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Canadian Fishing - Harrison and Vancouver Island - 16/10/16

This trip was one I nearly didn’t make. I had such a good time last year that I wasn’t sure that I would go back as I didn’t think it could be as good twice. However, I hadn’t caught a chum or coho salmon and my friends Graham and Abbie thought they would like to go, and when I was talking to legendary film maker Hugh Miles (known to most as the film maker of “Passion for Angling” and “Catching the Impossible”) and he said he would like to go too, it made my mind up for me.

So, with a little help from my friends, we organised this trip.  
On Sunday 2nd October 2016, Sandy and I met with Hugh, Abbie, Graham and Jane in readiness for our flight the following morning from Gatwick Airport to Vancouver.  Graham had arranged the flights and also volunteered to drive in Canada, together with his wife Jane so on arrival we collected the rented people carrier and drove to our destination in Harrison Hot Springs, a two hour drive, arriving at our Hotel just as the light fell.

We had booked three days fishing with BC Sportfishing who are based in the Harrison Hot Springs Hotel where we were staying. They had already procured our fishing licenses in advance which were at reception when we checked in. 


Our daily schedule was for the anglers to meet at 7.00am for a hearty breakfast before simply crossing the road outside the Hotel for collection by our guide from the dock - it was so convenient and hassle-free and we were full of anticipation of the fish we would catch.

Graham and Abbie were on one boat guided by Jordi, whilst Hugh and I were with Merr on the first day and then Jeff for two days. 
My son Lee and I had fished with Jeff last year and he was an excellent guide so I requested him again although Merr did a great job too, and we enjoyed their expertise.

Full of anticipation, we off from Harrison Lake on a fabulous morning.  The water was like a mill pond, flat and calm as we boarded the jet boat.  Our first port of call was at the exit of the lake which flows into the clear and impressive Harrison River.

Merr set up our rods for sturgeon. You are only allowed one rod per angler so (including the guide) we had three rods out, two baited with salmon eggs (which are presented wrapped in nylon material from tights to keep them on the hook), and one with a piece of salmon between the others.  Female salmon, when, caught are taken for the eggs to use as bait, the flesh for food, and the rest of the carcass for bait, the gills being the choice item to hook. Shortly after starting there was tapping at the egg bait caused by bullheads.  I had never caught one so when Merr wound in to check the bait and one was attached, I complained in jest about him stealing my fish. The bullheads have rows of small teeth and get snagged on the tights like velcro and are difficult to remove.


The next time I brought the bait in another bullhead was attached and just as I was swinging it in to the boat, the fish fell off to the sound of disappointment of my boat mates as it dropped in the river.  However, I did finally get one next cast to a sound of jubilation. We all enjoy our fishing, even little fish and the joking that accompanies it. I said it had made my day and I didn’t need a sturgeon now!


After an hour or so we moved further down the river, anchored up and tried again. After a few minutes the rod with salmon gills as bait twitched and then buckled over. I had previously agreed with Hugh that as he hadn’t caught one before, he would have the first fish and we would alternate thereafter. Hugh struck and had to hang on as the fish tore off downstream for several hundred yards. I have seen several sturgeon caught and I had never seen one go like this before. Merr pulled up the anchor and chased the fish and as Hugh tried to pump the fish back, then it went solid. The fish had snagged the line around a branch on the bottom. Merr delicately made the boat circle the branch and the line sprang free. We both thought the fish was gone but Merr told Hugh to wind fast and the fish was still there.  A few minutes later it was alongside the boat as we looked on in awe. It was around 6’ 6” long and as we towed it to the shore to unhook it, the hook pulled out on its own accord saving the hassle.


