Published at Angler Pros.
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 of the Chinook or coho run would provide more bang for the buck, but make no mistake, hitting the pink run would be no disappointment.
Published in the Fall 2019 edition of Tenkara Angler.
A rare high-pressure day, the sun shone beautifully across my shoulders into the turn pool where the river met the ocean. The tannin-stained river spilled over the cascade perpendicular to the boulder I stood against, then curled downstream alongside my perch. A large eddy occurred between me and the cascade where salmon were stacking up for the ascent. The rocks deposited on the ocean side of the channel pushed the flow against solid granite. Over time, that flow had carved out a large backwater where salmon, seals, bears, gulls, osprey and eagles all met for a limited time each year.
Having crept out along the edge of a large boulder outcrop at low tide, I stood watching intently as pinks battled their way up the downstream riffle to enter the pool, jab at their salmon brethren, and regain enough strength to traverse the coming cascade.
In my hand I held a 13-foot tenkara rod I built specifically for big fish, being 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 dead-drifting nymphs and kebari for steelhead in winter, but I had only hooked up some decent cutthroat with it to date. My goal was simple. Hook and land a big pink salmon. If it meant breaking the rod, I was willing to make it happen.
Using a 10-foot section of old floating fly line with a 4-foot section of 8-pound fluorocarbon attached as tippet, I rolled out a small, black, egg-sucking leech pattern I tied 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 my wildest pink salmon fantasy.
Casting to the edge of the current in the eddy, pinks darted in and out of the downstream riffle leading into the pool. And like always, as my mind began to wander amid the scenery, a nuanced strike pulled me back into reality. I noticed a large buck pink in the pool tail-out and my leech bouncing bottom under him. 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.
I often refer to sturgeon fishing as attempting to pull a school bus from the river bed. Fighting the big pink buck on my tenkara rod instilled a similar feeling of futility, but a feeling more like trying to overcome the fear of a dire task with some cognizance that the outcome may not be favorable. I can only liken it to stepping out onto the cabin porch in the middle of the blackest Appalachian night you can fathom in just my boxers to investigate what sounded like a human intruder. As my eyes adjusted, the large, round shape of a black bear peering back at me from the steps became apparent in the soft glow of the wood stove. One of us had to give, and I hesitantly stood my ground, knowing the outcome could be quite dramatic.
Fly fishermen know to let the fish fight the rod, particularly big fish. Tenkara anglers know to point the butt of the rod at the fish to accomplish this, but trust me when I say that’s much easier said than done on a fish that has been swimming the ocean for the past year. Treating the tenkara rod as a switch rod, I stuck the butt into my waist 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 and 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, the rod held high in the other. Suddenly, I felt like Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It as he chased his monster rainbow down the Blackfoot River; an awkward dance of balance and trying to keep the right pressure on the fish among slick, loose rock. 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 fail at any moment. With a few more laps around a short run, I was fortunate 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. A trophy indeed, I ended my trip on this beautiful salmon, landed against the odds on a fixed line fly rod.
August 18th, 2020 – Alaska Coho on the Fly | Harvesting Nature
There is no better retreat from the dog days of summer in the Lower 48 than a stint in Alaska chasing coho salmon (“silvers”). August is prime time for the coho run in southeast Alaska, and for a DIY fly-fisherman, the term “epic” can be realized in the literal sense.
The tail of the month on Prince of Wales lends itself to streams swollen with pink and coho salmon, the fall coho run peaking in September. Fish are battling their way to the spawning grounds, eager to take on all comers with the audacity to stand in the way. Trolling open saltwater is a fine method to put fish in the box, but nothing replaces the experience of stripping streamers for big fish in small water.
Eyeballing a large wake entering a backwater pocket about 100 feet across the creek, a hard role-cast sent a punk bunny leach with dumbbell eyes slamming into the edge of the pocket. A quick, hard strip triggered the aggression of one hulking buck coho, the wake erupting from the shallows in hot pursuit.
I could feel my body’s stress response. Pupils dilated. Arms tensed in anticipation of the strike. An enormous white gape opened on the leading edge of an olive-backed torpedo, engulfing the fly and making a hard turn back into the run. Panic-stricken, I strip-set the hook and held on for the ride.
My eight-weight switch rod reluctantly gave line, the drag screaming as the buck made haste for the ocean and into my backing. Just as quickly, he turned back upriver in full charge, leaving me scrambling to regain line and keep the pressure on. His sleek profile sliced the water like a hot knife as he navigated boulders and riffles.
Three encore runs put a knot in my gut with every turn, each moment of slack line dragging the fluorocarbon tippet across jagged boulders. His aerial acrobatics enacted a spectacular show as he leapt, attempting to throw the fly. Even a black bear browsing the breakfast menu was amused by the show.
At long last, I banked the fish, feeling remorseful in securing the fine specimen and robbing him of passing such fit genetics. He lay among emerald ferns beneath a stone-cold granite wall, alongside a chrome hen I had the pleasure to land moments earlier. Marveling over the spectacle, his well-defined kype, deep rose coloration fading into dark olive along the dorsal with black pepper flecks, holographic operculum, and perfectly symmetrical physical features inspired awe. Laying my switch rod against him for scale, I snapped a few quick photos to forever immortalize the life of what may be the greatest coho salmon I will ever have the privilege to land on the fly.
