Regardless of the method, the intent is the same when salmon fishing in the river. The salmon are on the same path home to their spawning grounds, whether you are casting a fly rod, bait caster or spinning rod. It’s important to get the fly down to where the fish are passing through, just above bottom. Yes, you will snag bottom the odd time on your way to fishing the right depth, but, you are there to catch fish.
My go to rods are an 8 weight single hand and a 6 weight spey rod, although 8-10 weight is the usual recommendation. I prefer to use a sink tip appropriate to the conditions, depending on depth, current, wind and fly weight, a bit like manually setting the drag on an Ambassadeur reel. Rio Versi-Tips come in handy for quick sink tip changes during varying water conditions. I’m partial to a 12lb fluorocarbon leader for easily spooked coho and heavier for chinook and chum. Island rivers also dictate a much smaller hook be used than when fishing larger mainland rivers. I prefer my flies lightly dressed so they sink more effectively though the water column.
The largest of the salmon, are Chinooks, which can be identified by their size, black gums and dark spotted tails. Also known as Spring, King or Tyee (if over 30lb), they begin their fall migration late August through September. Chinook are said to prefer standard steelhead colours and my favourite flies are heavily weighted and include egg sucking leeches, Babine special and marabou patterns like the showgirl.
Coho, or silver salmon are sought out by fly anglers for their acrobatic fight. Averaging 5-15lbs, they begin running September through November. The bright silver is usually enough to know you have a coho, but also look for white gums and a black tongue. Top fly colours are neon blue & green. I prefer to fish sparsely tied clouser minnows, beadhead muddler minnows, mickey finns and simple salmon hooks tied with a hint of marabou and lots of flash.
Chum, or dog salmon show up October to November. Chum are known for their aggressive reputation and seem to prefer garish flies such as an alaskabou in colours like cerise and chartreuse, but will also bite on a 52 buick.
When picking a location start by looking at the freshwater salmon supplement from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to know where you can fish. Big Qualicum is one of the three south Island rivers that maintained high enough flows to remain open this past summer and it opened for Chinook August 1. August 25 marks the opening of the Stamp River for coho & chinook in Port Alberni. Late August rains increased discharge levels enough for the Nitnat River to open to chinook and coho September 2. With a bit of luck, early rains might bring many of the smaller rivers such as the San Juan or Chemainus Rivers up to normal flow rates and if salmon returns are good, there may be in season opportunities later this fall for coho or chum. Starting October 1, you can pick between fishing for chum at Big Qualicum, Little Qualicum or, Puntledge Rivers; coho fishing at the Quinsam or lower Campbell Rivers; or fly fishing the upper Cowichan. October 16, you can begin fishing coho on the Big Qualicum and November 1, the lower Nanaimo opens to coho & chum. On Vancouver Island, as you drive up the highway, any bridge crossing a river with a trail of vehicles lined up by the side of the road will certainly contain salmon.
Be attentive to the area you are fishing, not only to the river. Fall salmon tend to bring black bears riverside especially around dusk, to fish alongside you. I’ve found myself within a couple feet of a sneaky black bear more times than I’d like.
Looking to the river, if fishing the runs, when it’s time to fish you will smell them coming and then see the dark cloud of a school passing in front of you. Keep in mind often the fish are shallow. If it’s holding fish you are targeting, most times the salmon will give their location away. Look for coho in slack, frog water; for chinook in deep pools; and chum in shallow, faster water. Polarized sunglasses are a huge asset to seeing through the water to the fish. When you hook up, don’t pressure the fish too much, be ready to chase your fish up or down stream, and be ready for the one last run left when a salmon’s belly hits the beach. Each river also has its own idiosyncrasies – on some, fish are more active after high tide, on others, at certain times of the day like dawn or dusk. Time spent fishing will reveal the secrets of a river.
This is my way of fall river fishing for salmon – but every angler will have a slight variation in set up that they insist is the way. It’s only by exploring and casting your own waters that you find your own perfect set up. What is universal is the rush you feel when the first fresh, bright salmon of fall takes your fly and explodes out of the water.