The New Color Of
Puget Sound Salmon Fishing
By Terry W. Sheely
It’s the gauzy swirl in tropical drinks, the blushing feathers of goofy one-legged birds, diluted dyes in bad shirts and the slip of an unexpected retirement cliché; pink—an odd little word—now also describes the hottest twinkle in Puget Sound’s odd year salmon fishing.
Evidence is piling up at Puget Sound boat ramps that in mid-summer pinks are displacing the traditional silver and green of Pugetropolis coho and king salmon as they, with occasional exception, tumble ever deeper into black holes of angler despair and heavy-handed endangered species restrictions.
Pinks. Humpies. Oncorhynchus gorbuscha, Runts. Once seemingly embedded on the lowest rung of pinks are moving up the ladder of desirability-- propelled by sheer numbers, terminal aggressiveness, simplistic fishing techniques, and pushed by the seemingly unstoppable downward spiral of coho and chinook returns and the collapse of any pretense that Puget Sound has a resident salmon enhancement effort.
For inshore saltwater and river anglers north of Tacoma the uplifted status and new popularity of this small salmon, which averages only 3 to 10 pounds and only 10 years ago seemed permanently relegated to the darkest corner of the salmon basement, is a matter of desperation and discovery.
Desperate for a salmon to catch and to fill in the void created by diminished king and coho fisheries Puget Sound fishermen are discovering that pinks—treated right—can be a hoot to hook and play, are action-packed family fare, decent on the table and are always a better fishing option than not catching coho or kings.
In the warm, wet dark of the fast-fading summer night in ‘07, five of us are shuffling in anticipation on the muggy dock at Everett Marina waiting to climb aboard the F/V Morning Star, a 28-foot electronics-enhanced, downrigger-sprouting Uniflite, ready to drop lines into the foggy dawn and horde of pinks reported to be holed
up in Humpy Hollow.
If not THE best pink salmon slot on the inside of Puget Sound, Humpy Hollow is pretty close.
The hollow is more of an indention than a hole in the in the eastern shoreline of Possession Sound between Mukilteo and Picnic Point. The fishing area is a mile-long elliptical-shaped super eddy that can literally boil with pink salmon surface splatters in August during the peak of the run.
There’s no anti-pink bias on this dock this morning—we’ve come for pinks, not as begrudged alternatives but deliberately and excitedly carrying ice chests and malice.
Stan Grovdahl brought the ferry over from Whidbey Island, Tony Underwood, wearing his lucky Big Dawg shirt, drove downhill from his home above the marina bringing guests from Memphis, Tennessee Dave Underwood and son Mike.
Up from the land of Elvis, Davy Crockett, crappie and catfish Dave and Mike are eager for a Puget Sound salmon experience and tickled pink to be blowing through the fog toward Humpy Hollow with charter skipper Gary Krein, All Star Charters—uncontested Big Dawglegend when it comes to catching salmon between Seattle and Everett.
Long-time Everett Herald outdoor writer Wayne Kruse says, “Krein is perhaps the best teacher of salmon fishing 101 I’ve come across. He’s patient with young people, women, and other novice anglers, without being ondescending. He’ll make sure you learn the craft, quickly, and then leave you alone to catch your own fish and make your own mistakes.”
Krein is more succinct. “Been fishing Puget Sound for 25 years,” he tells me, adding, “I wouldn’t know how to do anything else.”
And in his experience, pinks have a lot going for themselves.
They are an every-other-year horde of millions that return to Puget Sound rivers during years that end with odd numbers and 2009 is jaywalking across the calendar as one of the oddest of the odd. A few small runs of even-year pinks trickle through the Sound, but nothing to compare with the odd-year surge of millions.
According to Washington Fish and Wildlife Department from the end of July until the first big rains of September roughly 3 to 4 million pinks will be milling on the east side of the Sound from Tacoma to Bellingham, and that’s a lot of near-shore, backyard fishing opportunity available to small-boat anglers in Washington’s population center.