This was but one of many incredible moments afforded me by the bounty of Alaska over the years, and certainly one of the most memorable. August is getting late for chinook salmon (“kings”), but other species like sockeye and chum can be found in a few creeks. Neither offer the table fare of the coho or chinook, yet both are worthy of every minute of pursuit in fight and splendor.
In eight days of dawn to dusk casting, I fished that single pink bunny streamer pattern, enticing everything that swam, including a small sea-run cutthroat. On subsequent trips, I fished a standard floating fly line and a six-weight switch rod, and even a tenkara rod with equivalent success.
Prince of Wales offers myriad other opportunities to view wildlife, sink pots for Dungeness crab and bottom-fish for halibut and rockfish, all of which met the grill and steam pot each evening. We stood over the searing aromas, enjoying a beverage and recalling our new and everlasting memories. Sticking to the minimalist trend, applying the basic seasonings salt, pepper, garlic, lemon, parsley and butter offers universal succulence for fin fish and shellfish alike.
Given the brutalities of 2020, now is a great time to push back from the stressors of everyday life and hop a quick flight (with an open middle seat!) to southern Alaska. Grab your fly rod and a handful of streamers, don your facemask, and experience the soul rejuvenation that only the last frontier can provide, among salmon.
Our jet sled bobbed near the infamous “Buoy 10” in the mouth of the Columbia River. It was a stormy September afternoon with angry Pacific surf bullying its wave action far upriver. Coho were the target, yet no one aboard complained at the prospects of landing anything willing to trounce the cut herring corkscrewing behind the boat as we drifted.
Kicking back, we enjoyed the ride, and experience of fellow fishermen jumping hurriedly for a bent rod, ripped from the complacency of a lull in the action and casual conversation. I had passed a dozen salmon to the three other anglers. They finally insisted the next bite was mine.
Diving for the gunnel as the port side rod doubled hard on the strike, drag began spooling noisily from the reel. The run was fast and strong, unlike the coho hook-ups of the day. Only a Chinook (king) salmon can pack a tuna-like punch into a chrome freshwater torpedo.
Following the initial run, the 26-inch king came in quickly. Not my first king, but certainly the most striking. Dime-bright scales glistened under the overcast sky as if the fish had been dipped in glitter. It’s dorsal was painted in muted teal, and it’s black speckling popped like sequins. It was no “June Hog”, but an unforgettable fish, nevertheless.
June Hogs, on the other hand, have earned their place in natural and sporting history as king salmon of the Columbia Basin past. Before commercial fisheries and dams made their way to the Columbia River, kings breaching 100 pounds swam over 1,000 miles to their spawning grounds in British Columbia. Genetically speaking, these fish were the same kings that continue to return to the Columbia River year after year, but a population that grew five or more years in the Pacific Ocean before returning to spawn.
Much larger fish than those of lower river populations, historic accounts suggest they reached nearly 50 inches in length and were football-shaped, their bodies rich with fat stores. Their long journey inland led these fish to enter the Columbia River in early summer, earning the moniker June Hog. But the trek to their natal tributaries took time with spawning occurring in late summer or early fall.
Once a Native American subsistence staple, the superior quality and flavor these massive fish quickly became a prized food item for all as the west was developed. The first canaries on the Columbia River opened in the mid-1800s. A grand haul by the Seufert Brothers Cannery in The Dalles, Oregon landed 2.5 million cans of “Royal Chinook” in an Astoria, Oregon warehouse around the turn of the century. The table fare of the June Hogs deserving of the “Royal” marketing crown. At the peak of the run, canneries could pull several tons each day via fish-wheel.
With harvest affecting the salmon populations, the average size of the June Hogs began to decline by the early 1900s, decreasing as much as 50 percent by 1922. Thirty pounds was once the bottom end of their weight range, but today, a 30-pound Columbia River Chinook is news-worthy.
Modern fishery management and harvest has resulted in an increased proportion of “jacks”, which are basically trout-sized salmon, that return within a year of migrating to the ocean, and may never have left the Columbia River estuary. But the final blow to the massive June Hogs came long ago in the form of Grand Coulee Dam.
Built without fish passage, the June Hogs racing for British Columbia were stopped cold at Grand Coulee by 1940. The populations spawning downstream in Washington tributaries were able to do so successfully with a more modest size and fat stores, their migration being half as long or difficult.
The June Hogs of historic proportions may never grace the Columbia Basin again, yet, kings in the 20-pound range are still common. Last month, I wound my way through the visitor center halls at Ice Harbor Dam and stood in awe at the fishway viewing window. Kings of all sizes cruised by, shooting nervously through the fish counting slot. According to the counting booth attendee, the kings are returning well thus far in 2021, but the overall projection for the spring run is lower than last year.
At present, myriad challenges are pressuring salmon and steelhead populations through the Pacific Basin. While special interest groups lobby against the lower Snake Rive dams, they fail to present the big picture, meaning dams are but a piece of the complicated salmon life history puzzle. Ecosystem-wide reform of fishery and harvest management, habitat restoration, invasive species management, and other environmental improvements are necessary in concert to achieve genuine population “recovery”.
Nevertheless, salmon are resilient, enduring all we’ve thrown at them for more than a century. With mindful management among stakeholders, and improvements in environmental conditions, the kings of the Columbia Basin will persist.