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Coho on the Fly

I stood on the beach gazing east along the shoreline, squinting into the early morning sun and its glittering reflection off the sparkling ocean water. It was 8 a.m., and the early October air was cool and dead calm. “God, I love it here,” I said softly to my wife as I took a deep breath and slowly scanned the water for tell-tale swirls and possibly jumping fish. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before I spotted boiling water to my right about 150 m away, just out of casting range from shore. We slid our belly boats into the water, climbed in, got organized, and started finning our way towards the swirls.

It took a while to get there, and all the while I was glancing over my shoulder and squinting into the reflecting sunshine to check our progress and see whether the small school of salmon had moved at all. We closed to within 75 m or so of the fish and then slowed our kicking to a crawl to ensure we didn’t spook them. When we were close enough, we turned and started casting.

I laid my line out just past the school and slightly to my right to ensure I didn’t spook them with the line and began a fast strip retrieve. After a few strips I started envisioning the motion of my Coho Sunset fly through the water and started whispering “C’mon fish. C’mon fish.” The tension built as the seconds passed, but the fly arrived with no strike. I glanced to my left at my wife, about 25 m away, using a Chartreuse Creamsicle fly pattern. She hadn’t hit a fish on her first cast, either. The school had moved a bit closer to my wife, and I moved over a bit before laying out another cast. I had seen several fish porpoise and had noted that there were some pretty large fish in the school. That only made the situation more exciting. I cast out again, slightly to the right. As my line landed, I saw that my wife had placed her next cast right in the middle of the swirls and I silently hoped that her cast wouldn’t spook the school. I started my strip retrieve again, and after half a dozen strips the line stopped. I stripped again and raised the rod at the same time to set the hook. “There’s one!” I exclaimed. “What? Already?,” came the response from my left. The coho broke the glassy water’s surface, leaping high into the air and returning with a splash. Looking into the sun and its reflection on the calm water as the fish jumped left me with a view of the sunlight sparkling off every water droplet that shook from the fish. I wished that there was a way to get a photograph that would capture that beautiful image, but it is practically impossible. The jump did show me that the coho was about 6 or 7 lbs in size though.

The salmon started to run, taking out line at a phenomenal rate, and I was glad to have the smooth drag and ample backing that my Amundson X3 reel gives me. The coho tore off all my fly line and more than 75 metres of backing before stopping to leap again and commence the head shake and body roll routine that they love to do. I maintained pressure and gained line. Just about that time, I heard “Oh! I got one!” from my wife, quickly accompanied by the splashing of a jumping fish and short screams (she gets really excited when playing a big fish). “Alright!,” I exclaimed. “A double- header!” I lamented not having a third party there to take some photos; they would have been great shots.

We kicked apart a bit to try to avoid crossing lines as we each played our fish, her  creaming every so often when her fish decided to leap and take more line and me whooping and hollering short encouragements to her. The coho put up grand tussles but in the end, they succumbed to the constant pressure. We landed both, took some photos, and returned them to their ocean lair, hopefully to make their way up the Cowichan River to spawn later in the season.

Tips and Tricks for Coho

Fall coho fly fishing on the east coast of Vancouver Island is a blast, and you don’t need a lot of specialized equipment to do it. Standard eight weight fly fishing systems will do just fine; I prefer the eight weight in order to land the fish sooner and release them in a bit better shape. Reels should be salt and corrosion resistant, capable of holding a minimum of 150 metres of backing (coho love to run) and have a smooth and reliable disc drag (the Amundson X3 is my recommendation as the best for the buck). Medium to fast action rods are advisable, as you may have to cast into a stiff ocean breeze at times. Floating, sink tip, or intermediate sinking lines are best. I personally use Rio’s Outbound line. It gets the line below the surface wave action and out of the floating kelp but sinks slow enough to keep the fly at the right depth while not catching bottom.

Fly Patterns For Coho

Along with the right line, fly patterns are the key to success with coho and you should carry an array of colours to choose from. Most of the coho patterns are smaller streamers in sizes #8 though #2. I prefer a #6 hook myself. Over the years I have learned the hard way that coho like variations of orange and/or chartreuse, often mixed with a bit of silver. The most consistently effective patterns I have found are the California Neil, Chartreuse Streamer, Mickey Finn (or Pearl Mickey), Coho Sunset, and Orange or Chartreuse Popsicle.

California Neil Fly
Chartreuse Streamer Fly
Orange Creamsicle Fly
Coho Sunset Fly
Mickey Finn Fly

Presenting Flies to Coho

When presenting the fly to the fish, cast past the fish and far enough in front so that your fly will pass close to its nose. To do this, you have to watch the direction the fish is swimming and try to anticipate where it will be when your fly arrives. You most often can’t see the fish itself, so you have to judge its direction of movement from its sequence of jumps or swirls. Cast the fly out and give it a few seconds to sink a bit, and then strip it in as fast as you can. Coho like their meals on the run and are used to seeing their prey fleeing for their lives; you should try to make your fly appear do the same.

Coho Release

Coho salmon have hard mouths, and hooking them solidly requires sharp hooks and fairly hard hook sets on your part. It also means that you can manhandle a coho a bit to get it in. This bodes well for its chances of survival when released, because you can force it in faster and not tire it to the point of utter exhaustion.

When the coho are in the estuaries in the fall, they mill around waiting for the autumn rains to arrive to help them move up the rivers to spawn. While they are cruising in the bays they leap and cajole about, often within reach of casters from shore. They are, however, uncomfortable in very shallow water and often the fish will stay outside of the shore-caster’s range. I now use my pontoon boat whenever I fish coho and I have been a great deal more successful simply because I have been able to get my fly in front of more fish on a given day. Coho move about, and this little watercraft allows me to move about with a great deal more speed and ease than a belly boat.

Regardless of whether you cast from shore or fish from a belly boat or pontoon boat, you will require waders. Neoprenes are highly recommended; the Pacific Ocean in October is a pretty cool piece of water, and you won’t last the day in normal rubber waders.

Coho Salmon Caught on the fly Vancouver Island

Fly fishing for coho salmon is a wonderful and fun sport. If you have restricted yourself to fly fishing freshwater up to now, you really must take the opportunity to try beach fishing for coho. Trout are a wonderful sport fish, and I truly love fishing for them, but nothing compares to the fight of a 10-lb coho, except maybe a bigger coho. Pound for pound, I’ll put it up against any other sport fish in the world.

This article appeared in Island Fisherman Magazine July 2022. Never miss another issue—subscribe today!

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