The major pink spawning runs are headed for rivers in the North Sound-- especially the Snohomish and Skagit systems. In recent years huge runs have also spilled into the Stillaguamish, Green and Puyallup rivers near Seattle and Tacoma. Pink rivers are easily identifiable—marked with rolling fish and spawning gravel that look as though it’s been worked over by feuding D-8 Cats. They also attract frenzies of freshwater fishermen—anglers’ eager to target fish that 10 years ago were derided, disrespected and sometimes discarded.
The fact is that while catch-and-release is gaining popularity, most Puget Sound anglers still enjoy salmon dinners, and a big part of salmon fishing success is measured by the fillet.Which is the root of the argument against pinks; that they are delicate little salmon with meat quick to soften and deteriorate—especially in fresh
water. The fact that pinks are edible enough to be the backbone of the commercial canned salmon industry seemingly carries little weight locally.
But we’re learning. Catch ‘em, cut the gills, bleed ‘em, clean 'em, wash ‘em down, and get ‘em on ice (but out of melt water) immediately. No languishing on the open deck, no sun bakes on the cleaning table No blank-eyed reposes in hot fish boxes. Keep a saltwater-caught pink cold from hook to Vac-Pak, from Sound to smoker and it will pass most table tests. Let it bake and shrivel in the summer sun and the dog won’t roll on it.
August is THE pink month on Krein’s calendar.
The month for Puget Sound saltwater fishermen to be trolling near the mouths of rivers and adjacent deep-water staging water.
Water exactly like Humpy Hollow, a nondescript strip of deep saltwater staging water where pinks make the physical adjustments necessary to charge up the nearby Snohomish River system.
The aptly named Hollow is a narrow trolling slot running north-south for a little more than a mile beneath the steep, wooded embankment along the railroad just south of the Mukilteo boat ramp. A landmark of 10 houses is clustered in a roadless wedge at McKey’s Beach, and when the bite is smokin’ you’ll see a mile-long line of turtle-speed trollers.
This morning, late in the season past the peak, the pink fleet numbers fewer than 40 boats plus a big tribal purse seiner that is weaving ominously through the sport boats, zigging, zagging, apparently looking for a school of pinks big enough to justify a net set, and raising the ire of several sport fishermen. “What’s the matter with that guy” somebody asks over the radio, “why does he have to come right through the middle of where we’re fishing?” The answer sizzles out of the radio in a quick, unprintable staccato.
We start the hunt at 6:20 a.m. setting the downriggers at 40 feet in 360 feet of water. Pink protocol is to start the daylight troll with downriggers set at 30 to 40 feet. When and if the sun hits the water or 10 a.m. whichever comes first, pink schools will shrink from the light and Krein will drop the gear to 70 feet.
Standard Humpy Hollow pink gear, a set up that Puget Sound Angler Jim Brauch claims puts “30 to 40 pinks a trip” in his boat. He rigs a white Hot Spot flasher with 16 inches of leader and a F156 pink squid. Some anglers swap the flasher for a white size 0 dodgers because of the dead slow trolling speed required.
Pinks are krill eaters and krill live in deep water usually offshore, rarely coming close to shore, and move vertically through the water in response to water temperature, light penetration, while feeding on plankton. It’s a predator-prey waltz that takes the speed out of the eternal chase and eat circle. Everything moves in painfully slow motion until the hook goes home.
Krill eat plankton, pinks eat krill and we eat pinks.
Krein has his own variation of pink poison and this morning he rigs our rods to attack Humpy Hollow with 11-inch Hot Spot flashers, silver-nickel enhanced with either pink or green Mylar strips. Pink colored mini-squid tied to red 2/0 barbless hooks are attached to 20 and 24 inch leaders. The longer leaders, he says, will still produce humpies, and also offer the advantage of attracting any coho that may be hunting in the same neighborhood.
