H2O Magazine

VANCOUVER ISLAND: SEARCHING FOR COASTAL CHROMERS

Most people know that Vancouver Island offers world-class salmon fishing, but few people actually realize that the island’s chrome migratory fish can be caught directly from the shore with ordinary fly fishing equipment.
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THE WIND IS CALM

The wind has calmed down and the towering mountains, that are so characteristic of the Western part of the Canadian mainland, mirror themselves majestically in the plane calmness of the salty waters on the other side of the sound, and thereby take on an indefinable grey-blue and foggy colour. The beach isn’t unlike those we are familiar with from back home in Denmark.

My fishing buddy, Klaus, and I have taken a short break from the salmon fishing on the Campbell River, a mere 20 minute drive further North, where we have caught massive amounts of hard-fighting pink salmon. Now the time has come to try something radically different.

THE RODS

The traditional salmon fishing equipment, the double handers, the sinking lines, and the fluorescent green and pink flies, is put aside in favour of lighter, more comfortable, and homely equipment – single handed rods in sizes 7-8, WF Intermediate lines, and streamers that imitate slender prey fish.

The flies are tied specifically for this purpose using strong saltwater hooks, but they might as well have been intended for the homely sea trout. They are quite sparse and simple in appearance but still eye-catching. The many reflective silver- and pearlescent flash materials used are meant to attract the attention of an astute and lightning-quick predator with keen vision – a fish that has a well-developed taste for the glittery prey fish in the sound.

THE SILVER SALMON

The purpose of the fishing this evening is to catch a silver salmon (or coho, as the Indians call them) – the perhaps most prestigious species of salmon in the Pacific Ocean, known for its enormous power, explosivity, and not least its beautiful chrome and torpedo-like shape.

I have fished salmon off the coasts of Canada before – even with great success, but not surprisingly, Klaus seems a bit sceptic as we stand there scouring the vast immensity of the ocean surface. Does it even make sense to target the salmon on the open coasts, when they are concentrated to a much greater extent and within much closer range in the rivers? That seems to be the underlying question.

HERE THE SALMON

The arguments will have to wait, because suddenly the water erupts on the inside of the kelp beds less than 40metres from the shoreline as a big, compact and silvery fish propels itself out of the water in a self-assured manner. The salmon are here! Suddenly we’re both in a rush and we quickly transcend a long stretch of the relatively uneven shoreline to get to the spot, where the fish revealed itself.  On the way, I see another fish of considerable size bulge and whirl, and my feet suddenly carry me with even greater speed. With whatever care and caution our overly excited minds allow us we enter the water. Short of breath, we rip line off our fly reels and prepare for the first cast. I send off a long cast close to where I saw the last fish whirling, and speed up the retrieve.

THE FIGHT

The water rises behind the fly. I pause for a second and proceed to give the fly a couple of heady jerks. Then suddenly, I feel a massive tug on the line and the weight of a strong fish. Powerful and pulsating shocks now propagate through my fly rod, as I do my best to reel in the slack line and put some pressure on the fish. It rushes outwards, but I manage to restrain it and prevent it from tangling up on the kelp further out.

So far so good! After a hectic fight, where the fish throws itself maniacally around in the surface, I patiently bring the fish closer to the shore. With a galloping heart, I grab the fish firmly by the tail, and with my other hand under the fish’s belly, I can now lift an incredibly beautiful and compact bar of silver out of the water. Meanwhile, Klaus shoots a series of quick pictures.

THE RELEASE

After being released, the startled fish rushes back into the dizzying depths of the ocean, while Klaus and I celebrate the unexpectedly fast success in high-pitched and euphoric phrases. All of our scepticism has been ridiculed, and we now continue fishing with heightened morals and self-confidence. A little less than an hour later, Klaus is also into a beautiful chromer. He is baffled to see his shooting head, shooting line, and then dangerous amounts of backing disappear rapidly – accompanied by some rather tormented brake sounds.

It all happens out of nowhere, but after a while, Klaus finally pulls his act together and turns the fish around. Luckily, the water levels have risen dramatically since we started fishing, and the treacherous kelp further out is now fully submerged and thus a less critical stress factor in terms of the fight.

IT’S WORTH IT

With a raised rod tip, Klaus brings the fish closer to shore, and now he is the boss. A couple of minutes later he brings another fish to the shore, a breathtakingly stunning silver salmon in the vicinity of six kilos. When the light finally dims and everything blackens, we pack our things up and cast one last glance over the fading realm of the sound. We then look silently at each other in acknowledgement. The vast immensity of water notwithstanding, it actually makes perfect sense to go hunting for chromers on the open coasts!

