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…
It’s early May, the fishing is picking up, and I am unemployed.
Don’t let the first line of my latest blog post fool you…yes I am “unemployed” but only for two weeks time as I move from my old job to a new one! Living in Victoria, unemployment can be a daunting event, as the job market here is very tight indeed. Seriously, who wouldn’t want to live in our fair city, with it’s remarkably mild winters, affordable house prices (in relation to nearby Vancouver) and less rainfall than our big sister city across the Haro Strait. Sometimes events come into your life that present you with an opportunity that previously didn’t exist, and for me a change in employer meant an impromptu mini vacation and a chance to escape to the river.
With spring in full swing (all be it a dry one so far), and winter run steelheading season well past, I pulled out the map books on the morning after my last official day at work and started working up a plan for the next 7 days. Eventually I settled on heading to the north of Vancouver Island, where I would spend some time fishing some familiar rivers looking for trout on the prowl. On my list were the Tsitika, Marble, San Josef, Taylor, and lower down..the Cowichan. I packed up my truck with enough clothes and equipment to last me a week, piled all my fly fishing gear and materials in, and headed out early on Monday morning. There was something very satisfying indeed to be heading in the opposite direction of all the suits and skirts heading to work.
My first stop was in Campbell River, where I made the obligatory visit to the River Sportsman outfitter store, located along the banks of the mighty Campbell.If you’ve never been you really should! I always make a point of stopping here on my way up island, as it’s a great store for shopping and always has a great supply of flys. I generally tie my own stuff for steelhead and salmon, and to some degree for trout as well, but I have to admit that my patience for tying small nymphs or dry flys of the size 12-16 is really just not there. I would much rather pay the couple of bucks each and avoid the frustration of working with such tiny implements.
Fueled up, rich with new flys, some food and drink, I headed out for the Tsitika River, about an hour and a half further north from Campbell River. Along the way I stopped in Sayward, where my plan was to eat lunch at the Cypress Pub, but to my dismay it was closed for renovations (although exactly what renovations could be done to spruce up the place is questionable…I mean how can you improve on a life size deer head on the wall that sings and moves to the lyrics!). Looking for a quick alternative, I started following some promising road signs to the Salmon River Inn, where promises of “Excellent Pub Food” were made, I kept driving into the village of Sayward until I came across the Inn. I wish I had stopped and taken a photo, because words simply don’t do it justice. Let’s just say that the advertising was more than a little generous with it’s description, and I decided to forgo the food poisoning and carry on. After a brief leg stretch in Kelsey Bay to watch the loggers work at the dry land sort and booming grounds, I was back on the road.
At 3:30 pm on the nose, I rolled into the Tsitika River Crossing Recreation Site, a spot I have camped before on numerous occasions. Upon arrival, three things were sadly evident immediately:
- Loggers were living at the site. A full on travel trailer was parked on site, with a generator, water trailer, and sewer line running directly from the trailer, into the river. Strike 1.
- The road I had planned on going up to access a lower section of river where Catherine Creek meets the Tsitika was posted for active logging and required permission to access. Strike 2.
- The river itself was lower than I have ever seen it, allowing me to walk across sections that I had previously never even attempted. This surprised me as I was not expecting low water given that it had been warm for the past two week and there was quite a large snow pack this winter. Strike 3.
The long and the short of it was that this river would not be worth fishing, so after just an hour of prospecting around the very skinny water, I packed it in and decided that I would spend the night, and head out in the morning to the Marble River which is lake fed, and bound to have water. Disappointed and hungry, I got the fire going and had a hamburger feast to soften the blow.
The following morning I woke up early after sleeping in my truck at the Tsitika, after a very restless night indeed. Since I knew I would be leaving in the morning, it didn’t warrant the effort of setting up a tent so I just slept across the rear seats of my pickup. Not too uncomfortable really, a bit short for my body, but OK none the less. This was the first time I have slept in my truck, near a river, since the great flood (Read my post “Surviving a Harrowing Night on North Coast of Vancouver Island” for perspective). As expected I guess, I kept waking up every hour, convinced I was flooded out again. In fact there was even one time where I physically put my hand down to the floor to see if it was wet. The other thing I am now discovering is that I have grown afraid of the dark! It has never really bothered me before, but now when I wake up in the pitch blackness of a remote spot with no moon, I wake up in a shear panic. Suddenly I am back in the water, thigh deep in cold muddy water, with a flashlight that is on the blink and no help nearby.I guess it is safe to say that a little PTSD has made it’s way into my world.
With a clear sky overnight, the temperatures dropped pretty quick, and I ended up sleeping in all of my clothes, including my sweater, and still felt a chill. Nothing compared to the chill of waking up in a truck that has become a mobile swimming pool mind you, and let me tell you that had a very distinct feeling. That night I had a great view of the stars above me, and if only my neighbors had shut down their generator I would have had a very peaceful evening. When I awoke the next morning, I had a quick breakfast of cereal (Captain Crunch is the best!) packed the gear up and headed back out on the road on the way to the Marble River.
