Well, I don't think I have anyway, though perhaps some of those sea-trout I have picked up here and there over the years might have been salmon. Very few people I know can tell the difference without consulting a textbook. Okay, yeah, I've caught lots of parr, but not 'proper' salmon, and yet I've been fishing for 45 years. It may surprise the overseas reader but this is not unusual in the UK, we have very few rivers in Great Britain where salmon will run. This was a side effect of the Industrial Revolution; many of our rivers were canalised and made navigable during the C19th which stuffed it all up with weirs and locks and pollution. Then supply and demand factors meant that salmon angling became the province of the wealthy. So today, if you want to catch an Atlantic salmon, it is bound to involve a bit of a journey and considerable expense. Not so on the other side of the pond! North America has an abundance of salmon and, in Canada, as Billy O'Connor and I found out on our sturgeon trip to BC in Oct 2001, they can be so thick in the water that it is hard not to catch them.
Every second year on the Fraser river is what is called a 'pink' year, because it's only every other year that the 'pinks' return to spawn. When that happens they can become a pest for the anglers who are searching out the silver coho salmon. Our introduction to these fish was with a foul-hooked fish I took on the first evening of our stay. The next day we found ourselves jig-fishing for them during a break from catching sturgeon on the Harrison River. Here we found that foul-hooking pink salmon accounts for at least half of the captures! That's how many there are in the water.
Using small pink and orange lead-headed jigs on the light USA-style 6ft spinning rods we would cast out and, as often as not, have these fish either take the lure straight off or at least follow it up as we worked them back to the boat. Billy was at one end of the boat and I was at the other with guide Greg hopping from one end to the other, also casting jigs. Dave and Kay Steuart sat eating lunch, uninterested really in catching these fish. No challenge I guess. Billy and I certainly had fun though - catching salmon one-a-chuck is pretty much the stuff of dreams where we come from. These were hard fighting fresh fish straight from the sea and, fightwise, were at least the equal of the rainbows we catch in stillwaters back home. Naturally we soon got bored with such easy pickings but it was obvious what fun these fish would provide on a fly rod and we resolved to have a crack for them with fly-rods as soon as was prudent.
Prudence appeared a few days later. However - there usually is a 'however' - of all the times to fish Canada, we had chosen a period with Thanksgiving weekend slap bang in the middle of it. The up-side of this meant that my Canadian friends Martin and Chuck were able to come and fish for a few days with us. The downside was that the rest of the anglers in the entire Vancouver area would be joining us!
We fished the Vedder river, mainly because we were in an RV park camped beside it. Finding a spot to fish was difficult simply because the locals were out in such numbers. Their method involved trotting a float down the stream with a piece of red wool on the hook, heavily weighted to get it right down. Others were using the ubiquitous salmon eggs as 'bait'. The idea that a salmon would take bait when it was going upriver to spawn, hence not feeding, according to every book I have ever read, made this seem daft to me. Then it was explained to me that when 'fresh' the fish will sometimes eat, but the longer they are in the river the less inclined they are to do so. After that it's just down to an aggressive reaction to the stimulus of a piece of (e.g.) red wool which makes them grab it. Apparently. I have my own theories that they will also mouth a 'bait' out of curiosity - having no hands to examine things, they'll use their mouths.
We fished the Vedder for a couple of days, both in the crowded section downstream and at a spot Chuck took us to one evening, a beauty spot many miles upstream. It was paradise here but for one thing, the fish were all stale and none of the coveted coho were showing. Chuck had christened us with red-indian-sounding names, 'Billyfish' and 'Geoff-three-rods' which somehow helped us to blend in - I certainly felt an affinity to nature surrounded by all the beauty and wildness around us. We flyfished and waded, jigged lures and threw spinners. All we could catch were spawned-out pinks, no fight in them at all in this condition. Somewhat miffed at having to leave such a beautiful place we camped by the river at the downstream positions again, resolving to be fishing at first light to miss the crowds.
It was still dark when Martin and I started fishing next morning, Billy, having one of his famous lie-ins, eventually joining us around eleven. We had waded across the river to fish on a bar, apart from the crowds now lining the banks, though we were all fishing the same bit of water. My bright green fly making a dance through the myriad of red-wool and salmon egg offerings coming down the stream from the far bank anglers. The only reason we stayed was because the fishing was so good. At least, it was good for us. The guys opposite weren't catching so much! And most of the fish were newly entered into the river, so had a lot of fight in them. It was still like shooting fish in a barrel though and by midday we were salmon-ed out. We had caught innumerable pink salmon of all sizes but still couldn't manage to catch a coho here - they were, according to the local tackle shop guys, waiting at the rivermouth for fresh rain to encourage them to swim upstream. I finally managed to get one from the tiny little Campbell river on our last morning in BC. I chased it and stalked it, dropping a worm on it's head at least twenty times before it could stand it no more, it turned and bit. That one went about 8lb.
