2012, a humpy year

An Outdoor View

It's time someone put in a good word about pink salmon, the fish also known as humpies, so I'll give it a try.

Weighing between 3 and 4 pounds, pinks are the smallest of the five salmon species found in Alaska waters, but they are by far the most numerous. The 2011 commercial harvest was well over 100 million pinks. The harvest of the second most numerous species, sockeye, was only about 40 million. Third place went to chum salmon, with 17 million. Coho (silver) salmon took fourth place with 3.4 million. Chinook (king) salmon finished dead-last with only .4 million.

As for value, the estimated ex-vessel value of sockeye was highest, at about $296 million, but pinks finished a respectable second, with $170 million -- more than the value of chums, cohos and chinooks combined.

Most pink salmon, more than 59 million, were commercially harvested in Southeast. About 33 million were harvested in Prince William Sound. The Cook Inlet harvest was only 413,000.

Of all the salmon that spawn in North America, pink salmon have the shortest life cycle. From egg to spawning adult takes only 2 years. Pink salmon fry immediately head for the ocean upon emerging from the egg. After 18 months at sea, the adult pinks swim back to the streams were they were born. This short life cycle has led to genetically distinct, odd-year and even-year populations of pinks. In many streams, one or the other of these populations will produce more fish. The Kenai River, for example, produces far more pinks in even years.

In the ocean, a pink is beautiful fish, with greenish-blue black and silver sides. Caught in saltwater on its spawning run, it's in its prime. It's flesh is pale pink, it's texture and flavor like that of a rainbow trout.

Pinks lose some of their appeal upon entering fresh water. It happens fast, within a matter of a few days. Large, black spots appear on the back and tail. Gone are the silvery sides. The males' backs turn a shade between brown and black, and the females' backs turn olive-drab. The male develops hooked jaws and a pronounced hump on its back, the reason for the nickname, "humpy."

Besides being so plentiful, one of the pink's most endearing traits is its eagerness to take just about any lure. In the ocean and in rivers, pinks are often caught by anglers fishing for king and silver salmon. In an even year on the Kenai River -- 2012 is one -- anglers start catching pinks in July, while they're fishing for kings. If they're fishing the Kenai for silvers in August, they'll be catching humpies.

Most Kenai River anglers have a love-hate relationship with humpies. If you're fishing for silvers during a "humpy year," you can be plagued by pinks. They'll snap at anything that moves, including salmon roe, the bait most commonly used by silver anglers. However, one man's plague is another man's pleasure. It's small size and its eagerness to bite make the pink an excellent target for anglers who have never caught a salmon. A 10-year-old can have more fun landing a 4-pound humpy than a 40-year-old landing a 50-pound king.

Something that isn't done much on the Kenai River is fly fishing for pinks. A fresh-from-the-salt pink salmon on a fly rod can be a real challenge, especially if you consider that not all pinks are 4-pounders. The Alaska state record humpy, caught at the Moose River by Steven A. Lee in 1974, weighed 12 pounds, 9 ounces. Imagine trying to land that one on a 7-weight fly rod.

The reason I bring up this subject now is because February is a good time to tie flies. While tying your favorite trout patterns, why not tie a few for the humpies?

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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