Sunday, 25 October 2015

Coho Time in Rivers

Vancouver Island has 123 watersheds on an island 500 km long and 150 km wide. Most of those contain coho. October and November are the main months to catch them, though they linger on into January in some systems. The reason is that they typically spawn in side-streams and those streams have the best entrance on very high water which rivers reach in winter.

Coho are best caught on rainy days, so get a raincoat. That is because, as side-stream spawners they respond far and away higher than other species of salmon. It cues them to bite. You need to know the rivers you fish because coho typically are found in shade and in the deepest part of the soft water. It will take you years to find these spots because coho simply mill quietly for weeks and because they may not come to the surface, you will have no idea that they are there until you plumb the water on several occasions.

On one of the rivers I fish, I found a killer spot that in summer would hold zero fish, but it was below a consistent coho producing side-stream. Coho fry are easily spotted because they have orange tails. So if you find coho fry in spring and summer in side streams that have been cut off from the river, pay attention because coho will stage in spots downstream from this stream in the fall. Following my own advice, I sidestepped my way to some willow offering belly button deep water for a short cast out and let the current swing the lure below me. It was a spot I had never fished before, never seen anyone else fish it and had no visual cues to confirm their were coho there.

In no time I had released several cutthroat that were swimming with the coho, and once through them, the far larger coho started to whack the lures I was throwing. I had only two feet above water to the lowest branches and thus a max 20-foot cast. Methodically work the pool from top to bottom, by casting into the fast moving water and letting it carry the lure sequentially farther downstream on further casts so as to fish the entire pool.

The next summer, I came back and with my clippers cut off a whole bunch of willow so I would have a larger window in succeeding autumns to cast from. Since the first time, I have never seen anyone fish the spot and this is over many years. It just doesn’t look fishy and there is that standing deep enough that your sleeves are in the water when you cast that convinces many not to fish there. You need to ignore such reactions and figure out the river yourself.

 Do remember that coho can become very stale on sunny days, particularly if you are fishing after several high pressure, sunny days. Their bite gets stronger the more rain you have, prior to absolute highest water.

As for gear, if you don’t have a trigger-fingered rod and a baitcaster reel, treat yourself and buy both.  Leave your spinning reel and light rod for trout. Okuma, Penn and Abu Garcia have several models of high quality baitcasters and you want a 9.5- or 10-foot rod; Shimano and Rapala come to mind. Pick up a 20- to 30-pound braided line for backing – Trotac has half a dozen brands to choose from – and load the reel. Then put 20 feet of 15- to 20-pound mono to tie lures on with a Palomar knot.

You will have to learn to cast a baitcaster. Your thumb pressure on the spool is what gives you control of the distance the line will cast, and more importantly, keep the drum from overspooling. Braided line makes a son of a bitch overrun, if you have not educated your thumb to keep the drum from so doing.

Also, when you get an overrun, resist the temptation to yank away at it like crazy. That will simply create a tighter mess and end your day unless you have another reel with you to change up. The thing to remember is that any overrun is the result of a loop of line passing through another loop. That means that technically the mess you have is not a knot.

So resist yanking line, and instead, search for the first spot that two loops are tangled. If you slowly pull the mainline off the reel, the problem reveals itself in that line on the reel will form a ‘V’ around the mainline. You simply pick at this and give it a small pull or two, then give the mainline a small tug. You repeat the process and ultimately all loops within loops come free, and voila, you are in business again.

As for lures, spinners are de riguerre for coho in freshwater. The more flash you have, the more it stimulates the fish into a curiosity bite. If you are fishing late in November on days where coho are all lined up in shallow runs waiting for higher water, you get a rare opportunity to watch the behaviour in action. Cast the spinner across and above the fish, and reel in very slowly, only fast enough to get the blade to spin, and put the lure within two feet of the face of the coho.

It is a visceral thrill to watch a big coho in the instant of recognition and move after the lure, sometimes following it 30 feet before biting. That is curiosity. And don’t set the hook when you see the mouth close on the lure because you will just be pulling the lure away from the fish. Wait for the yank on the lure end, usually followed by a turn of the head and thus an obvious bite, to set.

