August is prime time for Puget Sound pink salmon
~4 million of the odd-year salmon are expected back this summer, and here’s where and how to catch your share.
Story originally published in the Northwest Sportsman Magazine August issue
Did you hear that? I think salmon’s knocking on the door to Puget Sound!
All silliness aside, we’ve finally turned the corner on summer and are heading into one of the busiest times for Pacific Northwest salmon anglers, although the clock is ticking against us, as fall house chores, preparing for hunting seasons or going back to school become the priorities.
But, let’s not dwell on the inevitable and focus our precious time instead on an expected robust return of pink salmon. The front end of this pink steam train is barreling into Puget Sound and the caboose extends far beyond the Strait of Juan de Fuca likely somewhere off the west coast of British Columbia.
When Sekiu and Port Angeles opened for salmon fishing in early July, anglers had already caught some pinks, and several also showed up in creel data for central and southcentral Puget Sound waters going back to early June and July. Tips for fishing for salmon can be found on this WDFW webpage: wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/basics/salmon
“We’re optimistic on Puget Sound pinks this year given we had solid outmigration numbers from the brood year and a great climate cycle to rely upon, all which should have provided sufficient ocean productivity,” says Mickey Agha, with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s fish management division. “With a total forecast of 3.9 million for Puget Sound and median forecast of 6.1 million for the Fraser River, if the return comes back as expected, we could be seeing a lot of pinks in the water!”
The 2023 forecast mirrors the 10-year average of 4 million and is expected to rival the glory years from 2009 to 2013, when returns were well beyond expectations. Predictions the last two odd-numbered years were for 2,925,681 in 2021 and 608,388 in 2019.
Among the higher expected river returns in 2023 are the Green, 821,681; Skagit, 552,193; Snohomish, 642,279; Nisqually, 45,428; Stillaguamish, 199,564; Puyallup, 397,255; and Strait of Juan de Fuca streams, 365,427. Hood Canal is another location not to overlook, especially the Hoodsport Hatchery area, where the pink forecast is for a whopping 492,858.
While relatively small at three to five pounds, pinks are also the fastest growing of the five Pacific salmon species and spend less than two years in the ocean before migrating back to their natal rivers.
A small percentage of pinks stray on the way home and wind up in a wrong stream, including places like the Green and Nisqually Rivers, where at the beginning of this century they weren’t found in large numbers but now those populations have exploded. In 2023, some stray pinks were found as far up the Columbia River as Wenatchee and as far up the Snake River as Lower Granite Dam.
A pink can be distinguished from other salmon species by its very large black spots on the caudal fin and back. Their nickname “humpies” or “humpy” comes from the dramatic hump formed on the back as well as the gnarly hooked upper jaw that develops on male pinks at spawning time in rivers.
The Puget Sound pink return usually peaks in mid-August, and in southern Puget Sound the last week of August and early September are best. Pink fishing in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound was very good at times in 2021 and 2019 during late summer.
Fishing tips for pinks
When targeting pinks, the color of choice is a hot pink lure, spoon, jig, or fly, as the color resembles the plankton or krill that are part of their main diet. White, purple, red-, chartreuse- and orange-colored presentations will also get the job done.
Anglers tend to stick with smaller-size presentations, like pink mini plastic squids or spoons tied behind a short, 13- to 16-inch leader to a white-colored dodger or silver flasher. Another method is a smaller 8-inch Pro-Troll flasher with a slightly longer leader of 15 to 20 inches.
From boat or shore, casting a pink Buzz Bomb or Point Wilson-type jig works. Let it sink about a foot per second, and once you feel the jig go slack, reel up (don’t set the jig hard because pinks have soft jawlines) until you feel the rod bend. Others will cast out a pink mini hoochie jig with a single 1/0 pink- or red-colored hook.
Other lures include a pink Rotator trailed behind a small pink plastic hoochie with a single 1/0 pink- or red-colored hook. Let it flutter down to the desired depth and then slowly retrieve from shore or a boat.
One of the more exciting ways to catch pinks is fly fishing with a pink Clouser Minnow using a 7- or 8-weight fly rod with a sinking line that’ll give the streamer an irresistible action when stripping line in with intermittent pauses.
The key to success when fishing from a boat is to troll very slowly (1.5 to 2.0 mph at most, depending on current, tide and wind).
Around an hour before and right after a flood tide or a slack tide is the optimal time to catch pinks. Pinks often remain on the bite throughout the day, but early morning, just before and right after first light, gives up the best action that you’ll not want to miss. The evening bite is often equally as good.
Whether from a boat or shore, pinks are rather easy to spot, as schools of fish like to streak across the surface or can be seen jumping out of the water.
Where to find pinks
There are endless areas to try along the Strait of Juan de Fuca from shore or boat east of Neah Bay, off Sekiu to Pillar Point, and from Port Angeles to the bend into Admiralty Inlet — and don’t overlook the deeper water areas of the shipping lanes too. You can find numerous places to fish for pinks from shore along the Strait, although kelp beds in some areas can hinder success.
In Puget Sound, look for pinks congregating in schools during the entire month of August off Midchannel Bank at Port Townsend; Possession Bar; the west side of Whidbey Island; Possession Point; from Mukilteo south to Shipwreck; Browns Bay; off the Edmonds Marina; Jefferson Head; Richmond Beach; the west side of Bainbridge Island; and West Point south of Shilshole Bay. The San Juan Islands are also a good place to look for pinks.
Keep in mind when fishing from a boat that pinks are much less oriented to structure and don’t stay way down deep in the water column or near or on the bottom like their Chinook cousins. Usually, you’ll find them schooling in open water and they can be found from the surface to usually no deeper than 100 to 125 feet.
Pinks like to stay close to the shoreline to avoid strong currents, making them easily accessible for bank anglers. Excellent shore spots include Fort Casey, Keystone, and Bush and Lagoon Points off the west side of Whidbey Island; Point Wilson near Port Townsend; Deception Pass; Point No Point; Possession Point Bait House on the east side of Whidbey Island; the Mukilteo Lighthouse shoreline and the pier at the new Mukilteo ferry pier; Edmonds Pier; Picnic Point in Edmonds; Carkeek Park; Richmond Beach; Alki Point; Lincoln Park in West Seattle; Des Moines Pier; and Point Defiance Park Boathouse and Les Davis Piers in Tacoma.
Marine Area 11 (Tacoma-Vashon Island) reopened daily for shore-based salmon fishing from Aug. 9–31 to target pinks and coho salmon returning to South Puget Sound. Angling from a floating device, other than a dock or pier that is attached to shore, is prohibited. The daily limit is two salmon, with no minimum size. Anglers must release all Chinook and chum.
Marine Area 11 will reopen from vessels on Sept. 1–30 targeting pinks and coho only. The daily limit is two salmon, with no minimum size. Anglers must release all Chinook and chum. This rule change does not affect the planned Oct. 1–31 salmon fishery (release Chinook). Certain piers also remain open for salmon fishing. You can find fishing rule updates on the WDFW webpage.
This season is a little different in terms of places you can go to catch pinks in Puget Sound. One notable change is that the entire east side of Whidbey Island (Marine Areas 8–1 and 8–2) is wide open, including “Humpy Hollow” clear up to Mukilteo and beyond, during the month of August.
Once the end of August rolls around, many pinks will migrate into freshwater; anglers should check the WDFW fishing regulations webpage for what rivers and streams are open or closed.
When pinks enter the rivers, the action is often fast and furious, with anglers lining productive banks shoulder to shoulder. To avoid conflict be sure to give the angler next to you plenty of elbow room.
Target the lower reaches of rivers and estuaries, as the pinks tend to have higher quality meat there. As the season progresses, the flesh of pinks within the freshwater environment begins to deteriorate near the final stages of their lives, although catching and releasing them is still a viable option. Many fish get snagged in rivers, which is illegal and only pinks hooked in the mouth or on the head are considered legal to retain.
Pinks will remain part of daily catch limits in marine fisheries, while limits in freshwater areas are watershed specific. For details, be sure to check the WDFW regulation pamphlet or website at wdfw.wa.gov.
Pinks are excellent fish to eat
Caring for your catch of salmon is very important and even more so when it comes to pinks. Nobody wants to eat a piece of mushy salmon meat.
A pink salmon has a rather mild flavor, and pairs especially well with citruses like lemon, lime or orange and a dash of seasoning. Pinks are noticeably less oily than other types of salmon, so expect the salmon fillets to be a little bit leaner than sockeye, coho or Chinook.
Once you’ve got a pink in the boat or on the shore, be sure to bleed it right away and then pack it in a cooler filled with ice immediately, especially on a hot summer day when the quality of meat breaks down quickly.
It doesn’t take much to bleed them. Simply cut the gill rakes with a knife or by hand tear a section of the gills while holding the fish in the water. If you need to club them, do so gently, as this can also damage the meat.
By taking the right steps you’ll be able to ensure a grilled, poached or oven-baked pink salmon dinner is a hit around the dining table!
(Editor’s note: Mark Yuasa is a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife communications manager and longtime local fishing and outdoor writer.)