|a giant Fraser River sturgeon for Keith with ace guide Jeff - read all about the big battle below|
In October I was kindly invited to join Keith and Sandy Armishaw of 'Angling Heritage' fame on a fishing trip to Canada, three days hunting sturgeon on the Fraser River followed by three days salmon fishing on Vancouver Island. We were to be joined by Graham and Jane Nicol and Abby from Aberdeen. They all proved to be the most enjoyable company you could wish for so even without the fishing, the holiday was a success. And we had lots in common, all lovers of gardening and wildlife, Jane even being a regular volunteer at the iconic RHS gardens at Rosemoor.
As for the fishing, Graham and Abby only wanted to fly fish for salmon while Keith and I were keen on trying for sturgeon and treating the salmon as a bonus. So we paired off, with Sandy and Jane exploring the local places of interest using our vehicle or indulging in some retail therapy.
|Fraser River scenery and weather to die for|
On day one, Keith and I set off down the Harrison river on Merr’s jet boat. Western Canada is a gorgeous place, the guides a treat to be with and the wildlife prolific. Loons and western grebes were numerous, bald eagles too along with harbour seals, plus goosanders and Canada geese, all busily feeding in the crystal clear water and framed by mountains of conifer forest draped in moss and lichen.
|Hugh's 'hot spot' - waiting for a bite|
Surrounded by all this beauty, we anchored up and lowered our baits into the deep water, small balls of fresh salmon eggs wrapped in ladies tights. The gear was simple, the strongest possible hook attached to tough braid, a small lead weight, a powerful multiplier and 10ft. rod.
|happy to be fishing - guide Merr and yours truly|
Keith had fished here the previous year so he generously gave me first turn when and if we got a bite. Only one rod each is allowed, so Merr spread the three out either side of the boat and though we were fishing for creatures that might weigh over a hundred pounds the bites can be very subtle, so I watched each tip like a hawk.
|always time to smile when you catch a new PB|
Plucks from squaw fish kept me on my toes because sturgeon bites are similar but slightly slower and more purposeful. We saw several great heaving’s of water as sturgeon showed they were out there but we couldn’t tempt them to take so Merr moved us downriver a couple of times to try different spots.
He changed one bait to a lump of salmon gills and it wasn’t long before my rod heaved over like a barbel bite. No missing this and I was quickly attached to a sturgeon that was simply unstoppable. Despite my heaving with every muscle, line poured off the reel at an alarming rate.
|hell fire, they sure can pull - 100yards ripped off already and lots more to go. It reached a snag by that far cliff|
With at least a hundred yards of line already torn off my reel Merr calmly mentioned that sturgeon don’t usually run as far as this one and when another hundred yards had evaporated downriver he was less calm and decided to follow the fish in the boat before it spooled me.
|struggling to gain control and failing|
I have caught some big fish over the years, including Alaskan halibut to over a hundred pounds but this was something else and I made only slow progress regaining some line. As if this wasn’t fun enough, I was distracted by a bald eagle flying just over my severely bent rod when it was stooped on by a peregrine. Life doesn’t really get any better than that.
|bald eagles galore - this one atop an old osprey nest|
Soon after this gift from god the fish had became snagged and I feared the worse, especially when the line twice pinged off rocks and went slack. I thought the braid was broken but each time I reeled like crazy and made contact again. Then it became snagged round a sunken tree but the gods were kind to me again and it came free.
|a glimpse of my first ever sturgeon ... six to seven feet of angry muscle|
Finally I could see my leviathan deep down in the blue depths and Merr suggested it was at least six and a half feet long and weighed upwards of a hundred and fifty pounds. It was a very good start to the holiday!
|beaten at last and heading for the bank for unhooking - it's quite big!|
We had finally won the battle and dragged it towards the boat, though as Merr tried to tow it to the bank with the boat the strain was so great that the hook pulled, so we’ll never know exactly how big it was. I was relieved as it saved me getting wet in the cold water. Suffice to say it was BIG.
|by my roach fishing standards, this is a monster|
Sturgeon conservation is most impressive on the Fraser, each fish being measured for length and girth, then tagged so their growth, age and numbers can be monitored.
|every fish is measured from nose to fork in tail|
Scientists have a data base of over 55,000 sturgeon now, with at least a third still being tagged, so there’s a lot of sturgeon in the river! It is such a joy to be fishing in a place where the fish stocks are so carefully looked after and treated with admirable respect.