As for spinners, several manufacturers have good ones: Blue Fox from Mepps in 4- to 5-blade size along with Luhr Jensen Bolos that have heavier bodies and thus cast farther; for the thrifty, you can rig up your own Colorado blades for far less money. These have to be rigged on the end of a leader, with pencil lead on a tri-swivel above, because the blades have no weight – either for casting or sinking.

Also you should replace the silver hook with black steelhead Octopus hooks in 1- and 2- sizes. Black is the important word, because the coho look at flash and will bite the lure ahead of the hook and thus the hook they can’t see is already inside their mouths, hence you catch more fish. Also, add some black split rings between spinner and hook as it extends the ‘invisible’ hook even further.

Another thing to remember is that there is a colour pattern progression in the season and you have to figure it out on your own. Typically you are looking at silver blades and red, pink, chartreause in that order. And then later in darker water gold lures, including the old stand by the simple gold Wobbler (not a spinner). Set the drag on your reel higher than for steelhead because coho shake their head far more oftern and roll so frequently that you need to maintain pressure against them or they shake the hook.
Each river is different with respect to colour progression. In tea stained rivers, add purple and white into the mix. Although the Cowichan is a clear river, purple is a good colour to use. Get to know your rivers over the years.

Next week: some more on freshwater coho fishing.

Coho Time in Rivers – 2

Now, Coho Time in Rivers: To finish off some tackle considerations from last week, a bit more on lures and hooks. On lures, I have mentioned that every river has a progression of colours through the season. And each system has its colour preferences, for example, purple is a good Cowichan River colour. And blue is good early in the season on the Stamp. Every year, I try the Mepps white, glow spinners and some years they are the killer colour all season.

Also, try a few freshwater plugs like Wiggle Warts, Hot ‘N Tots and Heddon Clattertads, pink being the first colour on your list. The consideration here is a plug that is heavy enough to cast. Along with these, keep some of the heavy Gibbs spoons on hand, particularly for high, discoloured water days and blown days when large size is better. The heavier Ironhead, Kit-A-mat, Illusion and etc. for example, sink better than spinners in rapidly moving water and sink better in deep pools. Take a look at the colour plates in my book: Maximum Salmon, from Harbour, for the range of lures to try. There are also colour plates of flies.

And take care with those individual lures that become killers. You want to snip the leader and retie the Palomar knot every few fish. You don’t want to ever lose one of the lures in your box that far out-fishes other lures, even ones of the identical model, size and so on. I have one heavily beat up orange-backed Kit-A-Mat in my box, that, as decrepit as it is, far out-fishes other spoons in my box. And the heavier weight makes them a breeze to cast, particularly when you are up to your sleeves in the water.

I will be giving the new Blue Fox UV spinners a try this year. They should be attractive on dark days and in shade where coho preferentially fin quietly, waiting for rain and high water.

Now, a bit more on hooks. I said that black hooks should replace the silver hooks that lures come with, as they are invisible and the fish bites the lure ahead of them instead of farther back, on the hook, thus the hook is already in their mouths.

Eagle Claw black Steehead hooks, model L194 F in 1/0 size and larger are useful, but short hooks. Try three black split rings in a row before attaching the hook. But there are other, larger hooks available in near-black. Mustad has a near-black Open Eye Siwash hook that makes sense. In sizes 1 to 4/0 you have a range of medium to large size hooks. Large is better when coho are not gear shy, and in rainy weather when they bite more freely. Both are kirbed.

Vibrax Blue Fox lures now come with a brass treble hook mounted and with a near-black straight Siwash. As before, introduce a kirb by taking hold of the hook sideways from shank to point in pliers and bend down for a 20 degree kirb. This gives the hook more purchase on a jawbone.

Let’s turn to fishing. The first thing is that when you know there are coho where you are fishing, it is important to cast once or twice, then change your position or the side your rod tip is on so the lure moves in a different trajectory. I don’t know how many fish I have taken over the years by taking one step and casting again. You move up or down, or back or forward, and work the spot. Coho prefer a lure moving directly up current or across and up. That means in back eddies, and most pools have back eddies, that once you have moved down fishing across the eddy, that you then, from the bottom of the pool, cast upstream, but down current, in the eddy of the pool.

