How to Catch Pink Salmon in Puget Sound

Seattle is the epicenter of pink salmon fly-fishing. Here’s how to angle in on the action
Posted August 17, 2011
Williams casts his line at Lincoln Park's Williams Point, one of several Seattle hot spots for pink salmon

The news is like a siren’s call to fishermen: pink salmon, which surge into local waters for just a few weeks every two years, are here right now. Where pinks go, anglers are sure to follow, and they’re coming in droves; some even taking a road trip in from Oregon to target the fish in the most unlikely of fly-fishing spots: Seattle’s Elliott Bay. There are so many newbie fishers who want to get in on Seattle’s pink season—which runs from about early August to early September—that local fly-fishing club Northwest Fly Anglers is now offering a pink salmon “how to” mentoring outing. But all you really need to hook yourself a pink is a short list of gear, a good strategy, and a little patience and determination.

The Fish
The smallest and shortest lived of the five Pacific salmon, pinks, also known as “humpies” (after the sail-like dorsal fins sported by males), are born in the fall in fresh water and make their way to saltwater in spring, swimming north to Alaska before returning home to Seattle-area waters. The trip takes two years. This year, as many as 15 million pinks will filter through the Strait of Juan de Fuca on their return trip, then split up, some heading for British Columbia, while as many as 6 million are expected to head our way, passing between Whidbey Island and the Kitsap Peninsula. From there, the fish move in closer to Seattle’s beaches—and closer to Seattle lures—as they find their way back to their spawning rivers.

Pinks are the unexplained Puget Sound salmon success story: While many chinook, coho and sockeye numbers are depressed, pink numbers have skyrocketed. For several decades, no more than a few of these fish were found every year in the Green River. Then, in 2001, the runs began to increase exponentially for reasons not fully understood by fish experts. In 2009, more than 3 million pinks swam up the Green, much to the delight of Seattle anglers.

Pink salmon get their name from their light-pink-colored flesh—a product of their ocean crustacean diet. They’re prized for their delicate flavor and are lower in fat than other salmon. Males weigh an average of 5 pounds; females a bit less, but like American teenagers, pinks are getting bigger. The current Washington freshwater record is 15.4 pounds, a huge specimen of a species that was once said to max out at 12 pounds.


To snag a pink, you'll need a trout spinning rod or a fly rod, like this

Gear
You don’t need expensive gear to go beach fishing for pinks. A stout trout spinning rod (rated for 6- to 10-pound line) or fly rod (6 weight) will do the trick. Puget Sound water is chilly, even in summer, so waders or hip boots make fishing more pleasant. A Washington state saltwater fishing license and catch record card are required (available at wdfw.wa.gov or at Fred Meyer stores).

Where to Fish
Puget Sound’s beaches are the epicenter of pink salmon fishing. Seattle’s Lincoln Park (8011 Fauntleroy Way SW; seattle.gov/parks) is hugely popular; cast your line at Williams Point. At Carkeek Park (950 NW Carkeek Park Road), you’ll be slowed only by wicked speed bumps on your way to the parking lot; the bold salmon practically taunt you to get into the water. Station yourself where the stream meets the sound.

An even better spot, Golden Gardens (8498 Seaview Place NW) has plenty of parking, bathrooms and beach for the entire family. Bring beach chairs, a Frisbee and a picnic lunch and make a day of it (the best spot is north of the breakwater). If the fish aren’t biting, you can always build sandcastles, fly kites and watch the sailboats.

West Seattle’s Alki Beach Park (1702 Alki Ave. SW) offers more than two miles of sandy beach and unbeatable views of downtown Seattle; it’s a great place to land a feisty fish, especially on the Harbor Island end of the beach. Go on a Friday and celebrate your success (or curse your bad luck) with a brew at the Alki Tavern (1321 Harbor Ave. SW; thealkitavern.com).

When to Go
Among veteran salmon fishers, there’s a saying: “If you can see the bait, it’s too late,” meaning salmon are best caught under cover of darkness. This can be true—especially when the salmon are feeding on extremely light-averse amphipods and euphausiids—but there are plenty of exceptions to the rule; many a humpy finds itself attached to a fishing lure cast from the beach in bright sunlight.

