Vancouver Island

For the Love of Salmon

Angling for the perfect catch in the Strait of Georgia.

by Jennifer Bain

Photo by Alamy Stock Photo.

It’s the moment most anglers live for — those first few euphoric seconds when a fish, hopefully a chinook, tugs on the line deep in the ocean, causing the rod to bend and twitch and jerk.

Conversations on the boat come to a stop, and I jump to my feet, ready for action. My travelling companions watch eagerly.

Blake Phillips, our Unreel Fishing Charters captain, pulls the rod out of the electric downrigger and sets the hook before handing it to me. He stands by with a net as I quickly reel in about 150 feet of line without giving the fish slack to wiggle off. I know it’s not a fish until someone sees it, lest it turn out to be seaweed or tangled lines. I know it doesn’t count as a catch until it’s in the boat.

The pounding rain and fierce winds that cancelled another fishing trip from our basecamp in Nanaimo the night before have given way to June sunshine. One major perk of fishing here, between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia, is that it’s just a 20-minute journey from Nanaimo’s public boat launch to the salmon fishing grounds, so we didn’t waste much precious time on travel. Today it’s so calm we could be fooled into thinking we’re on a lake instead of the ocean. And the blissful lack of fog means we can marvel freely at the coastal mountains.

We are here for chinook, the largest of the Pacific salmon species and the one nicknamed “king” or, when it tops 30 pounds, “tyee.” Coho would also be a great catch — it is feisty and delicious. This isn’t a sockeye spot, and pink and chum don’t excite most anglers.

And we want to feel like most anglers. We’ve all bought Tidal Waters Sport Fishing Licences (purchased online from Fisheries and Oceans Canada), and paid $6 extra for Salmon Conservation Stamps that help the Pacific Salmon Foundation conserve and rebuild salmon populations, and let us keep a select few fish.

I soon land my first and only salmon of the day. It’s young, but we cheer anyway.

“That’s alright — that’s a fish,”

Captain Phillips says soothingly, pausing before breaking the news that it’s a wild coho and must be released.

The government protects wild coho in this area to help their depleted numbers rebound. Only hatchery coho can be kept, and they have obvious marks where their adipose fins have been clipped. An interesting twist, we learn, is that the hatcheries don’t have the resources to clip all the salmon they release, so what looks like a wild fish might actually be from the hatchery. Still, we must release any coho with intact fins and do our part to protect them.

As we float serenely on the soft waves, we fish with just two rods — since any more are bound to get tangled in these depths — using barbless hooks, flashers and small spoons that mimic wounded bait fish. We politely take turns catching four more salmon. They are all wild coho and go straight back into the sea.

“They’re not monster fish,” the amiable Captain Phillips concedes, “but it’s nice to see some action.”

Speaking of monsters, I try fishing for lingcod, but the unattractive creature that’s said to taste like “poor man’s lobster” isn’t biting.

On the water with Unreel Fishing Charters. Photo courtesy UnReel Fishing Charters.

Our fishing expedition is over too soon, but we are grateful for the many happy hours on the ocean. The sunshine is intense. The conversations are spirited. The area isn’t packed with anglers so we feel like we’ve got the spot to ourselves.

“For us to catch coho, which is an iconic BC salmon, is kind of cool,” one of my friends says as we head back to shore.

We make a short stop at Entrance Island to marvel at bellowing seals and a couple of sea lions, and Captain Phillips informs us that, occasionally, these seals jump into boats to avoid hungry transient orcas.

A few months later, I follow up with Phillips, who lets me know he saw “a huge amount” of wild coho throughout the fishing season (April to the end of October), often catching 10 to every hatchery coho. This is good news for the species. Plus, one of his clients caught (and released) a chinook that was well over 40 pounds.

“It just shows you that any time you go out you have a chance to catch a once-in-a-lifetime fish,” says the captain. “But I really try to make it about the overall experience, enjoying the wildlife and the ocean. Not many people even get a chance to go out on the Pacific Ocean.”