Spring on Vancouver Island can be a fickle mistress. One week she teases us with promises of warm hot days of the summer ahead by granting glimpses a week at a time, then follows these up with cool fall like temperatures with unforgiving winds that deny even the hardiest of ocean boaters a chance at fishing. It’s the end of May on our roughly 300 km long island we call home, and already we have seen the changing moods of the spring climate. Indeed just a week ago, I was bushwhacking through the brush and wading river waters in temperatures that are normally set aside for July, yet now the thermometer needle is dipping into the low teens, and it feels more like September than May.
It’s on a day like this that I head out for a morning session of fly fishing on the Cowichan River, just outside of Duncan, BC. The Cowichan is one of two famous rivers on the island, with the Campbell River being the second most known river to both locals and foreigners alike. Both are widely known for their recreational fishery opportunities, and are famous for the yearly fall runs of wild pacific salmon returning to spawn another generation in their clean waters. The Campbell River was made famous by one of the forefathers of fly fishing writing in Canada, Roderick Haig-Brown. Haig-Brown resided in Campbell River for many years, serving both as magistrate for the Town of Campbell River for 33 years, but for those of us bitten by the fly fishing bug he is more famous for authoring some fantastic books such as “A River Never Sleeps” and “Measure of a Year”. The Campbell is a well known Pink salmon river and sees historically large numbers of these fish each year, along with Coho and Chinook as well. And if you really want a challenge, try the Tyee Pool in a row boat and see if you can add your name to the list of anglers who successfully catch and land a 30+ pound Chinook using old school methods.
The Cowichan River on the other hand, was designated as a Provincial Heritage River in 2003, and boasts a wide variety of fish for anglers to try for year round including Brown, Rainbow, and Cutthroat trout during the year, plus seasonal runs of Steelhead (both summer and winter) plus Chinook, Coho, Pink and Chum salmon in the fall. The river is fed from Cowichan Lake, one of the most nutrient rich lakes on the island, resulting in a healthy ecosystem of aquatic life on which the fish can feed on. It’s a river that also feeds the needs of recreational fisherman all year long and remains one of the most productive rivers on the lower half of Vancouver Island and is recognized as one of the finest trout fishing rivers in British Columbia.
The river can be accessed any number of ways and is a great river to walk and wade due to the excellent riverside foot trails along the banks. During winter months some of the best fishing can be done via drift boat as high waters can make bank fishing tough, however in the spring and summer opportunities for walking are plentiful and many of the best runs can be reached. On this particular day I decided to fish in the section of river a few kilometres below Skutz Falls, since I was targeting larger fish. Just a few days prior I was scouting up in the fly fishing only section of the river, which starts at the outlet of Cowichan Lake and extends a number of kilometres downstream. Fishing had been pretty decent in this part of the river, but all of the fish hooked were Rainbows of 4 to 5 inches in length and I wanted to feel something more significant on the line.
I had planned on an early morning start, not because it was really necessary for the fishing but more because I love the early morning (when I am not heading to work!). There’s something about being on the road early heading to the river, with my morning Timmie’s loaded in the cup holder and the hum of the mud tires on the asphalt highway singing me to the banks of what ever waterway I am set on exploring. When I head out I feel a combination of peace and excitement and it always feels good to be on the move. This morning was no different so with warm tea in hand and gear loaded up I was really looking forward to some alone time with the Cowichan.
By 7 AM I was pulling off the road onto the soft shoulder where I would park and gear up for the short hike in. It was an overcast day and not too chilly with the clouds trapping the heat in from the previous night and in no time I was into my waders and boots and making my way down the access trail to the river. As I walked silently along the trail the air was still a
little heavy and hung on the trees while all around me I could hear the sounds of the forest coming to life. Birds of all sorts were up and about, singing their songs to each other and flitting in and out of the trees and brush, causing bugs to stir from their hiding spaces and buzz lazily around the air, illuminated in patches where the morning light was trickling through the forest canopy overhead. These scenes of lush green forests, thick fern bed, hanging moss and plants of all varieties always takes me to special place and I often take
time to simply stop, breathe deeply, and listen to the sounds all around me. Many people walk head and eyes down, focused on getting quickly to their destination and in doing so fail to see the magic unraveling all around them and it’s a shame that they end up missing the details that are part and parcel of what makes fishing so enjoyable for me. Some days it almost feels like you could be transported back in time to a place where people didn’t exist and making money wasn’t important.
