Sunday, 30 August 2015

Shore Anglers Coho Time in Port Renfrew

The time is fast approaching when gear guys and their kids take to Port Renfrew to angle for coho on the shore of the San Juan River estuary (below the deemed saltwater boundary - the bridge).  The fishery peaks in the third week in September, but as the river is very low this year, there will likely be coho early as they will have no reason to move up.

The Pacheedaht First Nation runs the campground adjacent to the saltwater portion of the river, and it is flat, and a nice spot for campers and tents. It is a five minute stroll to the fish. This is one of the best and simplest fisheries for coho on South Van Isle. While the regs for retention are complex, from September 7 to Dec 31, there is a four coho per day limit, two of which may be unmarked and thus wild coho.

The San Juan has the largest average weight for coho on the Island; this means that you are fishing for large coho, though not necessarily the largest, if you catch my drift. I have seen fish of 20 pounds, which, by any measure is large.

The town side is Pacheedaht Firs Nation land (, and you should ask whether you can fish on the rocks. That side, the south side, has a trough that can be 30 feet deep and is where the chinook tend to bottom out and stay put until rain prompts them to move on. On the campground, north, side, you may fish where you choose. The school will move up and down as the day progresses and you can follow along the shore.

Being able to cast a long way is essential at this spot, so get out your best rod and reel combination. Typically, good baitcaster reels – Okuma, Garcia, Penn – are your best bet. Load them with braided line because it has less friction and thus casts farther, and with 20 feet of 20 pound test as your leader material. Take a 9.5 or 10.5-foot trigger fingered rod, Rapala, or Shimano are popular brands. Tie your lures on with a Palomar knot.

For lures, Buzz Bombs, and lead-based lures are good casters – take a pink one, too. And remember that it is slow up and fast down, reeling only on the down. The intention, as we all know, is to make the lure flutter like an injured baitfish on the drop. Heavy spoons also cast a mile, for example, the Gibbs line of Koho, Illusion, Kit-A-Mat and Ironhead, among others. Reel them in with the occasional twitch to change action. Take silver, gold, blue and green.

Spinners are also popular. Bolos and Mepps Blue Fox, size 4 and 5, are good examples. The Bolos are heavier and thus cast farther. Good colours include red, chartreuse, and blue, with silver blades. Gold blades work better after heavy rain that clouds water, and the coho have moved into the river proper. Gold wobblers, the granddaddy of all the spoons, come into their own in high rain and dirty freshwater. Gold transmits the best in such conditions.

This is a hard spot for a fly caster because of all the lead flying overhead and because such lures can be cast so far beyond a fly. Also, flies typically swing down with the current to be fished, while a spoon or spinner does not and tangled lines can result.

The best action in this pool above the bar is first thing in the morning, even better if it involves a low tide moving into the flood. Coho advance over the bar, and the several hundred yards before the bridge is where they stage, waiting for the heavy rains of autumn. This year we have had little rain and if this prevails, the fishing at the bottom of the estuary should be better than usual.

Do note that at present all rivers on Vancouver Island’s southern end are closed, including the San Juan, Harris and Lens that are on this system. You are restricted to the salt portion of the estuary, the bar, and the beach. The daily convection wind blows up-river much of the afternoon, making this a morning fish, unless you see coho in the waves.

Because the fish get bombarded with lead, fish early, or fish when others have moved on. Once the rain has begun in earnest, and the rivers are opened for fishing, do remember that Fairy Lake gives access to a deep, long bend of river through a channel running from the lake on its south side. Other spots are the last big corner where the tide reaches its highest. This spot is accessed through a 4X4 road – be prepared to bottom out in some of its holes – just before the Harris Creek bridge. This crummy road also gives access to the confluence of the Harris and San Juan.

Under the Harris Creek Bridge, coho sometimes stage for several weeks before moving up. While steelheading in January, I have found some grizzled old vets hanging on in the big pool above the canyon. The Lens Creek- San Juan confluence also has a good pool where coho stop and take time to decide which route to follow in the heaviest waters of late fall.