The coho line up into the current, and on rare sunny days where you can stand high enough above the pool you are fishing to see the fish in the entire pool, you will find that they line up in a complete circle around the back eddy. This gives proof that the fish are, indeed, facing up current, and a lure that goes with the current rockets right past them and they don’t chase. Coho prefer a lure to slowly move up from behind or across and then pass in front of them going up current.

And coho prefer a spinner moving slowly. Reel just fast enough for the spinner to spin, its beat seen and felt on your rod tip each revolution. No faster. It is the flash that triggers the curiosity bite. The coho follows, and finally just can’t control itself and whacks the lure, sometimes after following 30 feet. If you feel the spinner lose its drag, it could either be bottom, or in many cases, its coho that nip the end, collapsing the drag. If so, make the same cast right back and bring the spinner through again. Or try the same cast at a different angle. Change things up.

If you have worked a pool with porpoising coho – the behaviour that spells turned on fish – and not taken a fish, change lure colour. Decide before you go out the four or five colours you are going to give a try that day. You will be surprised some days that one particular colour will take all sorts of coho, but another, equally appealing lure to human eyes receives not a whiff.

Don’t leave bitey fish to find bitey fish. Just change your approach, angle, colour until you find the right tactic. Sometimes it is nothing until you are down-stream but casting up-stream but down-current in a back eddy that will take the most fish. Keep changing until you understand the drill.

Finally, the tactic of ‘managing the school’. This is what you do with a school of salmon to get the most fish to bite out of the school. In the case of coho, as the bitiest of them all, you aren’t moving the school around like you can chum, pink and chinook. Instead, you are selectively taking ‘new’ fish or ‘forgotten’ fish. Here is an example: start fishing down the inside of the school. Once bites drop off, then sequentially run your casts farther down the inside to the tail end of the school. All of these are new fish: fish that haven’t seen the lure before.

Then you cast to the outside of the school and do the same as you have for the inside, sequentially down to the end of the school. When the bites drop, then cast in the middle of the school. All the fish, so far have been ‘new’ fish in that they have not seen the lure.

Now, once you have worked the entire school, you move back to the inside. These are ‘forgotten’ fish, meaning: they have forgotten that there are lures about, and react as though they have not yet seen one. Fish memory is seldom more than a half hour – I am not talking about being spooked, that is a different matter – and you will be surprised by methodically working a school through time, that by adopting this approach you will catch fish that had already seen a lure, or one of their good buddies disappear.

When you add the other two tactics: changing lure colour, and casting position to managing a school, you can receive far more cumulative bites than if you creamed off the first biter and moved on. Don’t’ move on from bity fish, until they have stopped responding to your tactics and managing.

I will give you three examples of varying technique for in-river coho next week, before moving on to the start of the salmon calendar in saltwater: winter chinook.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Sooke River Time

With the rain we have been having in the past week, good numbers of chum are now coming into the Sooke River estuary above the bridge, the deemed saltwater boundary (so fresh water rules apply). The river is a fly fishing only body of water, too. On Thursday when I was out, the river had a fair number of coho, as well that were hitting, both small California Neils and green and yellow bucktails, 1.5 inches long (buy at Canadian Tire).

I checked at the Fair Grounds by De Mamiel Creek, where there were a few chum migrating up the Sooke. The creek was low, so it was unlikely that it was passing coho upstream. Most of the coho spawn in this side-stream, so it is good practice to check at the Grounds as they will stage in front of it for several days. Please pay the $2 charge to fish on the grounds.

A decade ago, most fishers fished at the park and did not go upstream to the trail by the Sunriver Estates (which also did not exist at that time). The reason, I think, is that in the past there was good structure in the river at the grounds, and so it became a natural place for salmon to stop and wait for a flood. But in the intervening years, the structure has been eliminated, leaving a saucer shaped river, devoid of any reason to stop, and thus the schools just lift with the tide to higher in the estuary.

