Saturday, 2 December 2017

A FESTIVAL OF FISH


Whoever said ‘you should never go back’ was wrong.

I recently returned from Canada after another great fishing holiday with Keith Armishaw of ‘River Reads’ fame and his family and to suggest we caught more than enough fish would be an understatement.

the wide expanses of the Fraser River on a perfect autumn day
We were based in British Colombia, the first few days of our adventure on the Harrison and Fraser Rivers, the last few on Vancouver Island’s Stamp River, interspersed by an afternoons salmon fishing with down-riggers in the Salish Straight off Comox.

the hotel looks out onto the massive Harrison Lake and is surrounded by high mountains - perfect

Before that, we stayed in the Harrison Hot Springs Resort, an ideal base for Keith’s wife and daughter with it’s three pools, one being a thermal cooker. It was ideal for us too because after a good breakfast, [crispy bacon with scrambled egg – nice!] we only had to walk a few yards across the lakeside garden and step onto the jet boat. With flask of hot coffee and packed lunch on board it would be our fishing base for the day.
jetting our way to a favourite mark


Keith enjoying the comfort with our guide Morgan
I’ll spare you a long list of what we caught [well, I might], but on day one our guide Morgan led us to a side bay on the Harrison which was solid with pink salmon. The pinks only come up the Fraser every other year so catching one would add a new species to my life list. [I had actually swum with them a few years ago while making a film about Alaskan wildlife but that’s another story].

Keith failing to catch in our appropriately named 'No Take Bay' 
Without fly tackle on board we would be lure fishing for them and so thick was the shoal that it seemed impossible not to catch one. The pinks had other ideas. I hooked and lost one, Keith too but I did manage to land a small pike minnow which thus became our first quarry in our holiday species hunt. For us, size wasn’t the goal, fun fishing for maximum variety and enjoyment certainly was. We obviously called this spot 'No Take Bay'.

Having failed with the salmon we dropped downriver into the Fraser to try for sturgeon. With only a few showers of rain since May, the river was the lowest it had been in living memory, with many pools too shallow to allow access. In one of these ‘no go’ areas we’d caught big ‘uns last year of between seven and eight feet, monsters to a roach angler like me but we had no such ambitions for this holiday so told all our guides that the maximum length required was five feet!

a five foot leaper from last year
a brace of fives - quite big enough for a bit of fun fishing

These give you a good battle for ten minutes or so, thus avoiding the half hour or more of bruising tugs of war that the larger sturgeon put you through.
Keith's monster was still leaping after an hour


what a simply awesome creature - all 7ft10ins of it - with our ace guide Jeff
Keith’s 7ft10ins brute last year didn’t give up for 1hr. 28mins and he didn’t want to be tested to exhaustion like that again … and neither did I.
at 7ft 6ins this monster had me struggling for half an hour in the rain - great fishing


When our guide Morgan had found a promising spot, we used the pike minnow I’d caught for sturgeon bait and this soon resulted in a surprise pink salmon, quickly followed by Keith’s perfect sized sturgeon of 65inches.

the right sized sturgeon in the right place - perfect

fantastic looking creatures
measuring from nose to fork of tail - important science

So the day with Morgan ended well, especially as he didn’t insist on us dragging our catches ashore for trophy shots. We just measured and released them in the water alongside the boat. Unduly stressing fish for the sake of a picture doesn’t seem fair to such precious, pre-historic creatures.

the government records of sturgeon populations are impressive


the ever cheerful Matt greeting us by his jet boat
Our guide next day was a delightful youngster called Matt. He’s nineteen years old and had only been guiding for a month but any fears we might have had that he knew nothing were soon dispelled when he told us he had been fishing since childhood and had become so skilled that he fly-fished for the Canadian Youth Team in the World Championships!

Matt had all the gear and plenty of idea
His skill levels were impressive and he was so enthusiastic about our ‘maximum species quest’ rather than the usual visitors ‘monster sturgeon quest’ that the following three days fishing were as good as it gets. He provided every conceivable type of tackle, especially the specialist ‘Czech nymphing’ gear and this enabled Keith to catch the diminutive and always ignored whitefish. Matt had learned the specialist skills while fishing for Canada in Slovenia and taught Keith well enough that he soon had a silvery PB whitefish of a glorious six ounces!

