I have to admit that in my 40 or so years of sport fishing for West Coast salmon, I really don't have a highly favoured place. I like them all! I have caught salmon in many west coast rivers such as the Vedder, near Chilliwack, the Kalum, Lakelse and Skeena near Terrace, the Morice and Bulkley near Houston, the Copper and Yakoun rivers on the Queen Charlotte Islands, the Bella Coola and Atnarko rivers near Hagensborg and the Cowichan river on Vancouver Island. Separate freshwater licences and different regulations apply to catching salmon in rivers as opposed to salt water but there is an undeniable attraction to a river, especially if pursuing salmon with a fly rod as I have on many occasions. The ocean too provides a tremendously satisfying backdrop for those of us with a yen for pursuing those marvellous gamefish in their natural element. Remember though that a salt water licence is also required plus conservation stamps if you intend to keep any spring or chinook salmon. New spring salmon catch and release regulations have been recently introduced as well.
I will start by telling you about some of my personal salmon fishing adventures and no, I won't keep the locations a secret! But first, there are five types of pacific salmon, the Spring (Chinook), Cohoe (Silver), Pink (Humpy), Chum (Dog), and Sockeye. All can be caught in the ocean with varying degrees of success in West Coast waters. Spring, cohoe and pink have been the traditional target of most salmon fishermen but sockeye (Oh, so delicious as table fare!) sport fishing technology has developed in recent years to the point where excellent sport catches of sockeye, using specialized gear, are now being made.
Lets start with sockeye fishing (fresh water caught sockeye in most cases must be released but you can keep up to 4 fish from salt water) in locations such as the inside passage near Port Hardy and Port McNeil, and on the west coast of Vancouver Island near Sooke and in the Alberni Canal. In places such as the Alberni Canal, regulations must be closely checked for special closures which recently have become a factor as the Department of Fisheries attempt to enact more conservation of salmon stocks. For years people assumed that sockeye could only be caught with nets but now we know that a small red or pink hootchy only about 2 inches long, trolled at a very slow speed (just enough forward motion to keep a flasher rotating), will catch sockeye. The key in my view are the use of downriggers, a device that lowers a steel braided line with a five to ten pound lead ball plus a slip release attachment for your fishing line. When a salmon hits, it will pull your lure and flasher free from the steel line. You then frantically wind up the lead ball to clear the area for the following tussle with the salmon on your rod and reel, unencumbered from any heavy weights! Wait, I didn't tell you one additional factor for success besides the small pink hootchy and the slow troll for sockeye; it is DEPTH! They are often deeper than other salmon, often in the 90 to 120 foot range! One more thing is timing. Try mid July to mid August. Then let me know how your sockeye, filleted and bar-b-qued on the beach with just a touch of lemon sauce tastes!
Another tremendous addiction for us salmon devotees are the giant spring salmon, sometimes growing to almost 100 pounds although any spring of above 20 pounds is considered a trophy. A special name out of the 1930s came from Roderick Haigbrown's Campbell River area where any spring salmon over 30 pounds was called a Tyee. Campbell River has been an excellent location for big springs over the years, beginning in July and continuing on through to August. A tradition that purists pursue even today is to catch a tyee salmon in the tyee pool holding water between Quadra Island and the Campbell River mainland. Now the trick is not to catch a plus 30 pound salmon on conventional gear but to catch it on a wobbling spoon trolled from, believe it or not, a boat powered by oars only! A button commemorating such an achievement is presented to the lucky fisherman. My favorite location for Spring salmon, and I have caught several over 30 pounds but no button as yet, is the west coast of Vancouver Island near the town of Bamfield. Late August is my choice of time and I divide my efforts to catch these giants between trolling and mooching. A downrigger is a must for trolling at depths of 20 to 45 feet in the early morning and 50 feet plus especially on bright days after 10:00 AM. My lure choice is a hotspot flasher (usually red trimmed but green and blue also work) with a 30 pound test leader 50 to 60 inches in length attached to either an anchovy or herring setup or a predominately white 4 inch octopus hootchy. I also prefer larger single hooks around 04 size and my next hook choice is a 2x treble but not in tandem, single only. Another key to catching big salmon in these usually crowded waters is to be in a position to start fishing right at the crack of dawn. No sleep ins if you want a big one! If my preferred locations around Whittlestone rock or Cape Beale become too packed with trollers, we switch to mootching as sea etiquette implies that boats under power must navigate around an anchored or drifting boat. Many jigging lures will work including the Perkins, ZZinger, Stingzelda and Buzzbombs. I often find that the action imparted to the lure is more important than the type of jig. There are also times when mooching with a 2 to 6 ounce weight and a cut or plug herring is equally or even more effective than a jig. Mooching location is very important as you must try to determine where schools of baitfish are gathered, often uncomfortably close to rock outcroppings. Watch for sea bird action as well to give you clues and of course, a good depth sounder will not only show you the baitfish, but often the salmon and ground fish as well!
Catching big spring salmon (now limited to one per day on the Vancouver Island west coast) is extremely gratifying but it can be a slow process. For pure excitement and often unlimited action, I prefer fly fishing from the beach for pink salmon in the vicinity of Port Hardy in northern Vancouver Island. There are large runs of pinks that swarm to the north Vancouver Island rivers in late July every even year, i.e., 2000 is the year! I tie a very effective but simple fly on a size 6 silver hook with a hot pink chenille body, a wisp of white polar bear for a wing and a touch of pink marabou for a tail. In the four even years, 1990, 1992, 1994 and 1996, I have landed and released in about 12 days of fishing over 200 pink salmon by just wading into the surf or casting from a car top boat! I use a 9 1/2 foot 8/9 weight rod with a floating or sink tip fly line. I find a 6 to 8 pound leader tippet adequate for the 2 to 7 pound salmon as they are not overly leader shy. We usually camp near the beach and often see black bears that also prowl the remote beach areas for their rightful share of nature's bounty. There are many reputable fishing guides all along the coast from Vancouver to Alaska! Contact numbers can be found in publications such as the B.C. Outdoors. We plan to provide more information on river fishing for pacific salmon in the future. Watch for our posting!
Your comments are welcome at dhaaheim at telus dot netHttp://www.tourcanada.com -- Revised: May 29, 2008
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