Sun 21 May 2006
by D.C. Reid
Saltwater fly anglers spend most of their time in home waters chasing down local stocks from beaches and estuaries, as well as from boats with smooth, snag-free casting platforms. At the same time, all anglers experience the ongoing interest and yearning to take the fly a little further a field and try something new.
The remote west coast of British Columbia, long known for its cutplug fisheries for large chinook and migratorial halibut that make two-pound lead balls into toys, is only now coming of age as a fly fishing destination. With its many bays, islands and inlets, some 12,000 miles of shore possibility stretch out in which to land a fly.
Experiencing the same wanderlust, I let the airplane lead me in search of unplumbed waters. Angling into a blue, luminous, coastal morning, the plane made vessels braiding the Inside Passage to Alaska into diminutive cities. For those who have never taken themselves north, these are lands where mountains rise black and green from gun-barrel, blue ocean.
Winter winds ‘comb’ the broken-headed Sitka spruce into smaller replicas of themselves, much like green, spindly hair against the black rock. Waterfalls fall from plateaus and spill into mist before they can hit the basalt below. Vegetation sheer zones rise 25- to 30-’, the result of winter waves raking the feet of mountains.
Tasu Sound in the Queen Charlotte Islands lies some 100 miles south of the Alaska Panhandle, lost in the mist and immense indifference of the Pacific Ocean. Two things had attracted my attention: the Sound, with its three Inlets, is home to 25,000 coho salmon; and, there is only one narrow entrance, appropriately named the ‘Gap’, through which they must funnel.
The salmon – pink, chum, sockeye and coho (silvers) – return each summer to a dozen streams so far away from our humdrum urban reality that many remain to this day unnamed. Added to this, The Lodge at Tasu Sound is the only intrusion of man into this edge of the world location. Its 10, centre-console and indestructible aluminum craft, are the only boats on the entire sound.
Tasu Sound presents hundreds of miles of calm inside waters with many short high gradient streams on each of three inlets. The streams are known for their deadfalls and the great number of huge bears makes choosing to fish from the boat a safer option. But if you intend to try the streams where no one may have fished before, be prepared for a good, thigh-challenging bushwhack. Icy blue Dolly Varden hang among the roots and searun cutthroat trout investigate cobble beaches of plum sized stones.
Upon arrival, the helicopter set down on the Lodge’s deck and out poured fishermen. During my time at Tasu, the infancy of fly fishing development was indicated by the numbers: out of 18 guests (a full complement), only I and my partner intended to specifically target the silvers and chum with a fly rod. (The Lodge has extended its season to September 17 in 2002 to specifically cater to fly fishermen). The rest moved through the Gap onto the open Pacific for cutplugging chinook, halibut, ling and red snapper.
The silvers and chum move through the 800-yard opening between two mountains that rise steeply from the waves, and progressively migrate toward the various inside streams. Due to the ring of mountain, during even the most howling, fierce ocean storms outside, calm water may be found and you key in by sight on the moving fish. By the last trip in mid-September, you can cast from the Lodge’s float to salmon moving in to the two streams behind it.
Silvers migrate within the top 30’ and often right on the surface, thus they make good fly fishing targets. Drift with the current and wind, making a quartering down-wind cast to surface boils (remember that salmon, unlike resident trout, are not feeding during surface activity, only expressing hormonal activity preceding spawning). Prior to estuary staging, curiosity turns the salmon’s head to the plop of a fly, but the movement of the strip triggers the hit. Most hookups come near the boat after the salmon has followed some distance.
The North Pacific Ocean has immense distances and a solid 60- to 80-foot cast is de riguerre. Practice in the park before your trip. If your balance is good, standing in the bow gives you a relatively snag free deck on which to strip line. Both coho and chum take line so quickly that you will have no time for unraveling snags and knots.
Early in the season, concentrate your efforts high in the Gap. Drift down wind on a still water day, or on days when the sea comes in in glassy train-sized rollers. With that ‘downstream’ cast, strip a bit faster to avoid drifting onto your flyline. At the nearby, and more protected, Eagle’s Nest, cast to either side of the boat at surface activity.
On days when ocean pitch threatens to pitch you seaward, rig up the surface film bucktail diagrammed below. Surface film bucktailing is a very recently developed, slow motion trolling method combined with a fly so close to the transom you can count the scales on the fish’s back as they submarine up like the galloping worms of Dune.
The boat is slowed to its idle speed in contrast to traditional high speed bucktailing with gargantuan Cowichan Bucktails and their abalone spinner racing along at near planing speeds 60 – 80’ behind the boat. Instead, the fly with its diminutive spinner is manipulated so that it leaves a sinuous trail barely a rod tip from your last line guide, that is, 10 feet.
The fly moves along just beneath the surface, its willowy silhouette moving to the twitches you give the rod tip. From time to time it breaks the surface film leaving a small wake behind the boat. You are heartily recommended to keep the rod in your hand and have a good hold on it because the bite occurs with such suddenness that the rod could be ripped from your grip or damaged by a rod holder.
