Pink salmon are the smallest of the pacific salmon, but they are also the most abundant and widely distributed species, and they are extremely easy to catch. Here in the waters of BC you can expect returns to occur in odd and/or even numbered years, depending on where you fish, and we're about to see them finning around our local waters on the south coast of the province very soon...
An angler prepares to release a larger mint bright early season pink salmon caught in river on the fly
Just imagine...a bright sunny day on BC's beautiful coast. You walk along a trail towards the water, the clean smell of the ocean air hits you as a breeze rushes through the trees above your head. It cools you in the growing heat of a midsummers morning, you'll need some shade by the end of this day you think to yourself...you round the bend in the trail and suddenly a beautiful sloping pebble beach stretches out before you, the water smooth as glass. Well, almost...you immediately spot the broken rings of fish after fish porpoising in the crystal clear waters...your heartbeat speeds up with excitement as you drop your gear and make your way down to the waters edge. Fumbling at your line and removing your hook from its berth, you quickly strip fly line off the reel in an effort to get that fly out there. You can't possibly do it fast enough for your liking, tons of fish are moving in the shallows in front of you and you know its going to be a great day...you lay out a nice loop in the direction of the massive school, the fly line loosely points in a wavy line towards deeper water and what must be hundreds upon hundreds of pink salmon swimming by. You start your retrieve, but before you can even think about how long it will take to get a hit, your line suddenly tightens up straight with a snap and your rod comes up bent with the strong headshakes of a mint bright silver pink salmon...!
Onchorynchus gorbuscha are easily distinguished from the other species of salmon. Their life cycle is on a two year time frame and much shorter than the other salmonids, this is of course a large part of the reason for their smaller size, as they do not benefit from a couple extra years or more feeding in the ocean to grow like many of their larger cousins do. Ranging in average size from 3-6 lbs, with prominent spots across a strongly forked tail and a quick metamorphosis upon entry into freshwater, they are easily identifiable.
Anglers throughout the province target them all along their migratory routes, from open ocean and salt chuck beaches and estuaries, to their natal streams, their migration makes for some of the most consistent and fun fishing action you will see. The run timing also coincides with some of the nicest weather of the year and the fish are almost always cooperative...in fact days of catching so many fish your arms get tired are rather commonplace. It's for these reasons that anglers all up and down the coast greatly anticipate their arrival. This also makes the pink salmon fishery a great time to introduce people to fishing, particularly children. If ever there were a time to do it, this is definitely the season to take the kids out to enjoy some salmon fishing action, and if you haven't experienced it for yourself, once you do, you won't soon forget it!
When and where to find them
Migrating in odd numbered years on the south coast, and in both even and odd numbered years on Vancouver island and the North coast, pink salmon return almost like clockwork. In the early season, saltwater beaches and estuaries are the most productive of course, as the first waves of fish come in, success can be had fishing the salt chuck in areas where shallower, gradually sloping beaches stretch into the water on the approaches to their natal streams. Starting in July already on certain systems you will find decent action, but typically the first decent fishable concentrations of pink salmon begin to swim past our shorelines in early August, with the real action picking up by mid month. This is when crowds of sport fishers begin to wade out into the water to bomb cast after cast at large migrating schools. As the main runs begin to come through you'll see the numbers of fish in the river systems begin increase dramatically, then once the summer sun shines on the last week of august and into September, you should expect to find pinks in rivers just about everywhere on the coast and up into the Fraser Valley.
When the fish have arrived, they are typically easily spotted finning and porpoising in schools close to shore, and one need simply walk up and start casting to them to catch them. In some special cases however, their presence is not so obvious and the only way to find out if they are there is to fish "blind" so to speak. Without any visual confirmation of their presence it can be difficult for some anglers to put the time in to catch them in this manner, but often strategic locations such as current breaks, points and anywhere that might force a small school to slow down are good places to focus on when there are fewer fish around. If you understand their behavior, their habits and the areas through which they like to travel, you can do quite well even when the fish are not showing themselves or around in decent numbers. This can also be helpful in avoiding the crowds of anglers, as they only usually congregate where the fish are obviously present.
A "trout sized" early season pink taken in the saltwater approaches to a river system
Techniques and retrieves
Pinks are scrappy fighters, and great fun on lighter tackle. They're especially responsive to anything on the retrieve, including flies, spinners, jigs and spoons. The various techniques for catching pink salmon are relatively simple and easy to learn, and the results are usually immediate so long as there are fish in front of you. If you have enjoyed this fishery in past years, then you already know it makes for some fantastic and easy fishing as they are very aggressive and love to follow...