Keith struggling with his PB whitefish - slippery little devils
We did try the 'No Take Bay' with Matt but it stayed true to it's name and we blanked there again, though it remained as beautiful and fish filled as ever.
such lovely scenery to fish in, even if this was 'No Take Bay'


We crossed the river to the shallows and while Keith was teasing the tiddlers I thrashed the water into a foam with my incompetent fly casting. We found that long fluorocarbon leaders and small flies did the business and I managed to land a succession of feisty pink salmon and the occasional chum.
plenty of rod bending action for a poor fly fisherman like me

lots of feisty pinks kept my fly rod bent
There is something magically tactile about feeling the fly edging across in front of the salmons’ mouths, even if most of the time they politely moved to one side to admire it’s passing. However, often enough I felt that tightening in my fingers and the satisfying thump of a firm hook up.

an ugly male - the fish I mean
Apart from this more sensitive fishing, we found that casting a fly at the shoals didn’t disturb them as much as a spinner. These would drive the shoal away downstream and require resting the swim until they relaxed and returned to their preferred lies. 


ace guide Matt with another battling male pink - not a pretty site
Resting the swim had the advantage of not only providing a quick strike but gave time to admire the wildlife while downing a welcome coffee and having a good chat in the beautiful scenery, a win win all round.

I wish I was back there now - such a great place for a fishing holiday

We were having so much fun that sturgeon fishing was relegated to the afternoons, though each day we'd catch one or two each of the designated five feet or so.
bent into a good sturgeon
nearly five feet again
I never tire of seeing the mottling on their prehistoric backs
released without stress

On one memorable day we caught eight different species of fish and all in glorious warm sunshine. 

What’s more, we had an osprey plunging into the tail of one of our salmon runs, just beyond where I was playing a fish and having failed to catch, it landed in a nearby tree, followed soon after by a merlin. 

 that splash is an osprey that I missed trying to steal our fish
the osprey came to see how we were catching, even if they have the advantage of four hooks on each foot
seeing a merlin was a rare treat
strike action - an osprey that I didn't miss

bald eagles were seen frequently every day as they feasted on dead salmon
Add numerous bald eagles and the less than welcome harbour seals and we were kept royally entertained. It was one of the best days fishing I have ever had.

I'll never tire of seeing these wonderful fish
It did rain on a couple of days but the fresh water improved our chances of finding coho and sockeye salmon and much to our delight we found the mother load of sockeye in a shallow area off the main channel, though not before two bald eagles and three seals had spotted them and made them nervous.

Western Canada is such a beautiful part of the world
However, we could do no wrong, enjoying long and spirited fights from these colourful creatures.
a sockeye heading for the net

well, the fly was nearly in his mouth
happy days for keen danglers


they might not be silver salmon but sockeye are certainly colourful
I was fly fishing, Keith casting a lure, sometime encroaching on my water … it’s got to be done … but he got his comeuppance when he foul-hooked a large chum in the tail. 


last laugh on us, sheltering in the boat while Keith gets wet
By now it was raining heavily and I felt it served him right for poaching as Matt and I could shelter in the boats cabin while he got soaked battling with his monster. He was seriously challenged when it threatened to empty his spool as it tried to return to the Pacific Ocean.

an impressive chum for a poacher
heave ho - and at last we get a take in 'No Take Bay', this time from a five foot sturgeon
In between salmon fishing, we caught more than enough sturgeon and by some fluke, non of them were much above our five foot limit, the icing on the cake being one of that size each in the Harrison River on our final afternoon. The added bonus on this crystal clear river is seeing the sturgeon rising monster like from the depths as they struggle for freedom. 


sturgeon fight really hard in the clear waters of the Harrison River
They fight harder too and my fish did a last minute unstoppable plunge, trapping my hand on a rod rest and drawing blood, a war wound to be proud of.

ouch
never beaten, just waiting to be unhooked





So our final afternoon was punctuated by the most enjoyable rod bending action before the nearby hotel bar called for a few beers with Matt and the girls. What a truly civilized place to enjoy a bit of dangling.
they don't have to be big to be fun - a happy 'Queen of the pike minnows'

the clean air makes even cloudy days look good
We were sorry to leave Harrison, even if the delights of Vancouver Island and its’ numerous salmon lay ahead. We would be staying at Port Alberni but first we decided to have an afternoons down-rigger fishing for salmon out in the Salish Straight between the island and Canadian mainland.

the Salish Straight was wind against tide bumpy

lots of seals gaurding the harbour entrance
Steve checking the downriggers for enquiries from the salmon

We left Comox with skipper Steve and despite there being lots of bait fish showing on his echo sounder, the big Chinook failed to bite. 



the rockfish were most attractive - like perch with attitude

We were using flashers and flies held down with cannon balls in the bumpy swell but all we caught was a couple of little cohos and two good looking rock fish.

We then became tourists for the day and visited the Stamp River Falls which like the Fraser was suffering from severe drought. 