This is a good place to learn to cast and fish for salmon. There is a good trail system that gives anyone who isn’t fishing a good opportunity to stroll along and watch the action. Typically there is enough room to spread out and plentiful chum for a good mile up the river and around the corner to the farm pool. Do note that on a high tide of 9 feet or higher, you will have to wait for it to fall or you will have a 400 yard crossing that is above your waders. Either cross before the high from the farm pool, or intend to fish through it.

On Thursday there were many chum at the Clay Bank corner and below on the few choke points that with the right tide level offer lots of fish, that come right up to the top of the tide before slipping back, or committing to the river.

My flies were not producing as well as I would have liked – a purple Flashabou creation that looks more like a pom-pom that a football cheerleader would wave about; and,  a double egg pattern in Orange Globrite Chenille and size 2 circle hook, preceded by a purple chenille egg – even though they have worked well in the past. Purple and white are good colours in a tea-stained river like the Sooke. But other colours, pink for instance, is a good fall back, including egg-sucking leeches in pink and purple.

The week prior, and the day I was out, small to medium sized flies worked the best. My California Neils were safe at home in another fly box and hence did not help my cause. I didn’t have the Canadian Tire ‘bucktail’, not to mention everything else I was throwing at them didn’t work.  So I got to take photos of other anglers catching more than I: Dale and a large coho, and Tom Lester with a medium size coho.

Other differences were that I was fishing water of six to 10 feet deep, making it difficult to hit the zone – shallower water reduces the height of water not in the zone and thus it is easier to hit. Also, I noticed that my sink tip, floating fly line was thoroughly water logged and thus made it hard to hit the zone. That also meant that as I stripped the line in it sunk and so, during casting, the forward stroke was trying to lift line as much as three feet under water – a pain in the rear end.

The successful anglers were fishing much shallower water – a tailout, and small run between riffles – that were less than three feet deep. Much more time in the fish zone, and also fly placement in the small run where the fish stopped for a few minutes was right on the money. Fish moving up are usually more bity, and if the fish you are fishing are stale, move downriver to fresher fish.

I subsequently moved down stream to where the path first grants access to the gravel stretch below the two choke points. As the tide was rising, small schools of chum were moving up and falling back. They usually are evidenced by small waves at the lead of the school, and a fish or two touching the surface. One interesting behaviour of chum is that when their mouths hit the surface, they take a mouthful of air, and as they cruise down to the bottom they release it. On the surface, you see small trails of bubbles, evidence of turned-on fish.

I also switched flies to a single egg of Globrite Orange Chenille on a Mustad 9174, size 6, live bait hook. A very small fly indeed and a freshwater hook, so either wash the fly, or it will rust. Remember to cast ten feet in front of the fish wave, as the lead fish are in front of the wave and thus if you land in the wave, most of the fish have already passed by.

Stand in the middle of the river at this point, as it tends to make the fish stop and turn, rather than continue up – in other words you are becoming structure in an otherwise structureless stretch of water. If you are with another angler, have them stand in the middle as well, for the same reason. In knee deep water, on my own, I began taking fish, on a minimalist fly. A nice ending to a nice day.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Q and As – October