What do I mean by "follow"...? If you ever get the opportunity to watch their behavior in clear water you will see that they cannot ignore a moving presentation and will follow it. These fish can't resist, and you can learn a lot about the pace and speed of retrieve that works best by watching their responses closely. Typically the specific retrieve doesn't matter too much, it is not a very technical fishery, however there are times when varying the retrieve will make a difference in the amount of success you enjoy. Sure, anglers simply casting out their lure of choice as far as they can in the direction of the fish and retrieving it at a steady and reasonable pace will do fine and enjoy relatively good success. There are however times when a particular pace of retrieve will illicit more strikes and result in far more action. I recall one year it was early season and the fishing wasn't too steady yet. We were alternating between
A male just beginning to show the pronounced hump it will soon fully develop as it nears spawning
Fly, gear, lines and leader
Anglers target pinks with a variety of methods.
As far as lines go, and depending on the depth of the area which you are fishing, you might find just a full floating line will suffice, in other instances an intermediate sink tip is best. One season we were fishing the drop off near a popular ocean beach. It had been stellar fishing for everyone for much of the early morning, but as the day warmed up and the tides switched, the fish moved out slightly into water that was between 20-30 ft deep. We followed the fish and targeted them on full sink lines out of the boats and did very well, while the shore anglers were all forced to wait for the fish to move back within reach.
For those anglers wishing to target them with gear, anything from your typical river drift rod in the 10ft range to short 6 ft spinning rods will work fine, they just have to have enough backbone and sufficient drag to handle the fish. Some anglers target these fish with short rods and spinning reels loaded with braided line for more sensitivity. A swivel to a short leader with a jig or grub tail finishes the setup and they enjoy excellent success twitching the jig and grub tail erratically on the retrieve much like one would fish for Bass. On the other end of the spectrum are the typical rods we see here on the west coast for salmon, your basic setup up will do, baitcaster or spinning rod in the 9-11ft range and a variety of the usual suspect terminal items will do the trick very well.
For all of these setups, gear or fly, leader strength isn't too critical, these fish as mentioned are pretty easy to catch and love to follow, so they aren't leader shy whatsoever. Many anglers use leaders in the 10-15 lb range, no point losing gear, or having fish snap your leader every so often. Using a heavier leader is better for the fish, better for your tackle supply, and lighter leaders will just result in lost or overplayed fish and don't equate to more fish hooked whatsoever.
An angry pink salmon thrashes on the surface of the Fraser river in early september before it is brought to hand
Float fishing, the swung fly and dead drift
In slower moving estuaries and on the ocean beaches obviously you have to impart the movement via your retrieve in order to get them to take chase...but once you make your way into the rivers you have to consider how the current influences your presentation. The same is true on tides on the ocean beaches for example and not just in the river. Regardless, you get the idea, if the water is moving then this is going to have an effect on your retrieve and the speed that will be most productive. In a fast flowing river you might find you barely need to retrieve at all and just the current will impart enough action and movement to your fly or terminal item to get a strike. These are things you want to keep in mind out there when you are fishing, you might just find a mediocre day can turn into one of those stellar days where you are catching fish one after the other.
Given these effects of currents and flow in rivers, float fishing becomes one of the more popular techniques of choice. Shortfloating sparse pink offerings from yarn ties, to jigs, to actual pink flies, they all work really well. There is never any need to dredge bottom or lengthen leaders, these fish are pretty eager. Just an easy drift at the speed of the river will result in some regular float downs and exciting action. Likewise with
An angler battles a fiesty pink near the end of another beautiful sunny day during pink season
In the confines of the runs and pools of a river the fish are far more concentrated, which can make for some action packed days, but also for more crowded ones depending on your location. One thing to be mindful of however is that once you start to get into the home river systems of these fish you will begin to encounter fish that are now well on their way to spawning and are beginning to show their true spawning colors. These are the classic and most commonly seen pink salmon we find in any internet image search. Large darkly colored humpbacked males with kipes and teeth, to their slender female companions showing their mottled colors too. In these instances the fish begin to stage and congregate in large groups that are clearly visible dark masses. Many novice anglers key in on these schools in an effort to connect with the rush of feeling a fish on the end of the line, but unfortunately what can often happen is fish begin to get snagged accidentally by casting directly into the school, using too long a leader and not thoroughly thinking through the approach to catching these fish. You see they are still avid biters, and will not lose their willingness to chase an offering, but in casting into the school, ultimately the chances are higher that you will inadvertently snag a fish in the back or the tail rather than have it chase your item and bite it, especially when current is involved. So if you are one of those people that isn't quite sure how to get these fish to bite in these instances I recommend you try this...cast to the outside edges of the school, the perimeters of the group and retrieve or drift slowly and steadily past them. Watch your item if you are able, you will see fish tear out of the pack and follow it...but be patient! Many an angler has watched with excitement as a fish followed their lure only to rip it away from them by setting the hook too soon.
