The time is fast approaching when gear guys and their kids take to Port Renfrew to angle for coho on the shore of the San Juan River estuary (below the deemed saltwater boundary - the bridge). The fishery peaks in the third week in September, but as the river is very low this year, there will likely be coho early as they will have no reason to move up.
The Pacheedaht First Nation runs the campground adjacent to the saltwater portion of the river, and it is flat, and a nice spot for campers and tents. It is a five minute stroll to the fish. This is one of the best and simplest fisheries for coho on South Van Isle. While the regs for retention are complex, from September 7 to Dec 31, there is a four coho per day limit, two of which may be unmarked and thus wild coho.
The San Juan has the largest average weight for coho on the Island; this means that you are fishing for large coho, though not necessarily the largest, if you catch my drift. I have seen fish of 20 pounds, which, by any measure is large.
The town side is Pacheedaht Firs Nation land (http://pacheedahtfirstnation.com/), and you should ask whether you can fish on the rocks. That side, the south side, has a trough that can be 30 feet deep and is where the chinook tend to bottom out and stay put until rain prompts them to move on. On the campground, north, side, you may fish where you choose. The school will move up and down as the day progresses and you can follow along the shore.
Being able to cast a long way is essential at this spot, so get out your best rod and reel combination. Typically, good baitcaster reels – Okuma, Garcia, Penn – are your best bet. Load them with braided line because it has less friction and thus casts farther, and with 20 feet of 20 pound test as your leader material. Take a 9.5 or 10.5-foot trigger fingered rod, Rapala, or Shimano are popular brands. Tie your lures on with a Palomar knot.
For lures, Buzz Bombs, and lead-based lures are good casters – take a pink one, too. And remember that it is slow up and fast down, reeling only on the down. The intention, as we all know, is to make the lure flutter like an injured baitfish on the drop. Heavy spoons also cast a mile, for example, the Gibbs line of Koho, Illusion, Kit-A-Mat and Ironhead, among others. Reel them in with the occasional twitch to change action. Take silver, gold, blue and green.
Spinners are also popular. Bolos and Mepps Blue Fox, size 4 and 5, are good examples. The Bolos are heavier and thus cast farther. Good colours include red, chartreuse, and blue, with silver blades. Gold blades work better after heavy rain that clouds water, and the coho have moved into the river proper. Gold wobblers, the granddaddy of all the spoons, come into their own in high rain and dirty freshwater. Gold transmits the best in such conditions.
This is a hard spot for a fly caster because of all the lead flying overhead and because such lures can be cast so far beyond a fly. Also, flies typically swing down with the current to be fished, while a spoon or spinner does not and tangled lines can result.
The best action in this pool above the bar is first thing in the morning, even better if it involves a low tide moving into the flood. Coho advance over the bar, and the several hundred yards before the bridge is where they stage, waiting for the heavy rains of autumn. This year we have had little rain and if this prevails, the fishing at the bottom of the estuary should be better than usual.
Do note that at present all rivers on Vancouver Island’s southern end are closed, including the San Juan, Harris and Lens that are on this system. You are restricted to the salt portion of the estuary, the bar, and the beach. The daily convection wind blows up-river much of the afternoon, making this a morning fish, unless you see coho in the waves.
Because the fish get bombarded with lead, fish early, or fish when others have moved on. Once the rain has begun in earnest, and the rivers are opened for fishing, do remember that Fairy Lake gives access to a deep, long bend of river through a channel running from the lake on its south side. Other spots are the last big corner where the tide reaches its highest. This spot is accessed through a 4X4 road – be prepared to bottom out in some of its holes – just before the Harris Creek bridge. This crummy road also gives access to the confluence of the Harris and San Juan.
Under the Harris Creek Bridge, coho sometimes stage for several weeks before moving up. While steelheading in January, I have found some grizzled old vets hanging on in the big pool above the canyon. The Lens Creek- San Juan confluence also has a good pool where coho stop and take time to decide which route to follow in the heaviest waters of late fall.
Note well that the best river water is: the softest part of the deep water. Occasionally, late in the year, they will fan out on knee deep runs, still waiting for those side streams to open up with rain. In this case, cast a spinner (easier to see) so, on retrieve, it passes within 18 inches of the coho’s face, and watch the follow, and resist setting the hook when you see its mouth close. Wait for the strike on the rod.
You need to consult the saltwater regulations: http://www.pac.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/fm-gp/rec/maps-cartes/notice-avis/20-co-ch-eng.html. These are complex, but here are a few to bear in mind:
Oct 1 – Dec 31 – four coho one of which may be unmarked. Seaward side of Owen Point to the Canada - USA boundary in Juan de Fuca Strait.
Sept 7 – Dec 31 – four coho two of which may be unmarked. Owen Point to the Whistle buoy and inside of San Juan Harbour.
There is also a finfish closure – Aug 15 to Sept 7, and chinook non-retention in the port, July 15 to Oct 25.
The Area 20 general regulation for coho is: June 1 to Dec 31, two, hatchery marked only.