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The VedderRiver - B.C.'s Crown JewelBy Dave Vedder ,
Sure, I admit it, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the river that bears the family name. But the hard facts support my contention that the Vedder is among the elite of North America´s rivers. I know of no other river that combines the admirable attributes of superb angling with close proximity to the major population centers. As I think back fondly to my greatest angling adventures, I find that the Vedder has been the scene of many memorable successes.
The idea for this article came to as I was taking a rest from battling white chinook in the Vedder last October. We had driven to the Vedder in response to a telephone call from my good friend Clint Derlago.
I had called Clint to see if the Vedder´s usual plethora of big chums had yet arrived. Clint reported that the chum run had been especially weak. But, he said, "The Vedder is absolutely polluted with white chinook." He reported that there were so many chinook in the river that good anglers were hooking 15 to 20 fish a day. When he told me the average size was twenty to thirty pounds with the occasional forty pounder, and the rest is, as they say, history. In two days Clint and I hooked and released, often unintentionally, more than 75 big bright chinook. Most of these fish were bright, a few were tinged with grey, and a minority were dark.
As we were babbling over this phenomenal fishery, we asked Clint why he hadn´t told us about it before. He said, "I didn´t think you would be interested. All these whites do is rip off your gear and wear ya out." That comment made me realize what a super river this is. Many local steelhead fanatics disdain fishing the rest of us consider world class. A quick look at some catch statistics show the true potential of the Vedder.
The Ministry of Environment reports that Vedder River steelheaders may catch as many as 14,000 steelhead in a good year. The chum salmon run, which is virtually ignored by most B.C. anglers, provided more than 200,000 willing adversaries. More than 10,000 coho are caught annually, and that the fall chinook run, which appears to be building, often exceeds 35,000 fish. A summer fishery for red chinook has been developed by hatchery managers who brought brood stock from the Fraser River system. While the reds do not return in huge numbers, summer time anglers catch an estimated 300 red chinook per year. On top of all this, a major run of pink salmon estimated at 170,000 fish, invades the river every other year. Add to this blend a run of sockeye salmon, and you have a total of very nearly 500,000 anadromous fish per year. I should note that pinks, chums and sockeye are not considered sport fish and hence no retention is allowed on these species. However, the ones you "accidentally" hook sure do provide good sport.
While considering these statistics please remember that this data represents the best estimates of fisheries professionals in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, who are responsible for all species except steelhead. J.D. Buxton, Vedder River hatchery manager, who graciously provided most of the data on salmon, stressed that catch and harvest data is estimated based upon creel surveys, historical data, numbers of adults returning to the hatchery and other data.
The steelhead catch estimates were provided by The Provincial Ministry of Environment, which is responsible for steelhead management in British Columbia. Steelhead catch estimates are difficult, because both wild and hatchery fish are often released and caught again. Steelhead catch estimates are based upon angler responses to surveys and other data that is not 100% reliable. The Vedder receives annual plants of approximately 120,000 eight-inch smolts. Biologists estimate that approximately 4,800 of these return as adults each year. The number of wild fish in steelhead returning to the Vedder is not known with certainty. By extrapolating from creel survey data, I estimate that approximately 8,000 wild steelhead return each year.
The Vedder is a medium sized river. Too small for a drift boat, too large to wade across, the Vedder makes its way from Chilliwack Lake over a scenic course that leads it on a meander through the lush Fraser River Valley. Almost every inch of the river is accessible to bank anglers. The lower reaches are touched by a dozen suburban roads. The upper reaches are paralleled by the Vedder River Road which seldom ventures more than a few hundred yards from the river. Many of the top runs are within a few steps of the road. Those who are willing to hike a bit can access virtually every inch of the river except for a few hundred yards that flow through the grounds of the provincial prison.
To give you a close look at what he Vedder has to offer, let me take you on a journey through the angler´s year on the Vedder.
The beginning of a new year brings the start of steelhead season on the Vedder. A few hatchery fish begin trickling in by early December, but January marks the arrival of a major push of big, bright hatchery fish.
Because of a unique hatchery program, Vedder River steelhead are unusually big and strong. Every year hatchery staff and volunteers catch brood stock with hook and line. Only wild fish are used for brood stock, assuring that hatchery fish are only one generation removed from their wild ancestors. Perhaps more importantly, these hatchery fish come from a long line of willing biters. After all, if their parents hadn´t bitten a hook, they would never have been selected for the hatchery breeding program.
Because steelhead are the favorite quarry of B.C. river anglers, the Vedder is always crowded. If you want to fish the best runs, you had better plan on arriving well before first light. The locals joke that you need to bring your own rock to stand on. But there´s a good reason so many lower mainland and U.S. anglers converge on the Vedder. When the run peeks. top rods can expect several hookups a day on football shaped steelhead, that average an amazing eleven pounds and occasionally breaking the magic twenty pound barrier. While steelhead success is never assured even on the Vedder, consider that this small river typically provides anglers somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 fish landed per year. That ranks way above Washington´s Cowlitz which is pounded by dozens of jet sleds and scores of drift boats every day.
Favorite terminal gear for early season steelhead include, Gooey Bobs, Jensen eggs, cured eggs, and shrimp. Long rods, center pin reels and floats form the backbone of the B.C.â€˜steelheader´s arsenal. If you plan to visit the Vedder, it´s best to come prepared to fish floats. Bottom bouncing does not mix well with float fishing. If you insist on using bottom bouncing gear, try to find a run where you won´t be constantly crossing lines with the float anglers. Better yet, bring a long rod and a few floats. Once you see how well the locals do with floats, you will become a lifelong convert.
