Autumn’s most exciting fishing adventure: chum salmon offshore of Campbell River, British Columbia.
In This Fishing Article You Will Discover:
- How to Catch Chum Salmon
- Where to Catch Chum Salmon
- The Fun of it All!
For years, the town of Campbell River, British Columbia, has proudly proclaimed itself “The Salmon Capital of the World.” Truly, the area has a rich history of fishing — the glory days of Roderick Haig-Brown and the famous Tyee Pool at Painter’s Lodge (visited by the likes of John Wayne and Bing Crosby) come immediately to mind.
But as I drove north on Vancouver Island’s Highway 19, headed for Campbell River and some late-season chum salmon fishing, I couldn’t help but wonder if calling the area “The Salmon Capital” is a bit like calling Wayne Gretzky “The World’s Best Hockey Player.” I feel like you have to add “Was Once” in there somewhere… At 51 years old, The Great One isn’t about to lace up and skate with the Oilers anytime soon, just as Campbell River can no longer compete with isolated salmon fisheries on the north and central coasts or the mighty Haida Gwaii, right?
The Strait of Georgia’s salmon fishery is often regarded as being past its heyday, and as I pulled into Painter’s Lodge, just north of town-centre, I had it in my mind that the town should give up the crown.
Thirty-six hours later, I would find myself grossly mistaken.
Fall Chum Fishing
It’s October and the days are noticeably shorter, cooler and wetter than during my usual summertime salmon forays. The Dog Days are behind us, and being that Campbell River is part of the Wet Coast, sunshine is only increasing in its scarcity. The more-famous sockeye, pink, coho and chinook runs have all but passed by this late in the game, now occupying the freshwater in their struggle to spawn. The occasional coho and even more occasional chinook can be landed post-September, but offshore of Campbell River, in the narrow, tidal-current-ridden Discovery Passage, those in the know go for chum.
Chum are the black sheep of the Pacific salmon family. Too often considered ugly and oily, they tend to be a happenstance fishery at best — at worst, a regretful catch released as soon as possible so not to infringe on the angler’s limit of glorious sockeye or chinook. I don’t see them this way, and neither does my fishing guide, Max Skaaravik.
To fans of this fish, chum salmon are more like coho’s evil twin. Growing to roughly the same size as coho (slightly larger, in fact), both fish are known for aggressive fights. Both, in my opinion, are delicious barbecue fare; chum having a lighter tone to their flesh and to their flavour than coho. And like coho, both have light-switch bites — when they’re on, they’re on and if you’re there to enjoy it you’re in for some of the hottest fishing of your life.
Heading out from the dock at Painter’s Lodge in our 17-foot Boston Whaler, I inquire to Max about the fishing thus far. In typical guide fashion, he tells me, “I only guarantee a boat ride.” But I’d noticed that a 15-pound chum had been brought in the day earlier, so I’d be lying if I said my hopes hadn’t risen… if only a little.
While each species of salmon has its own angling eccentricities, the initial aspect of this chum fishery was foreign to me. After all, every salmon fisherman knows to live-and-die by the slack tide (the short time between ebb and flow). That’s when fish feed, right?
Yes, Max agrees, but these migrating chum salmon are finished feeding for the season — they strike lures out of anger. Furthermore, the chum are waiting for the right time to swim up-river to spawn and in the face of this battle they prefer to save their energy. Lesson one: fish Campbell River’s Discovery Passage during a flow tide. Chum salmon literally ride the tide as it funnels schools of fish into the narrow passage and toward the mouths of the coastal rivers. Subsequently, it also makes sense that the worst time is during an ebb tide, when chum hold their position and fight the current that aims to push them further from their goal. Slack tides? Meh.
Thirty minutes after we leave dock, we arrive in middle of chaos. A few dozen boats weave through one another, rods protruding from each like porcupine quills. The chum are here, at a location dubbed Green Seas, and the bite is on. All around me, I can see rods snapping from downriggers and fish scooped into nets. It’s pandemonium in the best possible way.
I’m lucky to have Max’s instruction. One of the lodge’s most experienced guides, and a Campbell River local, he is dialed-in to chum salmon fishing. Plus, unlike many others he actually likes fishing for these toothy miscreants.
He points the boat into the tidal current (which is strong enough in some parts to form whirlpools and standing waves known to have capsized commercial fishing vessels) and slows the motor to an idle. We are barely moving — perfect, according to Max. Often the best luck is had when one strikes a delicate balance between the motor speed and the tidal current — the boat stays put and the lures spin, stationary, below.
