Every angler venturing to Alaska in search of salmon on the fly dreams vividly of aggressive coho or chum trouncing a streamer being ripped across the river. Day and night dreams of beautiful roll casts, colorful marabou and bunny streamers wafting brilliantly through prime holding water, and a shark-like wake split by a speckled dorsal fin as it approaches the respectively tiny streamer, haunt us in the days leading up to the trip. Many Alaska trips fit the script recited to us by those who have gone before, as well as those we conjure in our wildest fantasies. But what about the trips that don’t quite live up to our dreams?
Anyone seeking outdoor adventure knows that Mother Nature refuses to play favorites, particularly on far flung excursions into new territory. Given my experience with southeast Alaska, I have come to love and embrace overcast skies and rain. I rely on it, as do the salmon for entering their spawning streams. But salmon sometimes forget to flip the calendar, showing up fashionably late for their date with destiny. All but the pink salmon, anyhow.
So, what do you do when Mother Nature drops a colossal lemon in the punch bowl, such as a stark absence of Coho amid a cornucopia of pink salmon after you have traveled so far to live the Alaska dream? Seize the lemon and squeeze the bloody life out of it to yield a sweet, sweet pink lemonade.
With every intention of filling a fish box to the brim with Coho filets, I trekked to Ketchikan, Alaska, in late August 2019, fly rod in hand. My August trips to other areas of southeast Alaska have been otherworldly in terms of Coho abundance and action, but no two years or island streams are alike. Having spent the better part of two days in search of Coho in freshwater and salt, the writing was on the wall. I was too early for the Coho run. But August is the hot month for pink salmon, and with that in mind, one could argue I was right on time.
As an equal opportunity salmon fisherman, I believe that pink salmon get a bad rap. I must admit that I don’t travel to Alaska specifically to target pinks, but their dark olive, pepper-speckled dorsal region, nearly chartreuse fins, mottled gray and white belly margins, and that gorgeous pink tint down their lateral line comprise one finely painted and respectable salmon that suckers me in. Every time. Although pinks don’t exhibit the Coho magnitude of aggression once in fresh water, there are challenges and benefits to fishing pink salmon that are just as inciting.
You’ve heard the old expression “salmon so thick you could walk across their backs.” You also know this expression to be true if you have ever experienced the peak of a pink salmon run. Pinks exhibit and distinct two-year lifecycle where fish spawned on even-numbered years do not returning to spawn in an odd year, and vice-versa.
Pinks are the most abundant Alaskan salmon and are secure in their conservation status, meaning populations are healthy and sustainable. While there is no stronger odd or even year return in much of Alaska, the far northwestern Alaska experiences a dominant even-year population, while the northwest U.S. states experience a stronger odd-year population.
There is something monumental to walking upon a stream literally black with salmon backs and watching those fish jockey for position, fight to conquer waterfalls and each other, and spawn in gravel pockets as nature intended them to. Awe inspiring, to say the least.
A pink salmon could not care less about the color or type of fly, the fact that you just slapped a streamer across the water surface, or the fact that you may be standing literally over top of hundreds of them. They simply have one thing in mind. Their fate is calling. Get out of the way!
Like any large fish, pink salmon put up a fair fight. These fish are lean and mean; their average weight being in the 3 to 5-pound range and up to 24 inches in length. Larger pinks have been caught but are less common. Pinks can put the bend to an 8-weight fly rod in a second and dog it for up to 10 minutes in the right river conditions. If you’ve ever wanted to hear a fly reel sing, a big humpy would be happy to oblige, particularly on a 5-weight.
While fly selection and presentation are of little consideration, fishing the fly through a thousand fish without snagging fins or body is most definitely a challenge. Pinks will strike at and even run down a streamer. You simply need to get the fly in front of the right fish without foul-hooking a dozen others.
Pinching the hook barb is a must. Making a solid hookset is not difficult. Its simply a good conservation practice to pinch your barbs when incidentally snagging fish is a given. This accomplishes two things: 1) In many cases, you can see that you have snagged a fish and avoid an unnecessary hookset by shaking the fly loose with slack line; and 2) If you accidentally foul-hook and break off on fish, that hook will likely drop out in short order once the tension is relieved from the line.
