By Hannah Pennebaker
In last month's article, we discussed what sets pink salmon apart from other salmon, and how to catch them from saltwater beaches and piers. Beginning in August, pinks leave the saltwater and begin pushing into the rivers to complete their journey and start spawning. Their chrome scales start taking on color and their sleek bodies start developing the signature hump on their backs that earn them their nickname "humpies". Along with these morphological changes, they also stop eating when they enter freshwater. They no longer need to keep building up fat to sustain themselves on their long journey. You might wonder how to catch a fish that isn't eating. Luckily, river salmon still retain the instinct to snap at lures that annoy them. They become even more temperamental in freshwater as they near spawning. There's a good chance that they will chase down a lure that comes into their territory. There are several different techniques you can use to catch pinks in the river. It's a good idea to be well versed in multiple methods so you can try different lures if one just isn't working that day. Pinks are the easiest fish to catch in the rivers because they are extremely plentiful. They are the first salmon that many kids and experienced fishermen alike catch. They only run every odd year, so take this opportunity and fill up your stringer this year! All you need are a pair of good waders, a 8 to 10 feet medium action rod, and a 3000 to 4000 size reel. The main techniques for catching pinks fall into 2 categories: drifting, and hardware fishing with spoons, twitching jigs, or spinners.
By far the most common way to catch pinks, drifting involves bouncing a small corky and yarn along the bottom until a fish grabs it. When they enter the river, salmon will gobble up other salmon eggs in order to reduce competition for their offspring and ensure their own success. Most sports stores sell a variety of colors and shapes of corkies. For clear rivers, I recommend more natural salmon egg colored corkies. However, for murky rivers like the Puyallup, brightly colored corkies work best since visibility is so low. It's a good idea to have a variety of sizes and colors on hand to try different combinations. For the yarn, you can either tie it just above the hook or tuck it inside an egg loop knot. Make sure to trim the ends of the yarn so it doesn't extend past the bottom of your hook. You'll want to put some weight on your line to make your corky stay close to the bottom, where the pinks usually are. Pencil lead weight is a common choice because you can trim it to exactly the right amount of weight for your drift. You want your weight to be ticking along the bottom every few seconds, not dragging or floating. I use a 3 to 4 foot leader and attach my weight just above the swivel. Cast 45 degrees upstream, then let your corky drift downstream, following it with your rod tip. Reel in once your rod tip is facing 45 degrees downstream, then cast again. One of the trickiest parts of drifting is differentiating a bite from a snag. I've definitely yanked back to get my hook out of a snag, only for the snag to start running down the river! One word of caution though, be careful of how many times you set the hook during a drift. There is an anti-snagging rule that states you can only set the hook once per cast, and I've seen game wardens enforce this. The best advice I can give is that snags usually feel abrupt and firm, and bites feel more rubbery and soft. Put in your time and learn the feeling, and you'll be an expert in detecting the difference in no time!
Although drifting is the most common technique for catching pinks in most Western Washington rivers, it's a good idea to learn how to use twitching jigs, spoons, and spinners. In heavily pressured systems, fish see dozens, if not hundreds, of corkies all day. A different lure can set you apart and really put some fish on the bank. Twitching jigs have really caught on in popularity over the past few years. They are the go to technique for coho in rivers, but pink salmon will go after a jig too! As with drifting, there is a bit of a skill curve with twitching jigs. Anglers need to learn which weight is suitable for the river conditions. Jigs most often come in 3/8, 1/2, and 1 oz sizes. In deep holes, 1oz jigs work best because they get down to the strike zone quickly. However, a 1oz jig would quickly get snagged in a shallower run. Rigging them is simple. Some anglers prefer just tying them straight to their mainline, others will use a swivel and a leader. For pinks, either method will work. Cast out just upstream of where you think the fish are holding, let your jig sink, and then begin jigging. I recommend trying a variety of depths and techniques until you find what works. Twitching jigs is all in the wrist. I usually let it sink, flick my wrist up about 8 inches, reel in the slack until the line is taut, and then repeat.
Spinners and spoons can also be extremely productive for catching pinks. Most sporting goods stores sell a good variety of them, but keep in mind that most of them come with treble hooks, which are illegal in this state. It's worth buying a good set of siwash (open eye) hooks, 1/0 or 2/0, to replace the treble hooks with. 3/8 oz to 5/8 oz spinners and spoons usually work well for rivers around here. For spoons, cast upstream 45 degrees, let your spoon sink to the desired depth, and slowly reel in. You'll know your retrieve speed is right when you feel the spoon thumping in the water. Thus drives fish crazy! You'll also be able to feel the spinner creating vibrations in the water while you retrieve. Even though salmon stop eating when they enter freshwater, they can't resist a good spinner or spoon in front of them.
You can use the same rod all 3 of these techniques and get away with it, or you can opt for a specialized twitching rod. These are short rods with a lot of backbone for handling large fish, but a soft tip to detect strikes. The short length allows you to really pop the twitching jig with your wrist. They also work well for casting spinners and spoons, too.
No matter which technique you choose, always remember to check your rules and regulations before heading out. Most rivers have an anti-snagging rule, and require barbless hooks. Twitching jigs often come barbed, but all you have to do is pinch the barb down with pliers until it no longer catches on your finger. Come out to your local river and give pink salmon fishing a try! These hard fighting fish are absolutely delicious on the smoker or grill. They are a great introductory salmon for beginner anglers and kids alike. We hope to see you out on the river this season!