I’m writing this at the tail end of the Thanksgiving weekend, which customarily is reckoned to be the peak of the chum salmon run through Johnstone Strait. Hard to know this season as the fish showed up early in mid-September and October has been a wet month at times this year, encouraging them on their migration. Salmon are very sensitive to atmospheric pressure and appear to know when there’s enough water in rivers to attract them out of the sea. Unless the aggregate run to inner south coast rivers is larger than expected I have a feeling the main run, and the best of the fishing, will be over sooner than later.
Anyway, so far so good although there’s also a sense that this is one of those years when the chums bite less well than in others. Chum salmon can be affected by weather changes and most anglers and guides with some experience in fishing for them have a preference for settled, dry weather. Certainly not the experience this fall so far with frequent weather changes adding to the challenge of getting these salmon to bite. And I don’t think it’s just the recreational fishery facing this as the reported commercial troll catch over the first week of their season has been on the low side, averaging about 30 chums per boat day. Clearly, even with their relatively large mass of flasher and hootchy set-ups the trollers are struggling to attract fish to their gear.
All that said the chums will bite and the last time I was out a few days ago we ended up with 9 in the boat. Factor in more than half as many lost once hooked and additional strikes not even connected with, plus a wild coho released, and it felt like a productive trip by the end. I was fishing with three experienced anglers, two of whom do all their salmon fishing in Juan de Fuca Strait and had never previously fished for chums. Being a fan of this local fishery I could be biased but I think they came away with positive impression – for sure they were impressed with the tenacity of chums on the end of a line.
Seemingly like most trips this fall it had a quiet start, so much so that we fairly quickly left Deepwater Bay and travelled up to Greensea Bay on the west side of Sonora Island while there was still some flood tide to fish there. It started quiet once again and then there was a little flurry of action, with two fish boated out of four hooked. As well there was a couple of strikes missed as my anglers learned the trick of winding down onto the weight of the fish before striking rather than swinging at the outset.
Then the action ceased and it was simply an act of faith to stay put as the tide changed and the ebb tide started to flow. Several other boats didn’t, moving off back closer to Campbell River, but I didn’t feel that there were any better options in that direction so other than dropping down tide to Howe Island I put our collective patience to the test and a belief in past experience that fish would show.
And they did. After over an hour of essentially no action suddenly without any warning we got into a quadruple header, four fish biting all at once – talk about zero to sixty in five seconds! Low-level pandemonium ensued but we boated three chums; the only one that got away was the one on my line as with other fish ready to be netted I elected to place the rod in a holder with the reel set to a moderate drag. I know the fish stayed on for a while but when we returned to the rod after netting the third chum the last one was gone.
No matter, things were looking up as the showers ended and the sun came out and we hit fish off and on for the next couple of hours, including one triple- header. The chums weren’t deep and most of the fish were hit between 30 and 70 feet down. My stern downrigger line set at 30-35 feet contributed to a good third of the chums encountered, supporting my belief that at times anglers fish below many of the fish passing them by.
One thing intrigued my visitors in that all the chums we boated were males, a fairly typical experience. It is very unusual to find any food in the stomachs of these fish and having ceased feeding sometime before I’m quite certain, in my own mind at least, that it’s a testosterone fuelled thing that makes these fish bite a lure.
The annual Browns Bay Chum Derby is fast approaching, taking place next weekend (October 15 &16), quickly to be followed by the second seine opening on the 17th. The first opening on October 3rd took place in settled weather and accounted for about 172,000 chums. Perhaps reflecting a low commercial catch year for all salmon around southern BC the price for chums is quite high, with the seiners getting $1.20/lb.
The bio-sampling information from the two seine test boats at the top end of Johnstone Straits indicates that the average size of the chums this year is just over 10 pounds and about 85% are 4 year-old fish, with age 3’s and 5’s about equally accounting for the rest. It varies a bit between years but approximately half the chums migrating through Johnstone Straits originate from the Fraser River, a higher percentage earlier and then declining as the season progresses as chums from other watersheds predominate.
Supported by strong returns of chums to south Vancouver Island rivers like the Cowichan and Goldstream in recent years there’s been a growing feeling amongst DFO managers that more southern bound chums are making their way to the inner coast via Juan de Fuca Strait rather than through Johnstone Straits. There hasn’t been test fishing in Juan de Fuca, at least not for many years, but this year some has been planned so it’ll be interesting to see what the results are.
With the imminent arrival of mid-October hopefully the recreational fishery out of Campbell River will experience a couple more weeks of productive chum fishing. Good luck to everyone out there trying!