The sun sank low in the sky last Friday evening while families with young children cast their lines in the water at Manzanita Beach, and several men sat on a log, watching for a sign that pinks were swimming by.
Pinks, as many know, are pink salmon, which come through Puget Sound from the ocean every other year on their way back to the region’s rivers to spawn. More than 6 million salmon are expected to pass through the sound this season, the peak of which occurs in August, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). On Vashon, those numbers mean good fishing — and not just for old pros, either.
“Pinks are very good feeders,” said Doug Milward, the ocean salmon manager with WDFW. “They’re great for beginners. You just have to get something pink or silver in front of them, and they will bite.”
Indeed, Kelly and Nick Keenan and their children Mallory, 7, and Gavin, 5, were all trying their luck at Manzanita after attempting to catch a pink for a few weeks. So far, their efforts had come up short, though they said they had fished next to people who had reeled fish in. Some of the kids’ fishing efforts gave way to splashing in waves and scrambling on low-hanging trees, but they all remained optimistic in the evening light.
“We’re hoping today is our lucky day,” Kelly said.
Just a short distance down the beach, Joe Wald, 19, reported considerably more luck than the Keenans. Over the last four days, he said, he had fished for about 24 hours, hooked about 10 pinks and caught a few. The fish are not hitting fast, he said, and slow movements are needed to be successful.
“You have to present it just right,” he said.
Pinks are the most abundant Pacific salmon and are found from Alaska to Washington, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They typically weigh between 3 and 5 pounds and measure up to 25 inches long. Their numbers are increasing, Milward said, because unlike other salmon species, they are not hurt to a large degree by humans’ detrimental actions to freshwater habitats. Pinks spend very little time in rivers, he noted, and the increase in their numbers has both positive and negative aspects.
When they are very small, he said, pinks are food for coho and chinook salmon. But the picture is more complicated than that.
“There is only so much gravel,” he said. “There is only so much freshwater. They do compete, but they are also food. The door swings both ways.”
Islander Joseph Bogaard, the deputy director of Save our Wild Salmon in Seattle, said he is looking forward to fishing with his kids, and while the pinks have begun to make their way in, the best part of the season is expected to be in the next two to four weeks.
“It’s a huge fishing opportunity,” he said. “At the height of the run, you hear about people who get a fish every other cast.”
He, too, noted the large numbers of pinks relative to other species and stressed salmon’s ability to survive over time, though people have pushed their limits.“You give these fish habitat, and they will take it,” he said.
Salmon’s roots in the Northwest date back a long way, he said, and include sabertooth salmon that lived in this area before the Ice Age and measured up to 8 feet long.
“Salmon are a fish of mystery, which is part of their appeal,” he said.
On a more practical note, Milward said that pinks have a reputation for not being good eating fish, but if cared for properly, they will make a good meal.
They must be immediately bled out, he said, cleaned and put on ice.
“They’re not forgiving if you do not care for them right,” he added.
Wald, who smoked his fish, has high praise for the fish when cared for properly.
“They’re fantastic,” he said.
Licenses are required before heading off to fish, Milward, noted, and on Vashon the limit is four pinks a day. He also cautioned that people need to be sure what kind of salmon they are catching, as chinook salmon, which are listed as a threatened species by the Environmental Protection Agency, are also in the area, and only hatchery chinook can be caught and kept. Hatchery fish have had the adipose fin — a small fin on the back ridge — removed to distinguish them from wild chinook. Those who are caught breaking the rules will be ticketed, he said. He also suggested people use single hooks and pinch their barbs down so they can catch and release fish they cannot or do not want to keep.
At Manzanita Beach, Carl Nelson, who said he grew up fishing on Vashon, walked down the beach to join family members and others waiting on the log, scanning the water for signs of the pinks.
Once people catch a fish in a certain place, he said, that’s where they head, and after catching his first pinks there some 25 years ago, Manzanita is that place for him.
“I drug everybody here tonight,” Nelson said. “You get hooked. You keep coming back.”
His nephew Will Zike, 15, was one of those who Nelson had “drug along” that night, though Will said he had also spent a lot of time fishing at Lisabuela. So far, Zike said, this season he had caught seven fish compared to his father David Zike’s one.
WDFW’s Milward encourages those who want to fish to head out soon.
“There’s more coming. The next few weeks will be the heart of the season,” he said. “When you’ve got millions going by, you’ve got a good chance.”
Fish for a cause
A fishing derby to benefit the Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness (IFCH), an annual event in recent years, will be Saturday, Aug. 24, at Dockton Park.
This event is part of 15 derbies in the Northwest Salmon Derby Series. Weigh-in will begin that Saturday at 10 a.m. and continue until noon. From noon to 2 p.m., there will be a free community potluck picnic and barbecue open to all people, whether they fished or not.
Again this year, there will be cash prizes, including up to $1,500 for first prize, depending on the number of entrants.
IFCH is a nonprofit organization that provides a variety of resources to people to prevent homelessness. For more information, see www.ifch.org.