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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 scene.
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 conditions.
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 over.
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 Luscombe