Most of the pinks we caught were around four to six pounds. The male pink is easily recognisable from the huge hump on it's back. The female looks like a strangely coloured trout. A coho looks like a silver version of the female pink! The various species can get confusing but you should be able to follow this easy guide to recognise the different salmon:
Sockeye - almost toothless with prominent eyes. Weighs 2.2 to 3 kilos
Chinook - black gums, heavily spotted tail. Weighs 1.5 to 30kilos
Coho - white gums, black tongue, wide tail base, square tail. Weighs 1.3 to 14 kilos
Pink - tiny scales, large oval spots on V-shaped tail. Weighs 2.2 to 5.5 kilos
Chum - white tip on anal fin, narrow tail base. Weighs 4.5 to 6.5 kilos
Steelhead - thick tail base, tiny spots over entire tail and head. Weighs 2.5 to 10 kilos
A single-handed trout fly-rod is quite suitable for the pink fish as they don't grow that big. I read in a paper that a record pink was caught the week we were in Canada - it was only around 14lbs so you won't need new tackle, your reservoir rod should do fine, but you will need a fast sinking line for some of the deeper rivers and a stock of shot to get your fly down deep. What is essential is a pair of chest waders. Breathables might be lighter but if it turns cold you'll want neoprenes.
Okay. Back to the sturgeon then.
I used the term 'red-indian' earlier. This may not be politically correct these days - I noticed that the press refer to a 'First Nation' handle which could be the same thing. Being PC is very much the 'done thing' in this part of Canada - except with the fishing guides of course! There is a small fish that inhabits the Fraser system which the authorities have re-christened in recent years. They now call it the 'pike-minnow'. The guides call it by it's old name, the 'squawfish'. When you are waiting for a bite out in the boat, if the rodtip suddenly jags a few times it is probably a squawfish bite. But not always. Towards the end of our stay, Billy and I started to hit some of these 'squaw' bites and on several occasions they turned out to be sturgeon. Squawfish are a mixed blessing. They will attack the bait and confuse you into thinking that a 'proper' fish is biting. This is annoying but they also serve a purpose within sturgeon fishing. Squaws nibbling at the bait will rarely totally remove it from the hook but they will burst eggs within the egg-bag bait and so release a trail or flavour the sturgeon will follow upstream.
Our last day out for the sturgeon was with another of Fred's guides, 'Merr' Sprangers. Merr had the usual fully equipped boat (I guess John had warned him after our last trip) powered by a jet motor. Great motors these, no prop to sheer off when you ground the thing at high speed - one does have to watch out for the odd salmon carcass getting sucked into it though! Merr, like all the other guides we had, was a mine of information about the river and it's occupants. By the way; if the guide has put you onto good fish, look after him and be sure to tip him. Twenty Canadian dollars per angler per day should be sufficient (At least, I hope so!)
This last day we were tagging the fish we caught. The tagging programme has coughed up a lot of interesting info about the sturgeon but, as there is such a low re-capture rate, there is still very little known about them. Although we caught several fish that were already tagged, this was unusual as overall there has only been a 5% recapture rate. The tags have allowed the Sturgeon Society (yep, there is one) to determine that some of these dinosaurs have managed to swim from the Fraser river to the Columbia - some 500 miles!
Our first efforts were again on the Harrison at a particular hot spot that I'm not going to tell you about. Find your own! In this swim we hammered them. In the first hour we had both taken fish of 70 or 80lb and at just after 9.30 Billy hooked into a monster. Fifteen minutes later we up-anchored to follow it because Billy was running out of line! And yep, we lost it when the hook pulled. I think we must have given it a sore mouth though because half an hour later a whopper jumped right beside the boat. I think it might have been the same fish.
We finished up our trip by spending the last couple of hours in a social fish-in, anchored up beside Dave and Kay and there we caught a lot of fish. Some were small, three footers, and still others were not quite so small. We motored back to the boatramp satiated and fulfilled, a pair of very happy little boys. In the eight days we had spent fishing BC, Billy and I had caught in excess of 30 sturgeon and perhaps a couple of hundred salmon.
There are some huge fish here. 1000lb fish have been caught on rod and line and fish easily double that size have been taken in nets. Every one of the guides has hooked at least one fish which they never ever saw, though it towed them around for 4 or 5 hours before snapping them off. Sturgeon are a very strange fish which, we were told, have some mammal genes in them; these will allow them to live for up to two weeks out of water, as long as they are kept damp. Small ones are to be handled very carefully, they have teeth all the way down their bodies - that's what sturgeon scutes resemble, teeth. As the fish get bigger these generally get blunter - but take no chances, handle with care and wear gloves!
It is possible to catch sturgeon from the bank - but be very sure you have tackle capable of handling very big fish. The day we arrived, a UK angler, Andy Hardy, had an estimated 350lb fish which he took from within 50 yards of the boatramp. Although he was fishing from a boat, he could quite easily have cast out that distance from the bank. Night fishing is permitted too, we were told, and there are lots of campsites bordering the Fraser and Harrison rivers which would make good fishing bases. Just remember, only one rod per angler is allowed.
If you do choose to bank fish, be careful. Canada may be a very civilised country but this is still a wild environment and you will see a lot of evidence of that. Overhead there will be eagles flying, in the river you'll see seals and maybe even a beaver. Whilst bears are rare on the lower rivers, they do exist and we heard from a couple of sources about a fly-fisher who was attacked by a cougar. So don't fish alone. Carry a whistle or a bell or even one of those clicker things, and be sure to use them when walking through remote areas or down bankside tracks. The noise will alert any big wildlife in the area and they will usually drift away.
Incidentally, if you find bear droppings on the bankside, have a quick poke through it to determine if itís from a black bear or a grizzly bear. If the droppings contain nuts, berries and roots then itís a black bear. Grizzly bear droppings contain whistles, bells and clickers!
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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