Waist deep in salt water, I gazed over
the wide expanse of the bay, patiently false-casting
my dry line, ever watchful for a rise or a roll close
enough to cast to. With 35 feet of line aerialized,
I readied for a delivery just as a fish rolled fifteen
feet to my left.
"Darn!" I exclaimed. I severely under-powered
my cast and awkwardly piled the line up near where the
salmon had risen. Frantically stripping in line to take
up the slack and impart movement to the streamer before
the fish moved off, I barely got the slack retrieved
when the line went tight and a violent slosh broke the
water where my fly used to be.
"There he is!" I exclaimed aloud. All eyes turned
my way as the coho accelerated to maximum and headed for Alaska.
My reel was paying out line so quickly I was afraid it would
overheat and seize before I got a chance to slow the salmon.
I started sloshing my way towards the fish as quickly as I
could but the gap between us kept increasing at a frightening
rate. Finally, after a run of at least 100 meters, the fish
slowed, stopped, and began a series of rolls and tail-slaps.
I reeled frantically and managed to gain a few feet of precious
line, but the fish seemed to sense what was happening and
ran again, still heading away from me.
I continued to push my way through the water, all the while
thinking "I'm gonna run out of line." The fish stopped
again, and I glance at my reel to see the metal of the arbour
through the remaining backing . . . I had less than 15 meters
left. I kept the rod tip up and the pressure on as I reeled
in more line. After a minute or so I manage to retrieve 20
more meters of line, but the coho ran again, still away, and
just as it slowed a third time it reached the end of my backing.
I felt the line grow taught as my heart sank and as the
salmon gave one final pull the tippet snapped and my line
went slack. I was devastated. After a minute or two of agony,
I tried to console myself by thinking that it was better to
have hooked up and lost than to not have hooked up at all,
but it didn't help much.
This scene is played out many times every autumn along the
shores of the bays and estuaries of British Columbia's south
coast. Fly-fishing for coho is one of my favourite forms of
angling and is becoming increasingly popular as anglers look
to the sea for an exciting change from the freshwater trout
The coho run on the southern coast of
B.C. occurs in late September and October. To make beach
fishing for them possible, the water levels in the rivers
must be low, so low that the salmon can not, or will
not, enter them in numbers until the waters rise again.
When river levels are too low, the fish stack in the
estuaries and bays waiting for the rains. The longer
the water levels stay down, the better the fishing gets
as more and more salmon keep arriving, hoping to head
upstream. If we have a very rainy early autumn though,
you can forget the beach fishing; the fish will head
straight up the rivers without stopping.
Before you grab your gear and run out the door to pursue
coho from the beach, there are several important points you
must consider. First off, coho are bigger, stronger, and faster
than trout. This requires you to use heavier systems than
you would with trout because a five-weight system just will
not do the trick. A seven or eight weight system is much better
suited to handling these water rockets.
Second, your rod should be at least nine feet in length and
you may want to consider going to a 10 foot. You will be wading
deep, often well past your waist, and at that depth you don't
have a lot of clearance between the line and the water's surface;
the longer the rod the farther you will be able to cast.
You will definitely need a specialty line. Distance casting
is essential for this type of fly-fishing and a weight-forward
or shooting head is necessary. I have used many lines for
this type of fishing and have found Lee Wulff's "Triangle
Taper" to be the best. It is an excellent line that combines
soft delivery with great distance performance.
Coho are easily spooked in shallow water and, if you use
a sinking line, one that blends into the background is best.
Masterline's "Illusion" line or Scientific Angler's
"Stillwater" lines are clear and have proven best
at not spooking the fish.
Of all the pieces of equipment that you pack around when
fly-fishing, your reel will be tested the most by these salmon.
Corrosive salt water and fish hell-bent on breaking the sound
barrier have destroyed more reels than I care to mention.
Salt resistant components are essential, especially if you
won't be cleaning your equipment at the end of each day. Reliable
disc drags are also necessary; gear or ratchet drags are neither
smooth enough nor strong enough to slow a 10-pound coho in
flight. The reel should also have a capacity of 150 - 200
yards (and sometimes even that isn't enough) because coho
will strip off a lot of line in their initial runs.
You are faced with a bit of a quandary when trying
to decide which reel to purchase for salmon fishing.
Either you buy an expensive reel with a good warrantee
that will last you many seasons, and ensure you maintain
it, or you buy several inexpensive reels over the same
time period and toss them when they breakdown or wear
out. I settled on the inexpensive route, that way I
am always fishing with a fairly new reel and am not
worried about beating it up or not cleaning it every
night. That's not to say that the reels I use are cheap,
just not expensive. I still ensured they were of good
quality, had reliable drags, and enough line capacity
before I bought them. An added bonus to purchasing less
expensive reels is that extra spools are less costly
than those required for the more expensive reels.
