North of the forty-ninth parallel, things look a little different. In the ocean, massive schools of Pacific herring and salmon replace kahawai and kingfish; halibut, rockfish and ling cod replace gurnard, snapper and blue cod. Sea otters frolic in the cold, salty water while grizzly and black bears, wolves and cougars roam the forests. In the mountain valleys, lakes and rivers ice over in autumn and stay that way for up to five months.
But there are many similarities too. Much like New Zealand, fish are everywhere, and there are always plenty of options to get outside and catch yourself a feed. Here are a few examples of the bucket list fishing opportunities on offer in Canada.
If you’re looking for the salmon fishing mecca, then you need look no further than the waters surrounding Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii. Every year, millions of Pacific salmon return to their natal streams in this area to spawn, offering intrepid anglers the opportunity to intercept them in their prime. There are five species of Pacific salmon in total: chinook or king salmon (also known locally in New Zealand as quinnat), coho, sockeye, pink, and chum.
Fishing techniques vary from species to species and whether you plan on targeting them in the ocean, estuaries, or rivers. Typically, salmon fishing in the ocean is done from a motorized boat with a downrigger, which allows you to troll at depth (usually from 12-35m). Terminal tackle consists of a Hootchie (rubberized squid lure), spoon (coloured metal lure), plug (Rapala-style plastic lure), or bait (anchovy, herring, or squid) tied to the end of a two-metre leader. The leader is then tied to a large oval-shaped plastic flasher, connected to the mainline, which vibrates and flashes in the water as it is trolled, attracting fish from a distance.
If the monotony of trolling isn’t your thing, there are plenty of other techniques that will work too. Jigging and cast-and-retrieve lure fishing are popular, but my favourite method is catching them on a fly rod. Coho Salmon, in particular, are known for their immense speed and tail-walking antics. They will readily take a baitfish pattern in the ocean, or any variety of bright-coloured flies in the freshwater.
In the Campbell River, the self-proclaimed ‘salmon fishing capital of the world’ and home of prodigious fishing author Roderick Haig-Brown, you can catch them the old-school way – from a rowboat. There’s a pool near the river mouth which, at the right time of year, absolutely writhes with massive chinook salmon. If you are lucky enough to hook one over 30 pounds – known as a ‘Tyee’ – then you’ll earn yourself a membership to the exclusive Tyee Club, a historic association of hardcore rowboat fishermen that’s over 100 years old.
It was a beautiful still morning as we rowed out of the marina towards the river mouth, and in the faint light I could just make out the silhouette of a dozen other rowboats on the horizon. As we neared the Tyee Pool, my guide Rick handed me a rod. Huge salmon were jumping and rolling on the surface all around us. The excitement in the air was palpable.
A fine Campbell River chinook salmon taken from a row boat.
“Now, these fish ain’t your average salmon, okay,” Rick said, with a classic Canadian twang. “If one hits and starts running, you need to keep your hands clear of the reel, if you value your fingers that is.”
Two hours later and I’d hooked and lost three fish.
“What am I doing wrong?” I asked, frustrated.
“Nothing,” Rick replied calmly. “You’ve got to remember, these are big fish we’re dealing with. Your chance will come.”
But the problem was I had to be at work at by 8:30am which was only an hour away. As the clock wore on, I started to resign myself to the fact that I’d been skunked.
And then I got an email. My morning meeting was cancelled and I could stay. Rick was ecstatic – there was still a chance! The other boats slowly dispersed as everyone else left for work, and then it was just Rick and me in the rowboat. Time drifted on, the warm morning sun was on our faces and there was not even a breath of wind. Even without a fish it was a perfect morning.
Just as I was about to drift off… Bam! Salmon on the line. Rick jumped to his feet and quickly steered us out of the shallow pool and into deeper water where there was more space to play the fish. He shouted instructions at me and I obeyed every word, not wanting to mess this one up. The fish went on several blazing runs before settling into a stalemate position deep under the boat. I tried and tried to lift it, but it was fast to the bottom. I looked at Rick for help. He shrugged.
Fifteen minutes later and my arms were killing me.
“He might be ready now,” Rick suggested. “Give him a gentle pull, but be ready in case he runs again.”
I wound in a few gentle turns of line and, surprisingly, the fish followed. I drew it up slowly to the boat, metre by metre, but as soon as it saw the boat it tore off again.
I tried again, slowly winding it back to the boat, and Rick managed to net it just as it looked as if it was about to take off again. Once in the rowboat we both got a good look at it, and it was an absolute beast. Rick started whooping and hollering, showering me in high fives and handshakes. I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face.
“Congratulations Kiwi! if that’s not a Tyee, I’ll eat my hat!”