Note well that the best river water is: the softest part of the deep water. Occasionally, late in the year, they will fan out on knee deep runs, still waiting for those side streams to open up with rain. In this case, cast a spinner (easier to see) so, on retrieve, it passes within 18 inches of the coho’s face, and watch the follow, and resist setting the hook when you see its mouth close. Wait for the strike on the rod.

You need to consult the saltwater regulations: These are complex, but here are a few to bear in mind:

Oct 1 – Dec 31 – four coho one of which may be unmarked. Seaward side of Owen Point to the Canada - USA  boundary in Juan de Fuca Strait.

Sept 7 – Dec 31 – four coho two of which may be unmarked. Owen Point to the Whistle buoy and inside of San Juan Harbour.

There is also a finfish closure – Aug 15 to Sept 7, and chinook non-retention  in the port, July 15 to Oct 25.

The Area 20 general regulation for coho is: June 1 to Dec 31, two, hatchery marked only.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Salmon Behaviour in Salt- and Fresh-water

Salmon behaviour in salt- and fresh-water is remarkably different. In saltwater salmon are actively searching out food and eating. In the period before moving into freshwater for spawning they gorge. That is why coho gain a pound a week as they move through the summer.

If you are miles offshore of, say, Ucluelet, in the summer, you can witness, on a calm day a true wonder of nature. All around the boat, for miles coho will be jumping from the water. In this crazy period, you can whack a flasher on the water beside the boat and a dozen coho will streak in to be the first to the possibility of food. I have seen them whack the flasher and refuse to let go.

While there is a difference between feeder and mature chinook bite and relation to structure, they are always found in a relation with structure. Not so the other species, which tend to swim as schools in a layer of water rather than chinook that tend to be found in the same spot, not because they school, but because they always have a relation with structure, and thus a ‘school’ is a composite of individual fish that are in the same area with identical behaviour.

While we associate daybreak in summer with the best bite, particularly for chinook, tide changes – before a high tide and after a low – also produce bites in the rest of the day. In that period before moving into fresh water, as bite reflex begins to wane, and because salmon tend not to feed at night, that is why daybreak produces the best bite. The salmon, chinook, having not eaten for many hours, are at their ‘hungriest’ first thing in the morning.

Chum are the real exception to other species, in their response to atmospheric pressure. The other four species tend to stop biting as the morning wears on, particularly on sunny days – meaning high pressure days. Chum bite index is highest on sunny days. Try Brown’s Bay on the flood in sun, for example.

Chinook behaviour changes as much as 100 miles from home with the eating reflex declining and them tending to move on shore and follow structure while the other species are found most predictably in tidelines that may be as much as ten miles off shore, for example, in Juan de Fuca Strait.

Chinook have the odd behavioural trait that they will inhabit surf line rock piles a long way from home and then migrate back into offshore waters to move south and east to home. Langara Island in Haida Gwaii, as we now call it, has several behavioural differences. Off Lacy Island on the west side, the chinook are coming on-shore for the first time and can be taken in 250 feet water in a middle layer, as in not structure related.

On Cohoe Point and Andrews on the east side, chinook may be taken a stone’s throw from shore on power-mooched cut plugs. Then, on the flood, a tide line forms off these two points at a 45 degree angle to land, and the chinook will move offshore and continuer migrating south. The same occurs off Vancouver Island. Kain’s Island in Quatsino is a surf line rock pile fishery, with the rat’s Nose, off Ucluelet, some 25 kms off shore, but structure nonetheless, and on the rocks at Wya.

Sooner or later, all salmon come to their estuaries, where behaviour changes again. Over successive tides, salmon are prepared for freshwater that they need time to adjust to breathe the oxygen in water that has very little ionic pressure, unlike the salt ocean they have been breathing in since smoltification some years ago.

When salmon begin to move into freshwater, their behaviour changes a great deal. From freely moving in the water column, they sink to the bottom and stay there. I call this committing to freshwater. In some estuaries, you can, at high tide be presented with the same species but with remarkably different behaviour. Those fish that come in with the tide are in the top layer, perhaps still eating, while those that committed on previous high tides are on the bottom in a school that is not moving, but waiting to move forward into a river proper. All time after that, you will be fishing on the bottom for schools that are essentially stationary in the day.

