“Barbie” isn’t the only phenomenon bringing out the color pink across Seattle this summer. On August mornings at West Seattle’s Lincoln Park, there have been countless flashes of pink at the ends of fishing lures, as anglers engaged in “combat fishing,” crowded shoulder to shoulder, cast into Puget Sound for pink salmon.
Also known as humpies or humpback salmon, these fish only return from the Pacific Ocean to spawn in odd-numbered years. And when their turn comes, the fish often arrive in big numbers. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates 3.9 million pink salmon will swim through local waters over the course of the roughly two-month season, currently at its peak. Those figures represent the best returns in 10 years, which is one reason the beach at Lincoln Park has been more crowded at 7 a.m. than the line to enter nearby Colman Pool on a hot afternoon.
“We don’t have that number of any other salmon coming in collectively in this state anymore,” said Dave McCoy, a Lincoln Park regular and owner of West Seattle fishing store Emerald Water Anglers.
Why Lincoln Park? McCoy said pink salmon follow the kelp bed in the bay on the park’s north side. The natural contour of the shoreline eventually forces them out into the main current at the point on Lincoln Park, directly behind Colman Pool, as the fish continue south to their spawning grounds.
“The point is one of the places where an angler on the bank can insert themselves into the highway, if you will, or the path of those fish,” McCoy said on an overcast August morning, as fishers cast furiously nearby.
While pinks are relatively low on the consumer food chain — rarely appearing on restaurant menus, and fetching a lower price from fishmongers than sockeye or Chinook, most of which come from Alaska, anyway — the abundance of the Puget Sound humpie run makes these fish a prized and still-tasty catch.
“It’s an opportunity to get fish still in the salt, which means they are going to be as fresh as possible,” he said.
While McCoy and a small group of die-hards fly-fish for pinks, the most common technique on the crowded shores of Lincoln Park is to use a spinning rod and the British Columbia-designed Buzz Bomb pink lure. Pink salmon get their nickname from their propensity to bite on anything pink. WDFW also recommends a pink rotator lure or a Point Wilson-type jig.
Basic equipment shouldn’t set you back more than $50 at an outdoors or fishing supply store. Don’t forget your WDFW fishing license (one-day/$11.35, annual saltwater/$30.05 for state residents ages 16-69).
With that kind of setup, Mike Castro was among the dozens who caught their daily limit of two fish during the early-morning frenzy. “It’s fun because they consistently put up a good fight,” said the West Seattle resident.
Check WDFW regulations for Marine Area 10 if you are fishing in the waters off Seattle.
Castro planned to smoke the salmon later — his next priority was getting home in time for his first work meeting of the day. One of the perks of pink fishing is the microadventure aspect: You can catch a wild fish and be home in time for breakfast.
While dedicated anglers travel the world for the best fishing, proximity counts for a lot in a setting with views of the Olympic Mountains on a clear day, and a reasonable chance for a passing visit from eagles, porpoises, seals and maybe even a whale.
“It’s one of the most democratic spots in Seattle,” said Steve Duda, in between casts. “Even in the urban setting, there are moments of real beauty.”
As the Head of Fish Tales at Patagonia and former editor of the FlyFish Journal, Duda has chronicled the travails of wild fish, especially Pacific Northwest salmon. The schools of pink salmon swimming by, setting off a sudden wave of arched fishing lines as person after person reels in a keeper, are a powerful symbol.
“This literally is what abundance looks like, and we could have this sort of abundance for all of our salmon species,” he said. “We could have harvestable, wild fish, but instead our salmon runs have been decimated by dams, hatcheries, net pens and overfishing. Pinks are a reminder of what we once had.”
Pink salmon owe their abundance in part to the fact that they spend far less time in polluted waters — fresh or salt. They spawn close to river mouths and migrate to the ocean soon after they hatch, spending only 18 months in the ocean. By comparison, a Chinook salmon can spend up to seven years growing in the ocean.
While fishing is like many outdoor activities that prize solitude, operating with a gatekeeper attitude and a scarcity mindset — not wanting to give up an alleged secret powder stash, undiscovered surf break or unknown camping spot — the boisterous scene at Lincoln Park presents a different side, one abetted by the sheer amount of fish. It doesn’t matter if there is one fisher or 100 people on the beach — if 3.9 million fish are coming by, everyone has a good chance.
“It’s an opportunity for the fishing community to be around themselves in a common endeavor,” McCoy said.
On that August morning, cheers went up as the fish began biting and the first folks landed salmon on the beach. McCoy recalled past moments of teamwork, when a rod was passed over and under other fishing lines so someone could work their way down the beach to battle a fish on the run.
The beach, meanwhile, adds to the appeal, versus fishing from one of Seattle’s dwindling fishing piers.
“The beach is something nature-made, not man-made,” said McCoy. “Even if there are a ton of people here, you’ve got freedom to roam.”
While the crowds can make fly-casting a challenge in close quarters, McCoy and his crew of dedicated fly anglers swear by the meditative, relaxing aspect of the technique over so-called “gear fishing.”
Whatever your preferred method of fishing, the once-every-two-years pink run is a call to arms that makes even the hectic nature of combat fishing worth the effort for anglers like Chante Cole.
“You should never have to buy seafood if you live in this state,” said the Lakewood resident after she landed a 5-pounder. “Get your license and fill your freezer.”