fly fishing for humpback salmon

Jackasses and Humpies

If I’m going to get up at 4:30 AM to go fishing, it had better be to either catch something, or go steelhead fishing (those two are mutually exclusive). On this day  it was to harvest some Humpback salmon, or as they are more commonly called, Humpies. There were an estimated 6 million of these fish returning to Puget Sound rivers this year, and I aimed to catch several, and bring home a couple for the smoker. I was in fact so confident that I bragged to Mrs. UA that I’d be bringing home some fish. She always delights in this novel concept, given that 99% of the time I release all the fish I catch (and a good portion of those are released at a long distance).

Honestly, the wiser I get the less appeal rising at 4:30 has, no matter what I’m doing. But when a youthful, enthusiastic friend continually hounds invites you to join him for a morning of catching Humpies, the best way to get him to stop bugging you only sensible thing to do is to oblige. And so it was that I rolled into the parking lot at 5:30, did my best to cheerfully greet Evahn (not his real name) and gear up. Under the cloak of darkness we marched down the trail, over some fallen trees, and after a relatively short hike ended up on the banks of the Snohomish River near the Donkey Hole (more on that later).

This section of the river is close enough to Puget Sound to be influenced by tidal activity, although the water does not taste of salt. Being only a few miles from the sound, there’s good reason why people come here to catch Humpies: they’re still bright and fresh. Allowing them to migrate further upstream means the fish become more tightlipped and darkly colored as they prepare to spawn.

A dime bright Humpy

Humpies run every other year in these parts (actually there are fish in the rivers each fall, but there’s only a large enough run to warrant a legal season every other year). I fished last for them in October of 2009, many miles further upstream from the Donkey Hole. As one would expect, the fish I caught were not dime bright, though they did not appear overly uncooperative either, given that I caught several.

A not dime bright Humpy

The origin of the name, Donkey Hole, revealed itself shortly after we began fishing at 6 AM.  I should state that it had nothing to do with the other gentleman who joined us later in the morning–a friend of Evahn’s who bears more than a passing resemblance to Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule (a mule is the hybrid offspring of a horse and a donkey in case you were wondering where I was going with this).

Not Gov't Donkey

But I digress. The quiet tranquility of the morning was shattered by a sound that was more haunting than the blood-curdling call of a heron in flight. It might best be described as a shrill nasal whistle followed by a great exhalation sounding remotely like a raspy foghorn, albeit somewhat higher in pitch. If you’ve ever heard a jackass braying then you know this sound. “Guess you know why it’s called the Donkey Hole, eh?” said Evahn. The jackasses on the farm across the river kept at their racket in short bursts throughout the morning.  I actually rather enjoyed the braying–it interrupted the jubilant celebrations of the many gear anglers in boats who were regularly hooking up with fish.

I had one fish on within the first hour, but it came unbuttoned.  No worries, I told myself. There were dozens upon dozens of fish jumping and rolling on the mirror-like surface of the water and the day was young.  It was far too early to count my unaccomplishments just yet. Evahn admitted that it was much slower than it had been just a couple of days earlier when he’d hooked and landed over 20 fish (allegedly). The day wasn’t going perhaps as well as either of us had expected, but in many ways it was going better for me than for Evahn. At least I’d remembered my wallet, all my flies and all sections of my rods. But that’s where my good fortune stopped, and Evahn’s began.

I had two more nibbles but no takes. I did get close enough to touch fish, however, as Evahn landed a few fish throughout the morning. One of his fish waited until we’d both crouched closely with our cameras before flopping violently on the beach and splattering our faces with wet sand.

Evahn with a Humpy

Humpies, also known as Pink salmon, are the smallest of the salmon species, and the pink designation refers not to their coloration because unlike Red (Sockeye) Salmon, which are red, Pink (Humpback) Salmon are not pink. I guess it refers to the fact that they eat pink stuff and it’s widely accepted that any pink fly will entice a strike. That’s always worked for me, but on this day nothing I tried seemed to work.

Examples of three pink flies that did not work.

Evahn found the secret weapon late in the morning and it was neither pink, nor a fly (per se). I will not divulge what that secret weapon was for two reasons: First, I dare not give away the secret; secondly, I wish not to bring shame upon Evahn. Like me, he is a puritan fly angler who would never nymph for steelhead or use a pink Dick Nite to catch Humpies. Suffice it to say, once he had it dialed in, Evahn was on fire and landed probably 5 fish in the last half hour. Well done, sir–here’s mud in your eye.

Evahn, the Accomplished Angler

We called it quits at around noon and hiked back to the parking lot. As we did so, one of us had his tail between his legs and later felt like a jackass when he got home and had to tell his wife that he had failed to bring home one of 6 million fish or supper. By the way, Evahn works for Allen Fly Fishing. They design some nice rods and reels, all field-tested by an accomplished angler.