Lure Choice and color...
You will notice a variety of items being used by the many anglers on the water, from buzz bombs and heavy spoons to lightweight spinners and sparsely tied flies. One commonality that will prevail however is the color of these items. These fish are aptly named, and they aren't called PINK salmon for nothing...don't let that limit you in your choices of what to use though. Often times pinks can and will be taken on a variety of colors and items, from oranges and reds, chartreuse to blues and greys and silvers, but for the most part you will see pink is the prevailing color.
A small selection of flies varying in size, shade and weight for different conditions, the possibilities are endless
Another consideration with regard to color is the shade. You see in some systems anything pink will do, it doesn't really matter if it is cerise, hot pink, or bubble gum pink to anything in between, they'll take it. On other systems and at times the shade will matter considerably and so much so that even while others are regularly catching fish around you, if you do not have the right shade, you will struggle to catch even one. I recall one year, fishing a particular river system in this province where bubble gum pink was the color of the day and the fish would have nothing else. Now I strolled in there thinking this would be easy, they were pinks and I knew what they were all about...and even though I had fished the system before with good success, I had somehow overlooked that color factor. Friends on either side of me were getting 10 times the number of hits I was, my casts were great, my technique was sound, but for some reason I couldn't figure out, the fish just weren't hitting my fly. So finally I stepped back and said wait a second something is not right here, what the hell is going on with these fish...? Sure enough, upon closer inspection of the flies they were using, each and everyone of them had the lighter bubble gum pink color fly, while I was using the hot pink/cerise color that typically works in other systems...well I switched up, (fortunately I had a couple decent bubble gum pink colored flies in the box), and right away I was getting into fish after fish...lesson well learned! So when preparing your fly or tackle for the upcoming pink season, make sure you do have some variety to work with, not only in sizes, weight and action, but also in color, you just might find yourself really, really glad you tied some variety for those days when the fish get a little more picky in their tastes.
A variety of lures can be productive, from spinners and spoons to various jigs and grub tails, just about anything will work, pink or not.
Regulations and etiquette
Now one thing many anglers overlook in their rush to go have fun and catch fish are the rules and regulations. There are a lot of differences from one river system to the next, from saltwater to freshwater, and you could find yourself in a real pinch with the law if you don't pay attention. In some of the saltwater areas you will find that even though fish are visible and it seems like a good spot, the areas that are completely closed to fishing. Some of these are in parks, others in rockfish conservation areas, but you don't need to break the law to catch fish, there are plenty of areas that are open and as much or even more productive, so check your regulations carefully to make sure you aren't fishing in a closed area. Likewise, there are areas that have different limits, or are catch and release only. You might find in one area you are only allowed to keep 2 fish per day, in others still you are not allowed to keep any, while in some areas you are allowed to keep as many as 4 fish perday. It's important for all anglers to be aware of these regulations, to carry a valid licence for the waters they are fishing, (be they tidal or non-tidal), to have a salmon conservation tag, and to observe the regulations for their area. So check the regs, buy your licence and tags and take care of your end of things before you go out there to cast a line.
A final note to touch on is an all important one that many people overlook when rushing out to fish pink salmon in the height of the season. Don't be a beak! You need to remember you share these waters with everyone else, so there is some etiquette you will need to know about before you rush out there to stand shoulder to shoulder with everyone and start casting away. Some basic ideas to consider are to respect the space of those around you, don't cast over their lines, share the water and respect the fish too. It can be as simple as allowing someone a ltitle extra room to play a fish, or helping someone land one when they are having difficulty. Your behavior out there can really make a difference in how enjoyable a day is, so respect the fish, the anglers around you, and have some courtesy out there. Many a day has been ruined knowingly or unknowingly as a result of a lack of respect or courtesy towards the anglers around you. Similarly, a day is ruined pretty quickly by a hefty fine for retaining fish in closed areas, not having your license, or keeping more than your limit.
Best of luck out there everyone, please respect our waters and our fish, and enjoy the summer fun!