Herring fishery: DFO is going to open a fishery for herring on November 7 and is looking for comments regarding: FN1111-Notice of 2015/2016 Draft Pacific Herring Food and Bait and Special Use Commercial Fishing Plans Available for Public Comment. Get in touch with: Roger Kanno, (604) 666-7851; email: 
This is not a roe fishery, but a ‘bait and special use’ on Juan de Fuca stocks that, later, turn the corner into Georgia. The winter roe fishery is a distinct and different fishery – but the same fish.
David Ellis, a concerned observer, sent along some comments: “Correspondence I have from the David Suzuki Foundation, [says] industry lobbying is the only reason that this fishery will be opened, as no stock assessment exists.
Information on DFO's… site… indicates that the winter "Food and Bait" fishery will open before the "migratory herring" (which are targeted every year in the Strait of Georgia Roe Herring fishery) even enter the Strait of Georgia. This DFO website notes that the "migratory" herring targeted by the Strait of Georgia Roe Herring fishery spend most of the year in Juan De Fuca Strait, only quickly entering the Strait close to spawning time. Therefore, the herring to be targeted once again in the winter "Food and Bait" fishery, will again not be covered by a qualified and peer reviewed DFO stock assessment, required by DFO policy, and I believe by law.
In short, the "winter fishery" is to open very soon, long before the "migratory" herring stock, for which a stock assessment exists, even enter the Strait of Georgia.
It is my understanding that all fisheries in Canada must by law now have an accompanying peer-reviewed stock assessment, and if not they can now be stopped by interlocutory injunction. Please correct me if I am wrong in this assessment.”
In other words, two fisheries on the same herring stock, one fishery without a stock assessment.
Cowichan River salmon fishing: The low-water restrictions ended on Oct 1. From the weir in Lake Cowichan to the 66 Mile trestle it is fly fishing only. You will find the freshwater retention rules in the freshwater section of the DFO Sport Fishing Guide.
From the Trestle to Tidal Boundary: no fishing for salmon, Aug 1 to Nov 15; however, in-season regs for coho and chum may offer some retention opportunities. 
Nitinat River: Closed Oct 1 – 15 for salmon fishing – meaning trout fishing is okay – with chum and coho retention of four fish, two of each species, from Oct 16 – Dec 31. There are several specific no fishing zones, such as the bridge pool, Red Rock pool, hatchery pool and above Parker Creek. 
Suspicious fishing: If you witness suspicious fishing activity or a violation, please call 
the Fisheries and Ocean Canada 24-hour toll free Observe, Record, Report line 
at (800) 465-4336 or the British Columbia’s toll-free RAPP line (Report All 
Poachers and Polluters) at 1-877-952-RAPP (7277).
The one time I phoned to tell them of a rough shack and freezer (meaning a very long line to a power pole) in salmon season, they told me that they knew who it was, gave me his name, which I have forgotten, but gave no indication of going after the guy.  So I have never phoned back.
Salmon Behaviour in Salt- and Fresh-water: And, of course, after I wrote this article, I remembered a few other things.
Chum in saltwater have a phase, and very typical in Saanich Inlet, where as a school they motor along right under the surface. You will find it by a fish or two doing the chum jump thing of six to eight jumps in a row, describing a gentle curve, and the fish falls on its flank each jump. In this phase, they resolutely go after nothing and it is a waste of time to try and get some trolling gear in front of their faces, particularly as they keep changing directions.
Wait for the school to become more terminal. They will slow down markedly, and aimlessly drift here and there, the school looking like a disturbance on the surface that moves in an opposite direction to the prevailing wave pattern (this is quite common for pinks as well). Keep your boat off to the side and mosey with them. You cast your drift fishing lures in front of the school and allow them to swim into it. The same for flies. Landing a fly among them, while still in deeper water, tends not to spook them as it does in water less than waist deep. 
If you can’t tell which species you have in front of you while beach or estuary fishing, if they bolt as a whole school of several hundred fish, they are chum. Pink salmon simply sidle away, and if you stand still, upstream of them, or in the direction you know from experience they are heading, they will come back to you.
And one unusual behavior of chinook. If you are fishing spoons in rivers – these work much better than spinners for chinook, Gibbs being a good line – let the lure drop right to the bottom and let it sit there for a bit. Sometimes, a chinook will go down to the bottom and pick it up. Hard to believe, but this is true. I have taken several big fish a day with this corny trick. The key thing to remember is that you only allow your lure to fall and sit on the bottom where you know it is small gravel or sand. If you land on a sticky bottom, well, you have just lost your lure.
One final thing, most anadromous fish will not pass over sand as they sit or move up. They will follow the gravel or stone line – on the edge of sand – on the bottom because it offers more cover. And, of course, shade is very attractive. That black cloud in shade can be thousands of salmon staying safe.
Halibut time: DFO and Sport Fishing Advisory Board Halibut Committee determined that the halibut harvest by the recreational fishery to August 31 was 958,280 pounds of its Total Allowable Catch of 1,063,550 pounds.

Hence, the fishery will remain open to December 31, 2015 under the current management

measures in effect, noted on Fishery Notice FN0134. The Victoria area is the lucky recipient of these fish as we have one of the largest halibut fisheries after summer ends. Next time you see Martin Paish or any of the guys on the committee, buy him/them a beer for their work.