It’s time to get out your 10.5-foot trigger-fingered rod and baitcaster reel and find the coho. If you only have spinning gear, make this the year you upgrade to the standard steelheading gear of choice.
The closest spot to have a good chance is Billings Spit in Sooke. Coho mill about on either side of the spit depending on whether it is a flood or ebb tide – they will be in the back eddy. These coho are mostly bound for De Mamiel Creek that drains into the Sooke River estuary, just above the silver bridge. At that spot, where All Sooke Days takes place at the campground, the rules allow fly fishing only, so you would also carry an 8-weight fly rod and large arbour reel. The reel is a big help when the coho turns and runs at you at rocket speed, and you struggle to wind the slack line onto the reel.
Other close by spots include Whiffen Spit, Muir Creek, Kirby Creek, Tugwell Creek, and Point No Point. The further afield target includes the San Juan River estuary, which usually hits its peak in the third week of September. Most south Van Isle creeks/rivers have coho so you can also try the Cowichan, Nitinat, Carnation, Sarita and so on.
The San Juan presents a well-subscribed opportunity just below the bridge and on the saltwater beach. Typical saltwater lures like the venerable Buzz Bomb and the Stingsilda still take their share, but spinners and spoons intended for freshwater take more. I don’t know why the fish see the bridge as a ‘mental’ boundary, and hence present themselves in the smaller body of water between there and the drop-off into saltwater, but they help anglers out by staying here, particularly in the early dawn hours.
It is best to catch them early before they are Buzz Bombed into not biting, or before a flood and after a low tide, their typical biting periods. Above the bridge is a long stretch that looks like a small lake but coho are seldom taken here. Similarly, launching at Fairy Lake and taking the channel into the river is only good when the coho are passing by, because the San Juan here is a long deep, slow stretch where they just pass through, and do not stop.
But below the bridge, some of the good spinners are size 4 and 5 Blue Foxes. Must have colours are chartreuse, pink and blue. The latter, though we sometimes forget this, was recognized long ago by Roderick Haig-Brown and he tied the well-known Coho Blue streamer pattern: .
Most rivers have a sequence of colours as the season progresses from now into late autumn. Add purple for the Cowichan, pink for the Nitinat and chartreuse for the Stamp as late spinners. See a list of such spinners at: . Also pick up some Luhr Jensen Bolo spinners, particularly in orange body with a silver blade. These are heavier than Blue Fox lures and thus cast further. It is also the case that some days coho prefer a heavier body – only they know why – but you should have a full box of different colour/blade combinations. I use Bolos most in the early season.
You should also carry red, orange, silver bell with pink blade and several types of Gibbs spoons that feature orangey-red on their back sides and silver on their fronts. These heavy spoons make more sense in heavy water and cast a mile – for days when fish stay as far away as they can, usually on the opposite side of the river, where we anglers know, all fish are found. They are never on your side.
The fish below the San Juan bridge stay there until the first heavy monsoon of autumn, when they bolt upstream into the river proper. Launch at the Harris Creek bridge and plumb every slow spot on your float down stream. Alternatively, if you are sure your car will make it through any mud hole, take the last track before the bridge. It leads to the confluence pool, and at its end is a major bend where coho stop and wait for the major rains of winter to fill the side streams where they spawn.
Coho may spend as much as three months in freshwater before spawning and that is why you need to get to know your rivers for many late months. I am told that fresh coho are still entering the Cowichan in February. For heavy, turbid water, use gold spoons and white. Lean also to the very large, as the fish can only see a foot or two, so you want the target to be large. And make sure to have a few Mepps Aglia Glow spoons. Some years they catch not a single fish, but in others they can be the best lure all fall long.
Blue Fox now has even more colour combinations than they used to, as in lots of dots on a different colour background. I think chartreuse and pink spots make sense on pink, blue or chartreuse spinners, but am not convinced that the rest aren’t just made to catch anglers, rather than fish.
Remember that coho take the most jarring runs of all salmonid species, and with legitimate 20 plus pounders in the San Juan (it has the largest coho on the Island) use 15- to 20-pound mainline. Tie all lures with a Palomar knot, and tighten your drag. Coho have hard mouths and can take being yanked around far more than even steelhead of comparable size.
Also remember that many spinners come with a treble hook that, on Van Isle, is illegal. If the lure comes with a straight Siwash-style single hook, introduce a kerb by placing your pliers from shank to point and bending down 10- to 15-degrees. The kerb holds the hook in the jaw and you will land far more fish by bending the hook than not. If, instead, you use Octopus-style single hooks, they come with a kerb already added during manufacture, and you just have to crush the barb before use. And make that hook a black one. Coho can’t see them and are biting at the lure in front of the hook, and thus have the hook already in their mouths before chomping down. And that’s a good thing.
One final thing: when you add a hook, make sure it is the same weight as the hook you are replacing. That is because manufacturers make their spinners and spoons wriggle in a particular way by adding a hook that matches what they want. Retrieve the lure before changing hooks, and after to make sure action is the same. Similarly, if the lure catches fish before changing its hook, but not afterwards, then you need to add a different hook. Take several sizes on your fishing days.
Another final thing: place the hook point on your thumbnail. If its sticks, it is sharp. If it slides off, sharpen it with the hook sharpener you leave attached to your fishing vest. You do have one, don’t you? I thought so.