Kiwis love the summertime. Sunshine, beaches, manus off the bridge, ice creams from the corner dairy.
In Canada, they embrace the winter: skiing, ice hockey, curling and Canadian whisky. But there’s nothing more quintessentially Canadian than walking out onto a frozen lake to catch a fish.
Jason was amazed at the colours and patterning of this cutthroat trout.
The first time I went out, I was mesmerised. Pure white snow covered every surface. Every tree, river, mountain, and lake – absolutely blanketed. Unexpectedly, the first thing I noticed was the silence. All that thick snow acted like one big muffler, swaddling the land and preventing sound from traveling very far. It was relaxing and felt like what I imagine the inside a sensory-deprivation tank would be like, only the breeze was on my face, and it was -20 degrees Celsius.
My first task was to figure out if the ice was thick enough to walk on. So, I consulted with the locals and according to them, 10cm is the minimum for one person to walk and fish on. The lake I wanted to fish had an ice layer that was 30cm thick, so there was more than enough to support my weight – and that of a truck.
Required ice fishing gear includes a short ice fishing rod, a bucket (to sit on), and a small mountain of warm clothing.
Next step was gear. I needed snowshoes (to walk around), an ice auger (to drill the holes), an ice fishing rod (short and stout), tackle (metal jig-style lures, soft-plastics, artificial PowerBaits or cured prawns), a bucket (to sit on), and a small mountain of warm clothing – puffers, jackets, beanies and gloves – for the bone-numbing cold.
Once on the lake, I had to choose a spot. Just like in the summer, fish under ice tend to favour littoral zones: areas near shoreline, islands, or submerged structures where sunlight penetrates and supports the growth of vegetation, thereby creating habitat for the insects and baitfish that bigger fish feed on. Hardcore ice fishers often have electronic fish finders with transducers that they can slip into an ice hole to locate the fish. But I chose to keep it old-school with an educated guess.
I cut my hole with the auger, then dropped my jig down and started giving it lazy jerks. I was just getting comfortable, with my bum on the bucket seat and a hot coffee freshly poured from the thermos, when I felt a whack on the end of the line. Fish on! The fish tore off underneath the ice and I started to panic as my line started to rub violently on the edges of the hole. Luckily, it wasn’t a big specimen and I soon had it under control. Once I got it to the surface, I was amazed at its unique colours and patterning, like no trout I had ever seen. It was a cutthroat trout, a North American species and the first of many I would later catch. Despite not being in New Zealand, I still always find myself following the old Maori protocol of releasing the first fish I catch, which meant that lucky bugger went back down the hole to live another day.
Cutthroats aren’t the only species on offer while ice fishing in British Columbia. Other species include rainbow trout, brook char, lake trout, northern pike, and kokanee (landlocked sockeye salmon). For those who might fear the cold, going with a guide means there is usually an ice shelter and a portable propane heater on offer. Combine with a hot mug of your favourite beverage, and you’ve got life sorted.
I've had a few sideways looks in my time, but none so overt as when I first went spearfishing in British Columbia. Being an outdoorsy lad from New Zealand, I'd fallen in love with spearfishing from a young age. So, you can imagine my angst when my girlfriend announced she wanted us to move to Canada. Icy, cold, mountainous, Canada. The battle went on for weeks until eventually, I agreed under one condition: we had to live near the ocean.
I really had no idea what to expect when I put my head under the surface of the North Pacific for the first time. But what I found there blew my mind. There were oodles of fish: ling cod, rock fish and kelp greenling being the most common, and they weren't pressured the same way that you often find near the cities in New Zealand, meaning I could almost always guarantee that I'd bring something home. My Canadian friends started calling me `the provider', but it was the ocean that was truly providing for me.
Spearfishing in Canada is not very common, and so it usually generates a lot of attention when I slip into the water in my 7mm suit. Lots of people think it's interesting, while some think it's barbaric, or just plain stupid.
There are oodles of fish for spearos: ling cod, rock fish and kelp greenling being the most common.
Despite the cold water, the diving is spectacular. Visibility is consistently astounding, and the nutrient-rich waters support tons of colourful marine life. Along with the fish, there are several species of large crabs you can harvest, as well as giant rock scallops, three species of sea urchins (kina), and sea cucumbers.
One of my most memorable dives was at night when the bay I was camped in lit up with bioluminescence. I swam under the surface as my friends canoed above me, watching the water light up with incandescent explosions each time I stroked my fins.
If British Columbia isn't already on your radar as a fishing destination, then it should be. Post-Covid travel is just around the corner and there has never been a better time to start planning your dream trip. Check out fishingbc.com for more inspiration.
March 2022 - Jason Harman
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
Copyright: NZ Fishing Media Ltd.
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited
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