When fishing for pinks, I typically cast upstream and gently retrieve the fly parallel to the fish. Swimming flies across the water in front of them increases foul hooking, where fishing with the flow allows fish that want to strike the fly to grab it while minimizing the body surface area contact between the fly and other fish. Snagging can also be minimized by drifting a fly downstream into a pool and keeping it in front of the fish long enough to entice a strike.
Finally, feeling out and understanding the difference between a strike and a snag can be interesting and fun. You can never get it 100%, but this presents another nuance to the game that requires heightened awareness and attentiveness of the fly and the fish themselves. A truly engaging aspect of the pursuit.
If you really want to step up the challenge, try a tenkara fly rod. Like using an old-fashioned cane pole, a fixed length of line with a tippet is attached to the end of the rod. Pinks can be caught using traditional tenkara lines and kebari (flies), or with non-traditional floating or sinking lines and streamers. Streamers can be fished the same as with any western-style fly rod, just with a limited cast and retrieve length.
I built a 13-foot tenkara rod specifically for big fish, rated 8/2, meaning the rod operates on a fast or medium-heavy action relative to typical fly or spinning rod actions, respectively. My intention for the rod was to dead-drift nymphs for steelhead in winter, but had only hooked up some decent cutthroat with it to date. My goal for Ketchikan was simple; hook and land a big pink salmon, even if it meant breaking the rod.
Using a 10-foot section of old floating fly line with a 4-foot section of 8-pound fluorocarbon as tippet, I rolled out a small, black, egg-sucking leech pattern with an orange bead head and free-floating trailer hook. I had already landed a few smaller pinks in the 3-pound class, but the giant I was about to hook was beyond any mad fantasy to ever cross my mind.
Casting to the edge of the current in the eddy, pinks darted in and out of the run leading up the pool below me. And like always, as my mind began to wander amid the scenery, a nuanced strike pulled me back into reality. As I noticed a big buck pink below me in the pool tail-out, I spotted the leech bouncing bottom under him and recast. Repeating an identical drift, the buck opened his mouth, snatching the leech with an apparent irritability that struck me with a bit of regret as I swiftly set the hook.
Treating the tenkara rod as a switch rod, I stuck the butt into my hip and heaved the long cork grip into my gut with my right hand. The buck wasn’t making any blistering runs, but he certainly had me wishing for more line a good drag.
Busting out of the pool, headed back toward the ocean, I was left simply to follow with my net in one hand and the rod held high in the other. Vowing to keep him from hitting the final riffle into salt, I clasped the rod with both hands and turned the buck upriver one last time, all the while fearing the rod or tippet would give at any moment. Fortunately, the rod and tippet held their own and I was able to slip the net under him and bring him to shore.
The magnitude of this fish didn’t hit home until I realized how small the net looked with him in it. I had landed many a solid Coho with that net, but a pink had never taken up such real estate. Gently popping the barbless hook from his gnarly kype, I lifted the buck for closer inspection. He was simply magnificent. Measuring around 28 inches with a high hump, yellowing, speckled fins, glorious gray-olive dorsal coloring and a brilliant pinking around the tail, this buck enhanced my appreciation for an underrepresented species among the salmon angling community.
Hitting the Water
Stupid-good action is my plain and simple description of pink salmon fishing in fresh water, and unlike the other more popular species, you will generally find yourself amidst solitude in some of Alaska’s most beautiful and accessible public lands. Exquisite rental properties within a budget such as vacation-rental-by-owner and bed-and-breakfast options are available in most areas in August. Folks fortunate enough to live within a short flight or two of southeast Alaska can find good reason to make a quick trip. For those traveling further and investing a bit more cash in the endeavor, timing your trip to coincide with the peak the Chinook or Coho run would provide more bang for the buck, but make no mistake, hitting the pink run would be no disappointment.