This is peak steelhead season on the Vedder. March anglers find a mix of hatchery and wild fish. By late April most steelhead hooked are wild fish. This is my favorite steelhead season on the Vedder. Crowds are small, in part because some anglers burn out and in part because the B.C. steelhead license expires at the end of March.
The river usually remains stable during March and April, which means you can count on finding prime conditions in one end of the river or the other. A large bleeding clay bank just above Slesse Park, discolors the lower river after heavy rains, but above the clay bank the river seldom blows out for long.
Favorite baits for late season steelhead include salmon eggs, sand shrimp, and prawn meat. Pink plastic worms in the four to five inch range are the favorite late season artificial lure. (Beanie-weanie and bubble gum are top colors.) Other favorite lures include small tri-colored wool ties, Gooey Bobs and Jensen eggs, and silver or gold Colorado and Indiana spinners..
This is the quiet season on the Vedder. The only angling opportunities available in May are for fly fishers who work the river down stream from the Vedder Road Bridge. All other forms of angling are prohibited in May and the river is closed upstream from the bridge. The only species available in May are late returning steelhead and downriver spawners. May typically sees many days of high water or even flooding. Last year the river was fishable for only a handful of days in May. Fly fishers do well with cerise or green, sparsely tied patterns. In June the entire river is closed to angling.
By the first week of July red chinook and sockeye begin pouring into the Vedder. Red chinook, or springs as the locals call them, are considered by many to be the finest eating chinook. Vedder River reds average around 18-20 pounds, but every year lunkers in the forty-pound range are landed. Those who target chinook prefer salmon roe and spinners. Sockeye are not considered sport fish, but many are landed on single egg imitations and small wool ties.
This is when the Vedder begins filling with fish. The first arrivals are pinks in the odd numbered years, followed closely by coho, jack chinook and adult white chinook. Mixed in with all these fish are approximately 200,000 big chums. Locals are so spoiled they do not target the chums. If a chum is hooked, it is broken off as fast as possible, so the angler can return their attention to the other species available. Pinks are not considered a sport fish in British Columbia, and may not be retained by sports anglers. However, many are caught incidentally by anglers targeting coho and chinook. Fly rodders do especially well on pinks.
More Vedder River anglers target coho than any other species. When the run is in, you can expect crowds to line the best runs before daylight. They have good reason for doing so. Abundant hatchery plants assure strong returns each year. Vedder River anglers hook approximately 10,000 coho every fall.
Vedder River coho tend to run on the small side. An average fish will run only five to seven pounds, but what they lack in size, they make up for in numbers and style. Like coho anywhere, Vedder River fish can turn on and off with frustrating swiftness. When the bite is on, good anglers can catch more than a dozen fish a day.
Local anglers favor salmon eggs for coho. Small clusters about the size of your fingernail are preferred, either with or without the addition of a tuft of peach colored wool. Those who do not like the mess and bother of eggs, use small yarn ties consisting of two or three colors of yarn. These are trimmed into a round shape about ½ inch in diameter. Fished under a float, these are dynamite for coho.
While very few locals target chums, they are aggressive biters and can provide a ton of fun for those who just want to hook a lot of big, strong fish. Anything cerise colored will attract chums. They often bite on the salmon eggs and yarn ties used by coho anglers, but they simply love a cerise colored jig fished beneath a float. Anglers visiting from the U.S.A. often fish coho in the morning then target the more willing chums later in the day.
Beginning in late September a massive run of white chinook invades the Vedder. Last year the run size was estimated at 40,000 fish! To put that in perspective, consider that the total return to all five rivers in the famed Tillamook Bay is usually less than 60,000 fish.
When white chinook are in, every pool from the mouth to the fishing boundary will hold fish. Last year the fishing was so good, we stopped using bait and fished with only a small yarn tie. Clint and I eventually tired of fighting the big chinook and took turns using his rod. Our rule was that you got no more than five casts. If you couldn´t hook a fish in five casts you had to give up the rod. For more than an hour neither of us had to give up the rod!
This is mixed bag time on the Vedder. By early November white chinook, chums, and coho fill the river with fish. Some Vedder River anglers have landed all five species of salmon in a single day at this time of year. Admittedly, the pinks are in bad shape by November, and sockeye are usually an accidental catch, but a salmon grand slam is possible. As November slips into December, the chinook disappear, the coho turn dark and the chums develop huge kypes, garish calico flanks and the beginnings of a fur coat, but just as the salmon disappear, the early run steelhead begin arriving.
Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, kicks off the annual Chilliwack Fish and Game Club Derby. Steelhead are usually scarce this early in the season, but every Boxing Day a few lucky anglers land hatchery fish of up to sixteen pounds. Even those who don´t catch a steelhead know that the coming New year will once again bring bountiful runs of salmon and steelhead to the Vedder.
Copyright © Dave Vedder 1999
Planning Your trip...
The Vedder River is approximately one hour from Vancouver, and less than a half hour from the border crossing at Sumas. The drive from Seattle to Sumas takes about 2 1/.2 hours.
From Vancouver, take Canada Highway one eastbound to the Chilliwack exit. Follow Vedder Road, through Vedder Crossing to the Vedder River bridge. A paved road parallels the river from the bridge upstream to the upper fishing boundary.