Come morning, we headed off to the Vancouver suburb area of Langley City where we found a half-mile long strip of RV operators all side-by-side in a row. Finding one who would rent us a vehicle was less easy as many had closed down their operations, this was high season for sturgeon but not for motor-home rental companies.
After a couple of false starts we found a company who were friendly and helpful and who were prepared to accommodate us. We drove out in an immaculate year-old vehicle with only 17,000 kilometres on the clock and fully camping-equipped - everything from a microwave oven to a TV and video. We would find little use for most of this as we mainly ate breakfast and evening meals at restaurants and the guiding service supplied packed lunches every midday. Evenings, we were sometimes able to tune into a TV channel but more often than not the surrounding mountains prevented that. The video came in useful once or twice but we often fell asleep before the tape came to an end. A days fishing in the Rocky Mountains seems to have that effect!
Our first stop was at Fred's shop near the Vedder river in Chilliwack to buy our licenses. One of the guides, Peter, confided in us and drew a quick map. "You have an hour before it's dark. Go here.." he scribbled "..and I'll guarantee you'll get a salmon within 30 minutes". He was right. I hooked a fish on my third cast that came off, then another.. and at last got a solid hook-up. I must confess I was disappointed with the resulting fight. The fish came in like a dead bream. The reason was soon apparent. It was a 'spent' fish that was spawned out and I had hooked it in the back. I slipped the barbless fly-hook out (all hooks here must be barbless) and watched it swim sickly back into the depths. I doubt that it lived another day. Nature is strange.
We folded the rods up at dusk, then off to the Best Western to meet up with Dave and Kay for a steak dinner. Considering that keeping costs down was a high priority, this might sound a little extravagant but in fact the UK Pound is at a very favourable rate when compared to the Canadian dollar. The three course meal only cost us about four quid each! In fact just about every meal we had in Canada was very inexpensive by UK standards and was usually supplied in huge portions. Dave and Kay were also stuck into the steaks, celebrating. They had just completed their first day on the river and were in fine fettle, Dave having taken a fish of 71lb whilst Kay had topped it with one at 74lb and another absolute monster of 219lb!
Dave and Kay had generously agreed to share their boat with us for our first days fishing. Seeing no reason not to, that night we parked up amongst the Big Mac trucks in the car park so first thing next morning we were already at the rendezvous. Following a whopping breakfast we followed guide Greg, towing the boat with his pick-up truck, down to the boat ramp. It was a glorious day. We started out wearing overcoats to ward off the morning chill but by 11am we were in t-shirts and Greg was in a pair of shorts. Hardly what we expected of Canada in October!
As Billy had never before caught a sturgeon we agreed that he should take the first fish - but it didn't quite work out like that. The boatramp is situated on the Fraser fairly close to the confluence of the Harrison river, and it was on the lower Harrison that we dropped anchor. Greg cast the baits out and we sat back to await developments. We didn't have to wait long. No3 rod-tip gave a twitch and a shudder and Billy was straight onto it. He went from mid 20 year old to a 40 year old in seconds as the realisation of what could happen next started to occur to him. Lifting the rod from its rest, as guided by Dave, he pointed the tip at the fish and waited for the bite to develop. Sod's Law. That was when rod No1 gave a twitch.
"You take that one, I'll stay with this one" called the rapidly ageing Billy through a newly grown grey stubble. I tried to argue but not for long, as Dave and Kay egged me on. Taking the rod from it's rest with the clumsiness that infrequent use of such items brings on, I managed to point the rod at the fish and feel the fish mouthing the bait. At this point, all other people in the boat ceased to exist. I went into the transcendental Beta stage - the point where snooker players go in their heads in the seconds before striking the cue-ball. Only the unknown fish and I existed, joined by the thin braid threaded through the rod in my hands. In all the din of the others shouting encouragement in that 10 years/10 seconds, I heard only silence. A steady pull developed, easing the rod-tip forward and down. I breathed out, closed my eyes and then woke up as I struck. And all hell broke loose.
