It is time to take your 6-weight fly rod and fish the beaches for salmon. The closest place to Victoria to catch pinks is Cherry Point – after crossing the Malahat driving north, turn right off the highway at the Rona lumber/hardware store and make your way down to the beach.
And there are dozens of beaches that have pink salmon on them all the way up Vancouver Island. Well known fisheries include Nile Creek, Oyster River, Campbell River, Eve River, Cluxewe River and the Quatse River. But there are many more volunteer projects and the end of July is high season for the earliest salmon returnees. (Sockeye are usually the first, but there are few on Van Isle’s east coast). The north end of the Island is an even year run predominant area, thus 2018 should be a peak year.
If you are lucky, and there aren’t too many fly fishers beside you, you can get in on the highest quality fishery, where you hunt the fish, ones that you can see. The variables are tide, wind, waves and current. Also add angle of the sun relative to where you are standing.
The best beach for this is the Cluxewe. To the north side of the bermed opening of the river – a choke point is always fishy because it bunches the fish together, rather than them being spread out – the beach is dead flat for hundreds of yards north, as well as to the east. This gives you the opportunity to spot fish touching the surface, track them down, and place a fly in front of them. Surprisingly, while salmonids easily spot what is above water, they seldom spook from seeing your legs and feet under the water.
It goes without saying that you should use your highest percentage fly, either from past use and your log books, or what is your best fly on the day you are fishing. Typically, pink salmon flies are pink, but blue, green and more recently purple should be in your fly box. If someone else is catching more fish than you, sidle up and ask to see the fly, or at least, ask what the colour is. Also buy some of the generic ones at River Sportsman in Campbell River as you pass through, as they work, having had the kinks worked out by proving them in the Campbell. Note that their well-trimmed pink Muddlers, size 8 can be good, as well as in blue, for Dolly Varden.
On calm days, do remember that you should have a leader of at least 10 feet. That is because if you have ever stripped in a fly that is less than six feet from the line, the fly line is obvious in clear water on a calm day. In fact, hope for some wind that ruffles the surface, so the fish drop their guard and are more bity. The rejoinder to what I have just said is: the longer your leader, the less likely the fly will be at the same depth as the fly line. Keep both in mind. And thirdly, the higher the current, the shorter leader you can get away with because the fly moves past the fishes eyes so quickly it must make an immediate decision, and thus does not see the fly line behind.
The higher the wind, and this is an every day occurrence on Johnstone Strait, the higher the waves. This means that you will be jumping straight up every wave that comes at you. Make sure to time them right so you don’t take a wader’s full of cold and wet. Or get pulled off the edge into deeper water.
On the right days, with the sun behind or beside you, you may witness one of the wonders of the animal world. Pinks coming on shore, have a tendency to jag onto their sides then straighten out every few seconds. What this looks like is flashes of silver, as though cameras are flashing all over the place in the water in front of you. These are turned on fish, and you are going to catch some provided you do several things.
Your fly line, with or without a sink tip, must be in the zone, meaning at eye level to the fish, presenting your fly at the same depth. If you are not catching fish, change your set up. I carry a second reel so I have both full float and sink tip, along with two pouches of the many slime line and other sink tips I have acquired over the years.
In the tide department, hunting fish is usually more successful on a rising tide. That means the fish will be stimulated, and moving by you, into the estuary. If you can inspect the spot on a lower tide, do so, and get to know where the pinks stage before following the tide into the river. Station yourself between where they stage and where they must go.
If you find, say, a hump of land that has edges that drop off to the deep, you have good structure to work with. The fish will hang on the edge thus you will have a naturally occurring structure that bunches the fish together. (The alternative is where wind, wave, tide and current create a seam or tide line, that is also structure, even though it is just water, and fish will mosey up beside the quickest water, or stop on either side). When the fish begin to move in, and you are in less than waist deep water, when you see the flashes, plant your fly up-current of the fish and count it down, trying to see your fly line as it descends to time being in the zone.
One tip here: you can get more sink out of your line, by throwing extra line into the cast after the line has settled on the surface. This looks sloppy to another fly fisher, one who does not know that doing what it takes to catch fish is more important than casting to look pretty. Your line and fly will present lower in the water column, and if you hook a fish, keep on throwing in extra line after each cast. This means the fly has been floating longer without being under connection to the rod tip, so it is technically, drag ‘free’ and thus drops, rather than a swung fly, under connection and thus higher in the water column.
What you do is make the same distance cast every time and then throw in 3- to 6-feet extra. Then on the next cast account for that extra, by reeling it in at the end of the cast, or holding it over a finger, so you are always making the same distance cast, and throwing in the same amount of extra, hence, the fly is always presenting at the same spot, just shallower or deeper. You can plumb the water beside your intended target, by casting a shorter cast, or a longer one, and also throw in the same extra.
Current has two components: tide and river output. When a river flows out into the ocean, a rising tide will make higher waves where the two meet. This is even more pronounced on a windy day. Timing your jumps becomes very important, particularly when fish have been staging where the rising tide is coming from. Having that natural structure of a bar in front of you accentuates the same phenomenon, giving you fish bunched closer together than where there is no edge of structure.
The Cluxewe beach bottom substrate is so flat there is no edge, other than the river berms, and so the fish can be spread out across the bay until they move right to the mouth. So, keep an eye open for fish action on the surface, for several hundred yards around you. The slightest action, in the context of wind, waves and current, is a shiver on the water, caused by fish right under the surface, but not breaking it. That is the most common pink indicator, while jumping, porpoising, dorsal fins breaking the surface, and on occasion, jaws and eyes of pink salmon, are less common behaviour. And remember the old saying: jumpers are not biters, they just show you where the fish are.
Being in the zone usually refers to a person who is catching fish. On many beaches, one or two will be catching more than others. Pay attention to what these people are doing, and along with their fly, figure out what kind of fly line they are using, leader length, and the position they have placed themselves with respect to the tide, 3-D structure of the beach and the natural migration path of the incoming fish. You will learn something, and then repeat what you have learned. For example, the next day, at the same level of tide put yourself in the spot before it happens and then do what you can to be in the zone that the person did the previous day.