Todd Martin explains a B.C. fishery that delivers trophy fishing year round!
Originally published by Fishulo on Scout, December 8, 2015
By Todd Martin
British Columbia’s Fraser River is the largest salmon producing river in the world! Full stop, end of discussion. Every year, the Fraser averages 20 to 50 million salmon driving upriver to their spawning grounds. Yes, your much revered Columbia is a big salmon producer, and so is the Kenai in Alaska, but the mighty Fraser trumps them all. Start to finish, its undammed, 854 mile length, drains the lower half of the province of BC from the western shores of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean just a few miles north of the international border between Washington State and BC. The Fraser also holds the record for the largest freshwater fish ever caught on rod and reel. In July 2012, a behemoth white sturgeon was caught and released. Its estimated weight was over 1100 pounds and it was 12 feet, four inches in length. How’s that for a river monster?
The Fraser River was named after Simon Fraser, who was a British fur trader and explorer working for the Hudson’s Bay Company. He was the first person which travelled the entire length of the river in 1808. He wanted to map the entire length, and was trying to determine if it was connected to the Columbia River. The Fraser itself roughly parallels the east – west course of the Columbia, its sister river just 350 miles south. One of the quirks of the Fraser that a lot of NWS readers don’t realize is that if you want world-class salmon and sturgeon fishing, the Fraser is closer to you than the Columbia! It truly is a world-class, trophy fishery, right at your doorstep.
The Fraser River is BC’s largest river, and it’s our biggest and most consistent year-round fishery. It has large tide changes in the lower 45 mile portion from the mouth in Richmond to the tidal boundary at the town of Mission. This tidal waters portion of the river is managed by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). They manage all the tidal waters sport fishing in Canada. The remaining non-tidal portion of the river above Mission is managed by the Province of BC. So when you are visiting BC and planning a fishing trip, you need to pay close attention to where you are planning to fish, as two different sets of regulations and fishing licences apply. Fishing in the lower tidal portions of the river requires a federal tidal waters licence, and above this you need a provincial non-tidal fishing licence.
The most productive portion of the Fraser River, that most anglers focus on, is what’s called the lower section. This is the first 100 miles of river that extends from the mouth east to the town of Hope, at the base of the Coast Mountain range. This lower section is what I call, ‘old muddy’. Here the river is wide, fairly shallow, and dirty. Reminiscing of the Fraser brings back so many good memories, as I, along with many of my friends grew up along its banks. We called ourselves ‘river rats’ as we would play, fish, and explore the river until we got called in for dinner or it was too dark to see. I skipped out of high school on a regular basis to go fishing along the banks of the Fraser in New Westminster. Fishing is much more fun than a boring math or french class!
The Fraser River is BC’s best year round fishery. No matter what time of year it is, you can always head down to the Fraser and catch something. It’s a great place to teach kids how to fish for this reason. There are always cutthroat trout, Dolly Varden, sturgeon, peamouth chub, northern pike minnow, sculpin (locally known as bullheads), carp, and catfish available. Throw a night crawler out and let it sit on the bottom. You will get bit by something in short order. Complementing these course fish are smaller numbers ofsmallmouth bass and sunfish in the warmer backwaters. But of course you all want to hear about these massive runs of salmon, steelhead and trout that return to the Fraser every year, so let’s get down to the good stuff.
Let’s start with steelhead. There are almost always steelhead available in the river. They are available from late August, through April. Not many steelhead are caught in the main stem of the Fraser, as they primarily use it as a transit corridor to their smaller, home waters such as the Stave, Chehalis, Harrison, Vedder and Thompson River systems. Mature chinook start returning in May and run through late November. These include the famous white springs of the Harrison River system that grow in excess of 60 pounds. The Fraser chinook run peaks in August and September. Coho or silvers start to enter the Fraser in August, usually with the late summer rains that announce the change of seasons. Coho peak in October, which is my number one time to book time off work and fish the river. All species are available and running hard.
Sockeye enter the Fraser River in July, peak in late August, and taper off by early October. 2014 was a peak year in their four year cycle and 21 million reds migrated up the Fraser to spawn. 2015 will likely be the lowest returns in the Fraser’s four year cycle. The Sockeye run is estimated at seven million fish. Chum salmon flood the Fraser every fall from September through early December. Local and visiting anglers are starting to appreciate these rugged beasts as game fish more and more. They are very plentiful and have a reputation as eager biters and hard fighters. A special run of chum called ‘Blackheads’ enter the river in late November, and these are gaining distinction as some of the hardest fighting game fish anywhere.
