When most folks think of fly fishing in Alaska, the image that most likely comes to mind is a few anglers fishing a wide, slow tundra river from a big gravel bar in search of large rainbow trout. Another image is a hooked silver salmon erupting from the water in a shower of spray. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that very few visiting anglers think of the pink salmon when thinking about fly angling in Alaska, but for my money there is no more accessible and overall enjoyable fishery than the Southeast Alaska summer pink salmon run.
Pinks, also called “humpies” for the grotesque dorsal hump the males of the species develop during their spawning phase, are the most numerous salmon in Alaska. Making up about 60% of the total statewide salmon run in numbers of fish, they are more numerous than all other salmon species combined. Southeast Alaska sees between 30 – 100 million pink salmon a year, and when the run is going full force it isn’t uncommon for novice and expert alike to battle humpies until their arms are too tired to lift the next day. Pinks are eager eaters of flies, and when caught early in their spawning run or while still in the saltwater they can put up a fight that instills new respect for them in even the most jaded angler.
As a fly fishing guide in Southeast Alaska, pinks are my bread and butter, and along with Dolly Varden, make up the bulk of my summer quarry. By the time pink salmon are accessible to the shore-bound fly angler, they have usually stopped feeding in preparation for their spawning run. The most common and productive way to fish for pinks involves stripping weighted streamers on floating lines with long leaders, basically turning a thin-profile weighted fly into a jig. As you may expect, a guide will often look for new and different ways to catch the same fish year in and year out, and one of the techniques I have been fine-tuning over the years is the top water presentation.
Coho salmon will occasionally chase top water flies, but of all the true Pacific salmon, it turns out the lowly, put-upon pink salmon are the stars of the top water show. Even within the subset of pink salmon, I have found that the most aggressive, hardest-fighting fish are the ones that take flies off the surface. If you chase pinks with top water flies, here are a few observations that might help you with fly selection and retrieve styles –
- Pinks like bright colors. Red, Pink, Orange, and White get good responses from pinks under most conditions
- They don’t like crazy big flies. Most of the stuff I fished effectively for pinks is in the 1”-2” range, and flies larger or smaller show steep declines in interest by the fish.
- Always let the fish determine your retrieve tempo/style, but a few proven ways are the short, slow strip that barely leaves any wake; the long, slow strip that creates a wide wake and no bubbles; the short (<6”) sharp strip that “pops” the fly almost in place.
The fly I use most often is based loosely on the folded-foam lip of the Gartside Gurgler and other skated flies. These can be fished as a skated fly in the river, a stripped fly in slack and salt waters, and as a dead-drifted fly in the classic upstream presentation.
Yes, you read that right. Pacific salmon, rising to a dead-drifted dry fly…but I digress.
Throwing top water all day requires a setup that is capable of turning over the bulky, wind-resistant profile of a foam fly yet still matches the average fighting ability of your quarry. For virtually all my guiding needs, I rely on the ECHO Boost Salt 7wt for its combined ease of use for a wide range of casting experience, its ability to turn over junk when needed, and the all-around “fun to fish” factor that makes it a great tool with which to fish Pink salmon wherever they may be found.
If you haven’t fished for pinks before, or you have fished for them and are looking for a “new drug” in your fishing life, tie on a brightly colored Gurgler and make it plop – you might be pleasantly surprised.
Mark Hieronymus is an Echo Pro Staff member and Alaskan Fly Fishing Guide. Contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a day of top water pink salmon fishing in Alaska.