Predictably, Krein says, humpies stratify in the top 70 feet of water over the deepest water around—300 to 600 feet in the nearby shipping channels. It’s not unusual to see carpets of humpy tails and backs swirling through the surface mirror.
When pinks are down and tough, Krein says he’ll run two rods with 24 inches of light leader and fall back to the 16-inch Humpy Hollow standard on the other two. If it’s really slow pink fanatics will cram a little Power Bait into the squid head, or smear the flasher with Pautzke Krill jelly.
“Multiple hookups are the name of the game,” Krein tells us. “When we hook-up don’t pull the other rods. These fish travel in big schools and often we can get several rods hooked up; doubles, triples, that’s when it gets to be fun.”
“And don’t set the hook,” he warns, “pinks have soft mouths and it’s easy to jerk the hook out. These hooks are laser sharp and should set on the strike.”
We’re trolling at 1.5 mph on the GPS—with a down tide push--creating roughly 10 degrees of angle between the
downrigger wire and the water.
“We catch most our pinks going with the tide, down tide,” Krein tells me, “Bucking the tide just doesn’t work as well. Oh, we’ll catch some going against the tide, but not nearly as many as when we turn around and troll down tide. Go slow. Zig zag when you can.
“Stagger the lure depths between 30 and 70 feet to find the schools,” he recommends, adding, “Pinks tend to stratify at specific depths and the trick to loading the boat with humpies is to find those magical depths.”
Coffee pours, jokes fall flat, fog drifts past in ribbons. Krein weaves the boat and watches the electronics. Our wake looks like the track of a snake with a broken back. Five guys, watching four black rods under a gray sky, hoping for pink salmon while one of them sings: Here fishy, fishy, fishy ” in a very bad baritone.
At 6:41 we get the first strike. Memphis Mike, the youngest, is first up grabs the rod, and reefs hard—too hard. “What happened?”
"Don’t worry about it,” Gary says, “We’ll catch the next one. Just remember don’t strike too hard, just hard enough to pop the line out of the clip and then reel down on the fish.”
Mike is flattened. That was his first salmon strike ever and he blew it.
“There’s no rhyme or reason to pink bites that I’ve been able to find,” Krein admits, “It just takes off and suddenly everybody is into fish. The bite might last a half hour or several hours and then just die. Then it can take off again. Any time of the day. Any tide. I don’t know why, I just know that it does.”
And then we’re into humpies.
We hit two pinks in a hurry both bright hens around 5 pounds.
Tennessee Dave is grinning and posing with his Puget Sound salmon. “Man, that was fun,” he says, “They got some shoulders on them. The way they pulled back I thought they were a lot bigger fish. Man.!” He’s jacked, he’s stoked, he’s impressed and he’s ready for more.
And we get ‘em. Three more, all at the same intersection on the GPS track.
We’re working one school small and very specifically located. Gary dials it in, resets the gear and we hit ‘em again.
We lose another fish, then another comes unbuttoned and somebody says something about barbless hooks.
“With pinks we lose about half of our hook ups. They don’t strike hard and the soft mouths wear hook holes really quick and the hook just falls out,” Krein consoles.
And that quick it’s gone.
The bite dies.
We change depths spreading the rods from 45 to 70 feet.
Sun is trying to poke holes through the overhead fog. Diffused light shines silver gray on the water, and visibility is inching up to where we can now see 3½ miles and Possession Point is beginning to show a little
We’re prospecting, now, looking for a bite on the outside edge of our troll when another rod goes off and the fish clears the water in a cartwheel. An incidental silver. Stan is on the rod. Grinning and crankin’. Suddenly the big soft eyes of seal surface behind the careening fish. “Horse him in,” I hear myself shout, “Skid him up here. It might tear off, but it’s for sure going to be a seal meal if you play it out.”
Stan cranks. The silver flashes past the boat and Stan horses it back. Gary swings the net and the salmon is in the boat. A few yards away the seal surfaces and stares at the boat. Stares black holes at Stan.
He wants his fish back.
