Sunday, 21 June 2015

Think Rainbows, Think June, Think Vancouver Island

The Concept

If you haven’t fished Van Isle in June you need to put it in your fishing itinerary. That’s because it is one of the best months for trout. The concept is this: rainbows spawn in June on Vancouver Island. That means they are in rivers May, June and into July in big numbers. There are 123 watersheds and that’s a lot of opportunity. The best place to fish is in an outlet stream from, or inlet stream into, a lake. Vancouver Island has hundreds of lakes so there are hundreds of streams/rivers/places to ply your fly.

Pick up a copy of the Backroads Mapbook and find the lakes. As the Island is 500 km long and as much as 150 km wide there are oodles of lakes. Often you will be on your own in beautiful weather – an altogether idyllic day. Another advantage is that most of the rivers and lakes are open for fishing 12 months of the year – but do check the freshwater regulations for specific closures. This contrasts with many main-land rivers and lakes that typically open June 1, and some even later.

The most well-subscribed fishery that demonstrates the concept, and one that is no longer a well-kept secret, is the Elk River west of Campbell River on the Highway to Gold River. The Campbell Lakes, Buttle and John Hart all join and there is an impassable falls that becomes the Campbell River at the lower end along with a hydro facility. No fish is getting in, no fish is getting out.

So there is no outlet stream that rainbows can investigate on the bottom end, but as you drive west and find the upper end of Upper Campbell Lake you will find a long flat valley where over the eons gravel has been pushed out of the mountains and resulted in several miles of easy access, easy fish and highly useful spawning gravel – the Elk River.

The rainbows come gravid to the Elk, rather chunky males in their fighting colours and the females of their interest. It is best to scout the river the day before you fish, then rise early and go directly to the section you wish to fish. One example, would be the Cervus Creek access where this stream passes under Highway 28. The stream itself will be full of fish and it is a five minute walk to the Elk River into which Cervus flows.
But there are many other places to stop and access the Elk as the highway drives along the river until, at the upper end, it passes into its canyon section where one finds Dolly Varden char in the deep pools – but a much more difficult fish.

The reason for getting to the river early is that many anglers and guided anglers will fish in the day, and so you want to be the first person to the section you wish to fish. Do plan for the eventuality that later in the day fly fishers may start fishing below you, and hence, pick a section that passes some distance from the highway. You will have more time on your own with your fish.

One final concept. It’s an easy one: rig your rod and reel, nymphing tip and tie a fly to the tippet the night before finding your beat on the river. There is nothing more annoying than getting up in the dark, being the first to the river, and then already rigged arrivees snag the best water you had savoured for yourself.
It has to be kept in mind that while the Elk is good for the June nymphing concept, there are many, many others and you will find the same fishing, but not the crowds. Often you will be alone.

Other Lakes

The concept of taking rainbows on the fly in June in outlet/inlet streams is not limited to the Elk. Other examples include the well-known Cowichan River. And, in this, as well as other rivers, you will find other species of trout, including, below Lake Cowichan, lake cutthroat and brown trout.

The entire Cowichan has trails on one or both sides. At the top, the first section is from Greendale Road, an easy place to find. It presents a lovely June day with a half mile section of turned on trout. A mile or so below, the road gives walking access to the Spring Pool. Trails by the river take you up or down stream. In fact, the upper section is from Skutz Falls, and if you are on foot, a couple of days of angling. In between, the railway grade gives a long flat walk into roughly half way between lake and falls.

Above the trestle is fly only, but with most fly guys on the north side. This means drifting the Cow from Greendale to Skutz, which requires two cars, gives you access to the other side of the river that is seldom targeted.

And there are more lakes with rivers. Horne Lake’s inlet stream, the Big Qualicum River, bears lots of bows in June, as does Cameron bear cutthroat on the way to Port Alberni. Note that Cameron’s brown trout, and all those on the Island, spawn in November. Same concept, but swung fly and different flies.

One that I am in the process of nailing down is where the Nimpkish River, the Island’s largest, empties into the lake of the same name. Downstream, after 20 km of windy lake, the Nimpkish River flows out the bottom for five kms to the ocean – but does not suit this kind of fishery, as it is half a mile wide. The obvious water for rising rainbows is at the upper end.

It will take you some time to figure out the access to the easy half mile walk to where the river empties into the lake. The best day I was there, the river was too high and, although I waded out, it was clear it was taking my life in my hands, as the dropoff into the lake is precipitous and drowning a likely event.

But, on that day, there was an otter at the outlet, and also a seal. That seal had swum up more than 25 km from saltwater. So that means the opportunity must be pretty great for it to use that much energy just to swim up and wait.

To close, find the lakes and their streams. A good bunch that will give you many years of learning and high return are the lakes of the Somass River. It is formed by the Stamp and Sproat, two rivers with large lakes. So, as they say, fill your boots and get out there.