The weapons of choice today are pink hoochies — with a large plastic bead and a spinner blade on top — dragged behind green or purple Hot Spot flashers. (Fifteen-pound-test monofilament, a single-action Islander MR2 reel, a 10-1/2-foot rod and Scotty downriggers are all a given.) The presentation is one meant to infuriate — flashy and noisy. We set three rods at three depths, 25, 40 and 60 feet. And I don’t even have time to crack into my coffee before the first rod, set at 40 feet, begins to bounce.
Max, unlike myself and every other salmon angler I’d fished with, sets his downrigger clips very tight — too tight, in fact, to release when a fish tugs. Rather than relying on the telltale “sprong” of a line releasing from the clip following a strike, Max insists chum hook themselves better if the clip doesn’t release. Lesson two, I suppose.
I grab the rod, reel down fast until I feel the tension against the clip, give it a hard yank to pop it free from the downrigger, then another to set the hook (“give it a little love,” Max instructs) and it’s chum-on. These salmon are tricky — they often come rocketing up to the surface, creating dangerous slack in your line, before diving back down again or making a powerful surface run and freeing themselves from your hook. It’s not long, though, before I have this fish under control and lying prostrate beside the boat. In self-congratulation, I take my hand off the reel and give a thumbs up… and that cagey chum dances off my barbless single-hook before I can say hot-damn.
OK — lesson three: one I should already know. It ain’t over ‘till it’s over; chum tend to “spaz out” when they reach surface (not unlike a pink salmon, in fact). Such is fishing. The bite is most definitely on, and that means I’ll have many chances to redeem myself.
And less than two hours later I am limited-out — four chum in the box, ranging from six and 11 pounds. A couple lost. A few more released. And I am dumbfounded. Limited out and exhausted in 100 minutes of fishing? Was this a fluke? We pull in the lines and head back to Painter’s Lodge. Recalling that some dub this fish “dog salmon,” it would seem in Campbell River, the Dog Days are in October.
Day two, and it’s just shy of 1:00 p.m. We are on a flow tide once again, but this time in the afternoon, and we’re gearing up for the second round. My Better Half, Erin, had arrived the night before, and I regaled her with tales of chum “the likes of which she had never seen” (she replied that she had never seen any chum), so both of our expectations are high.
It is uncharacteristically sunny too; Max assures me it’s the chum’s preferred weather pattern. Chum salmon are turned on when it’s bright and off when it’s raining— one of this fishery’s great ironies considering how much precipitation Campbell River sees in October.
Separation Head, also in the Discovery Passage, is only about 20 minutes from the lodge. Painter’s Lodge guides suss out hotspots ranging from eyesight of the lodge right up to an hour’s ride away — considering we only have about four hours of fishing time today, closer is always better.
Again, we settle into the dog-slow, counter-current troll as the day before. We drop hoochies, always with that trademark pink-plastic spinner blade resting atop. And again, proving no fluke, the rods begin a poppin’. Erin is on-deck and boats the first fish she fights — which would end up darn-near 12 pounds, a highly respectable chum and the largest of our trip.
With the biggie in the box, we make sure to check the leader; one look at the toothy underbite so prevalent on chum, and especially so on a male fish, and it’s easy to see why. This predatory jaw also necessitates hard hook-sets — no subtlety required.
Chum salmon attack in a frenzy, so double-headers are the rule, not the exception. In fact, it becomes almost second-nature to immediately look at the other rods once your fishing partner has hers in-hand. Triple-headers? Sure, why not… Max holds the third at bay, allowing Erin to play back-to-back fish. Max’s advice is to take full advantage of the frenzy — at times, chum salmon can turn off just as fast as they turn on.
Around us, other anglers are enjoying similar luck and we don’t even have time to enjoy a snack before about 70 pounds of fresh salmon fills our fish box. Yup, two hours in and this time two anglers are limited out. Not too shabby, considering there were also about a half-dozen “long-line releases” between the two of us.
As Max weaves the Whaler through tidal swirls en route to Painter’s Lodge, I am left to consider Campbell River’s fall chum salmon fishery and the town’s title as “Salmon Capital of the World.” That many salmon in-hand so quickly is a rarity these days. It was almost too efficient — salmon catching, not salmon fishing — but I’d be tarred-and-feathered by my friends back home if I complained.
Campbell River has still got it — no “Was Once” required.