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.