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Hone Your Coho Fishing Skills

*This article appeared in the July 2022 Issue. Expect a massive update in the August 2023 Issue. Never miss another issue—subscribe today!

Not that long ago coho were the largest contributor to recreational salmon catches. They were also targeted by commercial troll, net, and First Nations food, societal, and ceremonial fisheries. For example, between 1970 and 1993, just the Georgia Strait recreational coho catch averaged 750,000 fish.

Historically coho were available for Georgia Strait anglers from spring into fall, and there were two components to the fishery: resident (inside) coho and ocean migrant (outside) coho. From April to June, anglers pursued 1-kg to 2-kg “blueback” coho. These coho usually remained in Georgia Strait for their entire marine lifecycle, doubling or tripling their weight by October, hence the term “resident coho.” Even August coho, like those in the photo above, were considered residents.

The fall fishery began after Labour Day and lasted until the first heavy rains.

It was bolstered by coho re-entering Georgia Strait on their spawning migration. These migrants were considered “outside coho” and were nicknamed “hooked-nose northerns” even though all male coho develop the same identifying feature.

Georgia Strait coho abundance came from many hundreds of streams and rivers located in Puget Sound, the Fraser River drainage, Georgia Strait, and parts of Johnstone Strait.

The April-June “blueback fishery” was important for Vancouver Island’s local economies, particularly from Parksville to Campbell River, and for Sunshine Coast communities. Then angling demographics changed. Prior to the mid-1980s the vast bulk of recreational fishing effort occurred in Georgia Strait, but then that fishing effort slowly began moving out of the Strait to remote fishing regions.

Coho still made substantial contributions to inside fisheries until 1994, when the stocks crashed. The aggregate returns (catch plus escapement) for Interior Fraser and Thompson River coho plummeted from nearly 500,000 in 1993 to around 100,000 in 1994. This precipitated severe south coast coho catch reductions that remain in place.

2022 Interior Fraser Indicators for Coho

What Happened to the Coho?

DFO’s 2022 coho Marine Survival Forecast provides this explanation: “Directed commercial and recreational fisheries were severely restricted in the late 1990s in response to decreasing abundances. Until recently most exploitation of coho was from incidental catches in commercial fisheries that targeted other species. Generally non-retention of unmarked coho is in effect in most areas except for food, societal and ceremonial fisheries for 1st Nations.”

Further explanation is needed. The initial management actions were solely to achieve Interior Fraser and Thompson River coho recovery. These stocks showed aggregate returns that averaged about 350,000 between 1975 and 1993. In 1994 that number plummeted to around 100,000 and remained there until 2017, when abundance began trending upwards. A similar pattern affected coho stocks across Georgia Strait.

Bright Spots for Coho?

Maybe. 2022 returns are predicated on an outside brood year migration, meaning anglers will have to wait until late summer and fall to see possible increases in coho fishing opportunities. Still, longtime Campbell River guide Jeremy Maynard offered some optimism. “It appears that DFO will be managing to 1 wild coho per day out of 2 retention starting September 1 in statistical areas 13, 14 and most of 15; this opportunity has been talked about by DFO staff for months now, but I won’t believe it until I actually see the fishery notice.” Jeremy also noted that the “Interior Fraser coho stock aggregate has been steadily increasing and should become less of a factor in management constraints.” If this positive trend continues, there could be gradual relaxation in harvest rate ceilings, if not in 2022, then for the years to come.

Port Alberni’s Marilyn Scanlan has played a leading role in Vancouver Island’s west coast fishing picture for decades. She is cautiously upbeat for 2022’s prospects. “Wild stocks seem to be holding up well, and hatchery coho are showing a similar trend” according to Marilyn, and “marine survivals have been improving. There could be generous limits announced in-season in Alberni and Tlupana Inlets terminal areas.”

Port Renfrew has a long history as a major coho destination. Its waters offer four distinct fishery options:

  • A Juan de Fuca Strait fishery for migrating coho
  • An inside Port San Juan fishery for local coho
  • A near-shore shallow water “bucktail”-style option
  • A shoreline beach casting fishery

Rex Coburn is co-owner of Port Renfrew Marina & RV located on Gordon River Road. Rex expecs 2022 to be similar to previous years, suggesting the offshore fishery should be “good for migrating coho stocks.” However, he worries that the new killer whale restrictions will affect this fishery, because anglers prefer fishing seaward of the can buoy in 400′ to 600′ of water.

