While the forecast for this year’s pink salmon run is down, there are still a lot of fish destined for the rivers of the Puget Sound.
By Gary Lewis
Along the banks of the Skagit, the regular waterline was visible, a white stripe along the rocks a foot above the surface. We launched near Sedro-Woolley and powered downstream toward the railroad trestle.
Last time I fished the Skagit, way up in western Washington, the pinks were in. The big run hits the river every other summer in odd-numbered years. They may be finicky at times, but pink salmon are the easiest of the Pacific salmon to catch.
It’s not hard to remember what kinds of lures and baits to employ – pink salmon like… Pink!
In fact, if you’re trying to catch silver salmon out of a river filled with pinks, you need to switch to black or green or any other color.
There were a few silvers in the Skagit, but we were targeting pinks and started with sparse streamers. The trick is to run the fly or jig, spinner or spoon close to the bottom. Dead-drift it or twitch it or cast and retrieve. There’s a speed and a cadence that will get them to strike, but the right combination changes every day.
My cousin, Neil Lewis and I were on the third day of a road trip from Bend to the Spokane Valley to the Skagit. Now we were on the river with Travis Huisman and Tracy Whisonant, in Tracy’s 16-foot sled. We beached on a sandbar and spread out to work a slow patch of deeper water above the tail-out of a run. I couldn’t help thinking about the old man of the river.
The Skagit used to be frequented by an angling scribe named Enos Bradner – he was the first fishing writer I read. I know he stood on this sandbar and cast a fly rod. But he probably tried to NOT catch pinks!
One of my treasured books is a first edition of Northwest Angling (A.S. Barnes and Company, 1950) by Enos Bradner. He signed this copy to Ed Foss, one of his friends from the Puget Sound. Ed’s son, my friend Wade Foss, passed this book on to me after I was presented with the award named for Bradner.
When I think of the Skagit, when I stand in the river with those waters swirling around my legs, I think of Bradner.
I waded out, threw a 20-foot cross-current cast, mended upstream and let the fly tumble along the bottom. It was twenty minutes before I hooked my first one, a female whose flanks were already oxidized by the September water.
Pink salmon returns fluctuate up and down from one cycle to the next.
Of one season on the Stillaguamish, Bradner wrote, “I have observed the upper Stillaguamish on an odd year when the river was filled almost from bank to bank by spawning “humpies.” From a bridge over a shallow gravel bar one could see the sleek female humpback salmon digging their spawning beds.” Bradner liked to fish downstream from the humpies to catch the sea-run cutthroat that fed on their spawn. The richness of the ocean brought back to the natal stream to feed and nurture its young.
Pink salmon average four to six pounds, but the freshwater state record (caught in 2007 by Adam Stewart in the Stillaguamish River) tipped the scales at 15.4 pounds.
Silvery when they first hit freshwater, they quickly fade to spawning colors and the males get big humps on their backs.
When they hit the river in August, the fish seek the ancient spawning beds, often in the lower reaches of the river, but on the Skagit, they can be found a hundred miles up from the saltwater.
They blast up through the rapids, sometimes with their tails and dorsals spitting water, then rest in the soft stuff from the tail-outs up to the head of the pool. Small gravelly runs and silted-in sandy bottoms can hold pinks. Every day in freshwater brings a change in their bodies and, mature, they pair up, especially in tail-outs. By the end of October, the fish are spent and their carcasses wash downriver and stack in eddies.
In the spring, the fry hatch and soon shoot downstream to find their way to the ocean and the Gulf of Alaska.
When fresh and bright, they are good to eat. After a few days in freshwater, the meat turns soft and is less desirable. I hoped to catch a bright one, but this one was not it. I let it go after a quick battle.
Cousin Neil started with a fly rod and a sparse purple streamer, but soon switched to a spinning rod with a lead-head jig, with a pink hoochie skirt. It took a few minutes for him to perfect his twitch technique and soon he was tight into his first pink salmon.
Forecast: Cloudy with a Chance of Pink
Access is good on many pink salmon streams. Boat launches, parks, bridges and parallel roads offer a look at the water and some pretty good fishing. The traveling angler can find fish and places to prospect by looking for the tell-tale signs: cars parked along the river road, empty boat trailers and flotillas of the faithful upon the water. Many anglers bring their own boats. Good choices include drift boats, pontoon boats and jet sleds. In some waters, a raft or a float tube can be put to good use.
Armed with a spinning rod, the fisherman can catch pinks on a wide variety of lures. Some favorites include the Blue Fox (in pink), Dick Nite spoons, Rooster Tails (pink), Eppinger’s pink Dardevle.
For the fly angler, a seven-weight rod is best, with any No. 4 to No. 8 pink or purple streamer. Best patterns include the Clouser Minnow, Humpy Hooker, Egg Sucking Leech, Pink Starlite Leech, Jeeves & Pink and Polar Shrimp.
The total forecast for this year’s Puget Sound’s pink salmon runs to 1.15 million, which is quite a bit less than the 10-year average. Some of Washington’s top rivers are the Puyallup, the Nisqually, Skagit, Snohomish, Nooksack, Stillaguamish and the Green.
Speaking of forecasts, you can’t trust them. We’d checked the weather reports for a week before the trip and our Friday was supposed to be nice. Nevertheless, in western Washington, the rain is never too long in coming. I prepped my wading jacket with waterproofing in the parking lot before we boarded the boat. Rain began to fall about midmorning and didn’t let up for awhile. It doesn’t matter how good the label on the gear, almost any rain jacket will soak through.
After a slow start and a bit of exploration, we began to rack up the numbers. Neil, the only first-time pink fisherman in the group, brought the most fish to hand. We turned them loose to make new pink salmon.
If you want to go for pinks in Washington, mark the calendar for August 2017. It’s an odd year. And the odds are pretty good.
To order a signed copy of Fishing Mt. Hood Country, send $24.95 (free S&H) to GLO, PO Box 1364, Bend, OR 97709 or visit www.GaryLewisOutdoors.com