We dropped anchor again in a few more places to try for sturgeon before moving further downstream to fish for salmon with a fly. I am not a great fly fisherman, I enjoy it but am not a good caster, so when presented with a double handed rod for spey casting, it proved difficult. We met up with Graham, Abbie and Jordi who had caught a couple of salmon and Graham then found a run and hooked several fish landing some. The chum salmon are strong and lively fighters. Hugh landed one as well as losing others and I had four that all shed the hook. It was apparent that because there were just so many salmon, we were foul hooking them, hence the frequency of the hooks pulling out.


We were also amazed at the sight of an osprey diving headlong into the water taking a salmon just a few feet in front of us, and bald eagles along the banks picking over a few salmon carcasses.


We fished around 4pm and headed back to the hotel where we met Sandy and Jane and shared a meal at the local hostelry before retiring for the night


Day two started the same way, collected at 8 am sharp. This time Jeff took us further downstream to the Harrison/Fraser River junction pool where we tried trotting for coho salmon. This utilises a cylindrical polystyrene float with the line through the middle leading to a fly where you would expect the bait to be kept at the bottom by a lead weight.


We persevered for over an hour hoping for a female fish to use the roe as bait, but without getting a knock, even though you could see the fish running through the pool, they just couldn’t be taken.


We then went up the Fraser River to try for sturgeon using Jeff’s back up bait, using a similar set up to the day before, but with three rods all baited up with salmon eggs.


It was my turn first and I quickly caught a small but very pretty sturgeon. Hugh then followed suit, then it was my turn again and then, as I struck into the next bite, I said that it felt a better fish and it slowly drove downstream. 


I had been playing it for several minutes, making no impression when it made its first jump and as it broke surface, we all went “wow”; it was a big fish and very fat.  The fight lasted 1 hour 28 minutes in total with the fish jumping a further five times, still jumping after an hour of fighting.  I was struggling with the effort and my arms were starting to shake and my hands cramped up.  I managed to get the fish under the boat but just couldn’t haul it to the surface. With the wedge shaped head and big fins, it used the current to just hold position beneath us.


Jeff decided that if we edged to the shore, we could use side strain to bring the fish in, but had we remained in the same place I am sure I would still be there today.  We slowly edged to the bank and I jumped out playing the fish from the shore until it finally came to the surface. Jeff grabbed it in the mouth and brought it to the edge for measuring.  I collapsed on the shore with sheer exhaustion.  Jeff then left Hugh holding the fish whilst he sorted his tagging equipment and to note its number. The fish gave a flick of the tail and Hugh was pushed into the river getting wet.  This fish had real attitude.


All the sturgeon caught are recorded and if they haven’t been caught and tagged before, a tag is inserted and details recorded as part of a monitoring process to record fish welfare details. This one had been caught before, it was 7’10” long, not massive but a very good fish. However, its girth which would be expected to be around 75cm was 99 cm. The average weight for a fish of this length was around 280lbs so this was a heavy beast, and was then returned unharmed.


Hugh had another fish making two each for the day, then we headed back for dinner and a hot bath to ease my aching muscles.


Day three started at 8am as usual, but this time we tried fishing for chinook salmon from a gravel bar downstream in the Fraser River with a spinner resembling a short Devon Minnow paternostered on the river bed (a photograph of the rig is shown in my diary entry for last years trip).


As we were going on to Vancouver Island to fish for salmon, we tried this for just an hour but as nobody on the bank caught one, we headed downstream towards Mission hoping for more sturgeon. I quickly caught a small sturgeon before Hugh hit a good fish. After catching a six footer before, he knew what to expect and played the fish like a master. As usual, to unhook and record the fish, we headed to the one area of shore where we felt we could land. Hugh held the fish on the rod and Jeff and I jumped out, into a foot of silt!! As we tried to pull one foot out, the other went in deeper and our movements were like slow motion. Hugh came down for the photo shot, and he got stuck too. It seemed to take ages for us three mudlarks to record the fish at 7’6” with a 73cm girth. A cracking fish which was tagged and released; all we had to do then was to somehow get out of the mud. The fish gave a final flick of its tail and with my feet glued to the spot. I fell over and wet my clothes filling my waders with water. Eventually we managed to lever ourselves free using the boat and Jeff insisting we scrubbed the mud off before he would let us on his pristine boat. To make matters worse it chose that very 15 minutes to pour with rain, the only rain we had there in four days!!! It was a memorable moment, and one of those where you just look back and laugh at the events.

