Summer brings the fishing doldrums to most freshwater areas of British Columbia, including here on Vancouver Island, except for the bass and pike waters. It is a time for most fly-fishers to put away the rods, pack up the family and hit the beach. On the West coast though, fly-fishers still pack up their rods, only to throw them into the truck, then head out in pursuit of pink salmon.
At this time of year, every fly-fisher and spin-caster capable of raising a rod is headed for the river mouths. Wading off the beaches and estuaries of the rivers, sometimes up to chest deep in the clear, cold ocean, they cast to singles and pairs of jumping pinks. They know that hundreds (if not thousands) of these little salmon lie just beneath the jumping “marker” fish. Other times, I have seen dozens of marker salmon in the air at once. (Check out the photo accompanying this article for that reference.)
For those of you who don’t know a lot about Pacific salmon, pink salmon or “humpies” inhabit the cold waters of the North Pacific Ocean. They range from the central Washington state coastline north to Alaska and across to northeast Asia. They have the shortest life span of any of the Pacific salmon, spawning in two-year cycles. Every second summer from mid-July through mid-August, they return to the streams and rivers that bore them to make their contribution to the survival of their species. In the Fraser River system and adjoining systems along the mainland side of British Columbia’s Georgia Strait, these salmon return every odd year. On eastern Vancouver Island where I live, they run in the even years. Many of the rivers, like the Oyster River near Campbell River, are unique in this regard because they host very successful hatchery programs. As a result of these programs, there is a smaller run even in the “off” years. What a bonus for the angler! Every year you can fish some of the estuaries with a good chance of success.
As salmon go, pinks are the smallest. While the maximum weight for these fish is estimated at 12 pounds, they average three to five pounds when fully mature. They are nicknamed “humpies” because of the characteristic humped back the males develop during the spawn. They are more formally known as Oncorhynchus gorbuscha, or pink salmon. Identification of these fish is quite easy. They are small in size and have large, oblong, “blotchy” spots on their tails rather than the small round spots found on coho and Chinook salmon. They have white mouths, lacking the characteristic black mouths of the Chinook or the black-edged gums of the coho, and they have soft bodies.
Pinks are very soft-mouthed, and you must take care not to pressure them too much once they are hooked. If you are overaggressive when playing them, you’ll tear the hook out, and although they love to run, they seldom make long runs like coho do. So, you have little need to pressure the fish too much unless you plan on releasing it.
One of the favorite methods of angling for pinks is to wade from shore. There is a definite technique to this. Slow retrieves are the key, and when you combine slow retrieves with the soft takes of these fish, it sometimes makes the strikes almost undetectable. A strike can feel much like hooking into floating weeds. Knowledgeable anglers always set the hook at the first sign of resistance. They end up setting the hook into a lot of weeds, but they also hook into a lot of salmon.
During the salmon run, anglers often catch many more fish than the law allows them to keep. That’s why catch-and-release must be practiced unless you quit after killing the limit. This isn’t too difficult with the pinks. As I mentioned earlier, they don’t make long runs. The short runs allow the angler to bring the fish to hand quickly. Mandatory barbless hooks, combined with the salmon’s soft mouth, allow for easy hook removal. It has been documented that approximately 80% to 90% of all the salmon properly released survive to spawn or be caught again.
When fishing the beaches near river mouths, it is best to take up a position and allow the fish to come to you. If you spend the day moving from spot to spot, you’ll not be as successful because the schools slowly cruise the shoreline. The exception to this is at low tide. When the tide drops, move near the river mouth. The fish funnel in there and it can be like “fish in a barrel.” And as the tide turns and rises, the fish start up the river again. Then, you will have a chance at a great many fish as they enter or re-enter the river mouth.
Techniques for Success
When fishing in the tidal current or the current of the river mouth, remember to mend your line to present the fly to the fish in the way its natural prey would appear. Casting crosscurrent and dragging the fly back is a common mistake most anglers make when beach fishing. The drag makes the fly move in the wrong direction, just as in a river, and you get significantly fewer strikes because of it. Better yet, if you can get upstream and fish down, or get down and across to offer a properly oriented presentation, you will have better success.
Fly patterns are simple ties that imitate the food of pink salmon. The humpies feed mostly on small shrimp, squid, baitfish and other small crustaceans. Small streamer patterns of blue, pink or green-over-silver bodies tied on stainless steel hooks in sizes #8 through #2 work well and are most common. Pink appears to be one of the salmon’s favorite colors, probably because the fish feed significantly on shrimp and euphausiids.
Flush the Salt
If you plan to fish the estuaries, it’s wise to remember that you are dealing with salt water. Maintain your gear diligently or the salt will ruin it in short order. Anodized reels and salt-proof reel seats are the rule of the day to help prevent rust and corrosion. Chest waders are a necessity since you will be wading deep. Make sure your wading boots have sturdy soles and that the waders have sewn-in knee patches to protect the areas that may come in contact with barnacles.
You’ll want to remove your fly boxes and other gear from your lower pockets if you wear a full-length vest. If you don’t, you may end up wading deeper than the bottom of the vest and you will soak what’s in the bottom pockets in salt water.
Once you get home or back to camp, hose down your boots and waders and disassemble your reels. Flush the parts with warm water to get rid of any residual salt. I cannot stress good maintenance enough when dealing with ocean water. I’ve seen many instances of good gear ruined due to a lack of proper maintenance.
Fresh Baked and Smoked
The pinks that are caught make excellent table fare if cooked fresh, and they are excellent smoked as well. They don’t freeze well, however, and many people (me included) like to bake a fresh salmon for dinner the same evening it was caught, then smoke the rest. Some people say the pinks taste strong, or fishy. I have found that if you skin the fillets before cooking them, they cook fine and taste great. It seems the skin and slime may have something to do with the strong taste. Try that skinning tactic and you may surprise yourself.
The opportunities that pink salmon sport fishery offers along British Columbia’s coast are many. Pink salmon have become recognized as a great summer sport fish, especially by fly-fishers, and there has been a significant increase in their number over the last few years.
So, check out this summer angling opportunity if you get the chance. You’ll find yourself having a whole lot of fun, and pink salmon makes a tasty alternative to the regular summer fare of hamburgers and hotdogs.