Fall is fine time to find pink salmon on North Shore
Sep 29, 2019 10:18AM
● By Editor
Jason Swingen drifts a set of nymphs through a run in one of Minnesota’s many Lake Superior tributaries along the North Shore. Swingen has passionately pursued pink salmon each fall since making the move to the Duluth area. Photos by Scott Mackenthun
By Scott Mackenthun - Special to The Mankato Free Press - September 29, 2019
Fall fishing is your best shot at one of the more obscure fish found in Minnesota waters, the pink salmon.
Pink salmon are native to the Pacific Ocean but were stocked in the Current River in Ontario, a tributary to Lake Superior, in 1956. Since the initial stocking the fish have naturalized themselves across Lake Superior, making runs into tributaries around the lake including Minnesota’s North Shore.
In their native waters, pink salmon are anadromous, living in the Pacific Ocean for much of the year and then running into fresh water streams to spawn. In Lake Superior, the fish are technically potamodromous, living in the big lake for much of the year before making their fall run up tributaries and running from fresh water into fresh water.
The Superior pink salmon runs typically start in the north tributaries and work their way south as temperatures drop in September; fall rains draw in fish as well. Pink salmon are semelparous, meaning they spawn once before dying shortly thereafter.
A Minnesota tributary-run pink salmon, fresh out of Lake Superior, is held by hand. With humped and mottled back, olive sides and pink slash along the lateral, the fish is easy to recognize in streams in September and October. Photo: Scott Mackenthun
Male pink salmon are easily identified by their humped backs, which give them their nicknames “humpies.” Both males and females have a slight pink hue along their sides during the spawn. The fish are on a two year life cycle, although there are runs in both odd and even years on Lake Superior.
Jason Swingen is a Montana-born fly angler, transported to Minnesota’s North Shore by way of his marriage to a Minnesota wildlife biologist. Upon settling into his new home area, he began exploring the local fishing scene.
Being self-employed as a web designer, he didn’t have any co-workers from whom to pry fishing information. Instead, he heard about a local Trout Unlimited meeting. The meeting covered migratory trout and salmon on the North and South Shores.
“They were talking about how there’s going to be steelhead in the Brule soon, and there’s pink salmon in the rivers now. They said, ‘It’s awesome. You can catch a bunch of them, but it’s about to end,’” Swingen recalled with a chuckle. “It was ending as I was attending that first meeting.”
Swingen would have to wait a full year to fish them again, but it fueled an interest in him to learn all he could about the fish and be prepared when the fish returned again.
When targeting pink salmon during the fall run, Swingen throws small streamers like wooly buggers, in a size 8 beadhead style in black, olive, pink or red.
“A lot of times, if you can get above them and dangle it in front of their face, it will make them mad,” he said about presenting flies.
Swingen also will drift nymphs through pools and shoots.
“I’ll nymph for them with a yarn egg or a bead,” he said. “I use a lot of pink … but an indicator with common nymphs like princes, frenchies, zebra midges — they catch fish.”
Since most Minnesota North Shore streams have impassable barriers and waterfalls a short distance from their mouths, you don’t have to go far to find fish.
“Most streams have fish from the mouth to the first obstruction and in any pools along the way,” Swingen said.
Often you can see the fish in the clear water holding together in schools.
Swingen and I checked out a popular pink salmon stream just as the run was starting earlier this month. The pink salmon were active, jumping and rolling right in front of us, but no fish came to our hands.
Swingen said that as the run goes on, the bite seems to pick up. It’s possible we were a little early for the bite, but by all the commotion there was no doubt the fish were in.
By the middle or late part of the run, the fish are more willing to bite and multiple fish trips are commonplace. There is also the bonus of a chance to catch fall running steelhead, a coaster brook trout, a brown trout or even a coho or chinook salmon.
In the years that have passed since Swingen moved to the Duluth area, he’s figured out the lay of the fishing land and become a big fan of the fall pink salmon run.
While that first Trout Unlimited meeting put pink salmon on his brain, you’ll still find Swingen at Trout Unlimited meetings. He continues as a local chapter member and has served on the board of Minnesota Trout Unlimited.
Swingen freely shares his knowledge and interest in trout and salmon of Lake Superior on his website” js-outdoors.com.
Scott Mackenthun is an outdoors enthusiast who has been writing about hunting and fishing since 2005. He resides in New Prague and may be contacted at [email protected].
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