Getting out of bed before 4 a.m., dressing in the dark and heading for the beach while sipping a cup of extra-strong coffee brings a certain pleasure, but if you’re not the morning type, don’t despair: It’s possible to sleep late, have a latte and some breakfast, and still hit plenty of fish from the beach around noon. Most likely, you’ll be the only angler midday, an oddity among the dog walkers and beachcombers.


Pink lures mimic the food the salmon eat at sea

Lures
Pink salmon will bite almost any fly, spinner or spoon—as long as it’s pink (the same color as the food they consume at sea). When the pinks are in, the sporting goods stores’ shelves are quickly depleted of pink lures. But Patrick’s Fly Shop in Eastlake (1321 2237 Eastlake Ave. E; patricksflyshop.com), a favorite among local fishers for decades, keeps plenty on hand. According to owner Jimmy LeMert, the fly you need to catch a pink is the Pink Flashabou Comet in size 4. Seattle anglers, however, love to fill their vests to bulging with a variety of flies; I’ve caught pink salmon on flies without a shred of pink, just to see if it could be done.

Farther-rung Fishing Spots
Make a day of your fishing foray and head south to Browns Point Light House Park in Tacoma (201 Tulalip St. NE; metroparkstacoma.org). The park has easy beach access, and when the tide is low, it feels like you can walk forever (not so at high tide, when the beach gets a bit skinny, especially where homeowners have built bulkheads). Go on Saturday afternoon and take a tour of the decommissioned Coast Guard lighthouse between 1 and 4 p.m. A couple of miles north of Browns Point is Dash Point State Park fishing pier (1500 Beach Drive NE) and the Lobster Shop Restaurant (6912 Soundview Drive NE; lobstershop.com).

North of Seattle, Picnic Point, a Snohomish County Regional Park (Edmonds, 7531 Picnic Point Road) is open from 7 a.m. to dusk, though hardcore anglers park outside the gate to be on the water before daylight. Popular with fly-fishers, it’s easy to tell where the fish are by the laughing anglers and bent rods. Here’s a perfect Picnic Point day: Arrive after lunch, set up a sun shade by one of the picnic tables with a charcoal cooker, then go fishing. Keep one salmon (make sure to immediately record it on the catch record card), clean it and put it on ice until your appetite is primed for fresh barbecued salmon.

Lincoln Park

A Fisherman’s Diary
September 1, 2011
The pinks are finally in, and my buddy and I are up before dawn—and we’re not alone. In the parking lot we spot dozens of headlamps, a sure sign that others suffer from early-morning pink salmon insomnia, too. We slip into waders, string our rods more by feel than sight and head for the beach.  
We hit the water, headlamps snapped off, and cast in the dark. The white foam of low-breaking waves dimly reflects the stars, the only light in the enveloping murk. Short casts to be sure, but no problem as the fish are in water barely 5 feet deep. I land my first on a pink shrimp, a fly that looks a bit like krill, before first light. We use fly lines that float on the surface and unweighted flies because the fish are so shallow. As the light cracks open the sky, other anglers come into view. A pod of fish moves down the beach—easy to tell the direction of travel as the rods bow in succession, like a line of falling dominoes. It’s a fisherman’s pure, perfect heaven, and it’s over too soon. A glance at my watch tells us it’s time to pack up and head to the office, where we’ll daydream about pinks all day.

 

RECIPE

Barbecued Pink Salmon Stuffed with Fennel and Orange

One 4-pound pink salmon

Olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

1 medium orange, halved and thinly sliced

1 small fennel bulb, thinly sliced

4 to 6 garlic cloves, sliced

Rinse the salmon under cold water and pat dry. Trim off fins and discard, then clean your salmon. Rub the inside and outside of the salmon lightly with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Stuff the salmon with the orange, fennel and garlic slices. Place the salmon on three layers of slightly overlapping sheets of aluminum foil. The sheets should be large enough to surround the entire salmon. Fold the foil over the salmon, ensuring a tight seal is created, then place on the barbecue. Close the lid (or create a tent with more aluminum foil) and cook for about 15 minutes per side.

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