August 2015

August 2015

Pink Summer
Bill Luscombe

August brings the fishing doldrums to most freshwater areas of British Columbia, including Vancouver Island, save 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 coast though the fly-fishers still pack up their rods, but only to throw them into the truck and 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 or shorelines 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 these jumping “marker” fish.

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 and spawn in two-year cycles. Every second summer 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 Georgia Strait these salmon return every odd year; on eastern Vancouver Island they run in the even years. Many of the rivers though, like the Oyster near Campbell River, are unique in this regard because of very successful hatchery programs. As a result of their very successful hatchery 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 (5.4 kg), 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, but 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. They have white mouths, lacking the characteristic black mouths of the Chinook or the black-edged gums of the coho.

One of the favourite methods of angling for pinks is to wade from shore and 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 makes the strikes almost undetectable sometimes. It feels much like hooking into floating weeds and 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.

Pinks are very soft mouthed and you must take care not to pressure them too much once 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 the coho, so you have little need to pressure the fish too much unless you plan on releasing it.

During the salmon run, anglers often catch many more fish than the law allows them to keep, thus catch and release must be practiced unless they quit after killing their limit. This isn't too difficult with the pinks since, as I mentioned earlier, they don't make long runs. The short runs allow the angler to bring the fish to hand quickly and the mandatory barbless hooks, combined with the salmon’s soft mouth, allows for easy hook removal. It is a documented fact that approximately 80% to 90% of all the salmon properly released survive to spawn or be caught again. The pinks that are killed make excellent table fare if cooked fresh and they are excellent smoked as well. They don't freeze well however and many people, myself included, like to bake up a fresh salmon for dinner the same evening as it was caught and smoke the rest.

Some people say the pinks taste strong, or fishy. I have found that if you either skin the fillets before cooking or else wipe down the skin with paper towel to remove all the slime from the skin first, they cook fine and taste great. Seems the slime may have something to do with the strong taste. Try that and you may surprise yourself.

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 since 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 can be "fish in a barrel" until the tide rises again.

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 as 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 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 these salmon’s favourite colours and is probably due to the fact that the fish feed significantly on shrimp and euphasids.

If you plan to fish the estuaries it is 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 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. Remove your fly boxes and other gear from your lower pockets if you wear a full-length vest. If you don’t, you will end up wading deeper than the bottom of the vest and you will soak whatever is in your bottom pockets in salt water. Once you get home hose down your boots and waders and disassemble your reels and 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 lack of proper maintenance.

The opportunities that the 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 with their numbers holding steady or on the increase in some areas, this sport-fishery has seen a significant increase over the next few years. Check out this summer angling opportunity. You’ll find yourself having a whole lot of fun and pink salmon make a tasty alternative to the regular summer fare of hamburgers and hotdogs.
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