You will stand in the same place all day long, perfecting the drift with sink tips to find the best spot that produces the most number of bites. And abrupt low pressure can kill such fisheries. The other angle here is what I call managing a school. This works best with chum and chinook. With your casts above, around, on the far side of and below, and your movement around the school, you are aiming to place it in the best spot so that your fly/lure presents itself in front of the most noses in a drift and thus the greatest chance of getting a bite, from a group that only a few percent of will bite.

Most salmon, particularly chinook, spawn at night. Chum spawn in the highest water, whether day or night, and up to 90% of their eggs are wasted when the river level declines. Pinks spawn in the shallowest water, tailouts and riffles where water can barely cover their backs. That water has the highest oxygen level flowing through and around the gravel.

Coho are the real oddballs. Salmon, though no longer eating, still bite in freshwater for one of the following reasons: aggression, territorial, hormonal, passive and curiosity. Coho are the curious salmon and if fishing spinners you can watch a coho turn, aim at the spinner, follow it 25 feet or more, before whacking it. Chum, chinook and pink, are mostly passive biters; this means that if you run a lure or fly at mouth level through a school, typically 5,000 to 10,000 fish, a single fish mouths the offering and lets it go, which is why dink float setups work so well as the float dips under water and you strike before the fish lets go.

Chum, unlike the other species, have a phase, when they are moving in and up, of being snappy. Chinook and pink stop a fly; snappy chum, move to it, bite and turn their heads as the y move off. Coho do the same, though their chase is far more pronounced and they turn away from the lure the quickest and move the farthest, back to where they have been resting. And they rest in the softest part of the deep water. Find such water and you find the coho.

The curiosity bite of coho can be phenomenal on days when it rains two inches, the river rises several feet, and all anglers other than yourself, are watching NFL Sunday football games with Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth. The bite is its highest on such days because coho are side-stream spawners and to get into those streams, the water level has to be high, to get in and to spawn. Thus their most active behaviour occurs in the greatest rain. Many seasonal streams only flow in the winter, and yet they can be high coho producers.

On my last trip fly fishing the North Island, I came across another type of behaviour for pinks I had not seen before. I was idly walking a channel several hundred yards off the main estuary on a falling tide. I happened to see some fish move by me, keeping to the shade – it was a sunny day.

After standing and watching for awhile, I realized that the fish were in saltwater but the tide was dropping and the riffle behind the fish became so shallow that the fish were trapped at the bottom end until the tide rose again. Below me, on what I discovered was a flat less than six inches deep, idle schools drifted about and bolted from time to time when a seagull flew over – salmon see the best straight up. (Incidentally, this means when you are trying to find the zone that being a bit above it is better than being below it. Of course, chinook have a behaviour that is an exception to this rule: they will follow a fly or shiny lure right to the bottom and pick it off the bottom, thus allowing you to strike and get the fish).

Because the fish were moving and changing directions, the chances of getting a fly in front of them was slim, and in shallow water the fly line just spooked them; however, above me, the small stream of salt and freshwater was too shallow for the fish to move up and thus they were indeed trapped.

After following them around for awhile, it came clear that they were spending most of their time in the shade of a large cedar that had branches within three feet of the water, and were in four to six feet of water. It was an awkward place to cast a fly as it required a sidearm cast. This was needed because in a regular ‘over the top’ cast, the fly, when it flips over, hit its highest point and comes to be tangled in low branches. With a flat trajectory, the pop up of the flat happens horizontally, and it went in under the branches and hit the water close to the bank.

Now the fun part. This was hunting at its best. The fish were in an intermediate step prior to committing to fresh water. I spent a couple of hours watching a fish turn, come toward the fly, and bite it. Some missed, and drifted away, which was a real groaner. Some missed and came back. Some returned several times. The hard part was not setting the hook when I could see the mouth close on the fly, and pull it right out of their mouths, but to wait to feel the strike and then set the hook.

