Fixed on Pinks

Published in the Fall 2019 edition of Tenkara Angler.2019-09-21 12_50_24-Window

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.

Trumbo Fixed on Pinks (1)

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.

Trumbo - Pinks on the Fly (2)

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.

The June Hogs of the Columbia Basin

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.

A small Columbia River “Buoy 10” King fresh from the salt.

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.

The Seufert Brothers Cannery floor after a decent haul. (Photo Credit: Oregon Historical Society)

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.