however, it pays to know the shoreline well along with any obstructions. Fishing is usually best within 100 yards of shore, and as conditions allow, you’ll catch more and more pinks, the closer to shore you work.
What about my claim of great table fare?
We’re back to my comparison with trout.
Pink salmon flesh is like the best trout you’ve ever tasted, but it’s delicate and can turn soft if you select silvery bright fish and take care of them.
By all means you should gut your fish right away if they’ve been feeding on needlefish. The digestive “juices” in pink salmon stomachs are really stimulated by such a rich diet. Leave the guts in place for a few hours, and especially let the pink warm up in the sun, and the juices will eat right through their stomach walls and attack their flesh. Both the flavor and smell that result can be really unappealing.
We carry a small ice chest right down to the shore with us, then put the pinks into it to protect them from sun. If we’re going to fish as much as an hour, we’ll usually gut the fish too.
Back home, it’s best to fillet pink salmon before cooking simply because the whole fish are too thick for easy cooking. You’ll end up over-cooking the thinner parts in order to cook them through.
Whether you cook the fillets whole or in pieces, be gentle with the spices and herbs just as you would with trout. Dill and onions are our favorites, sometimes with lemon and sometimes without.