Our Man In Canada
June 25th, 2001

Coho on the Fly, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

By Ian Roberts

Throughout my years of fly fishing, I have shared campfires and dinner tables with many 'well-seasoned' angers. These monitors of "how great the fishing used to be" frequently made it seem like the time had come to hang up my rod and waders and leave the beaches altogether. No longer. Last season [1999] marked the beginning of the return to the glory years on Vancouver Island beaches and suddenly everything changed. The much-revered coho returned in unimaginable numbers and, best of all, this was no accidnet. While the recent commercial and sport fishing closures produced regrettable hardship for commercial fisher, guides and lodges, the results were unequivocal: never in recent memory have there been so many fish at the esturaries and beaches as there were last fall.

One old-timer I met claimed to have released 170 coho since the first one of the season leapt from the water at his favorite beach. It sounded more to me like a statement of lifetime achievement than a one-season total, but I was about to discover otherwise.

Courtenay/Comax region

Arriving at first light after a three-hour drive to a Courtenay/Comox-area beach, partner David Wallden and I found the conditions less than ideal. The wind had blown up to the point that casting would be difficult and a light rain contributed to that West Coast feeling. Nevertheless, we geared up with expectant haste and made our way to the beach.

At first there was no visible evidence of fish. The pounding waves had stirred up the normal assortment of 'lettuce' and jetsam, so we had to wade out thigh deep to reach clean water. As the sky started to brighten, we spotted our first fish. They were farther along the beach, off a small point that sloped away from the beach and estuary. Both David and I had tied on chartreuse flies that were weighted to swim with the hook point up, and upon arrival at the pont we began to cast them to a large school of coho that was within 20 feet of shore. David immediately hooked a fish that accelerated along the drop-off, breaking him off on some barnacled rocks. It would be the first of many fish that never quite made it into our hands, but was no less exciting for the slightly truncated fight.

By mid-morning the tide had begun to flood and was moving well off the end of our point. The rain had stopped and the sun had come out to reveal a scene so spectacular it made us just stop and stare for a moment. As each jade-colored wave crested and rolled towards shore, schools of coho coursed along its length like alectricity through a wire, each fish delineated as if frozen by a camera's flash. Within casting range there were never fewer than 30 or 40 fish. It is a sight I will never forget.

Jolted out of our reverie, we began casting our stillwater lines beyond and slightly ahead of each group of fish, retrieving in short, rapid, six-inch strips. When the strikes came, they were heavily weighted attacks that literally tore the line from our hands, snapping all slack line off the water's surface in an instant. Nearly every fish showed us why coho are spoken of in such reverent tones by fly fishers.

A little quieter

By the end of the next two hours, I had released eight coho, all bright, active fish that had shown me lots of backing and stretched my line perfectly straight. All of the fish had taken the #8 chartreuse fly.

David had enjoyed similar success, but it now became apparent the fish were no longer interested in our offering, despite good presentations and altered retrieves. Naturally it was at this point that a school of noticeably larger fish caught our attention. Whey were slightly farther out than the fish we had been hooking, but still within reach. Time was the critical factor now - could be solve the puzzle before the fish moved off?

A brief but intense discussion on fly selection left David still using the first fly, while I changed to a blue version of the same pattern. The results were immediate and bone jarring. On the first cast I hooked a much larger fish than had so far been fooled, and it took such a sharp and prolonged run that it had rapped the reel handle on my thumb no fewer than four times before I could move my hand away. After a protracted battled which culmimated in the famous 'coho death roll', I used the waves to surf him closer until I could tail hilm.

He was a magnigicent, solid (and honest), 12-pound buck, unblemished by nets or seal attack and with the beautiful translucent violet stripe above his lateral line, for which coho are so well known.

I hooked several more fish before bottoming out in a second period of inactivity. It didn't take long to arrive at the logical conclusion: the fish had seen enough of my blue fly. I changed once more, this time to a red version in the same pattern. Once again, on the first cast with the new fly I hooked a fish which fought brilliantly, causing my leader to throw off a bow wave as it zipped through the water.

We might have called it quits at that, but the sight of occasional 20-plus-pound fish launching from the troughs of the waves was all the inspiration we needed to stay put, never mind the thrashing we were taking from the ocean. I could tell from the sound of Dave's reel that he too had changed flies and was enjoying the same action I was, but I also knew that our retreat was imminent due to the height of the tide.

Johnson Strait Finally, at 2:00 in the afternoon, the tide had risen to the point that the fish were effectively out of casting range. Our stomachs were signalling that lunch was well overdue, so we proceeded to the nearest log to sit down. Our shoulders and wrists were aching from the strain of the morning's fishing, but two bigger smiles had never graced our faces. We had been fishing for eight hours and had, between us, released 36 coho, hooking and losing perhaps that number again. We sat in silence for awhile, each of us remembering our most exceptional fish and realizing that, if for this one day, we had re-captured something of the historic heyday of Vancouver Island's beach fishing.

David turned to me with a laugh and said, "You know, I don't think I care if I die now."

Amen. ~ Ian Roberts

Credits: From Fly Fishing British Columbia edited by Karl Bruhn. We thank Frank Amato Publications, Inc. for use permission!

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