Sometimes several fish chased the fly and only one got there. Sometimes it was a lazy follow that could be stimulated by increasing stripping speed. To a predator, a fleeing food object triggers that dash and bite behaviour. In other words this was hunting at its best and many fish were caught and released over the afternoon.

So, what does this mean? It suggests some fish in an intermediate step between salt- and fresh-water and thus, while appearing to be in a river, were actually in saltwater and still feeding, hence the chase and bite. The point was to decipher the attitude and find the spot in the pool where they were feeling safe and bity.

As this was fish in a barrel, I did not fish the spot again, but did go to check whether there were fish in this intermediate step prior to commitment. One day I came upon another angler trying his luck. He told me that was tired of peanut butter sandwiches and was going to catch one of the fish for supper. He was in the ankle-deep water, trying to lay a fly in front of a school.

I asked him if he knew the drill and he said yes. Part of the etiquette of fly fishing is not giving tips because the receiver may not appreciate them. So I said nothing and moseyed on. He remained shuffling about the shallow water. Later, I found out he did not catch anything. That was because he was trying in a circumstance with flighty fish, and needed to move up under the cedar where the much more relaxed fish milled around in the shade, ready to whack a fly.

The more you fish, the more you learn about fish, which is one of the prime things about fishing: there is always something new to learn.

Sorry for going on so long.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Q and As – August

Eric Hvid: I am thinking about taking my older boy to Renfrew for Coho fishing around the end of September but want to avoid the Coho derby Oct 3-4. Would it be advantageous to go later after the derby or the weekend before? I live in Port Alberni so it is a bit of an adventure getting there.

A: I would go the weekend before the derby, for a couple of reasons: if it rains in those two weeks, the coho will shoot up the river; and the San Juan coho, the largest, on average, on the island, do stage in the bay for awhile, presenting themselves for trolling.

In addition, the third week of September is usually the hot time for shore anglers to fish coho on the seaward side of the bridge, as the coho will stop there for quite awhile once crossing the bar before rain begins in earnest. The best time is early in the day, or the high tide as the fish get pretty bombarded with lead all day long.

Do look at the regs because the San Juan area has both pass by and local coho, and DFO usually splits the bay regarding retention and fishing area.

You might want to pick up my Vancouver Island Fishing Guide as it gives a lot of lures for Port Renfrew, and does cover the entire island, for other trips. Also, phone Trailhead Charters as they have accommodation and sell tackle and will know some of the currently hot lures when you will be going. Phone: 250-647-5468 and check out their site:

Try blue/green in hootchies and traditional Cowichan Bay bucktails, and fireplug cutplugs. You can fish, both in the tide lines offshore, or in the open portion of the bay.

Steve Housser: The Nature Trust of BC has completed acquisition of the last slice of the Salmon River estuary, some 165 acres, near Sayward. The purchase of this stunningly beautiful property and important habitat would not have been possible without the enthusiastic support of many conservation organizations.

As in many cooperative conservation initiatives, it takes time and patience to pull together all the components that lead to the successful acquisition of significant habitat. In this case, The Nature Trust of BC, it and its partners have been steadily acquiring Salmon River estuarial and river bank properties since 1978.

For this latest acquisition we were thrilled to have the participation of Habitat Conservation Trust Fund and the BC Hydro Fish & Wildlife Compensation Program, as well as the Steelhead Society of BC, The Kingfisher Rod and Gun Club, The Parksville-Qualicum Fish & Game Association, the Campbell River Salmon Foundation, Islander reels, the Totem Flyfishers Club and dozens of individual donors, including fishing enthusiast and blogger DC Reid.

This new acquisition allows for protection of a larger, contiguous area of Salmon River estuary and its banks. This strategic purchase will enhance critical habitat for numerous species of fish and wildlife including Great Blue Heron, Marbled Murrelet, Northern Pygmy Owl, Roosevelt Elk and all species of Pacific salmon. The area is also home to sea run cutthroat trout, Dolly Varden Char and it boasts the largest steelhead in BC! Throw in the fact that it is an area of exceptional beauty that will allow future generations to enjoy its natural splendour and you have an all-round superb conservation acquisition.