All the sturgeon caught the day before had been tagged already, but this fish, like another 5 of the seven caught that day were all untagged, never previously caught.


After that we shared two small sturgeon with a double hook up. Jeff then took us further down the river to Mission and had we had another double hook up with fish of 5’ 2” and 5’ 4”. After moving to shore and recording the details we took a final photograph for the album. The perfect way to end our time at Harrison.


I can’t move on without mentioning that the flow at Mission changed significantly whilst we were there and was told that this was caused by the tide flowing out 100 miles away!!  Canada is a truly beautiful and amazing place.


We returned to the hotel and managed to “persuade” Jeff to have a few beers with us.  Jane and Sandy returned from their expeditions and we had a great laugh as Hugh regaled us with tales of nearly being eaten by a tiger and his time filming polar bears which had us all in stitches.  I have a feeling getting stuck in mud that day may be added to his repertoire in the future.


What a great time.  Lovely hotel, superb location, great fishing and above all, splendid company; I can’t recommend BC Sportfishing highly enough, just don’t all rush to book a trip there as I want to go again next year. We were sad to leave.


The next day we travelled by road to Horseshoe Bay just outside Vancouver to catch a ferry across to Vancouver Island as we looked forward to another three days fishing at Murphy’s Sportfishing Lodge just outside Port Alberni in the following days.


That night Sandy had booked us into a highly recommended resort, Tigh-Na-Mara at Parksville.  It is a five star resort of log chalets set within woodlands with spa facilities, gym, pool etc. The perfect place to rest before embarking on the next phase of our travels.


The following morning it was raining heavily when we awoke and, as we weren’t scheduled to arrive at the fishing lodge until 4pm we decided to have a late-ish breakfast and head for the River Stamp Falls, just past the lodge.


Just as we arrived the rain stopped to order.  It had rained on the island in the days before we arrived and the river was full but clear, flowing noisily down the falls.  We were astounded at what we saw; every slack area within the passage through the falls was packed solid with chinook salmon. There were thousands of them shoulder to shoulder. I commented that there were probably more salmon in this stretch than there were in the UK and I wasn’t joking. We were totally overwhelmed! This is what a river should be like.


We walked up and down seeing salmon everywhere, then to our delight a black bear appeared on the far bank. We had all hoped to see a bear on this trip and this one was just strolling on the far bank looking for salmon. One of the moments we will never forget. It sent a tingle down your spine it was such a wonderful sight. Sandy
even found a garter snake amongst the leaves. It was truly a paradise.


We were so taken with the falls that we didn’t notice the time and arrived at the Murphy Sportfishing lodge late, at 5-15pm. We were greeted by Marilyn, our hostess and organiser, and shown around the lodge. This was the classic wooden building made from logs, just as you see in the films, on the banks of the River Stamp, which was to be our base for the next three days. The river was too full for fly fishing so the guides would take us to smaller river systems


We walked around the garden area to see a few wild rabbits and black-tailed deer which showed no fear as you walked past them.


The next morning we were up at 5.30 am – a shock to us all – for breakfast and to get set, waders on and to be out of the front ready to go by 6.30 to meet our guide for the day. That day we had Bill and Ron who drove us to the Nahmint River with Abbie and Graham joining us. It one of the most beautiful rivers you could wish to see but was about 1 hr 15 minutes away down a logging road, which was painful even though we were in a BIG pickup truck.


The river was gin clear, so clear that if it wasn’t for the ripples you would not have known there was water there, and you could see fish everywhere. 


