Story last updated at 7/30/2014 - 11:15 pm
July signals the halfway point of the Alaskan summer. It's also the ideal time to practice several fundamental skills vital to successful fly-fishing - locating holding lies for fish and making fly presentations that elicit strikes.
As the next several weeks unfold, our local watersheds will become active learning centers for fly-rodders to engage in and refine fundamental fly fishing skills with the arrival of schools of fresh pink salmon.
Pink salmon, commonly called humpies among angling circles, (or simply pinks for short), are the smallest of our five species of North American Pacific salmon.
In Southeast Alaska, they are also one of our most abundant species. Their prolific numbers during their return to home watersheds, combined with their noted affinity of chasing and accepting fly offerings make them ideal quarry for fly-fishers of all levels of skill.
In July and early August, they invade our coastal systems like an obsidian cloud of locusts pushed instinctively upstream by flooding tides. On good return years, their numbers can be so high that they seem to clog and congest watersheds.
In the saltwater, or fresh from it, when pink salmon are not sexually mature, pinks are built like little tuna. They lack their characteristic "humped back" of their mature freshwater counterparts and are aggressive little demons that will readily pounce on a passing fly offering.
These saltwater, chrome-bright pinks are wonderful targets for anglers employing lightweight fly gear. They are strong for their size - 3 to 7 pounds - and are usually good for several, solid, open-water runs.
In addition, their abundance and tenacity for chasing flies creates a unique, on-water learning laboratory. On any given day, fishing over a pool of pinks will yield numerous opportunities to refine fundamental skills, explore various techniques, test new fly patterns or simply practice and refine presentations each with immediate visual feedback in the form of "grabs" or "refusals."
This practice alone with immediate feedback benefits any fly angler, novice or expert alike, and should never be overlooked especially with returning cohos soon on the horizon.
The ideal fly rod for pink salmon in Southeast is a nine-foot for a six-weight. Six-weight fly rods are light in the hand and can be comfortably fished all day with very little to no fatigue at all. Contemporary six-weights have plenty of backbone and reserve power to curb even the stingiest of pinks such as those fresh from the sea.
Although lightweight by fly rod standards, a contemporary six-weight can generate enough line speed to punch tight, graceful loops even in breezy coastal weather.
True, many anglers often choose or prefer to use lighter fly rods when targeting pink salmon, however, if one's primary objective of the day is to "catch and release," using lighter fly rods more times than not will result in overfighting and an increased duration of individual hookups that unfortunately can leave fish too exhausted and taxed to be released safely without injury. Because of this, I strongly recommend six-weight fly rods.
Another style of fly rods gaining popularity are switch and short spey (two-handed) fly rods. These rods and their style of fishing offer anglers unprecedented advantages in line control and casting. Still, when fishing a switch or short spey rod for pink salmon, I recommend a rod that is not too light so you can play and land your fish as soon as possible in order to reduce any likelihood that your fish will be injured upon release.
Fly reels should balance your rod, and because of maritime conditions here in Southeast, they should also be anodized to combat the corrosive effect of salt. The reel should be equipped with a smooth, fully adjustable drag system. Most of the reels on the market today satisfy both of these criteria.
During the past decade, there has been a steady increase in the production of large arbor fly reels. Large arbor reels offer several advantages. First, the large arbor design facilitates rapid pick up of line - an important feature when pursuing fast-swimming fish.
Second, the design requires minimal startup inertia. This prevents sudden tippet break-offs during quick erratic runs, something common when fishing for salmon or steelhead. And lastly, large arbor reels tend to maintain looser coils of fly line on the reel, and this feature assists in shooting line during the cast.
Pink salmon are aggressive grabbers, and no other salmon species in our area will accept a fly as readily as pinks will. Because of this inherent behavior, proper fly line selection is not as important when fishing for pinks as it is when targeting other salmon species.
In contrast to other salmon, the line one chooses for pinks can instead be associated with a specific fishing condition or a particular approach in presentation. For example, when pinks are holding in moderate flowing runs at depths of two to three feet, I enjoy fishing a full dry line while skating poppers.
The excitement of watching a gaping jaw following a skating popper will electrify any fly anger - beginner or advanced - and will quickly addict them to top water popper fishing. On the other hand, when pinks are schooled up in deep holding pools, sinking lines of appropriate sink rates (are the rule) fished in a traditional quarter-down and across approach.
Once again, it is their willingness to grab flies that makes them ideal tutors of fly-fishing. I enjoy this favorable characteristic of pink salmon because it allows me to practice and develop techniques and presentations I would like to refine for other Southeast Alaska game fish, specifically silvers.
I've stated repeatedly that pink salmon are gluttons for flies, and for the most part this is true. Without debate, however, they do tend to show a strong preference in fly coloration. Generally speaking, the fly color most associated with pink salmon in Southeast is the color "pink". I almost exclusively tie my pink salmon flies whether they are poppers on top or sub-surface flies for swinging to the theme of pink.
Pink salmon are a small and highly abundant salmon that fill our local watersheds each July. It is their arrival that changes the local flavor and complexion of our rivers and coastal streams each summer attracting wildlife and anglers to our systems. Pink salmon are extremely fly fisher friendly, which makes them an ideal target for recreational sport fishers. The next several weeks in Southeast should be an exciting time as we enthusiastically await the arrival of these wonderful little sport fish.