As opposed to the pre-spawn salmon in the rivers, the chromers on the open coasts are still actively feeding. They spend several weeks pushing back and forth along the Seymor Narrows, the Discovery Passage, and the Desolation Sound, while waiting for the water flows in the rivers and tributaries to be just right.

SHOALS OF FISH

In the meantime – typically from early September until the first couple of weeks in October, where the fishing peaks – you can find plentiful schools of well-nourished chromers in the 4-6 kilo range close to the shore line. Their migratory routes have the fish passing close by points, reefs, and depth curves close to the shoreline, and here they can be targeted with relatively light coastal equipment.

THE EQUIPMENT

A 9’ #7-8 fly rod with a robust saltwater-resistant fly reel mounted with a floating or intermediate flyline and plentiful amounts of backing will do the trick. A shooting head-setup can also be useful since casting range and not least quick delivery are important components in succeeding.

Furthermore, a stripping basket is an advantage. The tidal currents are usually quite strong, and without a stripping basket it can be a rather big challenge to keep control of your loose line.

THE FLIES

The flies must be tied on relatively stout saltwater hooks. They must be rather slender and materials such as light-reflective Flashabou – which is both mobile and pulsating – is to be preferred. A growing crowd of local experts swear by sparsely tied, silvery flies which makes perfect sense considering that the salmon usually like hunting for small herring, sprattus, and anchovies.

I have had great success with epoxy flies made using a combination of pearl, silver, chartreuse, and light olive colours, which imitate the salmon’s preferred prey items more accurately. At the same time, it is worth mentioning that the salmon react in much the same way as for instance sea trout in that presentation – and not the choice of fly – usually is the most important criteria of success. It is all about giving the fish as little time for reflection as possible.

THE TECHNIQUE

Silver salmon – and other Pacific salmon such as pinks and Chinook – are fast and resolute predators with astute vision, and they have a hard time resisting a fleeing prey item. So speed your retrieve up and prepare for some incredibly explosive strikes!

Besides the gear setup, the most important criteria for success is timing, investigative efforts, and speed. The best time to hunt salmon on the open coast is – besides early morning and late evening – when the tides shift. Especially the tidal shift from flood to ebb is superb, and as a result, it pays off to invest in a tide table. They can usually be found in the local tackle stores, and stopping by is a great opportunity to get the latest news and updates on the fishing in the local area.

When scouting for salmon from the shore, you can react quickly and target the fish before they are gone again – (this can happen quite quickly). As a result – when the fish reveal themselves – you’d better hurry up and get within casting distance. Enter the water as stealthily as possible while stripping line off the reel, and send off the first cast as quickly as you can. The strike will come out of nowhere with incredible force, and you’ll be left with the enjoyable and adrenaline-packed task of taming an explosive fighter of pure chrome.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

 If you’re considering a trip to Vancouver Island to challenge – and be challenged by powerful coho salmon on light fly gear – the city of Campbell River is a great place to start. The city it situated on the banks of the famous salmon river by the same name, it is the home to the biggest tackle shop on the island, and there are lots of great lodging options.

Ferries leave from both Vancouver and Seattle to Vancouver Island, but the easiest thing is to fly to Vancouver and take the ferry from Tsawwassen to Duke Point – a ride of about two hours. From here, a beautiful two-hour drive is ahead of you before reaching Campbell River.

Both to the north and South of Campbell River, there are loads of interesting coastal spots, and since Highway 19 and Highway 19A follow the coastal line in Southern and Northern directions respectively, it isn’t difficult to get to the coastal shore. Principally, you can have great fishing all along the coastal line, but it is usually a safe bet to fish in close proximity to where the rivers drain into the ocean.

After all, this is where the salmon are genetically programmed to head. Near the estuaries of Nunns Creek, Black Creek, Mohun Creek, Oyster River and Campbell River great fishing can be had. However, places like Salmon Point and Wavecrest Point between Oyster River and Campbell River shouldn’t be ignored. The coho salmon congregate here, and push back and forth with the tidal currents while acclimatising and waiting for optimal water flows in the rivers and tributaries

The salmon runs occur at different times in the individual Campbell River area watersheds, but in general the silver salmon runs intensify from the latter half of September and recline in late October. The coastal fly fishing season starts in late August and peaks in late September and early October.

If you head for Vancouver Island around the middle of September and opt for a couple of weeks of fishing, the chances of experiencing some incredible coastal fly fishing are optimal. Fishing licenses for saltwater can be bought in several different places in Campbell River, and they are in no way expensive. For instance, a five-day license costs 32,55$.

 

PICTURES BY KLAUS BOBERG PEDERSEN AND RASMUS OVESEN

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