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October 25, 2001

Vancouver: Salmon Convergence Zone

Find five-star fishing just minutes outside of this five-star city.

Long a wonderland for skiers and hikers, Vancouver is also a wonderland for Pacific salmon. Set amidst rivers that tumble down snow-capped mountains to the north and, to the south, a huge delta where the slower-moving Fraser River and its tributaries empty into the Strait of Georgia. Lots of fresh water, lots of varied habitat: It all adds up to a region naturally rich in salmon production.
"We actually have more fish coming into the Fraser River than anywhere else on the B.C. coast," says Capt. Dan Gibbons of Noah's Charters. "They number in the millions every year - even in a bad year, it's still in the millions!" Gibbons charters his Tollycraft out of Horseshoe Bay in Howe Sound, surrounded by steep, heavily forested slopes. It's a 20- to 30-minute ride north of the city on the same road that winds its way up to one of North America's premier ski resorts, Whistler-Blackcomb.
After eons of prolific natural salmon production around Vancouver, habitat loss (development and logging in particular) has taken a toll. But hatcheries compensate to a considerable extent.
Figure in the immature "feeder" chinook that hang around all winter and spring to fatten up on herring and other forage in the nutrient-rich waters and you can understand why every month of the year offers good salmon fishing. Sure, winter months can be cold and gray, but some winter days - gray or blue - can be calm and almost balmy (into the 50s).
Despite the loss of some wild salmon stocks, this is one of those rare areas in the world where fishing seems to be improving rather than declining. "We've gone through quite an enhancement period in recent years," says Hugh MacLean, skipper of the Indulgence, one of over 50 charter boats in the Vancouver area. "I really see the fishing getting better." That's a sentiment I heard over and over during a recent visit.

Trophy Chinook: In the Bag
I also experienced some of that memorable action. Even though the red-hot chinook fishing of July had slowed by the time my son Gabe and I fished Vancouver last August, we managed to boat a 17-pounder one afternoon and, a couple days later, fought one twice that size to the boat.
Anxiously, we watched for any sign of activity: a pop off a downrigger clip or just a bounce in one of the 10-foot, slow-action rods (as limber as noodles) that are widely popular in B.C. coastal waters. All were bent into almost-perfect semicircles, their tips nearly touching the calm, green water. Near the base of each rod sat a single-action "knucklebuster" reel with 25-pound monofilament.
But when a drag started to sing, it didn't belong to any of the six boat rods. It was one of the little spinning outfits I'd brought along, and trolled it as a surface line. After all, a fast-spinning bait near the surface in August often entices a small pink or silver (coho) salmon, and that's what seemed to dart off with it at first. Six-pound line melted from the spool.
A very tough half-hour later, the fish was close. Moments later, the tired, robust, silvery shape that Capt. Ron Carmichael reached out to net loomed large enough to be all of 30 pounds and then some - Gabe's first trophy chinook.
But I know of few fish that can compete with salmon for somehow finding a reserve burst of life after a long fight - the same reserve, no doubt, that carries them over one more pounding waterfall or past the swipe of another bear's paw so they can complete their life's sole mission. Not to be denied its chance to swim upriver to spawn, the big salmon managed in one sudden, spray-filled moment to turn and dart headfirst out to freedom, snapping the thin line in the process.

Year-Round Kings
That loss notwithstanding, many trophy catches do end up in the cockpits of Vancouver charters and private boats each season. That season really gets going in May, when several different runs begin filling the waters of Georgia Strait and Howe Sound to feed. Like all mature salmon, these fish have spent years (three or four in the case of most chinook) as adults in the ocean. They return to Vancouver either via the Strait of Juan de Fuca that separates Vancouver Island and Washington, or else they squeeze down Johnstone Strait along the "back side" (inland, east side) of Vancouver Island.
For numbers of these big kings, July's a hard month to beat. "Last July, we set records for chinook!" says Wayne Michie, who skippers the Mickey Fin out of Horseshoe Bay, echoing several other skippers. "It was really unbelievable fishing - five minutes from the dock. I think I burned about three tanks of fuel in three weeks fishing every day." The chinook averaged nearly 20 pounds, but some topped 40. Most, Michie says, were white chinook, easily identified by their prized flesh, white rather than deep pink. They're returning to the Squamish River at the upper end of Howe Sound (which is really an inlet).
But for size, early August is the ticket, according to Bill Otway. "We get chinook then in the 30s and 40s and even a few every year in the 50s," Otway says. "For whatever reason, they seem to be running bigger here the last couple years."

