For many ardent anglers the winter Chinook fishery provides their favorite saltwater fishery of the year. The Chinook are immature, growing fast, and in the best condition of the year. Legal fish average around 10 to 12 pounds, though some can be substantially larger. Due to very clear water at this time of year the need for using bulky flashers (necessary most of the year for attraction) is reduced. Many fish are caught on very light-action mooching rods using only a small bait or lure as terminal gear, and the fish are able to provide very good sport. Most of the time we fish throughout the islands of scenic Howe Sound during this fishery, though on calm days a trip across Georgia Strait to Gabriola Island is possible as this area can potentially provide some very good fishing during the winter months. Vancouver Harbour is also an option at this time of year though seals can be a real problem in this area, so I tend to avoid this location unless the fishing is very good. Since I operate out of the lower reaches of Howe Sound I am central to all the popular winter fishing destinations in the Vancouver area and running times tend to be 20 minutes or less (except for Gabriola Island trips). The deep fiord like waters of Howe Sound also provide an abundance of Prawns and Shrimp. The winter months are the best time to target our B.C. Spot Prawns as their numbers have had time to build up again after the closure of the commercial Prawn season in early July. I put out traps for these tasty morsels and you are able to take them home with you as an addition to your catch for the day.
During April and May large concentrations of Chinook migrate through our local waters. The edge of the Fraser River plume (south end of Bowen Island) is a rich feeding ground for these fish, and they use it to fatten up during their migration. We typically fish ”offshore” about 3 or 4 miles south of Bowen Island on an area we call the ”hump”. The ”hump“ is an area where the sea floor is a couple hundred feet shallower than the surrounding waters, so as the tides flow in and out over this area an ”up-welling“ is created and this helps to concentrate the fish into a productive feeding area. Fishing can be very hot when these fish are located. Legal fish average 10 to 15 pounds with fish over 20 caught on a regular basis.
Again, my central location allows short running times of 20 minutes or less to locations off South Bowen. During April I still have my prawn traps set out, but in early May the commercial season opens up and I typically bring in my traps until the commercial season is over.
In recent years this fishery has become the most consistently productive Chinook salmon fishery of the year other than the Fall Chinook fishery off the Capilano River. Very large numbers of Chinook migrate through the waters along the eastern side of Gabriola during these months as they slowly make their way towards their natal rivers in southern Georgia Strait and Puget Sound. Massive amounts of herring are also migrating through these waters at the same time, so the Chinook are feeding heavily as they bulk up prior to their spawning runs in the fall. The Chinook tend to average ”in the teens” though the odd one will top the 30 lb. mark.
The first heavy concentrations of fish show up in late April or early May out in the deep water ”offshore” of Gabriola. When a school is located, the fishing can be extremely hot, and hooking into ”double digit” numbers of fish in a couple hours can be fairly common. By mid-May and June, the Chinook tend to move towards the structure along the eastern shoreline of Gabriola and Thrasher Rock. At this time we change tactics and drag bottom along the structure where the salmon and baitfish tend to concentrate during the various stages of the tide. Again, if a school of fish is located the fishing can get very hot as these are actively feeding Chinook that willingly hit lures/bait as long as it is presented correctly.
In addition to the Chinook, the Gulf Islands provide the closest place to Vancouver where Lingcod are legal to keep. These are a highly predatory and tasty bottomfish that can be taken ”by accident” while trolling near bottom for Chinook, but if you are serious about targeting this species it is best to jig for them over the numerous reefs located between Thrasher Rock and Gabriola Island. The minimum size for this species is 65 cm (roughly 9 lbs.), and they can grow very large. As with many bottomfish, the largest ones are females, and provide the best breeding stock for the future, so while there isn't a maximum size in the regulations I tend to prefer to release any greater than 20 or 25 lbs...besides, the smaller ones are better eating.
We have also seen an influx of Halibut into the southern portion of Georgia Strait in recent years, and while there is likely not enough of them yet to target specifically, we are seeing decent numbers get caught ”by accident” by anglers trolling along bottom for Chinook. There may be more of this species around than we think, but it will require some time and experimentation to determine where potential concentrations of this highly prized fish may be located.
Charters to the Gulf Islands require relatively calm winds and more time than the minimum 5 hour charter. Typically Gulf Island trips are 8 to 10 hours. Overnight trips are also available with accommodations in Sylva Bay (5 to 10 minutes from the fishing grounds).
The protected waters of Howe Sound provide some great fishing opportunities for Chinook during the spring and summer months. The Tenderfoot Hatchery has been working hard over the past few decades to re-build the famous Squamish Chinook runs, and the Squamish Stream Keepers have also been doing an excellent job at re-building the herring stocks that spawn at the head of the Sound. During the spring months large Chinook returning early to the Squamish system begin to enter Howe Sound, and if a concentration of these fish can be located the action can be quite good. Typically the Chinook range from 10 to 20 lbs., but on occasion we see some weighing up into the mid-30’s.
By June or July there are often large concentrations of these maturing fish located off Porteau Cove where they were previously released from net-pens by the hatchery. The Tenderfoot hatchery uses this location to capture brood stock for breeding purposes, and we are able to target fish that are holding outside of the closured area which was implemented to protect these returning fish in the brood stock capture area.