We all started off fly fishing with a switch rod, a shooting head and a fast sinking line which had to be spey cast due to the shrubbery behind us.  I am not used to a shooting head or a double handed rod and my casting was far from perfect.  We also discovered that if your fly was not in the bottom few inches of the river, the salmon wouldn’t touch it so fast sinking leaders was also the order of the day which made my casting even worse.  Graham is a "purist" fly fisherman and hooked fish regularly, as did Hugh although many either shook or pulled the hook free. Again, we felt that most of this was down to foul hooking the fish as there were so many there.


After a couple of hours, my casting had improved marginally and then gone off so I changed to a small spinning outfit that the guides had brought along. 
Hugh and Graham had both caught chum salmon at this point and I was quickly into a salmon with a more powerful but less spectacular fight, a chinook followed by a chum of my own.


Bill then thought it was time for a move and so Hugh and I jumped into a boat and travelled upstream to a pool area just below a falls.  The water here was about 20 to 30 feet deep, and so clear you could see every pebble on the bottom, as well as the coho, chinook and sockeye salmon holding there.


Hugh had a sockeye first which was in a poor condition and as we moved around, I was learning the action of my spinner, keeping is very low and just lifting it over the boulders, when I was rewarded with thiis nice coho salmon. I had travelled hoping for a chum and a coho which I had never caught before and had them both on the first day, together with a chinook. Bill had to drag us away from there, as this is probably the most beautiful fishing spot I have ever fished and was one of the highlights of the week, even more than catching the salmon!!


That evening we ventured into Port Alberni for dinner and back for an early night.


Day 2 started the same, up at 5.30. Our guides were Bill, with whom we had formed a relationship, and big Steve. He was so big you could picture him wrestling a bear and he dwarfed me and I am just over 6’ 2”.


That day we  headed for the Sarita River which was an hour and a half away down a logging track. Graham and Abbie fished upstream of the parked truck, Hugh and I worked downstream.  This time we had to double spey cast which proved more than my casting skills could handle, and it was very mixed in style (I’m being polite – Bill said it was just crap). Hugh settled into it like a pro catching several chum salmon just in front of him in a riffle.  I tried for nearly two hours without success and decided I just wasn’t getting the fly low enough in the water. I switched to a very heavy leader which hit bottom too often, then an intermediate one and was then into a chum on the first cast. The fish shot off downstream taking me on to the backing easily in its first run. As Hugh was photographing another fish he had just caught, I played this one for several minutes watching it leap before it threw the hook.  Next cast, the same thing happened again but the fight was shorter this time.


Hugh and Bill then shouted to me to look over the river as a black bear was trundling down the far bank opposite me. We both agreed to ignore each other as I carried on fishing, but what an incredible sight. With such clean rivers full of fish and spectacular wildlife, this really is nature at its best. This is also, no doubt, helped by the remoteness.


Hugh caught several chum and they were spectacular fish, fresh from the sea with sea lice still attached, they were bars of silver referred to as ‘chromers’ by the guides. When we compared notes later in the day with Graham and Abbie, their fish were all highly coloured and they were only 2-300 yards further upstream.


Hugh caught more salmon and I continued to lose mine before it was time to pack up and return to the lodge, collect Sandy and Jane and go for dinner.


Hugh and I had found the driving too long, spending three hours plus in a pick up on logging roads each day, so we asked if we could do something different the following day.


Marilyn, and Bill suggested we try the Upper Stamp for steelhead. It was a week or two before the prime time but proved interesting for us to fish by a different method, something I always enjoy.


Next morning, up at 5.30 again, we met Sean, our guide for the day, and travelled about 20 minutes up a tarmac road to Sproat Lake, the site of a fish hatchery. It was heaven to have a short smooth trip after the previous days.


We jumped into Murphy’s boat that was stationed there and fished the Stamp above and below the lake.  This lake and the river were again crystal clear and differed from previous days in that there were even more fish!! They hung around the stream flowing through the hatchery jumping as they tried to move up that stream.


