It was early July along the Juneau roadside. My arm burned with fatigue and my back was stiff as a board as my fishing partner and I fought bugs, slippery rocks, and of course, fish while we inched our way closer and closer to the century mark for released fish that day.
We tortured ourselves by casting flies into what seemed like a raceway of fresh, chrome-bright humpies or pink salmon. We were fishing the salt water and I recall how dark flies seemed to hook the brightest of fish while anything colorful was nearly perfect in enticing the more aggressive, darker males. Fished on light tackle, humpies can often provide nonstop action all day long.
Pink salmon are the smallest yet most abundant of the Pacific salmon. They are found from California north to the Mackenzie River on the arctic coast and as far west as Korea. In Southeast Alaska, pink salmon spawn in more than 2,000 streams July through September. During this time, the species changes from bright silver to dull gray with white and yellowish bellies. Males develop extremely humped backs - hence the name humpy - and fish average about 4 pounds. The world record on sport gear is just more than 14 pounds!
Each spring after hatching, young pink salmon fry emerge from stream gravel and immediately head downstream to the ocean in unbelievable numbers. Predators target these migrating fry at river and lake outlets and at obvious interception points along coastal shorelines. Young pink salmon begin feeding on plankton but slowly begin to pursue larger prey. Then after rearing for one year in the ocean, these fish turn around and head back to their natal streams culminating a two-year life cycle.
In the Pacific Ocean, pink salmon are unique in that they never exceed two years of age. This means that odd and even year populations are essentially genetically isolated from each other. However, this is not the case for pink salmon introduced to the Great Lakes. The growth of these humpies is often stunted by nutrient-poor waters and in some cases it takes fish three years to mature and spawn.
Along the Pacific Coast, millions of pink salmon are harvested each year and they are considered the "bread-and-butter" crop for many commercial fisheries. Humpies also are an important sport fish and in this part of the world the fishing can be incredible. If you have the patience and willpower, catching a hundred or more fish in a single day isn't that unrealistic, even for the novice.
Pink salmon can be a pretty good meal to boot! However, humpies grow so quickly that their flesh has very little time to firm up and as a result can deteriorate quickly if not cared for immediately. I always sacrifice a few "chromers" for my favorite humpy dip, a party favorite. For most though, canning and smoking are the common methods of preparation and even a few manage to migrate onto the grill.
Every summer I catch and release more than my share of humpies just for the pure enjoyment of seeing my reel spin and my pole arc. These fish have just arrived in mass to our local waters and anglers should have little trouble quenching their thirst for a hookup. Remember, the more humpies you battle now, the less your arm will ache once the coho salmon arrive next month!
Ed Jones is a fisheries biologist who loves to fish. For further information concerning sport fishing opportunities or regulations in the Juneau area, call the Division of Sport Fish at 465-4270.