June is high-stick nymphing time. The drill is a 4- or 6-weight fly rod, floating line, poly tip ending in light tippet, and bead-head nymphs for flies. In nymphing, the intention is to make the fly float dead-drifted past the fish with as little drag as possible.

First you surreptitiously find the fish, then quietly stand beside them. The fly is cast slightly above the fish, rod tip high in the air. The rod tip follows the fly as it naturally tumbles, like a larval/pupal insect that has come loose from the rock to which it clings until emerging.

During its tumble, the fly drops in the water, and a firming of the line, or slowing of the drift, indicates a fish has been fooled and touched the fly. Set that hook and the rest is smiling time. Photo only one or two fish, as it is stressful for them, and return them all to carry on their day.

Nymphing is a delightful light method of fly fishing, with short casts so even beginners can be successful. Rod tip high in the air, following the fly, keeping drag off it is essential to make the fly present with the proper motion. And you will catch many fish, most less than 16 inches, but every location will have some larger rainbows, and other species.

The opposite to this style of fly fishing is swung fly where the fly is cast out, quartering downstream, above the lie and then, after an upstream mend, under tension, swung across the river, to directly below you, where the fly sits for a few seconds so a following fish has time to catch up and nip. This is a very common approach for steelhead, and for any anadromous fish, because in their first few weeks into freshwater, they don’t know what the food looks like. So a fly, say a leech, or bunny pattern with contrasting colours is intended to give the fish something easy to see, track and attack.

Other Species of Game Fish

Most of Vancouver Island rivers/streams have more species than rainbow. As noted, there are also browns (meat-eaters that want bigger meals) freshwater cutthroat and resident Dolly Varden. In some northern drainages there are brook trout.

In addition, as rivers are often short, anadromous fish will rise from the ocean: searun cutthroat trout, Dolly Varden Char, summer and winter steelhead, along with early sockeye salmon. I have taken the occasional silvery brown that suggests anadromous browns in a few places. These species are less likely nymphing targets, and this also suits beginning fly fishers as a swung fly is an easier technique to learn. On the other hand, those new to fishing tend to leave their rod tip too high, like in nymphing, and need to be reminded to drop their rod tip into the water, for striking purchase.

Also note where the Freshwater Fisheries Societly of BC has stocked pothole lakes, meaning ones without inlet or outlet streams. An example close to the Elk River, is Echo Lake just west of the town of Campbell River. You could give this a try later in the day on return from your river of choice. The stocked lakes are also a solid bet when planning a several day trip.

The Campbell River itself has stocked sea runs, most earlier than June. I have ended my fishing early, so as not to prick anymore fish – meaning I’d caught more than I thought possible and had to drag myself away with fishing morals. The Campbell’s stocked summers have a split season with a good portion arriving in January – that’s both species.

Helicopter Rainbows

There is nothing cooler than helicopter fly fishing. Getting dropped on a river no one else can get to, with unpressured fish in gorging mentality, is a peak fishing experience to which you should aspire.

Vancouver Island is a wilderness area with some fish only accessed from the air. They are waiting for you. Helicopters open up the mainland inlets where the only access is, well, a helicopter. That says it all. From Gold River and Campbell River the Lodge at Gold River targets such rivers.

On the mainland east of Campbell River, there can be as much as 40 miles of fishing. You hop from run to run and pool to pool. Just you and your fly rod against sea-run cutthroat trout to five pounds and Bull Trout to eleven pounds. Yes, eleven.

The Lodge at Gold River:


Nymphing is about larval stages of freshwater insects, typically caddis and mayflies, but also damsels, stones and dragons. Bead head nymphs are the ticket. In June the rainbows are less picky than at other times of the year. That’s because each one is one mouth among dozens of mouths, and zapping to the food is important.

Try Prince Nymphs, Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ears and Pheasant Tails. Keep your eye on the hatches and follow with dries, also dead drifted. A few that would give you a hand are: PMDs, Elk Hair Caddis and the generic Tom Thumb. The latter is particularly useful should you run into anadromous Dolly Varden char in your day – their flanks are silvery blue. 

I had only one Tom Thumb one day, and it got smacked to smithereens. I kept putting on floatant and the blob the fly became was just as hot as it was on the first mouth it encountered. Another usual suspect to keep your eyes open for, on a particularly warm day is: an ant pattern, a floater. June is too early for termites, and there are next to no grasshoppers on Vancouver Island.

Fly tying books:

Fly Fishing BC,’s Interior, Brian Smith, Caitlin Press. Has a very good 30 page colour section of flies, with tying instructions.
A Compendium of Canadian Fly Patterns, Robert H. Jones, Paul C. Marriner, Gale’s End Press, 2006. Covers all of the flies used in Canada.

Useful websites:

1.      Freshwater Fisheries Society of BC that stocks lakes:

2.      Here is the Vancouver Island stocking reports for 2014, updated several times per year, as many lakes are stocked several times from March to October:

3.      Here are the stocking reports for all of BC:

4.      Here are the Vancouver Island freshwater regulations: