The Persecuted Pink Salmon – Alaska Fishing

The persecuted pink salmon of Alaska and why I love catching and eating them.

Ah, the poor persecuted pink salmon! They get no respect! While being the most prolific of the five Pacific salmon species, pinks are the smallest in size and by far the least revered by recreational fisherman. As is often the case with many abundant species of fish and wildlife throughout history, great abundance often gets translated into a great under appreciation.

My first experience with pink salmon, or “humpies,” as they are often referred to, was on Deep Creek in Ninilchik, Alaska. I had visited the area in previous years to fish for halibut out in the salt water, but I never took the opportunity to cast a line in the actual creek. It was mid-July, and there were not many fish around, except for a few nasty, spawned-out zombie kings middling around in the water. And surprisingly, although it was the prime tourist season, there were hardly any fisherman on the creek either. However, I noticed that the few people that were on the creek were occasionally catching some fish. I was not sure exactly what, at first glance, but I noticed a handful of folks were indeed landing a few rather small fish…that is, ‘small’ as compared to the much larger species of salmon that inhabit Deep Creek during the rest of the season. I thought maybe the silvery fish were big dolly varden or nice sized rainbows, but I soon found out that they were, in fact, beautiful, bright pink salmon, fresh in from the ocean.

Ocean fresh pink salmon! Fun to catch and great to eat!
Ocean fresh pink salmon! Fun to catch and great to eat!

I didn’t know much about pinks at the time as I was in the process of moving to Kodiak Island and becoming an Alaskan resident, but I was anxious to catch a few and get into the action. I readied my 5 weight fly rod and began experimenting with a variety of popular streamer patterns to see if I could get a bite. Hours had past and I didn’t catch a thing…expect for foul-hooking a couple of big pinks. I finally decided to give my tried and true, world-famous Deadly White Jig pattern a try. I’d caught countless trophy-sized rainbow and brown trout on that fly over the past decades on rivers in the lower 48 and I was curious to see how those finicky salmon would react to it. So, I tied one on, dead-drifted it under a strike indicator to control the depth, and began catching pinks almost non-stop! After a little fine tuning to set the drift of my fly to the exact depth the humpies were holding, I began catching them on almost every cast it seemed! It was a blast! I quickly limited out and had a stinger full of magnificent salmon to grill for dinner back at camp.

While continuing to catch and release fish throughout the afternoon, more than a few curious locals came down to the creek to check things out and scout for early incoming silver salmon or late run kings. Upon seeing my buddy and I having such a great time catching all these scrappy fish, the common reaction was one of great disappointment when realizing what we were actually catching, “Uugghh!! Humpies!!! No good damn trash fish!!!” My friend and I were flabbergasted, to say the least! Why was there such hatred for these fish that were so much fun to catch, and as we found out later back at camp, so good to eat when fresh in from the ocean? It was a great mystery.

Due to the undeserved persecution of the pink salmon, you'll often have the river to yourself when fishing for them.
Due to the undeserved persecution of the pink salmon, you’ll often have the river to yourself when fishing for them.

After finally making it to Kodiak and getting settled, it was late July, and the rivers were loaded with unbelievable amounts of pink salmon! I had never seen or experienced anything like it in my life! The waters were exploding with fish! You could literally walk across their backs to cross the river. And again, though it was still the middle of the tourist season, I usually had the rivers to myself when I went out fishing. There were occasionally a few other people who bothered to pursue pinks, but mostly just the Kodiak bears and bald eagles who gorged themselves on the abundant protein source. I still could not understand what was not to enjoy about catching these fish and eating them, especially when they were in fresh from the ocean. In fact, I still can’t! Having come from the lower 48 and being a guy with a great passion for fly fishing, it was like catching 3 to 5-pound trout all day on a lightweight rod. The humpies were aggressive biters, scrappy fighters, and some of the most fun I’d ever had fly fishing. I caught and kept as many fish as I could for the freezer and made the most of such a great resource and opportunity.

As the season went on and I began to tell the locals how much fun I was having fishing for pinks, as well as how much I enjoyed eating them, the reaction was the same that I got in Ninilchik. With great disappointment and disdain, people would say, “Oh. Pinks. I feed those to my dogs. You can have them.” The more locals I talked to, the more I was indoctrinated into the typical Alaskan salmon mindset which dictates that king (chinook) salmon are, well, king when it comes to the most worthy salmon to pursue. The sockeye, or red salmon was the best to eat…with expectations made for those who preferred the king as the best table fare. And the silver (coho) salmon was the most acrobatic fighter and most fun to catch. The chum or “dog” salmon was just a big swimming obstacle, headed to the interior to be fed to sled dogs, and the pinks were completely worthless…also food for dogs, as well as for folks in the lower 48 who don’t know any better and think that canned pink salmon is a great Alaskan delicacy.

Pink salmon on Kodiak Island, Alaska.
A daily limit of pink salmon on Kodiak Island, Alaska.

Despite being exposed to this commonly held local doctrine over and over again, I never gave in! I still got excited when the pinks arrived each July. I loved fishing for them, and I included them as a regular part of my diet. And, many years later, I still do! Sure, I thoroughly enjoy fishing for kings, silvers, reds, and even chums, but I’ll gladly take the solitude, lack of crowds, beautiful summer scenery, and abundant wildlife viewing opportunities that come along with pink fishing any day! And, while the pink salmon has a much milder flavor and color than the flesh of the other salmon species, I enjoy it very much, as it’s a nice change of pace. Due to its less-salmony flavor, it’s a great fish for making into burgers/patties, smoking, deep frying, or making into things like fish tacos or ceviche. Like any species of salmon though, the fresher the fish, the better it will taste and keep in the freezer.

Pink salmon are plentiful in many parts of Alaska and can be caught along ocean beaches near river mouths as they head to their spawning grounds as well as in the rivers themselves, primarily between mid to late July with runs typically peaking by mid-August. A 4 to 5 weight fly rod or lightweight spinning gear is ideal for fishing for pinks and popular lures include small, bright, flashy spinners or small to medium sized bright colored flies. A popular fly on Kodiak, which will no doubt work anywhere else in Alaska, is the Pink Devil (It goes by many other names as well). Check out my video about how to tie this fly and stay tuned for an upcoming video about how to tie what I have found to be the most productive, deadliest fly I have ever fished…all over North America, on a wide variety of fish…the Deadly White Jig.  And finally, click here to order my book Alaska Fishing from Amazon and start planning you Alaska fishing adventure!

Alaska Fishing - how to plan a DIY Alaska fishing adventure

To see more photos, check out the video version of this story by clicking here.