A group of us huddled inside the clear polycarb barrier sealing the cuddy cabin’s open sides as the 25-foot Grady White eased out of its slip in Tofino’s 4th Street Harbour into a foggy early-August morning. I couldn’t help thinking that I had a lot of promises to keep.
A few months earlier, a few dozen family members and friends looking for a place to meet up not far from major cities during the summer for a memorable reunion had accepted my suggestion: Tofino, British Columbia. I listed all the reasons: great fishing, beautiful setting, great fishing, fab beaches with serious surfing, hot springs, great fishing, hiking the Pacific Rim National Park, diving, great fishing, watching whales, otters and other marine wildlife, zip lining, and more. And did I mention the great fishing?
All that, and it’s just around the corner from Vancouver and Seattle — compared with the far north coast, it’s a mere hop, skip and jump.
Now here we were, heading out on one of four days’ fishing. Different anglers were signed up to fish each day so everyone — men, women and children — would get a shot at the promised action.
Long story short: My assurances of fish aplenty suffered no loss of credibility. All 20 or so anglers were successful, some for the first time ever. And when they weren’t fishing, folks did indeed enjoy the abundance of other activities around Tofino.
Salmon Fishing: About As Good As It Gets
| |Running various artificial offerings off downriggers, Capt. Josh Temple pulls a lot of salmon over the gunwales each season, this one as seen through the author’s GoPro.|
Located roughly in the center of Vancouver Island’s Pacific coast, the scenic coastal village of Tofino boasts all of 2,000 or so actual residents, but of course, during summer, that number swells when visitors arrive to enjoy all that it has to offer.
For anglers, Tofino offers fishing that often rivals Alaska and remote northern British Columbia. But unlike those admittedly fabulous destinations, getting to Tofino neither costs a small fortune nor is particularly difficult. And it boasts a long salmon season: While the period from May through September is most popular — according to Capt. Josh Temple (primetimeadv.com), with whom we fished — salmon can be caught in good numbers here from late March into October, weather permitting.
Productive salmon fishing is hardly a new phenomenon off Vancouver Island. But the past few years have seen world-class action that has been about as good as it gets, anywhere. Favorable ocean conditions and other factors that determine salmon survival have left the Pacific off Tofino seasonally teeming with chinook and coho, and fishermen have filled out limits (four salmon, two of which may be chinook) with some regularity.
All anglers on our fishing days caught salmon, and many did limit out. Downriggers are overwhelmingly popular among salmon enthusiasts in these waters; Temple stacks two lines per rigger, varying depths, often from 30 or 40 feet to 150 feet or deeper. Over the course of a day, he might offer the fish a considerable variety of lures — spoons, hoochies or other plastic squid, or salmon plugs such as Tomics. On many occasions, we enjoyed the chaos of double, triple and occasionally quad hookups.
Some days, Temple would start working just off the kelp around rocky points near shore, but often we headed out two or three miles or more before lines went in. Salmon can cover a lot of ground both horizontally and vertically in the water column when feeding, and the first order of business is inevitably figuring out where they are.
Anchored Up for Big Halibut
But salmon are hardly the only fish in the sea, and those oversize flounder known as Pacific halibut create a high demand among visiting anglers. Certainly, most in our group wanted the chance to tangle with halibut.
The species has historically been a poster child for good management, as overseen by the International Pacific Halibut Commission. But cyclical swings in year classes and abundance are inevitable; after many up years, the past few have trended downward. But that hardly means they’re sparse, particularly for skippers who know where the better halibut “beds” are, usually four to 10 miles out.
| |By August, coho become thick and inclined to pile on when they catch sight of a bright, fluttering spoon.|
Drift-jigging and dropping bait account for many of the flatties brought into Tofino. These often run in the 10- to 25-pound range — tasty, if not trophies. They also can be taken by trolling spoons or plastic squid just above bottom. But Temple prefers to target larger halibut relatively close to shore with big baits. “Those fish are feeding on large octopus, cod, and crabs near reefs and rock piles,” he says.
The real trick to getting them: dropping the hook. “The extra effort to anchor up really pays off,” Temple says. “There are tremendous numbers of bigger halibut around Tofino,” he says of the 60- to 80-pounders he targets, “and it always surprises me how few boats seem to target them.”
Temple lived up to his words: Anchored in 130 to 160 feet, we caught a share of small guys, but we boated a number of 40- to 65-pound fish as well.
Variety: Spice for Anglers
The three species described so far — chinook, coho and halibut — are certainly the holy triumvirate for Pacific Northwest saltwater anglers. But wait — there’s more!
Our group certainly proved that. Among the species of fish pulled into Temple’s Grady were rockfishes of many stripes and colors — yelloweye rockfish, canary rockfish, black rockfish, yellowtail rockfish, quillback rockfish, China rockfish and others — plus lingcod, cabezon and greenling, offering an ongoing variety of fish coming over the gunwales. Like most fishes of the North Pacific, all of these species make fine eating.
The majority of these fish associate with bottom, so fishing most any jig or bait, whether intended for salmon or not, will likely bring a strike that might as well be from a 40-pound ling as from a four-pound rockfish.
| |All in a day’s fishing off Tofino: At far left, a brilliant canary rockfish and, below, a bright coho salmon. Center: Josh Temple pulls aboard a big halibut, caught while chumming at anchor. Above: Long, limber mooching rods and single-action reels are the norm here.|
Most of those bottomfishes put up a rather modest struggle when hooked; I like to carry light spin or baitcast gear with 10- or 12-pound braid, since that will handle even large lings and smaller halibut but offer a lot more sport. I also use the same gear when possible for salmon.
That said, like most British Columbia guides, Temple is happiest when anglers are using his gear. Many provincial guides appreciate the unique tradition brought to their salmon fishing with the use of long (8 to 11 feet), very limber, slow-action rods and single-action “knuckle-buster” mooching reels. The long rods help anglers set hooks without tearing the soft mouths of salmon.
That also probably accounts for the nearly universal popularity of monofilament over braided line. (Also, thin, hard braid is harder to fish in downrigger clips than larger-diameter, softer mono.)
Five fabulous days in Tofino proved a big hit with everyone involved in our large group — though that’s hardly time enough to really enjoy all the (primarily outdoor) activities that Tofino has to offer. And then there’s the fishing ….
A Tofino Timetable for Anglers
• Chinook — April through September (smaller “resident” chinook are available October through March, weather permitting)
• Coho — Mid-June into October (largest coho — “northerns” — are more available after mid-August)
• Halibut — May through September
• Lingcod, rockfish — All year