|girth is measured just behind the pectoral fins|
|Keith enjoying some fluff flinging for chum salmon|
Unable to add to our sturgeon tally, we headed downriver to a fast, shallow stretch in the hope of catching chum salmon, particularly a female so that we could re-stock our freezer with salmon-egg bait for the sturgeon. We caught plenty of males as they were aggressively defending their lies in preparation for imminent spawning.
|a colourful chum - ready for spawning in the nearby gravels, then they become bear bait|
We released them all, the males spilling milt on the gravel as we unhooked the flies. The sport was too easy, so thick were they on the shallows and I soon lost interest ... but not in the wildlife. Dozens of bald eagles scoured the area for dead and dying fish but the highlight was an osprey plunging in successfully just upstream. Wherever they are in the world, ospreys have an undeniable charisma.
|moving swims in Jeff's jet boat was a speedy joy, with wildlife all the way|
Next day dawned bright and sunny and we were to be guided by Keith’s old friend, Jeff. He led Keith and his son to a hatful of sturgeon the previous year so we hoped he might be able to repeat the trick and as if in anticipation, Keith’s wife Sandy joined us to share the adventure. We bombed off downriver, leaving the Harrison far behind, heading to one of Jeff’s ‘secret spots’, though he admitted such places no longer exist on the Fraser.
|Jeff was very particular about where the bait should be cast|
However, he was very careful to make sure we were anchored over THE spot, searching back and forth with the echo sounder before being satisfied we had a chance of a biggie.
|waiting for the little pluck that could be from a monster|
He certainly knew his stuff, for it wasn’t long before the rods were twitching and we were catching. It was Keith’s turn to take the next bite and because of what followed, I was glad it was.
|who would win the contest was in the balance for more than an hour|
Dashing forward and striking, the rod took on an alarming curve. This was a BIG one and Keith failed to slow its powerful runs.
|Jeff found Keith's struggles quite amusing|
It stayed deep except when leaping clear of the water to show Keith just what he was up against. All we could do is look on in admiration for the fighting attitude it showed.
This was a battle of wills and it was always in the balance as to who would win but to cut a long story short, after an hour nothing had changed.
|oooooh! - it's not very happy|
|OMG moment - that is an awesome fish|
|the reel got quite hot|
|still angry but tiring|
|plungng to the bottom yet again, using the string flow to it's advantage|
We all worried about the hook pulling or the line breaking. Well, you would after an hours fight wouldn't you, especially when it was diving so fiercely under the boat. It was give and take, Keith giving, the fish taking!
Eventually the strain told and when Keith’s stamina was finally spent, the fish weakened too and we battled it inch by inch towards the shore.
|WOW! now THAT is a big fish|
|Jeff keeping a watch on the time to see who would give up first|
Jeff leapt off the boat, Keith staggered off and Jeff kept a clock on the battle until he grabed the line.
|it's almost over now as Jeff waits for his chance to grab the line|
|angler enjoying a beach holiday - we just laughed|
Keith collapsed face down onto the beach. It had taken 1hr 28mins to defeat and we were all elated that he won the contest. Well, the fish wasn’t happy or beaten and when trying to hold it’s head end for Sandy to take a pic, it gave a mighty heave and pushed me into the river.
|a truly powerful sturgeon and still fighting - that splash on the left is caused by me - pushed into the river|
It was especially good that Keith’s wife Sandy had been able to share the excitement and see Keith catch his biggest ever sturgeon. It measured 7feet 10inches, had a girth of 99cms, had been tagged many years previously so was at least 44yrs old and weighed about 280lbs. What a beautiful, prehistoric creature, a battler to the end and on releasing it we watched in admiration as it swam gently off into the depths … and to think that sturgeon sometimes grow substantially more than this in the Fraser. It sure is some river.
|a triumphal trophy shot - happy days for all|
All the sturgeon that we caught at first had already been tagged, then inexplicably, like busses, we caught four which were ‘virgins’. These included a monster on a wet day when it was my turn to strike the tentative bite.
|we're doing battle again and it's another biggie|
We knew immediately it was an exceptional specimen as on it’s first run it leapt clean out of the river, causing us to oooh and aaagh like a missed goal at Man U. It made my knees quake with apprehension as I had visions of a long battle similar to Keith’s on the previous day.
|yikes - this one's pulling a bit|
Our guide Jeff always measured ‘Battle Timings’ because as all us fishermen know, our struggles tend to become exaggerated, especially afterwards in the pub. The fish did fight hard but unlike Keith I put my back into it and had it alongside the boat in 28mins!