As I departed in the early morning, the loggers next door had just gotten up and were starting to prepare for their day. Once on the logging road, about 5 km out from camp, I came across a massive off highway logging truck, loaded to the hilt with old growth trees. He let me pass, and thank goodness because it would have been a very dusty ride behind him for the remaining 20 km until he would have turned left onto Taltlos Main, heading for the log sort at the mouth of the Adam/Eve rivers.
I made good time to my first stop on the way, Port McNeill, stopping just once before that to change and wash up at a really awesome rest stop on the highway. Upon arrival in McNeill, I spent some time in the fishing and hunting store and chatted with the dude manning the counter in the store. I made some inquiries about possible places to go fly fishing for trout, and he told me that Keogh Lake was good, and he had been there yesterday and spotted two cougars. He showed me the photo of one, a real skinny and emaciated looking cat. Now, I am no expert, but I am thinking that a guy by himself, probably should stay away from sick and hungry cougars, or else be subject to looking like a nice snack on two legs. The guy confirmed that the Marble was still producing good fishing, and that the rest of the local rivers were really poor right now due to low water conditions. He did mention that the sockeye would soon be in the Nimpkish River, which was interesting. although not enough for me to go and take a look. Having heard all the local fishing gossip there was to hear from the guy, I packed it in and went off to the Marble as planned.
After a sunny drive, I soon arrived at the Marble River Recreation Site, where I had hoped to spend the night as the campsites there are quite nice. Sadly, when I got there it was still locked up, and not open yet for the season. Crap! When I pulled into the parking lot I saw a guy in waders, just getting ready to go home. Always looking to gather a little local intel, I chatted a bit with him and he claimed to have caught 5 fish, in a just a few hours of effort. With promising information like that, it was time to get dressed..and hit the river!
With my gear on and rod rigged and ready, I stomped my way down the to river bank after walking through the empty camp site. I have only fished this place two or three times in the past years, and pretty much always in the same spot. Deciding to change things up a bit, this time I started a little higher up the river than I normally do, as I could see fish rising to surface bugs in the shallows. A hatch was just getting underway, mostly small gray to white midges, plus a scattering of mayfly flitting about in the calm air. After dragging a prince nymph through the little spillway riffle and pool with no luck, I switched over to a march brown dry fly, with similar results. Nothing. Feeling a bit frustrated, I fished for another 30 minutes and then headed further down river to were I had fished with success in previous years with hopes of hitting it big again. The Marble is a beautiful river system, with vibrant colors, clear waters, and lots of hungry rainbow trout waiting for you. It’s a river that I have never been skunked on, and I was hoping that trend would continue on.
On my way further down river, walking along the wooded banks along a trail, I spotted some rather large tracks in the soft pine underfoot, that looked remarkably cat like, and from the looks of them they were very fresh. I took a few minutes to take a good look around me, paying attention to the trees above and around, to see if there was anything sleeping nearby, with the images and the words from the fishing store clerk earlier in the day being far too fresh in my mind. Since I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, I cautiously continued on, making more noise than I had been up until that point. In a few minutes I had made it to the river, and got set up in the honey hole. Having had no luck on small nymphs,and seeing a tonne of fish feeding at the surface, I threw on a fly donated by my friend Bruce a few weeks prior, a famous deer hair fly that some old timer had passed on to him after a random discussion a the grocery store he works in during the winter. I ran it through
the pool two times, and on the third time I got smacked! After a lively but quick battle, the stink was off and I had landed my first fish of the trip. After a few quick pics I let him go and he headed right to a rock about 2 ft from me, stuffed his head under it, and just sat there for 10 minutes. He didn’t move and inch, so I had time to take a quick video, and felt a bit
concerned that he would die from the stress of being hooked and released. But after throwing some casts for about ten more minutes, I turned to look for him and he had vanished. Perhaps some hardwired instinct had taken over him, reminding him that as a fry he had hidden in the river gravels from predators. Once he felt the danger had passed, he silently swept out to the safety of the fast flowing water and the cooler depths below.
The next fish I caught was a fat little rainbow, hooked up on a bead headed black stone fly nymph. The little guy scooted all over the place and kept me in line, and when I was finally able to handle him in the water he self released and darted away. So fun! I ended up with 3 or 4 more hits, but nothing stuck on the hook. Seeing as I was using my 8 wt two handed switch rod, I believe that had I been using a lighter rod I would have caught more and missed less. Lesson learned.
After a few more hours of brilliant sunshine and fun fishing, I hiked back to the truck where I cooked up a mess of hot dogs, had a nice cold beer, and sat down to decide on my next stop. Since I wasn’t able to stay at the Marble Recreation Site as planned, the next option was to head further northwest to the small logging community of Holberg, and from there onward via logging roads to camp at the site of infamy, the San Josef Recreation Site, where I had been subject to my horrible experience before. I thought about it for awhile and questioned..why? Fishing would most likely be poor due to low water conditions, and I would have driven a heck of a long way for nothing, not to mention a guaranteed bad nights sleep from worrying about a repeat performance of my flood disaster. So instead, I figured I would go reverse my direction and head back down island, to Port Alberni, and stay on the banks of the Taylor River near Sproat Lake.