After a short walk I reached the river, and started quartering my way down a shallow run as the cottonwood blossoms drifted by me through the air like soft snow. After only two of three casts, I got my first hit on the little prince nymph I was swinging through the run producing a little Rainbow trout, similar to what I had been catching further up river before, but larger in size than the average. This looked promising considering I had only been fishing for 5 minutes! I gently released the fish and continued making my way further down the run towards a large fallen tree that looked like a prime spot to catch something more interesting. The tree had fallen into the river during the higher winter water and been swept down river, ending up pointing tip first downstream with a large root ball creating a nice eddy of water which had eventually excavated a pool with the help of the rivers strong hydraulics.
After catching and releasing another 3 more small rainbows, I finally got within casting distance of the downed tree and it’s sweet looking deep eddy. With a few back casts I landed my fly in exactly the spot I was targeting, about 15 feet upstream of the eddy. With the fly dropping down through the water as it drifted, my line was perfectly placed in the pool and no sooner had it passed across the sweet spot, I got a huge tug on the line!
“YES”! I shouted…watching the tip of my 6 wt rod bouncing up and down hard and the line making a nice wake as it ripped across the surface of the water. Now this was what I had come for! With my rod held up high in the air, I scrambled to get the slack line up on the reel, while keeping tension on the fish with the line between my finger and the rod. With the slack line now taken up on the spool, I lowered the rod and had a chance to play the fish a little more. It took a few runs into the faster water peeling of line as it went, but after only a few minutes I had managed to get the fish close enough to determine what it was and I was stoked to see that it was a nice Brown trout. A few minutes later and the fish was safely landed in my net, and with little harm done as I had been able to keep the fish submerged the entire time. With my heart racing and endorphin flooding my brain, I took some photos of this beautiful fish and then calmly guided it out of the net and back into the current. All of this before 8:30 am, how could this day get any better!
After my experience with the Brown trout, I kept making my way downstream and caught a few more small Rainbows as I manoeuvred my fly through shallow riffles and slicks. It amazes me how little water is needed for these fish to live, and how aggressively they take the fly. With the river being quite low at this time, many small fish use the fast water to hide from predators and it provides a great spot to pounce on food that might be floating by, dislodged by the currents.
After fishing a long fast run that spilled into a big bucket pool at sharp bend in the river, and hooking a few more small Rainbows, I decided to navigate the log jam pushed up against the far bank at the corner and fish the tail out of the pool where the fast water started to make its way into some smaller finger channels. It was an easy scramble to make it over the pile of debris, but I was careful to test the ground each time I planted my foot since it wouldn’t be unreasonable to find that what looks like a solid mass of sticks and leaves is actually just a blanket covering a big leg snapping hole underneath.
After stepping off the log jam and back into the river, I spotted a promising little spot of water just to the side of the main water flow that looked like somewhere a trout might like to rest. With my fly line spooling off on a dead drift through the faster water, it then swung slowly over the slower water I was targeting and just as I was reaching the end of the swing the rod tip bent towards the river in a quick thump taking up the loop between my fingers and I was hooked up. Another nice sized fish was on the hook and taking line! I couldn’t have been more thrilled as once more I had the rod held high above my head as I franticly reeled in the slack line. This time the fish was not as aggressive as the Brown trout prior, and when I was finally able to get it close to my feet and in my small landing net I bent down to release the fly and take a good look at the fish. To my delight, I had a gorgeous Cutthroat trout in my net, with it’s amazing leopard print and bright red throat slash lighting up the
net and my spirits as well. This had been a stellar morning indeed as I racked up my first Cowichan River “Grand Slam” catching three species of local resident trout in one outing. Pointing the net out and slightly downstream, my golden trophy glided easily away from me and was soon lost in the riffles of the river. As I stood there, net and rod in hand, I had the biggest grin on my face and thanked the fishing gods for granting me such a fun morning. These days don’t come often and I certainly appreciated how lucky I had been to have had such fantastic fishing on this cool spring day.
With my hat trick now complete (in total I had caught 8 Rainbow, 1 Brown and 1 Cutthroat) I didn’t want to take more than my share of luck from the river and so I decided to pack up my rod and head back to the truck. As I stood in the river reflecting on what had transpired, the sound of the river skipping and racing over the rocks sounded like a stadium applause, punctuated by the shrill sounds of Kingfisher calls and the thumping of Grouse in the bush. I’m not a religious person at all and never attend church unless required to pay my respects at funerals or weddings but as I stood there and soaked up my surroundings with the cool water slipping by my submerged legs I said a silent thank you to what ever power is out there for granting me this day.
For the fun and challenge, for the personal peace, and for the experience I am grateful. As for my addiction to the sport…as they say “the tug is the drug”! I can hardly wait until my next trip out. With a new job starting this week, I’m glad I spent lots of time on the river since it may be some time before I get to do it again. Until next time…