In addition to the Chinook we have large numbers of Pink Salmon that return to the Squamish system during early August of odd numbered years. These fish hold in massive schools in various locations along the shoreline of Howe Sound, and we are able to target them with light casting or fly-fishing gear. It is a great fishery to introduce kids to the sport of fishing as the waters are typically flat calm, there are fish jumping and splashing all around the boat, they are actually physically holding and casting a rod themselves,and the action is often so fast that the only complaints from the kids are that they are too tired to reel in another fish. The peak time for this fishery tends to be the second and third week of August, though they can arrive a bit earlier some years and be available in large numbers right from the end of July.
These locations within Howe Sound are again typically less than a 20 or 30 minute run from the marina, so it is often better to drive to Horseshoe Bay by car to start your trip from there instead of adding another 30 to 40 minutes each way to the boat ride (in potentially rough conditions) as would be the case of a departure from downtown Vancouver.
The Fraser River is an extremely large river without any dams on its main stem. It nurtures runs of all 5 species of salmon (Chinook, Coho, Sockeye, Pink, and Chum), and continues produce some of the largest numbers of salmon of any river in the world.
During the month of June we begin to see some of the runs of early Fraser Chinook begin to return in large numbers. It is a big body of water, but there are a few locations where they tend to concentrate before entering the river. Though these early runs are typically a bit smaller in size than their cousins that return later in the fall, they still average in the 15 to 25 lb. range and are are excellent table fare (some will argue that they are the best eating of all salmon). Subsequent runs of Chinook continue to arrive off the mouth of the river throughout the summer an fall months so this location is always a potential destination at this time of year, and excellent ”bites” occur several times each month as new school arrive.
During July the early runs of Sockeye begin to arrive, and if the run is large enough to allow a fishery we typically open for this species during early August. Sockeye are a schooling species of salmon (much more so than Chinook), and when they arrive it is in massive dense schools that may number into the hundreds of thousands or even millions. Trolling effectively for Sockeye requires some fairly specific techniques, and if you locate a school and are properly set up the action is extremely fast. Often so fast that it is hard to get all 4 lines in the water at one time. Once you are on the fish, it is actually more common to get two, three, or even four fish on at once than it is to just catch them one at a time.
During odd years we also get massive returns of Pink Salmon to the Fraser. They are typically targeted the same way we fish for Sockeye, so if their runs coincide with a Sockeye run we will often catch a mixture of the two species. Their runs to the Fraser usually peak later in August and into September. Pinks are a more aggressive species than Sockeye when it comes to biting fishing lines, so they are also taken while targeting Chinook with different terminal tackle than is used when specifically targeting Sockeye or Pinks.
During the late 90’s late-run Harrison Chinook were stocked into the Capilano River system, and our most consistently productive Chinook fishery of the year was created. These are large Chinook (they average from 15 to 30 lbs., though the odd fish topping the 50 lb. mark is taken most years), so as they return to the Capilano River in late summer, they have to wait for the water level in the river to rise enough to allow their passage upstream. This means that their numbers build up off the mouth of the river during the stretches of dry weather we usually have in Vancouver during the late summer months. The area where they hold off the mouth of the river is quite small, so the fish (and fishermen) can get quite concentrated.
This run use to peak right around the end of September / start of October, but in recent years it has tended to peak a couple weeks earlier around the middle of September. The run is quite sensitive to weather patterns in its timing, how long it lasts into October, and often how active the fishery is on any given day. In the last couple years I have noticed that the best days to fish is that first day of rain after a period of dry weather since the fish all seem to push to the river mouth in anticipation that they will be able to enter it. On the flip side, the run’s numbers often get severely depleted on these rainy days, so it can often take a couple dry days before the numbers of newly arriving fish build up again. This pattern is much more prevalent in late September and through the month of October.
Every year the run is a bit different in its composition of fish. During 2011 we had a very strong showing of 3 year old fish (12 to 18 lbs.). This would indicate a strong survival of that particular year class of fry, so during 2012 we should have an excellent showing of 4 year old fish (likely 22 to 35 lbs.). If you want a chance at landing large mature Chinook, this is the fishery for you. The fish hold in a small location, and they basically bite on the flooding tide only, so we have taken two of the major fishing variables out of the equation (the ”when” and the ”where”). The larger fish also tend to arrive a bit later than the average sized fish, so late September or early October may put you in the running for a fish of 40 to 50 lbs.
The Capilano fish hatchery produces large numbers of Coho and Chinook salmon that are targeted by recreational anglers along the shoreline of West Vancouver during the summer months. while some small Coho begin to return to the river during April, we generally need the water levels within the Capilano to drop low enough to begin blocking the passage of fish before their numbers build up enough for us to target them in salt water. This typically occurs in late June or early July, so during July and August we often have the option of fishing for good numbers of Coho along the shoreline of West Vancouver from Pt. Atkinson to the mouth of the Capilano River.
The fish move back and forth along the shoreline with the significant tidal flow that occurs in this area and at times large concentrations of them are located and a hot bite occurs. These are typically fairly small fish of 3 to 6 lbs., but later in the summer a few larger ones approaching 10 or even 15 lbs. begin to show up. These larger ones tend to be taken during the Fall Chinook fishery off the Capilano, though on occasion we will see some show up during early August.
While anglers plying the waters off West Vancouver during the summer months are generally looking for Coho there are times when significant numbers of larger Chinook (15 to 25 lbs.) also move into these waters. I don’t believe these fish are actually destined for the Capilano system, but rather they are fish from the Fraser system that have just moved into Vancouver Harbour for a few days before they decide to enter the river. It is definitely a nice surprise to find yourself hooked into a 20 lb. Chinook when you were expecting a 5 lb. Coho.