(Author’s note: With humpback salmon now running in the Kenai River, this is a good time to run this story in the Clarion. It first appeared in Alaska magazine in August 2001. It has been edited for brevity.)
When someone says the fish are so thick, you can walk across the river on their backs, they’re probably talking about pink salmon.
Besides being by far the most numerous of the five species of Pacific salmon in Alaskan waters, pinks have other qualities that should set an angler’s heart to pounding. They can be caught almost anywhere along Alaska’s coast, in streams and in saltwater. They will usually take most any lure. On light tackle, they fight like trophy trout. When caught in prime condition, they are as fine a fish as ever graced a plate.
Yet, in some places, this Rodney Dangerfield of the salmon tribe gets no respect.
Stream anglers targeting trout and other salmon species tire of pulling in pinks.
The part of sport-fishing lore that says “bigger is better” works against pinks. The smallest of the Pacific salmon, they average only 3.5 to 4 pounds.
And there’s the physical part. As pinks near spawning time, they change dramatically. Their backs turn from metallic blue-green to olive-drab. Their silvery sides become blotchy white. The males’ jaws hook, and a hump forms on their backs — the reason pinks are called “humpbacks” and “humpies.” After they spend a few days in fresh water, some people shun them.
Others, however, hold pinks in high regard. Natives all along Alaska’s coast eat pink salmon. Matt Kookesh, a Tlingit who has lived in the Southeast village of Angoon most of his life, says they are a Tlingit delicacy. The first humpy of the season, in early July, is a welcome sight, he says.
“Humpies are usually boiled with potatoes, onions and seaweed, which is added later,” Kookesh says. “Humpies caught before they hit fresh water make the best smoke strips.
“Humpies with the humps are prized by elders. They make a wonderful fish stew. The fresh water humpies are dried and smoked for a fish delicacy. Fresh water-caught humpies preserve better because most of the oil is gone.”
If you badmouth humpies around Sterling residents Jean and Dillon Kimple, you’ll get an earful.
“Humpies are our favorite!” says Jean.
The couple spent eight summers commercial fishing at Spiridon Bay, Kodiak Island.
“We had our choice of any kind of salmon, but we chose humpies,” Jean says. “I would cut alongside the pin bones, so there were no bones. I dipped the pieces in batter and deep-fried them.”
Last year, when an estimated 5 million pinks swarmed up the Kenai River, there were times when it was difficult to cast a lure — any lure — without hooking one. Almost anywhere else, this would be cause for celebration. On the Kenai, it was cause for groans: “Oh, no! Not another humpy!”
Not everyone groaned. Jeff King is a humpy booster, and proud of it.
“I fish for ‘em,” says this Kenai River guide. “My customers have a lot of fun with ‘em, fishing with light tackle.”
Some of King’s customers have had mounts made of prize pinks.
“One of my customers from Las Vegas was on a rogue humpy hunt one year. He’s got this collection of fish from everywhere, right? He’s got like 300 fish mounted, five or six Kenai kings. He came up here one year just to catch the biggest, gnarliest humpy he could find. We had a lot of fun with that.”
An 8-pounder is a huge pink. The state record, a monster caught in 1974 at the mouth of the Moose River by Steven Alan Lee, weighed 12 pounds, 9 ounces.
The pink’s two-year life cycle is the cause of an interesting phenomenon. Because the odd-year and even-year populations are essentially unrelated, one or the other usually dominates. In the Kenai, the strong runs occur in even-numbered years, as in 2000. In odd-numbered years, few pinks return to the Kenai.
No account of humpies would be complete without mention of Ketchikan artist, fishhead and punster Ray Troll. His appreciation for pinks is obvious in his art, as evinced in “Shocking Pinks,” “Humpies from Hell” and “Don’t Worry, Be Humpy.”
I first met Troll about 10 years ago, when he showed his work at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. He was sitting at a table, signing copies of his book, “Shocking Fish Tales.” I got in line with a bunch of other fish-art fans, and when my turn came, I introduced myself as a fellow fishhead and pun connoisseur. He laughed and signed my book.
Some time later, I noticed that Troll had sketched a salmon above his signature. Not just any old salmon, either, but an honest-to-cod humpy.
Les Palmer can be reached at email@example.com.