A: Good for The Nature Trust. I suggest all anglers consider making a donation to the Trust and also consider leaving a bequest in wills.

Syd Pallister, Gibbs Delta tackle: Did you get those Coho Killers and flashers?

A: Yes and thanks. I can see why the Madi, Lemon Lime and Purple Onion have been hot flashers in the Victoria area. That Moonjelly pink tone that turns to purple when you rotate the flasher looks very fishy to me.

I found the silver Coho Killer to be the best lure when I fished Constance Bank a few weeks ago. On The Flats in Oak Bay these new spoons have been very effective, I would guess because they are slim profile and thus match the needlefish bait. The Green Spatter Back has been good, and I’ll give the White Lightning a shot soon. It looks good as does the Kitchen Sink; Gold Chrome should be good for coho, particularly on the west coast of Van Isle.

Don Ford: I don’t use downriggers and feel the same results can be achieved with a one pound slip weight and putting the engine into neutral every 10 seconds or so. Springs love a slow fluttering bait and many strikes occur as you go back into forward.   Even without a depth sounder this technique has worked very well for me.

A: Yes, motor mooching can produce well, but these days is usually only done at remote sport fishing resorts in the summer. Chinook are in higher numbers in these areas and are also actively feeding. In more urban areas, getting down and up without weights does require downriggers.

Paul Bohun, Costa Rica: Alexandra Morton directed me to your post on land-based fish farms, but I did not get the URL.

A: For the past few years, I have put down the on-land fish farm systems I have found while researching the environmental damage caused by in-ocean fish farms. My list now has 88 different systems, comprising more than 10,000 actual farms around the globe that are on land.

There is no need anymore for the old-tech, dinosaur Norwegian-style fish farms to be in our pristine oceans. They need to be on land.  

Paul B. Downing, Editor,,  I am looking into doing a trip to the Island this September or October. I am interested in walk wade fly fishing opportunities for all types of fish. I prefer stream fishing but have never done shore salt fishing for cutts. Also, I have never caught a steelhead. I do love to catch salmon, especially kings, on the fly. I am not opposed to gear fishing if that is best. My idea is to wander around the Island sampling the waters listed in your book. However, it is clear I will need some help finding the best places and learning the local techniques. When would be the best time to come and fish salmon, trout and steelhead? I will do a number of articles for my online magazine based on the trip.

A: My Vancouver Island Fishing Guide lists many fisheries. The other book you should pick up is a Backroad Mapbook from Mussio Ventures as it has all the logging/gravel roads on the Island and the paved as well. They have a GPS chip, too.

September or October should work, although this year it looks like a real drought and so fishing the bigger rivers is a better bet for September when you will find chinook in several of them. October is chum and coho month, particularly once it has rained. But, if not, then they will be on the beaches and in estuaries. Typically searuns and Dollies are a secondary target taken while doing other fisheries.

I have caught summer steelhead in every month of the year. They are in short supply as they are all wild runs composed of 100 to 700 fish. So, catching one is a real treat. Please treat them well.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Fly Fishing for Pinks – North Island

We should hope that this climate change summer we have been having is not repeated. Our local rivers are devoid of water, so much so that even the smallest of salmon, pinks, are having difficulty moving into and up, and they require only a few inches to move and spawn.

Climate change will result in lower, warmer, oxygen-depleted water in summer, lack of spawning habitat until fall rain comes and then flood rains in late fall that wipe out or bury spawned eggs. The only rivers open for fishing at this time are controlled flow with dams above for water release, like the Campbell, Puntledge and Big Qualicum.

In addition, the arrival of pinks has been much slower than the norm. They arrived only last week in the Salmon, and into the Campbell, a month late for both. Volunteer hatcheries, like the well-subscribed Nile Creek fishery haven’t seen much to date.

I hesitate to suggest some headwater dams are needed to control flow because the current BC government hears: run of river power companies. The Toba Inlet desecration of 15 streams is a stark reminder that we need public – not private – dams for salmon, not power. See the image link at the bottom of this article.