With the afternoon slipping away it was a long drive but after stopping once for a hour long nap at my now favorite rest stop (at Keta Lake on highway 19), I made it to the Snow Creek Recreations Site on the shores of Sproat Lake at about 9:30 pm. It was dark now, and so I had trouble figuring out where to park as I navigated old campfire rings, deadfalls, and rocks. In the end, since the sites were all empty, I simply parked alongside the beach, sparked up a happy little campfire, took some pics of the moon and then laid my head down for a long rest. Tomorrow I would be out targeting trout making their way from the lake to the river to spawn. Two weeks prior I had been up here, and observed fish in the river. And two weeks prior to that, my friends Bruce Milne, Paul Zozula and I had been up and we saw just one lonely fish. Certainly by now, things must have improved. When morning came, I would find out if I was right, or if my long drive had been a gamble that rolled snake eyes instead of a seven. But that is another story.
The focus for the blog today takes a slightly different turn from my normal ramblings about rivers, hatches and Steelhead and back out onto the salt water for a look at the technique of “Bucktailing” for Coho salmon off the western shores of Vancouver Island.
Bucktailing, the process of dragging large tandem hooked flies at high speed behind your motor boat, has been a method of fishing for many varieties of fish including Coho salmon since the early 1930’s. The origin of the term “Bucktailing” takes its name from the common practice of using buck tail deer hair as the prime recipe ingredient in the preparation of the flies, which are often dyed in a multitude of colors meant to provide a good imitation of bait fish.
The actual process of bucktailing is fairly simple in theory, but tricky in practice. The idea is that the Coho salmon, who are drawn to the surface wake of the boat, will chase down the fly as it skims across the surface of the water, with the fly often creating a “V” shaped wake is it moves over the surface. Unlike normal salmon trolling with traditional gear, flashers, bait and spoons, the speed at which the fly is trailed behind the boat is considerably faster, to the point where it feels almost excessive.
About 13 years ago, after the purchase of my first ocean fishing boat, I got into a discussion with a colleague of mine about fishing and more specifically my desire to try fly fishing for salmon in the ocean. As it happens, my friend had spent many years fly fishing around the province prior to having a young family and had developed relationships with some fine fly fisherman. One of these people was an older gentleman from Port Alberni who introduced him to the art of tying bucktail flies, primarily out of polar bear fur. The two struck up a friendship and the old master took on the young (at the time) student and gave him some lessons on how to tie the perfect bucktail, taking into account colors, head size, and most important how it would sit or “swim” in the water at speed. The result of this tutelage was the creation of a fine box of bucktail flies, a combination of efforts from both master and student. And lucky for me, this box of flies was graciously donated to me by my colleague who wanted to pass them along to someone who would have time to use them.
Over the following years, I would pull out the box of bucktails from time to time, wondering how much fun it would be to catch a Coho on one. Numerous attempts were made to figure out the right speed, position of the rod tip relative to the water, type of line to use, how far back to let the fly sit behind the boat, and where to try. Sadly many attempts were made unsuccessfully to catch a Coho on one, but after each attempt I would reassess, go research some more, and try again.
As luck would have it, it wasn’t until just 2 years ago that I finally got it right. And let me tell you, it was well worth the wait. In fact, it was probably the most fun I have ever had salmon fishing on the ocean. Period. I spent about 3 hours perfecting the right combination of speed and presentation, until I was pretty much catching fish consistently.
The following weekend, on a heavily overcast and rainy day, I convinced my buddy Steve Ford to give it a shot with me, and over the course of a few hours we caught a LOT of Coho. The action was non stop, no sooner had we let out the two trailing fly lines, we had hits, sometimes simultaneously! But the neatest part of all, besides the absolutely screaming sounds of the reels as the wild and fresh Coho took off with the fly, was being able to see the fish charging the fly at high speed.
Since that amazing day with Steve I haven’t had the opportunity to try again, but I will be setting aside time this fall when the Coho are thick and gathering in the tide lines to give it another go. I strongly suggest you try it yourself, and be patient with fine tuning the setup. Once you have it set up just right, the rewards and the action is well worth it.
The setup I used was the following; 7 weight rod, full floating fly line with about 15 feet of 12 pound mono leader, and a basic click pawl fly reel. You could go with a heavier rod of course, but since most of the fish we were catching were in the 8-10 pound range, you really didn’t need it. You will need to troll between 7 – 10 mph, and trail your fly line roughly 70 – 80 feet behind the boat directly in the wake. It’s best to put the rod in a holder, with the tip up, so that the fly drags at the surface of the water and just skips occasionally. Once set up, sit back and wait for the action to begin. Find a school of fish and you won’t be spending much time in your seat!
Good luck, and tight lines!