Stamp Falls without water, a challenge for migrating salmon. Last year it was so high the river was un-fishable
The salmon ladder was almost impassable but this didn't stop the silver tourists attempting to jump the waterfalls. 


with awesome determination to ignore obstacles, the salmon pressed on up river
several dippers took advantage of the low water for a spot of fishing

Little dippers dashed about in the shallows while impressive numbers of fish waited below, an encouraging sign for our fishing the next day.


the fish counter showed us the size of our quarry for the next few days
with so many fish in the river we felt there might be a chance of us catching one or two
The fish were confined to a few deeper pools, the lack of flow making them reluctant to bite. The shallows were so ‘thin’ that they could be crossed in slippers without getting wet! Crossing them in our shallow draft boats we’d be fishing from was a bottom crunching delight.

bruised bum time, even if beautiful
Our first day started in the dark at the delightfully named 'Hippy Shack Pool'. With the river so low we had to drop the boat down a sheer bank and it almost landed on a black bears back as it swam under our 'launch site'. On this frosty morning the mist rose thickly, creating beautiful scenes in which to cast.


what a gorgeous time to cast a line
jack coho provided early success

From here on the day proved ‘challenging’, not just for the reluctantly biting salmon but the over zealous guide that we had. He meant well and we did catch plenty of fish, from jack cohos and springs to big chinooks but it wasn't much fun as he inflicted a constant stream of criticism.
Keith latched onto a lump
they sure do put up a good scrap




Keith and Josh with a large chinook
Put simply, in my book fishing is meant to be a bit of fun and being told off every time I missed a bite or cast in the wrong place was unnecessary, for I’ve been practising doing it wrong for the best part of seventy years and feel that I'm now rather good at it! What's more, the pressure on the fish was relentless. Three floats trotting down the same run at the same time struck me as wrong and was so hellish I had to stop fishing.


Keith's first wild rainbow trout - another species to savour
Moving on, our most notable fish was the smallest, an eight inch wild rainbow trout which was another new PB for Keith. Meanwhile I’d been crowned ‘The Queen of the Pike Minnows’.

the pike minnows were fun too - or is it a baby salmon of some sort?
lots of black bears patrolled the shore for dead fish

We saw five black bears that day, delightfully confiding creatures, like something from a Disney cartoon as they searched the rivers’ shallow edges for dead salmon.

Next day we saw three more bears while guided by Nick, the owner of the company and he led us to some superb ‘chromer’ cohos and chinook, the biggest up to nearly twenty pounds. 


a large fresh run coho leaps clear in the early morning mist
Keith with a simply beautiful coho
These were caught float fishing, trotting chub style with globs of salmon egg for bait. Keith was the ‘ladies man’ that day, landing some fresh run beauties … while I was relegated to battling with ugly blokes.

chinooks carry on fighting for ever
Nick and yours truly with an ugly one
It sure was fun fishing, even if Nick was too keen with his advice about ‘missing bites’. I had to bite my lip out of politeness because I’ve been practising missing bites since 1950 and think I've become an expert!

such a beautiful river to fish
I was keen to rest the swim occasionally, giving time to take in the sheer beauty of the place and the prolific wildlife. Bald eagles and turkey vultures circled overhead ; mergansers and bears swimming the river, all searching for fish, dead or alive. We were sat in some very beautiful spots but sadly, taking time out from casting didn’t seem to be an option.

a female common merganser - in Europe we call them goosanders
It’s surely tricky being a guide as they must feel they have to help you catch as many fish as possible when maybe you don’t want to. I’d prefer to catch one salmon on a fly to ten on a spinner or bait but that wasn’t an option on offer. Catching fish at any cost is not my style. As I wrote earlier, fishing is meant to be a bit of fun and if we lose sight of that, wherever we are, we are the losers. Sometimes it’s enough ‘just being there’.

how could you not be enchanted when casting a line here
I know when I take a friend out on a guiding day I’m much keener they catch than I but putting too much pressure on them threatens to spoil their day. I hope that I never inflicted this on my pal Chris Wild when I’ve taken him fishing. Luckily he’s caught several PB’s and sharing them with him has been delightful.

my pal Chris Wild with a PB twenty pound plus common, stalked as it fed a foot from the bank
On my last day I decided to relax and watch wildlife by the sea while Nick took Keith, Sandy and Jenny out for a family day on
the boat to see their much hoped for black bears. 


Disney like creatures and delightfully confiding
Nick delivered no less than eight on cue, including a mum with two cubs, so it was mission accomplished with lots to spare, the perfect end to a great holiday.

Nick hit the jackpot for Sandy and Jenny with this cute family
Who was it that said ‘you should never go back’? Well, I reckon by catching eleven different species of fish and some biggies as well, we might have proved them wrong.
big chinook seldom get more beautiful than this - fresh as a daisy - what a great catch

1 comment:

  1. You do yourself a misservice but I have to boast that I am better at missing them than you!!! I even hooked and lost three sockeye on one cast which takes some beating. Thanks for being such a great fishing and holiday companion

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