I can't remember too much about that fish now. It had been seven years since I had last hooked a sturgeon and wow, it showed! A coarse angler from the UK don't get much chance to use heavy rods and multipliers; all my practice in recent years has been on the odd trip now and then to the Ebro for the big cats. Re-learning how to handle a powerful fish on unfamiliar tackle would usually take me a fish or two anyway. This fish however was even more of a powerhouse than I could remember from my previous sturgeon sessions all those long years ago - it tied me up in knots. Billy's fish had dropped the bait so Greg had reeled in that line to avoid tangles. I found myself holding the rod awkwardly, unable to crank the reel handle smoothly, my thumb burning as it went off on another deep run, left bicep muscle cramping… Arrgh! A nightmare. And a dream. Because when, finally, it was all over, I wished that it wasn't. I guess that's one of the paradoxes of angling that I'll never get to grips with.
In the boat (how did Greg get a fish that big into the boat?) I glanced across to Billy and caught his eye. He now had a grey goatee, though only he and I could see it. We grinned at each other. This was going to be a fun week.
Billy got the next fish, a real screamer. Jumping and diving under the boat and pulling every trick it knew. By the time he had it beaten he was shaking so much I thought his full grey beard would fall out. I smirked inanely. Dave and Kay sat there, stoically amused, making cracks and lightning fast repostes as only they know how. Give me another 20 years and I might get to be that sharp. I wish.
The great thing about sharing a boat with other people is that you do get time to rest and, with fish as powerful as these, you do sometimes need a rest. Whilst Billy and I collapsed in a heap, Dave and Kay took the next two fish, then we all had a break to jig-fish an area known as the 'Aquarium' for salmon. More of this in a later piece because it was now my turn again for another bruiser of a sturgeon. This time from another Harrison river swim near a floating log raft. At around 65lb it was probably half the size of my first sturgeon but was it's equal in the aquatic boxing ring. Fortunately I had found my feet with the first fish and was able to play this one out without finding Dave crying tears of laughter at the end of the battle. In all, we took two fish each on that first day with Billy and I feeling slightly guilty at being the lucky captors of the bigger fish. Because in a situation like that, it is luck. My last sturgeon trip back in '94 or 95(?) had three of us sharing the boat. Whilst Maggi and I each took good sized quality fish on each strike, each time Martin's turn on the rods came around, every fish was a tiddler of 10 or 15lb!
That night we slept like logs, warm as toast in our luxury RV in a campsite we'd found on the bank of the river Vedder. We were up at dawn for our next session, this time in a boat where we were the only clients. That Thursday morning was blowing an absolute gale, bad news when boatfishing for sturgeon. Our guide for the day, Chad, suggested that we spent the first few hours casting spinners for salmon until the wind died enough to enable a boat to be anchored without being blown all over the river. Right on the confluence of the two huge rivers, where blue water met brown, we went ashore. Using light 6ft rods and spinning tackle, we got another serious taste of what BC salmon were really all about.
By midday the wind had dropped. Over the fast blue waters of the Harrison we blasted up the river, skimming the surface at high speed, skipping lightly over submerged sand bars. By 1pm we were into our first sturgeon and half an hour later had boated our second. These two were dwarfed 20 minutes later by a third fish which I got stuck into. At around 75 or 80lb we never had too much time to admire it because both the remaining two baits were taken at the same time; a double hook-up! This time Billy had really cracked it with a fish in excess of 100lb, whilst mine was a 'mere' 20 or 30lb. We towed Billy's capture to the shore for a photography session and took a break.
As happens in all fishing, everything does sometimes go dead and so it was for us. We spent the next half-hour watching motionless rod-tips. By 3.30 we'd had enough (patience eh?) so up-anchored and motored down to the railway bridge to another 'hot-spot' Chad had marked out for us.
We had a video camera with us and had managed to capture some great footage but what we were really after was a sequence of a big hooked fish jumping. That is a tall order. Time and time again we just missed it. The time delay in the camera switching on and the excitement of the heat of the moment meant that we rarely were ready for it when it happened. This time was no exception. At 4pm I pulled the hook into a veritable submarine which took off 150 yards of line at high speed and, showing no signs of stopping, flew across the river, picking up a second line in the process. Billy was filming from behind me when the fish launched itself out of the water and I'm not sure if he caught it on camera. If he did, I'm sure that the zoom facility wasn't engaged so we probably missed it, but what came out of the water was at least 8ft long and fat as a barrel. Chad had cut the line on the second rod to free up the fight but it all happened a little too fast and our efforts were a little too late. The fish had thrown the hook.