Similar to the other Northwest river systems, odd numbered years like 2015 bring enormous runs of pink salmon up the Fraser. The 2013 Fraser River pink run was a record smasher at over 20 million fish! 2015 is promising another good ‘running of the pinks’ in the range of 14 million fish. On a good incoming tide and with decent water clarity in early September, you can land in excess of 20 Pinks in a morning, all from shore, with light spinning tackle. It’s an absolute blast and I am eagerly anticipating this year’s run. The last salmonid species to review are the hearty cutthroat and Dolly Varden or bull trout. They reside in the Fraser year-round and are always eager biters; you just need to find them. Traditional hot-spots are calm side channels and creek mouths. The Fraser has a mixture of both permanent residents and transient sea-run fish.
The Fraser would be an anglers dream as it is, and we haven’t discussed the most well-known fishery of this river, the enormous white sturgeon. Last year on a guided fishing trip with Tony Nootebos from the BC Sportfishing Group, I landed my personal best sturgeon, a seven footer. My arms were sore for two days after battling that dinosaur of the depths. Sturgeon fishing the Fraser River gives you the opportunity to set the hook into a prehistoric swimming freight train. The Sturgeon of the Fraser truly are a great example of thriving, trophy sport fishery.
In response to concerns about the health of the Fraser sturgeon population, a live tagging and data collection study was initiated in 1999, which still continues to this day. Along with absolute zero retention and single barbless hook regulations, a concerted effort was made to understand the lifecycle and overall health of these prized sport fish. Utilizing data collected primarily from fishing guides operating in the lower river, some remarkable information has been collected. The plan was simple. Catch a sturgeon, implant a small tag in the back of its head, and record its length, girth, and release it unharmed. The data collected after 16 years of this ongoing study by the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society is nothing short of remarkable.
It has been determined, that in the lower Fraser, from Hope to Richmond, there are an average of 350 sturgeon per mile of river! The total amount of sturgeon caught and tagged during this ongoing study is over 54 thousand fish, and the white sturgeon population in the lower river is estimated at 49 thousand fish. Further study has revealed even more interesting tidbits. These fish, especially the larger ones are transitory. They will not stay in the lower Fraser River for their entire lifespan. They travel around to other local rivers and lake systems connected to the Fraser. The same fish have been tagged, released and re-caught several times in other Metro Vancouver locations such as the Harrison River system, Harrison Lake, the Pitt River and Pitt Lake. It has also been determined that some of these fish become sea-run transients and range as far as the Columbia river to the south and to Alaska in the north.
The average Fraser River sturgeon is 30 to 50 years old, and roughly six feet in length. They grow an inch per year in their first 10 years then slow down a bit. They don’t spawn for the first time until they reach approximately 25 years of age. They also don’t spawn every year. Larger sturgeon reproduce every eight to 11 years, so it’s no wonder with these slow growth rates and spawning frequencies that they need to be protected. You have not been able to retain a sturgeon in the Fraser for decades, and the fishing is excellent because of this protection. All the evidence so far proves that they are thriving. Virgin ‘untagged’ fish are caught every year, and numerous previously tagged fish are re-captured every year.
Recent information has created a best practices standard to follow. Sturgeon over five feet in length are not to be lifted out of the water for hero shots. You can take them to shore, beach them and take your photos, but the head of the sturgeon must not leave the water. It was discovered that the sensitive internal organs of sturgeon were being damaged by unintentional miss-handling by anglers lifting them up for a photo. Most guide boats operating on the river now have large fish cradles attached to the stern which permits easier handling and tagging of smaller fish. With the record being 12 feet, and fish over 10 feet caught every year, combined with the scary ability to leap from the water at will, it’s no wonder the white sturgeon of the Fraser River have been nicknamed the freshwater marlin.
The method of fishing for these beasts is common all through the lower Fraser. Look for depressions or travel channels along river bottom on your boat’s sonar. Anchor up and toss out a couple rods, similar to what you would use for ocean halibut. We’re talking stiff, heavy backbone rods, typically seven to eight feet long. 150 pound test Power-Pro line is used and a lead weight anywhere from 14 to 18 ounces depending on the river current, keeps your gear on the bottom. Large barbless circle hooks are used, and the best baits are chum salmon roe, northern pike minnow, lamprey eel, pink salmon belly and eulachon (Smelt / Candlefish), whichever is in season or locally available.
Again, anywhere in the lower river is good for sturgeon, but you’ll find all the guide boats congregating in the best spots. There is a good stretch through the towns of Maple Ridge and Langley called Derby Reach. Another prime location is just east of the town of Mission, where the non-tidal fishing boundary starts. More good spots are in Chilliwack near the mouths of the Vedder and Harrison Rivers. Local guides will move around to find the big lunkers. Each fishing spot is called a ‘drop’, and it’s common to move a few times before you find a good drop that holds quality fish. One of the best things about sturgeon fishing the Fraser, they are always there, and they always bite. Fishing for them is good every month of the year. The only time the sturgeon bite slows down is during a January cold snap, and then if the river gets very high, fast and dirty in the spring freshet. Other than that, it’s always good. Absolute prime times are the months of October, November and again in April. Tony Nootebos from the BC Sportfishing Group says sturgeon have saved many a guided trip. When the salmon don’t co-operate, you can always switch to sturgeon.
Now let’s discuss another beloved Fraser fishery, bar fishing! What’s that you say? You fish from a bar? Well, yes, but a sand bar on the shore of the Fraser. This is a BC term for bank fishing or plunking, as you Yanks call it. For anglers on a budget, or that don’t have a boat, bar fishing the Fraser for coho and chinook is wildly popular. There are dozens of productive, well known, and easily accessible bar fishing hot spots up and down the lower river. It’s a method employed while pursuing coho and chinook from July until early December. The tidal portion from the mouth to Mission, and beyond to Abbotsford is the best place to bar fish for coho or silvers. This is where the river is slower, and coho from late august to early December migrate up river close to shore, within easy reach of the best bar fishing locations.
Bar fishing for chinook, springers or kings is done in the faster, narrower portions of the lower river in Chilliwack. This is where the chinook are funnelled into tight travel lanes, that bring them closer to shore, and thus accessible for the bar fisherman. In the lower tidal portions of the river, chinook simply blast up stream through the main current for two reasons. The first being because they can. And the second, Fraser springs generally have a long way to travel to reach their spawning grounds, so they don’t loiter in the lower river like coho. The rigging and gear is similar for both coho and chinook bar fishing. In the tidal portion of the river, a typical bar fishing set-up would be a spinning or bait casting reel with a nine foot medium action rod. You want decent hook setting strength but still want a sensitive tip to detect lighter bites. 15 to 20 pound main line is used and you connect to a simple spreader bar system. Attach a three foot leader of 10 pound line to the spreader bar and use a 1/0 single barbless hook. Only a two or three ounce weight is needed to keep your bait, usually chum roe, secured to the bottom. Hurl it out 20 – 50 feet from shore, place your rod in a holder and reel in the slack to help detect bites.
In the narrower faster portions of the river near Chilliwack where you can effectively target springers, you use a similar set up, only with much beefier rods and weights. You need a heavy action rod as you are fighting bigger fish and you need to use 10 to 16 ounce weights due to the faster current. Typical main line used is 25 to 40 pound test and you are only casting out 25 feet or so. Instead of bait, spin-n-glows are the preferred way to go. Bar fishing the Fraser River is an old school, very social, relaxed way to fish. I’ve been bar fishing the Fraser with family and friends for 30 years. I focus more on the Coho close to shore in the Langley, Maple Ridge and Mission areas. September and October is absolute prime time for this fishery and fresh chum roe treated with Pro-Cure is the bomb! For all bar fishing, water clarity is key. If you can have 18 inches of water clarity, the chances of success are much better. There are two excellent books available on bar fishing the Fraser. For the lower tidal portion from the mouth to the Abbotsford area, the best book is Bar Fishing the Lower Fraser River by Hugh Heighton. For the non-tidal portion from Mission to Hope, the book to have is Fishing Fever by Eileen McGuire. Both books reveal the best hot spots and how to access them along with all the usual info on run timings and gear.
Along with these two guide books, there are two tackle shops that are the best places to seek advice on how to fish the Fraser River. Close to the river mouth in Richmond BC isBerry’s Bait & Tackle. They are the best shop to visit for the tidal portion of the river, and are close to Vancouver and several Whatcom County border crossings. Further out in the Fraser Valley, the place to go for the non-tidal portion of the river is Fred’s Custom Tackle. They have two locations, one in Abbotsford and one in Chilliwack. If you decide you want to start with a guided trip for salmon or trophy sturgeon, the absolute best guided operation on the river is the BC Sportfishing Group. Tony Nootebos started his guiding business 20 years ago and he has the best equipment and guides.
So there you have it. A primer on the best salmon producing river in the world, and it’s just north of most NWS readers, hiding in plain sight. A 20 minute drive past any of the Blaine, Lynden and Sumas border crossings gets you to the prime area’s to fish the Fraser. For many of you, it’s closer than the revered Columbia River, and with the low Canadian dollar, a day’s fishing for salmon and sturgeon is more affordable than ever. The next time you are looking to go fishing with your buddies, instead of looking south to the Columbia, look north to BC’s Fraser River. You will discover a world-class salmon and sturgeon destination, which offers Canadian river monsters, and fantastic fishing, every day of the year.
Photos courtesy of Todd Martin.