Fly fishing for coho is one of my favourite forms of angling and it’s becoming increasingly popular as anglers look to the sea for an exciting change from the freshwater trout scene.
The coho run on the southern coast of BC occurs mid-September through early November. To make beach and estuary fishing for them possible, the water levels in the rivers must be low, so low that the salmon cannot (or will not) run upriver in numbers until the waters rise again. When river levels are too low, the fish stack in the estuaries and bays waiting for the rains. The longer the water levels stay down, the better the fishing gets as more and more salmon keep arriving, hoping to head upstream. If we have a very rainy early autumn, though, you can forget the beach fishing; the fish will head straight up the rivers without stopping, and you will have to move up with them, if the water levels allow for effective fishing at all.
Before you grab your gear and run out the door to pursue coho from the beach, there are several important points to consider. First, coho are bigger, stronger, and faster than trout. This requires you to use heavier systems than you would with trout; a 5-weight system just will not do the trick. A 7- or 8-weight system is much better suited to handling these water rockets.
Second, your rod should be at least 9 ft in length, and you may want to consider going to a 10-footer. If you wade, you will be wading deep, often well past your waist. At that depth, you don’t have as much clearance between the line and the water’s surface; the longer the rod, the farther you will be able to cast.
Fly Line for Beach Coho
I highly recommend you get yourself a specialty line. Distance casting is essential for this type of fly fishing, and a weight-forward or shooting head is necessary. I do not think you will fare well at all using a double taper.
Coho are easily spooked in shallow water. If you use a sinking line, one that blends into the background is best. I like the clear intermediate sinking lines or clear intermediate sink-tip lines for this purpose. Rio makes a good line called Outbound, and it shoots very well.
When you angle from the beach for coho, you are usually fishing water 3 to 10 ft deep. Often the salmon cruise within a foot of bottom. This calls for a technique that will get your fly down to the fish while not hanging up on bottom. There are several methods of doing this, and each has its advantages.
My preferred method, as I mentioned, is to use an intermediate sink-tip or full sinking line. These lines are neutral density, which is to say that they are neither lighter nor heavier than water. This allows the line to sink very slowly, and once a retrieve is started it doesn’t sink much farther. This capability allows you to get the line down below the surface wave action, so that the waves don’t interfere with your presentation and retrieve, but it still sinks slowly enough to let you to retrieve it without snagging bottom very often. Both lines take some time to sink, though, and this may try your patience. Tidal currents affect the full sinking line more than the sink-tip.
I have been frustrated with it in a heavy tide, and I don’t use a stripping basket, so the full sink can catch on rocks and debris at my feet while recasting, which can be even more frustrating.
Another method employs a full floating line. Using a dry line allows much more line control, and it’s nicer to cast than a sinking line, but sometimes won’t get your fly deep enough unless you use a weighted fly (and we all know what a joy it is to cast a weighted #6 fly) and/ or a heavy sinking leader. In addition, the dry line sits on the surface and rises, falls, and meanders with the surface wave action and tidal current. This affects your retrieve, and ultimately how your fly appears to the fish.
Regardless of what line you employ, the flies and retrieves are the same. Coho in skinny water, as I mentioned earlier, are easily spooked. This requires the use of long leaders; 15 or more feet is very common. I used to work hard at finding heavy tapered leaders but I now simply use 12- or 14-lb test monofilament looped straight off my connector. It is cheap and it works. The heavy tippet is necessary, because anything lighter tends to break easily on these fish. You want to be able to set the hook hard and employ your reel drag to tire the fish or you will never get it in. One problem with a level monofilament leader/tippet is that it can be more difficult to roll your casts over, especially casting big flies. However, if you use the clear fly lines that I mentioned earlier, you can use a much shorter leader, and this combination makes it much easier to roll the cast over.
Of all the pieces of equipment that you pack around when fly-fishing, your reel will be tested the most by these salmon. Corrosive salt water and fish bent on breaking the sound barrier have destroyed more reels than I care to mention. Salt-resistant components are essential, even if you rinse your reel in freshwater at the end of each day (which you should be doing). Reliable disc drags are also necessary; gear or ratchet drags are neither smooth enough nor strong enough to slow a 12-lb coho in flight. The reel should also have a capacity of 100 to 200 metres of backing (and sometimes even that isn’t enough), because coho will strip off a lot of line in their initial runs.
Wading in the Ocean
Another important thing to note is that, unlike rocks and logs in freshwater, rocks and logs in the ocean have barnacles on them. These little razor-toothed crustaceans can make short work of soft-soled wading boots and especially misplaced knees if you kneel down to dislodge a hook or revive a fish. Your waders should have reinforced knees, and you should consider wearing hard- soled wading boots. The cost of investing in a well-built and protected pair of waders will save you hundreds in the end.
If you wear a standard-length fishing vest, you may want to rethink this. Deep wading will often soak the lower pockets, getting everything therein drenched in saltwater. Usually we fly fishers keep our fly boxes in the lower pockets, and it only takes one soaking to turn your nice clean flies into a pile of rusty feathers and bronze (unless they are all tied on stainless steel or nickel-plated hooks). I like wearing my vest, so I wear a “shorty” vest that is just what it sounds like—a vest half the length of a normal one. That way I rarely get the bottom wet.
Flies for Beach Coho
Flies are simple ties of # 8 to #2 stainless steel or nickel-plated hooks with wings of chartreuse, red, blue, pink, green, yellow or white bucktail. Tie a few of each, and try mixing some yellow under with green over, etc. Throw in half a dozen lengths of crystal hair for more flash, and there you have it—a good assortment of coho flies. Since the coho feed on an assortment of goodies, from herring and needlefish to krill, an assortment of different coloured flies is needed. Keep in mind that they seem to especially like chartreuse.
There is nothing special to learn about actually fishing for these salmon. If you can spot a particular fish, cast just ahead of it. If not, then make casts as far as you can, get the fly down to within a few feet of the bottom, and retrieve them with quick strip retrieves. Sometimes, when you are stripping in the fly you will see a wake move in from behind the fly and follow it. As much as you would like to, don’t change the retrieve. If you suddenly change the fly’s speed or motion, the fish will refuse it and turn away. Maintain the retrieve and ready yourself for the strike. If the coho strikes set the hook, raise the rod tip and hang on, because you’re in for one heck of a ride!
This article appeared in Island Fisherman Magazine. Never miss another issue—subscribe today!