And if salmon cannot get into rivers, they don’t spawn, and it’s a good question how long they will survive in saltwater before hormonal maturation kills them. In Port Alberni, there is another problem. On the good news side: 1.8 million sockeye in the Inlet. On the bad news side: the Stamp/Somass/Sproat water temperature is higher than these most sensitive of salmon can take. Those that go into the system, begin dying at 20 Degrees C.

The confluence pool of the Stamp/Sproat can be littered with dead sockeye in warm years. They look like bars of silver on the bottom, but represent a bad outcome for salmon. In addition, Qualark Creek, on the Fraser, has in the last week been 18.7 Degrees C, with the Fraser flow down 36% to 2530 cubic metres per second. Sockeye begin dying at 20 degrees C.

There is no estimate of Fraser pink run size at present, but judging by the outstanding fishing we have been having in the Victoria area, it should meet or exceed 15 million fish. DFO estimates are a week away. Locally, we seldom take these fish fly fishing, but shore anglers take some with gear in Ross Bay as well as the Victoria Golf Club (in Oak Bay) where Enterprise Channel gives way to the Flats. As well, many chinook have been taken off the corner point this year.

On my annual camping/pink fly fishing trip, I fished the estuaries of rivers north of Campbell River. The fly fishing was good, surprisingly so because two years previously (pink are two-year life-cycle fish) the fishing was abysmal. Also, the odd-year run is the poorer of the odd/even alternative, unlike the Fraser which peaks in odd years, as in 2015.

I had the great negative fortune to have my camp blow over in the daily 20 to 30 knot winds that make Johnstone Strait almost frigidly cold to stand out in for more than a few hours at a time. My Snowbee ZR2 ended up broken under my table, stove and other heavy things. Then my antediluvian All American Diamondback splintered on the shaft, rather than the more likely ferrule.

After some electrician’s tape medication (I did not have any Red-Green duct tape with me), I made a long, heavy, slow switch rod of the remaining, unbroken pieces. It cast the line a mile but I was sure happy I also had a light, responsive, Mystic, 11.5 foot, 7-8 weight switch rod with me. What a superb little rod, particularly for a wrong shoulder single Spey cast. I am left handed and the Johnstone St. wind always blows into my left side. To avoid being hooked in the face, I have cast so much off my wrong (right) shoulder, that I am better at it than off my correct (left) shoulder sans the wind.

And in cross winds, to avoid your cast blowing up and back over your shoulder, you will find that a diagonal forward stroke to the windward side will send your line out and onto the water somewhat true. Without a wind, a diagonal trajectory for your tip – bad technique – just results in an open cast with a balloon to the side and little distance.

I am told there is a video of me landing a pink on the Mystic site, but I can’t find it. See Nile Creek Fly Shop for the rods (Note 2 below). To keep from breaking the tip of your rod while releasing a fish, take a tip: when the pink has been played out, get its head on the surface and surf the fish into you by extending your rod to the side opposite the fish. When the leader comes within the grasp of your stripping hand, in the same moment, release the line from your rod hand, and the rod will straighten without breaking the tip.

Finally, please release all fish in the water. Don’t drag them up onto the gravel, remove the hook, and kick them back into the water. It breaks their slime, they may pick up a disease, their bodies are not meant to lie on shore rather than be supported by water and it may kill them.

And one final thing: one day, as we stood on the bar before deep water, a mid-size female killer whale came up in front of the guy next to me about five feet from him. He promptly turned his pants brown. And he and I released a lot of expletives.  A minute later, the same, I think, killer whale came up five feet from him, 15 from me, and we both had heart attacks.

Which leaves some interesting questions: was it the same killer whale? It sure looked like the same female of the same size. And why would it go underwater, turn a circle and come up again? Does a killer whale have a sense of humour? This implies great intelligence. Do killer whales like to scare the pants off humans? I don’t know, but they have to be really smart to appreciate their own actions.


2.      Nile Creek Fly Shop: