Just wanted to drop you a line, see how things were going. I realize that I’ve taken your very existence for granted for a long time, and I am truly sorry. Hope to see you again soon…
Where did it all go wrong? From such a joyous beginning, my personal relationship with the pink salmon had eroded into a caustic bitterness, a sneering condemnation of the very traits that make the humpy desirable to anglers across the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Had familiarity truly bred contempt, a loathing so deep that it triggered random kicking of spawned-out humpy carcasses? This was not proper behavior for a fly angler and guide, an ambassador of the Quiet Sport and a steward of the wilderness.
My first experiences flyfishing for pinks were mostly happy ones. Growing up in the midst of rapidly dwindling salmon runs of the Pacific Northwest, I was shocked at the volume of salmon I encountered in coastal Alaska. At the beach across the road from my shared apartment there was a little freshwater trickle and the humpies would crowd into it as if it were the very waters of their natal stream. As I soon learned, humpies will eat about anything with a reddish pink tint and a herky-jerky motion to it. Every evening I would go down to that beach and catch fish until my hands wrinkled with saltwater and salmon slime. It was on this beach that my love/hate relationship with the humpy began.
The pink salmon—also referred to as the humpback salmon or humpy due to the physical transformation that occurs in spawning males—is both the smallest and shortest-lived of the Pacific salmon family. Upon hatching from the egg, the tiny alevins remain hidden in the gravel until their egg sacs are absorbed. At this point they are considered fry, and it is here that they swim up from the gravel and immediately begin their migration to the ocean, without the freshwater “smolting” interval common in other types of Pacific salmon. As a consequence, the tiny pink fry are heavily preyed upon by all manner of fish-eaters: gulls and terns, cormorants, Dolly Varden, sculpins, even humpback whales, gorge themselves on the seemingly limitless stream of protein emerging from the coastal rivers. If the tiny, terrified pink fry are able to make it past the gauntlet of predators and safely into deeper water, they spend the next year or so fattening themselves in the fertile currents of the Pacific.
In the early spring of their second year, the pinks turn homeward and begin the long journey back to their native rivers—unless they get sidetracked. Pink salmon have a relatively high stray rate when compared to other salmon, and can occasionally be found nosing into flows where no salmon should be found. Small seeps, public water discharges, tidal glacier washes, and brackish intertidal gravel flats—no freshwater source is safe when the humpy has spawning on the brain.
Pinks have the ability to quickly re-colonize streams after natural or manmade disasters, and their eggs can tolerate fairly harsh conditions, including daily washes with saltwater. The pinks found nosing into the tiny trickle on my beach made attempts at spawning there, and in all probability some of their offspring lived. This characteristic also makes them akin to the rat and the raccoon—they are survivors, yet often denigrated for their abundance.
In the beginning, pink salmon satisfied a basic need in my flyfishing existence: They were easy to catch. My friends and I traveled the local beaches and rivers learning which tides pushed the humpies onto certain beaches and away from others, and which rivers could be counted on to hold fish in the lower, more accessible reaches. We fished almost every waking hour we weren’t working, and the novelty of hooking fish after fish never seemed to get old.
But as my flyfishing horizons broadened, and I began guiding, the pull of the humpy waned and I succumbed to the draw of larger, more challenging fish. I began looking at the pink as child’s play, something for amateurs to get excited about but lacking any redeeming qualities for the serious angler. I cursed them when they got in the way of catching the more glamorous rainbows, and I handled them with a less-than-tender grip. On several occasions I had images playing in my brain of huge explosions, with humpy parts flying everywhere. Gone were the innocent days of our relationship, broken beyond repair.
I started actively avoided humpies, trying to fish watersheds where pinks were the minority species, and I was content cutting back my fishing time to minimize my exposure to the new bane of my existence. By a curious coincidence, the southeast Alaska population of pinks began a sharp decline around this time. (I didn’t do it, I swear.)
I succeeded in my humpy avoidance program for many years, until I took a friend from up north to one of our local flows. We were hoping to hit it before the humpies showed, right in that magic early-July window when the big char begin staging in anticipation of the protein free-for-all that accompanies every salmon run. As we fished our way down to the beach, my friend told me that he’d never caught a humpy, and wanted to give it a shot. With more than a little contempt, I tossed him a beat-up humpy fly and told him to have fun.
Sure enough, after a few minutes he was fast to his first fly-caught humpy. After a short fight, he led the fish into shore and I tailed it for him. As I was freeing the hook, he handed me his camera.
“You can’t be serious,” I said. He assured me he was, and after a quick photo, he slipped the fish back in the water and pronounced humpy fishing quite a bit of fun. So fun, in fact, that he was now going to attempt kicking ass over as many humpies as he possibly could. I pulled up a wet patch of popweed and had a seat, content to watch my friend work his way down the mudflat.
After a few minutes of introspection, I joined him. I couldn’t believe that I was actually going to intentionally fish for humpies, but I was soon feeling that familiar slow-motion headshake of a hooked pink. The fish fought valiantly—unspectacular but persistent, and after a short tussle I led the ocean-bright buck in this photo to hand.
As I cradled the fish, I was struck by a revelation of sorts. The fact that a pink salmon survives from egg to adulthood is as close to a miracle as anything else in nature. Beset by hungry predators for its entire short life, it is remarkable that they return at all, much less in such great numbers. The jaded angler that I’d become didn’t rise to greet these miracles with the love and respect they deserve. To be able to fish for, let alone catch, a 4- to 7-pound fish on a fly rod is a universal desire among anglers. To catch them in large numbers is a dream. Somewhere along my journey I’d lost sight of this.
I slipped the fish back into the water with a sheepish, mumbled apology. As I stripped off line in preparation for another cast, I resolved to wipe the slate clean and not scorn the humpy for what it wasn’t, but to appreciate it for what it was. A holler from down the beach pulled me from my musings, and I looked up to catch sight of a bent rod and a big grin as my friend danced with a particularly spirited partner.
Mark Hieronymus is a flyfishing guide in Juneau, Alaska. He spends winters working for Trout Unlimited, and is also a contract fly designer for Umpqua Feather Merchants, where he’s feverishly working on the next killer humpy pattern.