|oh yes, that will do|
|portrait of a happy angler|
To be fair it didn’t have the attitude of his monster, nor the girth and being four inches shorter than his, weighed a mere 230lbs … but at seven and a half feet it was mighty impressive.
|portrait of a beautiful monster|
The place we had to take it ashore proved to be the sort of place that hippos dream of – deep soft mud, so deep that once we’d got off the boat into it, we couldn’t move. Unfortunately the fish could move and it was Keith’s turn to end up being pushed into the river. ‘Fill your boots’ has a different meaning when wearing chest waders and struggling with an angry fish and with the rain pouring down, all we could do was laugh.
|we were as wet as the sturgeon|
Jeff estimated it’s age at about forty years, so it surprised us that it had never been caught before. As with every fish landed by anglers, we injected a tag behind its pectoral fin before release, noting its serial number on a computer. When a third of the fish caught by many thousands of sport fishermen from around the world are still un-tagged, it serves to reinforce the feeling that there are amazing numbers of sturgeon in the river. It’s a resource that is carefully protected by the Canadian Government and the guides and a lesson in common sense for many countries, including the UK!
|a pretty bearded one - the fish looks nice too|
|I loved the sturgeons' markings ... like a work of art|
|what a pair of beauties ... and I mean the fish this time ...|
Cutest of the lot were a couple of two footers weighing just a few pounds and maybe five years old. There were several of three to four feet long and around fifteen years old and we had a few five footers weighing about sixty pounds and around twenty years old, so there is a good range of year classes and hope for a healthy ecosystem in the future.
|battling happily yet again|
|action stations - I'm sure they leap to let you know what you're up against|
|a beautiful pair of five footers to end our stay on the Fraser River|
While trying to curb the sturgeons’ enthusiasm for staying in the middle of the river, skein after skein of white-fronted geese tumbled out of the sky above our heads before landing wearily on a nearby sandbank after their long flight from arctic Alaska. Being a lover of wild geese and the remote places they nest, it was even more exciting than if I’d caught another sturgeon. So we ended the day on a high with the reminder that winter was rapidly approaching.
|hundreds of white fronted geese from Arctic Alaska|
|we saw plenty of fresh prints of numerous black bears|
Our three days on the Fraser were over but our holiday wasn’t as we now had three days salmon fishing to look forward to. Graham and Abby had caught lots of chum salmon on the Frazer, along with a few beautiful silver coho, all on the fly of course, and now we were to try our luck on the fast flowing crystal clear rivers tumbling down the wooded mountains of Vancouver Island. It was a beautiful setting for a bit of fluff flinging and with several black bears and bald eagles keeping us company, there was never a dull moment.
|lots of bald eagles sat waiting for the salmon to die|
Vancouver Island is famous for man killing cougars and I harboured hopes of seeing one … but not too close! Our guides were Bill and Ron and though I was assured that the chances of seeing a cougar were nil, Ron did see one close to his home on our first morning in the darkness of dawn. It was his first ever sighting in fifty years of life on the island but it was enough to raise my hopes. If you don’t look you don’t see so whenever we saw black-tailed dear grazing, of which there were many, I searched carefully for cats eyes in the cover.
Our days started before dawn so we always had a chance as we drove over bumpy forest tracks for an hour and a half in the half-light. The drives were necessary because a deluge of rain had fallen on our transfer day and flooded the intended fishing spots on the Stamp River.
|the gang on their way to the Stamp River Falls|
However, this only served to encourage huge numbers of salmon to run and we watched in awe as hundreds gathered at the falls and fish pass. Non of us had ever seen so many fish … tens of thousands struggling through the turbulent rapids.
|rainfall flushed falls cascading past glorious autumn colours|
|washing machine full of salmon|
|a place of unrivaled beauty|
|so many salmon you could walk across their backs without getting your feet wet|
We would be fishing for chum and Chinook salmon using 11ft switch rods, a shorter version of double handed salmon rods but still enabling double Spey casts to be achieved, a necessity along such wooded rivers. Fortunately, Bill was a patient guide as he coaxed us to create the ‘c’ loop one side before the ‘d’ loop the other, then punch the line out by pulling hard on the lower hand while holding the upper hand firm … well, something like that anyway.