Port Renfrew Marina

Rollie Rose owns Sooke Salmon Charters and has fished eastern Juan de Fuca for decades. According to Rollie, “coho often show up in the offshore tide rips in June and stay until the end of July,” adding “you just have to go find them.” He adds, “It slows down in August before the bigger coho arrive after Labour Day.”

The consensus for southern Georgia Strait is little change. Bob Meyer, owner of Silver Blue Charters on Gabriola Island, and Bon Chovy’s Jason Assonitis, who operates from Vancouver and Sidney, commented that coho can appear in July, though it’s hit and miss. Jason suggested possible improved hatchery opportunities for July coho in Howe Sound and the Sunshine Coast, and for Capilano coho in August.

Effective Coho Tactics

Coho Fishing Gear

Even novice anglers pick up standard coho tactics quickly: Troll faster, use active bright lures, run shorter leaders with flashers, cover lots of water, look for feeding birds, and fish shallower. These tactics all work, but there is one caveat: They were mainly developed for actively feeding coho.

In my experience bigger coho are fussy, but adding modified Chinook tactics to your coho arsenal produces more trophy-sized encounters.

I learned about slow trolling for coho during a 1980s late season trip to Barkley Sound with my fishing partner Barry Freeman. We’d only boxed one mature Chinook for two days’ work when Poett Nook Marina owner, Mike Markusich, suggested we try for coho at Kooh Rock a short distance across Trevor Channel.

Victor Horton and Joe Scuby with Coho and one Chinook

He added this tip: Go dead slow. We did and the action was terrific. We were trolling so slowly the flasher dished from side to side and only revolved occasionally. When it did rotate, the lure sped up, triggering numerous coho strikes. Mike’s tip was a key factor in developing these tactics for adult coho.

  • Vary speed between normal Chinook and normal coho trolling speeds
  • Increase the lure to flasher leader length by 25%. It depresses the lure action slightly, but not enough that coho lose interest.

Apparently, some of Vancouver Island’s coho fishing legends agree. According to Alec Merriman’s 1973 book Salmon Fishing with the Experts, bucktail high-liners and Radiant Lure founders Jack James and Bruce Colegrave trolled their flies from slow to just-above- normal trolling speed for mature coho.

In addition to going slow, embrace and expand traditional bucktail tactics. The bucktail fly was king during coho fishing’s good old days.

1980s-vintage Radiant Bucktail with an abalone spinner

It’s still effective for surface feeding coho, in near-terminal areas, along gradually sloping beaches and flats, and near the river mouths.

Jensen Flash Fly

Coho go crazy over lure speed and action changes, so it’s time to revisit zig-zag trolling. This course change presentation should be used whenever you fish for coho regardless of depth. The lure on the inside of the turn slows and runs deeper, while the outside lure shallows and speeds up.

Expand bucktail tactics by including other lures. In September 2012, I enjoyed a fabulous day with Rex Coburn off the mouth of Port Renfrew’s San Juan River. We trolled artificial herring strips in teasers with no weight, often in less than 10′ of water. This tactic was very much in the bucktail style, except for lure choice. The same strategy works with spoons and might work with small active plugs with just enough weight added to run underwater.

Use Your Imagination for Coho

Late-season coho are fickle. They can switch off presentations faster than you can say “Is the bite over?” When this happens, there are options that can keep the bite going.

Dust off your small dodgers and mini-flashers for fall coho. Aside from being really effective, they are compatible with light-tackle angling, maximizing the adrenaline rush when a big one hits the gear, while adding extra pop to your lure’s action.

Gibbs Fishing President Rob Alcock agrees. He even suggests trying trout and Kokanee attractors that are just a few inches long. Other tackle manufacturers, like Hot Spot, also produce mini- and micro-sized flashers. It’s even worth picking up a couple of Jensen Dipsy Divers with a directional adjustment fin. This device allows anglers place their lures further away from the sides of the boat, which expands lure coverage laterally.

Gibbs Dog Tail Dodger

These tactics increase your coho options and should put some big ones in the cooler. As always, make sure to check the regulations that cover your intended fishing area.

What’s happening now? Visit our Fishing Reports here.

For more articles on coho, click here.

*This article appeared in the July 2022 Issue. Expect a massive update in the August 2023 Issue. Never miss another issue—subscribe today!

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