Sean took us downstream and in the water we could see shoals of fish preparing to spawn. The technique today was bead fishing, more akin to long-trotting. A float made from polystyrene was used with the line through the centre which could readily slide up and down to vary the depth. A lead weight was used to sink the bait and ‘cock’ the float, and the bait was a soft bead resembling a salmon egg positioned just above the hook. We asked why they didn’t hair rig it, but were told that the current will make it spin whereas having the bait above the hook remains stable. 


The bait is then cast just above the shoal of salmon and trotted downstream, as the steelhead lie behind the spawning salmon and eat the eggs.  Sean had told us we would catch fish, mainly trout with the occasional steelhead but hardly ever a salmon.  This was one of those times he shouldn’t have tempted fate as I then hooked a succession of chinook salmon (chum and coho don’t make it this far upstream). These included my best one of the trip of around 25lbs (pictured).


Sean moved the boat around into different runs, but I hooked more salmon. In the current, using a 10lb leader the fight was too long so ultimately we got into the habit of pulling the hook free so that we could continue to fish without having to chase it down the river. Hugh hadn’t caught a chinook at this time, just loads of chum and he caught several too


As we improved our style we caught a succession of wild rainbow trout. Once they have been to sea, they return as steelhead like our sea trout. (A steelhead is over 24” long).


Hugh caught an attractive cutthroat trout and then we had steelhead on. We hooked three each, Hugh caught a 4lb fish but lost two others, I had two shed the hook quickly and one at the boat – the tale of my holiday. 
This was a very interesting way of fishing, sight trotting, and very addictive.


Once we had finished for the day, Hugh and I looked around the hatchery. I have never seen so many fish. The salmon are collected, anaesthetised before being despatched and the eggs and milt stripped. The carcasses are then used for fertiliser rather than food as the taste of coloured salmon isn’t the best. The fishery department also take fish to make scale readings and study them, thereby being able to monitor the health of the river.


Neither of us enjoyed seeing the fish killed, but when you remember that all pacific salmon die on spawning, this is merely the way of life slightly adapted to give greater numbers of fish and to check the fish health, but it was still upsetting to see such majestic fish running up to end their lives.


We then returned to the lodge again, sad to leave, and returned to Tigh-Na-Mara for our final night before returning home.


The following day, we were able to stay in bed until 7.30 which seemed like heaven before checking out and catching the return ferry to Vancouver. With a couple of hours to pass before travelling to the airport, we stopped off at Stanley Park, a huge green area within the city. As we walked around we spotted raccoon, a black squirrel and the canada geese. A rare treat as we entered the woods was spotted by Abbie.  A large barred owl which Hugh identified was perched in a tree and was looking straight at us.  Hugh had been a mine of information as a keen ornithologist throughout the trip and could tell us most of the species immediately and even tell some by their call. From there we travelled to the airport and then home.


The holiday had been fantastic with a great group of friends. I have never seen Graham so excited seeing all the salmon in the rivers, and he and Jane, such a nice lady, managed the transport arrangements and driving with aplomb and helped the holiday flow smoothly from place to place.  Abbie, from Aberdeen who speaks Doric was always cheerful and lively and by the end had got us all saying "Oh aye" instead of "Yes" as we adjusted to his dialect.  Hugh, my fishing buddy, was a delight to be with and a kindred spirit. We both enjoyed catching even the little fish (drooling over small sturgeon) and the scenery. Hugh was also a fantastic source of information about the nature, and had a wealth of stories about his life as a film maker.  He suggested we make this trip an annual pilgrimage and I am trying to sort out next year already. Finally, it wouldn’t be the same without Sandy who is my ever present support who always looks after me and the group making sure everyone is OK, even though she hardly spends any quality time with me as I am always fishing or talking about fishing. Thanks to them all for making this one of the best holidays ever and I look forward to spending more time with them in the future.