To drop the rod-tip when a fish jumps, or not? We argued and debated the point with several guides over the next few days and discovered that even they could not say for sure what was the correct action to take. Most shook their heads and commented that all one could do in that situation was to keep it tight and pray.
Fish sizes: Weighing these huge fish is not a very practical idea so the local guides have a weight-for-length guide. It's only a rough guide as a thin or fat fish can make these figures a mockery but it's the best guide you'll get. Here is a selection from the full list;
3 ft - 15lbs
4ft - 33lb
5ft - 64lb
6ft - 112lb
6ft 6ins - 137lb
7ft - 179lb
8ft - 276lb
9ft - 394lb
10ft - 542lb
11ft - 724lb
12ft - 943lb
13ft - 1202lb
14ft - 1564lb
Our Friday session was the subject of serious doubt. A major sturgeon tournament was to be held that day with some big money prizes, so every regular boat and guide were already booked. By kicking screaming and pleading however we persuaded Fred to try to accommodate us. Pulling out all the stops, he press-ganged part-time guide John into service to take us out. We managed to get lost on the way to the boat ramp that morning and arrived to find that all the other boats were already out fishing and that John was the only one left at the ramp. Like most anglers, these guides are not above pulling the odd harmless stroke or two and today we were to be the victims. Our boat had been stripped by the tournament anglers of all the bits and pieces that helped catch sturgeon, even most of the rods and reels. The only rod/reel combo left to us was one that had a sticking clutch but fortunately John had brought his own pair of brand new rods/reels, anticipating such an event. What else was missing? The radio. A butt-pad/gimbal (which can be important with a big fish). The fishfinder. Oh, loads of other little bits, including gloves. (Sturgeon scutes are sharp so this omission could get bloody.) But what we did have was far more valuable than all of these, we had John. Despite being a part-timer he really knew the best sturgeon spots - and proved it as the day went on. Mind you, that didn't stop us from ragging him rotten all day about being 'under-equipped'!
Our first swim was on a bay on the Harrison that had five other boats already fishing it when we arrived. As we cut the engine two things happened simultaneously. We spotted that the boat nearest to us had an angler playing a fish and that same fish leapt right in front of our path. If we hadn't cut the engine when we did that fish might have landed in the boat with us!
We dropped anchor 300 yards upstream of that spot and put the rods out, the dodgy reel was on rod No1 on our left. Guess which rod took the first bite? Yep, that one. And, Sod's Law, just about every other fish that day was also taken on that rod. I have seen some of the video footage that we have of that day and it is hilarious. There is one section of tape with me trying to control a 6ft fish on 'that' rod which would fit into a Buster Keaton film from the '20's. Every time the fish made a lunge so the butt would punch me in the stomach before the reel would grudgingly part with a few yards of line. As it did so, I would unintentionally give a Homer Simpson impression. "Doh!" zzipp! "Doh!" zzipp "Doh!" zzipp! "Doh!" zzipp, punctuated with my comments regarding up which part of Fred's anatomy I would deposit this reel later. Ten minutes of this and it got funnier and funnier. Billy and John were almost crying with laughter. And despite this being one of the larger fish of the week, I was joining them laughing.
Luckily we never lost a fish due to that bad clutch all day, though we did lose one to a hook straightening (when I tried to be clever and struck twice on a lightly hooked fish) and another one was lost when Billy had the rod. That fish was absolutely enormous, it leapt clear of the water just 30ft off the back of the boat, so we got a good look at it before it fell back onto the line and broke the 100lb bs hook-length. It was as fat as a pig. No, as fat as a hippo - and easily eight feet long. If we had landed that fish it would have been the biggest fish of the day from any of the boats. Just as well then, the first prize in the tournament was a $5000 prize to the biggest fish - and we hadn't paid the entry fee so wouldn't have been able to claim the prize anyway!
We had three days left to fish for salmon before we were booked for our last day hunting sturgeon. Tell you about all that next time.
RV rentals - There are a lot to choose from but we went with Candan.
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Fred's Fishing Adventures have arguably the most experienced guides on the river so that's who we chose.
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