Sockeye by the Millions
With August come days when the air gets genuinely hot, and so does the fishing for sockeye - at least when they decide to move in. On a nice summer weekend morning, take the Skyride up to Grouse Mountain to enjoy the sweeping vista of downtown, the harbor and beyond to Burrard Inlet, and you'll know if the sockeye have arrived by the amazing number of boats, small and large, you'll see dotting the distant water.
The timing of the sockeye run limits Vancouver anglers to a short but often fantastic period of action. How long that lasts (and when it begins) "depends on so many variables," says Carmichael, who's been fishing here all his life and chartering since 1990. "For instance, if we get two or three days of bad, rainy weather, and the sockeye have been waiting around outside the river mouth for a day or two, they'll shoot right up the Fraser River. But if it stays dry and hot, they may hang around here for a month or even six weeks."
The tremendous popularity of sockeye has a lot to do with their sheer numbers. In a good year, many millions crowd into the Strait of Georgia off Vancouver, preparing to ascend the Fraser River. Last year's run peaked at 17 million returning fish.
Finding them doesn't necessarily guarantee immediate results, though. "Sometimes the sockeye will be so thick that you can literally feel them banging into the downrigger lines as you troll," Gibbons says, but they turn up their noses at lures. Then suddenly, "We'll have all six rods hooked up and we're scrambling to get them into the boat!"
Sockeye fishing requires a lure basic to any Northwest salmon fisherman's tackle box: a plastic trolling squid (Hoochy) which is set on an 18-inch leader behind a flasher. Two keys to success are size and color. Sockeye feed largely on krill; anything larger than the smallest Hoochy won't work. Even at that, most skippers snip off all but three or four tentacles. Nearly all fishermen pull red or pink. Some skippers even feel hook color can be a factor. Gibbons says, "I'll fish silver or black or red (hooks), depending upon conditions."
Most skippers troll four to six rods on two to four downriggers, sometimes with two shallower lines off the stern. Varying depths is a good way to find the bite zone; sockeye usually feed anywhere from 40 to 100 or so feet.

Silvers, Pinks and Dogs
Besides chinook and coho, Vancouver-area anglers target the other three species of salmon as runs move through. Of these, coho (silvers) attract particular attention when they're around, prized both for their wild fight and deep-red flesh. Michie says the coho fishing can be great, though recent years have produced smaller returns, and regulations to protect wild fish have minimized catches. "In Georgia Strait, pretty well all the coho we see now are man-made," he says of the hatchery fish, adding that the days of dominant wild stocks are over. But Otway says the data indicate about 50 percent of the coho returning to the area are still wild.
Pinks, the smallest of the Pacific salmon, can also be among the most abundant. They start showing up in July, and by August, when you can often spot them free-jumping, they can be thick. Pinks are seldom reluctant to nail small Hoochies and baits pulled within 40 feet of the surface (and sometimes right on top). Their name describes a flesh less rich than other salmon and, while I consider them a delicious fish and fun to catch on light tackle, some native salmon devotees spurn them.
When it comes to "fun to catch," chums rule. The chum (also known in much of the Northwest as dog salmon) differs from other fall-run salmon in several ways. For one thing, it shows up later than other species, entering local waters in late September and remaining available through October. Chums sport a unique look also, developing a characteristic purple-green spawning color and large canine-like teeth in males' jaws which become grotesquely hooked. Since most don't fully adopt that final spawning aspect until they hit fresh water, the majority of the 15- to 18-pound chums (occasionally to 30) caught by anglers in the strait and sound remain sleek and silver-bright.
Many chums come in as incidental catches, but some skippers target them starting in September, throughout October and into November. "We pull a slightly larger Hoochy, in a cuttlefish design, that's darker in color and has more purple than for other salmon," MacLean says.