Something else that you must consider is that, unlike rocks
and logs in freshwater, rocks and logs in the ocean have barnacles
on them. These little razor-toothed crustaceans can make short
work of soft-soled wading boots and misplaced knees if you
kneel down to dislodge a hook or revive a fish. Your waders
should have reinforced knees, and you must wear hard-soled
wading boots. The cost of investing in a well-built and protected
pair of waders will save you hundreds in the end. I wear a
cheap pair of hiking boots and they serve me well in all saltwater
If you wear a fishing vest, you may want to rethink this
tactic. Deep wading will soak the lower pockets, getting everything
therein drenched in saltwater. Usually we flyfishers keep
our fly boxes in the lower pockets, and it only takes a few
hours to turn your nice clean flies into a pile of rusty feathers
and steel. I like wearing my vest, and I empty all my lower
pockets before going into saltwater. Better than this though
would be to pick up a "shorty" vest which is just
what it sounds like, a vest half the length of a normal one.
When you angle from the beach for coho, you are fishing water
three to six feet deep. Often the salmon cruise within a foot
of bottom. This calls for a technique that will get your fly
down to the fish while not hanging up on bottom. There are
several methods of doing this and each has its advantages.
My preferred method is using an intermediate full sinking
line. These lines are neutral density, which is to say that
they are neither lighter nor heavier than water. This allows
the line to sink very slowly and once a retrieve is started,
it pretty much doesn't sink any farther. This capability allows
you to get the line down below the surface wave action so
that the waves don't interfere with your presentation and
retrieve, but still sinks slowly enough to let you to retrieve
it without snagging bottom. It does take some time to sink
though, and this may try your patience. Tidal currents also
affect it more than other sinking lines, and I have been frustrated
with it in a heavy tide.
Another method employs a full floating line. Using a dry
line allows much more line control and is nicer to cast than
a sinking line, but sometimes won't get your fly deep enough
unless you use a weighted fly (and we all know what a joy
it is to cast a weighted #6 fly). In addition, the dry line
sits on the surface and rises, falls and meanders with the
surface wave action and tidal current. This affects your retrieve,
and ultimately how your fly appears to the fish.
The third method is to use a sink-tip line. These lines are
not very nice to cast, but do offer some of the advantages
of both of the previously mentioned lines. The floating portion
still allows you to manipulate the line a bit and is very
useful in keeping track of where your line is in the water,
while the sinking tip gets your fly down to the fish. This
line still gets affected by surface wave action, although
not as much as a floating line, and it is harder to control
the depth of the sinking tip, hence you will have a harder
time judging when to retrieve your fly.
Regardless of what method you employ, the flies and retrieves
are the same. Coho in skinny water, as I mentioned earlier,
are easily spooked. This requires the use of long leaders,
15 or more feet is very common. I used to work hard at finding
heavy tapered leaders but I now simply use 12 or 14 pound
test monofilament looped straight off my connector. It is
cheap and it works. The heavy tippet is necessary because
anything lighter tends to break easily on these fish and you
want to be able to employ your reel drag to tire the fish
or you will never get it in. One problem with level monofilament
is that it is difficult to roll your casts over, especially
casting big flies. However, if you use the clear fly lines
that I mentioned earlier, you can use a much shorter leader
and this combination makes it much easier to roll the cast
Flies are simple ties of # 8 - #2 stainless
steel or nickel plated hooks with overwings of blue,
pink, green, yellow or white bucktail. Tie a few of
each and try mixing some yellow under with green over,
etc. Throw in half a dozen lengths of crystal hair for
more flash and there you have it, a good assortment
of coho flies.
Since the coho feed on an assortment of goodies, from herring
and needlefish to krill, an assortment of different coloured
flies is needed.
There is nothing special to learn about actually fishing
for these salmon. If you can spot a particular fish cast just
ahead of it. If not, then make casts as far as you can, get
the fly down to within two feet of the bottom, and retrieve
them with quick strip retrieves. Often when you are stripping
in the fly you will see a wake move in from behind the fly
and follow it. As much as you would like to, don't change
the retrieve. If you suddenly change the fly's speed or motion
the fish will refuse it and turn away. Maintain the retrieve
and ready yourself for the strike. If the coho strikes set
the hook, raise the rod tip, and hang on 'cause you're in
for one heck of a ride!
Bill Luscombe has been hunting and fishing for most of his
42 years. He has been flyfishing for 20 years. He instructs
flyfishing, and has done so for the past 12 years. He also
instructs the federal FSET firearms course and the BC CORE
hunter training course. He is an award-winning outdoor writer
and has been writing freelance since 1987. He has been published
in BC Sport Fishing Magazine, Outdoor Edge, BC Outdoors, Western
Sportsman, Island Fish Finder, and the BC Hunting Guide.
Bill Luscombe was born an army brat and raised in Ladner
(Delta, BC) where he was raised hunting waterfowl and pheasants.
He presently resides in North Cowichan on southern Vancouver
Island where he has lived and worked full time as a professional
forester since 1982.
He presently works in Nanaimo for the BC Forest Service and
continue to write the fly-fishing column for BC Sport Fishing
Magazine as well as contributing articles freelance to various
outdoor magazines in western Canada.
Bill Luscombe is also a BC Director of the Northwest Outdoor
Writers Association. "Catching fish is not hard. You simply
need to understand what makes them tick. If you think like
a fish, you will catch fish. It’s as simple as that."- Bill
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