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Fly Fishing for B.C. Salmon

Our Guide to Landing Salmon in British Columbia

A landlubber born and raised, I relish the act of wading into the water and casting out a lure or fly to passing fish—especially when the fish are big enough to strip line off my reel and do serious damage to that smug attitude we humans have regarding our evolutionary superiority. And there’s indeed the certainty that, provided I keep doing things right, I will sooner or later feel a great tug, see the rod bend double and hear line hiss through the guides.

For the B.C. beach angler, it just doesn’t get any better than that.

Generally, B.C. beach fishing starts in late summer or early fall, and success is, in large part, a function of river water levels. For the best shore fishing, the summer should be warm and dry so that the levels drop quickly, with the dry spell lasting as long as possible into the fall. Under such conditions, the schools of salmon will mill about near rivermouths, waiting for a substantial rise in water levels to beckon them upstream.

With all that in mind, here are some of B.C.’s best beaches for getting in on the action.

Best Beach Locations

The gravel bar at the mouth of the Capi­lano River, in the shadow of Vancouver’s Lions Gate Bridge, is a great place to ease into the salmon-fishing season (see map on next page). That’s because the beach fishing for coho usually starts early, around mid-June when the river turns from a torrent to a trickle. Prime fishing is during the last two hours before low slack, since the shoal is submerged and inaccessible until then. This is a popular spot among the locals, and if you’re not there as the tide recedes, your chances of getting into the hot zone are remote. And since the locals chuck hardware, this isn’t the place to go with fly rod in hand.

Instead, fly fishermen are directed to the cobblestone beaches stretching from the mouth of the Capilano west to Ambleside and beyond. These beaches provide good coho fishing throughout the summer, especially when the rising tide coincides with the first two hours of daylight. Look for jumpers to show themselves, betraying schools of salmon beneath the surface.

Still within sight of Vancouver, Cates Beach near Deep Cove in Burrard Inlet can be a hot spot for pink salmon. Incoming tides early in the morning produce good fishing between the boat launch and the lighthouse; very few fish are taken after 7:30 a.m. Fly casters take note: Cates Beach is a popular local park, so watch your backcasts.

To the northwest, along the 90-kilometre Sunshine Coast, virtually any bay with a bit of freshwater flowing into it should provide good action for pinks through August. Thanks to successful restoration efforts, coho are also abundant along the beaches through early fall. Also look for large schools of chum salmon in October and into early November. Specifically, the beach at Langdale Creek, next to the Langdale ferry landing, is popular with some anglers, but the cobblestone beach at Roberts Creek Provincial Park farther up the coast is more aesthetically pleasing. Around Chapman Creek, the beach fishing for coho can be excellent. To the west of Sechelt, Sargent Bay offers sheltered beach fishing in the area of the provincial park of the same name. North of Sechelt, yet another option is Porpoise Bay, especially around the campsite near the outlet of Angus Creek, where there are tons of pinks in odd-numbered years. Another ferry ride and about 20 kilometres beyond the terminal along the road to Powell River is the Lang Creek estuary. From mid-September through to the third week of October, the shallow beaches in this area are good bets for hooking into chinook salmon weighing upwards of 20 pounds.

Over on the east side of Vancouver Island, the beaches from Qualicum north to Campbell River provide wonderful fishing, starting with the pink salmon run and, later, the coho. Oyster Bay, visible from Highway 19A, is a popular spot, but the better fishing areas require a bit of walking. The stretch of cobblestone beach from Kuku­shan Point south to the estuary of the Oyster River-a distance of roughly two kilometres-provides good pink salmon fishing during summer’s wane. The area is popular, however, and the bombardment can push the schools away from the beach. Start early in the day and focus on areas closer to the mouth of the Oyster that require a longer trek from your car (the hiking trail down through the regional park on the north side of the river provides access to that area).

In the fall, the east side of the island also has a steady stream of coho working its way south along the beaches. One of the prime spots is around the mouth of Black Creek, the site of a major fisheries enhancement program. Fishing for northern coho-salmon that linger on the northern feeding grounds longer and tend to be bigger as a result-is good in September, with a number of fish easily tipping the scales in the middle teens.

Hot Spots: Cates Beach, Capilano River west to Ambleside, Langdale Creek, Roberts Creek Provincial Park, Chapman Creek, Sargent Bay, Porpoise Bay, Lang Creek, Oyster Bay and Black Creek

Tackle

No matter what species you’re after, casting distance is the key when it comes to beach fishing—more often than not, it seems that the schools will mill about just beyond your range. That’s why your choice of gear is paramount.

For hardware fishing, nine- or 10-foot rods rated for lures weighing up to two ounces work best. Go light for pinks, but choose a rod with backbone for bigger fish. Spinning reels will do the trick, although level-wind casting reels provide better control. You’ll need 200 yards or more of 25-pound-test running line and, depending on the size of the fish and the abundance of barnacles, eight- to 15-pound monofilament leader.