The seals have been trained, unintentionally, by WDFW to follow fishermen.
“The way the blackmouth season is now,” Krein says, “and all the undersize fish we have to release, the seals have learned to wait and watch after we catch a fish. They’ve learned that there’s a good chance we’ll release a tired fish for them to run down. That’s what this guy is waiting for.”
Later we see a seal, maybe the same one, carrying the bloody stub of a coho. Sea gulls are poking at what’s left of the silver, hoping for scraps. The seal grins, I swear, and waves the carcass at Stan then sinks. I swear!
At one point the Underwood Gang has a triple header going. Five pinks are conked and skittering across the deck while the anglers scramble past each other with bent rods and flying elbows. Krein has seen this a hundred, probably a thousand times, and still he’s grinning like it’s his first.
Memphis Mike has got his grin back.
We’re not the only ones feeding on pinks today. Four sea lions are draped on the buoy at the mouth of the Snohomish River. More are resting on flat spots inside the Everett Naval Station.
The fish box holds 11 thoroughly chilled salmon including two silvers.
The Tennessee boys are smiling and ready to go again.
Tony and Stan plan to barbecue fresh Humpy Hollow pinks tonight and smoke the rest.
At the dock, Gary’s electric fillet knife is whipping through the catch.
“These fish are nothing like crappie,” Stan says, “I can’t believe how hard they pull.”
Most locals can’t either—until they rig a light rod suitable for a 3 to 10 pound fish, add a pink plastic hoochie, 16-inch leader, white flasher and troll down tide at waddle speed 30 to 40 feet into Humpy Hollow—deeper when the sun shines.
To get the most out of these small salmon select light to medium weight downrigger rods—8 to 9 foot long, with
fairly soft action to compensate for a humpies soft mouth.
Reels & Lines:
Small saltwater reels work fine. These fish make short, quick runs that won’t test a drag or spool capacity. I’ll go with the lightest line my flasher will handle without breaking—10 to 15 pound test is fine and there’s no overwhelming reason to invest in expensive low-viz Fluorocarbon. Monofilament is more forgiving than braid, an elasticity factor that’s a bonus when playing these soft mouth salmon.
16 to 20 inches of 15-pound monofilament.
Small F15 pink plastic squid, 11-inch size 0 white flasher or dodger with chartreuse or hot pink Mylar reflective
strips, red 2/0 hooks.
Don’t bother. Stay with the hoochies and if you must smear the squid with power bait or krill-flavored Smelly Jelly.
Odd year fishery. Starts in late July, peaks in August and dies when the first rains of September pull the last spawning schools upstream into the Snohomish River.
Limits and Regs:
The standard salmon limit in Humpy Hollow is 2 but expect that to be increased for humpies only, on an emergency dictate, after the run hits. Limit changes are posted at boat ramps and available on the web at: www.wdfw.wa.gov/fish/regs/rule
Or call the hotline at
360-902-2500. Barbless hooks required.
One day licenses are $7.50 for residents $14.50 for nonresidents, annual saltwater $20.26 for residents, $29.97
How To Get There:
Humpy Hollow is on the east shore of Possession Sound. Beginning along the high wooded bank just south of Mukilto and continuing south for about a mile to Shipwreck/Picnic Point. From I-5 turn west at Exit 189 onto Hwy. 126, then north on Hwy. 125 and follow signs to the ferry landing.
The Mukilteo boat ramp is in Mukilteo State Park south of the ferry dock and is the closest ramp to Humpy Hollow. The area is also within easy reach of ramps at Everett and a sling launch at Port of Edmonds.
Late July-early September, peaking in August.
Guides and Charters:
Several Everett-Seattle based charters and guides fish the Humpy Hollow area. We fished with Everett based Puget Sound salmon expert
All Star Charters,
720 Waverly Ave., Everett, WA 98201.
NOAA Chart 18473
Ted’s Sports Center,
Herman's Big Fish Bait & Tackle,
Three Rivers Marina,