|Vancouver Islands' mountains were such a gorgeous place to fish|
Graham and Abby are both ace fly fishermen and had no problems putting the fly over the numerous fish and catching plenty. Keith and I were on a steep learning curve but caught our share in the end. The chum had been in the river for a few days, the males developing large kypes and grown ‘colourful’.
|Keith with a fiesty chum|
|Keith amusing Bill with a spinner enticed battle|
|a dark but lumpy chinook that couldn't resist Keith's lure|
It would be being kind to describe them as attractive but as they powered off downstream at a rate of knots in an attempt to return to the sea, the sport was entertaining.
|didn't they ever tell you to keep the rod UP!|
|Ron tails my chum|
|an ugly beast but a good sporting fighter|
Next day we were on a small river only four kilometres from the sea and dozens of chum were surging through our pool to their spawning redds. The water was very fast and though we had heavy sink-tips on, getting the fly deep enough to attract a take proved difficult. We had to laugh as they leapt past us, untroubled by our incompetent efforts. I felt sure I saw one smiling as it became airborne just beyond my flailing rod tip.
|screaming reels - the salmon off back to the sea with guide Bill enjoying the party|
However, I wasn’t going to be beaten and started, would you believe, to use my roach fishing skills. Paying line off the reel as if trotting a float, along with mending the line allowed the fly to scratch the bottom … and bingo. Fish on. The struggle was violent, the salmon screaming off towards the sea before I could slow it and start regaining some line.
|happy days - these fresh run chums were a joy to behold|
After a period of give and take, Bill was able to tail it … and what a fish, a sparkling silver gem that he described excitedly as a ‘cromer’, fresh from the sea and still with sea-lice behind it’s adipose fin. It was one of the most beautiful fish I have ever caught ... then I caught several more - wonderful fishing!
|simply gorgeous fish - and Keith with one on downstream where a black bear appeared on the bank in front of him|
|a fish as beautiful as you could ever wish to catch|
Now I seemed to have mastered a technique that worked, I hooked a fish almost every cast, some of which stayed on long enough for me to hold for the camera.
|switch rod magic and little red fly|
Keith was lower dawn the pool and had his share of action, though most of his fell off. I too had a problem or three, one big fish kiting left into a fallen tree, just like a chub, bless’em.
|Bill trying to free a biggie from a snag - the salmon excaped of course|
This day was as good as fishing gets so I siestad well when we returned to the lodge in mid afternoon. We wished we could have fished on longer and not had to rise and travel before dawn but that was the deal we signed up to.
|a river full of fish|
On the last day Keith and I decided to try for a steelhead in the upper reaches of the Stamp River, even though it was a little early for the best fishing. It was our last days fishing and the weather was perfect, a frost with mist rising off the crystal river followed by warm sunshine.
Our guide was local expert Sean and he knew more than a thing or two about catching steelhead. Anchored mid-river, we couldn’t believe how many fish there were, the bottom of the river literally black with salmon, some of them big Chinook of twenty to thirty pounds. Among them were the occasional steelhead, holding station to eat any spilt eggs from the spawning.
|Sean assured me that the subtle changes of colour make a difference|
Our tackle was more familiar to us, multipliers with ten foot rods, floats rigged as if chub fishing, using plastic imitation salmon eggs of a variety of subtle differences, trying to trot the baits past the waiting steelhead … and we caught loads of fish but the wrong sort. Chinook salmon aren’t meant to take those sort of baits but on this particular day they hadn’t read the rules.
|a battling chinook that wouldn't give up caused gritted teeth|
|that sure is a lumpy salmon|
|plenty of water to encourage the salmon up to their redds|
|a spotty steelhead nears the net|
We moved upstream through some impressively rafting type white water and lost almost all the steelhead we hooked but eventually landed a small steelhead and for me, it was a lifetime’s ambition fulfilled. One day I’ll return in the high season and try again for a bigger one. Well someone’s got to do it.
|ace guide Sean happy with my first little steelhead|
|Hugh, Jane, Keith, Graham, Abby and Sandy - our gang doing what they do best ... eating and drinking|
On our final night we gathered for a celebration dinner in our resort hotel and laid plans for a return visit next year. I shared a room with Abby and was up at dawn to enjoy the views across the sound to the mainland. The sand flats studded with large flocks of Canada geese, American widgeon and velvet scoter.
It was a fitting end to a splendid holiday and it’s difficult to imagine ever enjoying one more. As I wrote at the start, lovely company, beautiful scenery, guides with a sense of fun and fishing to die for. Perfect!
|sunrise on our final morning, with wildfowl adding to the magic|