Nine- or 10-foot rods are recommended for fly casters. An eight-weight rig may be overkill for pinks, but to avoid having multiple rods, I use that one size for all my beach fishing. The reel needs a dependable disc drag system and a capacity for 200 yards of 30-pound backing, plus the fly line. Figure on a medium sink-tip and a slime line. Eight-pound leader is plenty for pinks, but you’ll want to go heavier and longer for bigger fish.

And no matter whether you fly fish or cast hardware, use stainless-steel hooks-and remember to pinch down the barbs. Barbless hooks are mandatory in B.C., but they also make releasing the fish a snap-and help ensure there will always be plenty of salmon to catch from shore.

Beach Smarts

New to the ways of the sea? Here are some more key tips to keep in mind before you hit the beach.

Since you’ll be fishing in saltwater, rinse down all your equipment, including your waders, in freshwater as soon as you’re finished. And don’t forget your lures and flies: salt will corrode them, too.

How do you know if you’re fishing too deep? A good indication is if you start hooking bottom fish, such as sculpin and flounder.

Yes, you can wet wade, but you won’t last very long. To fish effectively, you’ll need a pair of chest waders coupled with sturdy wading boots. The felts should be as dense as possible in order to withstand the ever-present barnacles. A shorty wading jacket is also a good idea, since the water will come close to the top of your waders from time to time.

Watch those waves. The wake from even a small boat can be disruptive, but the swells from a big cruise ship can knock you off your feet. When you see a swell coming, back away-and alert other anglers who may not have seen it.

Fish run with the tide when it flows in the direction they’re headed, but tuck into eddies in the lee of points and natural jetties when it flows against them. During slack tide, they tend to be dispersed. I never fish the beaches without first consulting the tide tables at tides-marees.gc.ca.

Species-specific Flies

Whether you toss tin or fling flies, here are some species-specific recommendations on what works best to entice Pacific salmon from shore.

Coho

Aggressive and strong, these silver bullets offer the epitome of beach fishing. Most shoreline coho action takes place in September and into October, but there are places—such as the gravel bar off the mouth of the Capi­lano River—where the fishing starts in mid-June. Along the beaches, coho prowl the bottom two feet of the water column, where they’ll fall for a fast retrieve. Most productive are small, sparsely tied streamers (with tinsel bodies and polar bear hair wings topped with a few strands of chartreuse, blue or red Krystal Flash). Use a long leader, since coho are easily spooked. In fact, the skinnier the water, the more skittish they tend to be. Silver spinners and wobblers with a streak of chartreuse or blue also consistently produce fish. For an added attractant, I stick a strip of holographic tape to the silver blades.

Pinks

In alternating years during late July and through much of August, millions of pinks, or “humpies,” stream down the coast in most areas. Since 2006 is an off year, you’ll be hard pressed to find a single humpie along the southern coast this summer, but there should be plenty of fish to the north. For hardware fishing along the beaches, two-inch, hot pink Buzz-Bombs and Zzingers are standard. For fly chuckers, pink offerings with a bit of flash are best, tied on size four to six hooks, preferably stream style. You can blind cast or look for jumpers; pinks usually wheel in large circles that bring them within reach of beach anglers. Cast in front of them, let the offering sink two to three feet and retrieve at a medium clip. On the take, set the hook by raising the rod tip-striking too hard will pull out the hook.

Chinook

Virtually all beach fishing for chinook takes place at the mouths of smaller spawning streams, with September and early October being the best times to head out. The fish most often nose into the freshwater on the incoming tide and frequently linger in the vicinity of rivermouths until conditions are right for an upstream push. Krocodile-style wobblers and large Buzz-Bombs in pearl shades take the majority of fish off the beaches. If casting flies, try streamer patterns that imitate needlefish and other bait; barbell eyes help sink the offering into the zone. Work your fly or lure slowly and close to the bottom of the water column. The take is surprisingly soft for fish weighing 20 pounds or more, so you need to be on the alert, waiting for the slightest bump. One more thing: expect good sizes rather than numbers.

Chum

While most chum fishing takes place in rivers, these power­ful fish will come close enough to shore to provide some great beach action. Look for them through October and into November off the beaches near spawning streams. Chum tend to be exceedingly frustrating when they first arrive but gradually become more aggressive, attacking anything that comes near them. Once they reach that stage, the tackle choices vary widely. Generally, spinners work better than wobblers, probably because they produce more flash. For flies, reach for big, gaudy attractor patterns, such as Popsicles and rabbit strips that incorporate blue, purple and green; a bit of weight added to the head helps them sink. The secret for both tin and flies is to work the bottom half of the water column. When you hook a chum, put the pressure on or it will strip your line in no time.

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