Traditional highspeed (4.5- to 5-knot) bucktailing gives good service early in the summer, through late July and the first two weeks of August. Once the water calms and salmon move from the open Pacific, surface-film bucktailing and finally casting methods in the last week of August through the September season take over. Finish off the later weeks cruising after the fish on the opposite shore from the Lodge as they scent freshwater on the falling tide.
And how good was the fishing? Well, I and my partner, fishing the extended rollers slanting through the Gap received 10 double headers one day and landed and carefully released 30 coho from 10 – 16 pounds. These clones are beautiful pieces of identical metal. With the improved salmon numbers resulting from the decadal weather shift in the North Pacific as well as curtailment of commercial fishing, fish numbers will only increase for the rest of the decade. For those who wish to return with salmon, retention of 8 coho and 4 chinook was authorized in 2001; retention is expected again in 2002.
Silvers eat mostly baitfish such as herring, anchovies and sandlance. Chum, though largely herbivorous, will also smack baitfish patterns. You will know a chum when it hits the fly. You had better have your fingers out of the way of the handle or they will be ‘knuckled’ in short order.
Clean and fresh from the ocean, chum represent the best of the five salmon for their ballistics and determination. Chum will take 150- to 200-’ before you can think of recovering the rod. At one point – to the amusement of my fishing partner – my rod was bent so resolutely into the water on one side of the boat that I could not lift it. Under my arm, 200’ away the chum hung against the blue sky.
Before I could insinuate the rod under that of my partner and the line under the engine, the fish had succeeded in taking another l00’ before I could begin to apply pressure and what passes for acceptable technique. So get prepared to watch a chum take a football field of line on a run. Savor that sweet period of the battle when your line passes from bent rod tip taut to a salmon 6’ in the air – an experience that leaves one feeling fortunate to have enjoyed it.
As mentioned, ocean fisheries require a cast of 60 – 80’ from a rolling deck. If your forward-stroke haul seems a tad rusty, assess the position of your line hand. Most often it will be below your waist, arm fully extended and thus not in a position to improve line speed with a tug. You may regain technique by recalling that each haul has two motions: a quick tug down and, then, the hand rising with the line to just below the reel.
While you should take various fly lines, this is a sight fishery and hence a floating line may be your best bet and, of course, the easiest to cast. The coho and chum reside close to the surface in this last gorging phase before committing to their home stream. Coho may gain as much as a pound a week and thus they are extremely eager salmon indeed.
Sound waters are very deep with the “Gap” registering in at 500’. As few shallow aprons exist for candlefish to carpet, deep lining proves unnecessary. Accordingly, splicing two intermediate sinking lines together with a long cast and long feed and sink phase need not be practiced.
With a heavy shooting head in the 425 grain range, lay the head out in the water and quickly strip running line into the boat. Lift the head over your head, wait for it to load the rod, then fire it forward with a small haul, allowing the stripped line to zip along with it. The expression ‘chuck and duck’ says it all about this style of fly line casting.
Also get ready for a uniformly high level of service from Lodge staff. Instructors are included as part of the package price. They spend 5 hours per day on each boat and can be valuable for suggesting targeting areas plus handling the boat to leave your complete attention focussed on the fish. At regular intervals, the Lodge sends out a boat with warm lunches, coffee, drinks and etc. so you may stay out from dawn until dusk if that is your wish. Back at the Lodge the cuisine is of a high level of artistry in both preparation and design.
The Flies To Take Along
As baitfish are the natural feed, the greatest part of your drift-casting fly box should include flies in the 2- to 4-” length: Deceivers, for example Lefty’s Deceiver, streamer patterns as well as Clouser Minnows, the latter in pink, green, blue, red or chartreuse and white. For a streamlined silhouette try the Green Lantern, a Pacific sandlance pattern in chartreuse, silver and white.
The surface film bucktail rig, small by traditional standards, is diagramed below. Colours of choice include chartreuse (the Green Ghost), gray (the Gray Ghost), pink and blue and red (the Coronation). Use polar bear hair rather than buck tail if you can find it, for it swims sinuously, and puffs more realistically on the pause. In the accompanying photograph, note that the leading hook has been severed at the bend; this reflects a personal interest in fish safety rather than a legal requirement.
For traditional high-speed bucktailing, take along 5- to 6-” polar bear hair creations. Purple and white is the combination of preference, though ties of moss, chartreuse or pink and white should also find themselves ready for use. Pearlescent Flashabou and Krystal Flash have been recent favorites for an accompanying bit of sparkle. Plump out the final remaining space with a few amphipods and epoxy flies.
For a bucktail/streamer style fly, wrap the hook shank (#1, 34011 stainless Mustad) with a gold tinsel body. Then tie in a layer of white bucktail/polar bear hair, a few strands of pearlescent Krystal Flash on either side, followed by some chartreuse bucktail and then dark green Neer Hair. Finish with a half dozen strands of pearlescent Flashabou on top. Let the tails extend past the hook to undulate and wriggle. Commonly used colours include white, pink, chartreuse and blue. Don’t overlook finishing the heads with 2mm, yellow iris, adhesive eyes coated with 5-minute epoxy.
The Gear You Need
You will want to take an 8-weight rod matched with a few different types of fly lines on separate spools or cassettes. All flylines should be cold water varieties as the ocean ranges from 42 – 46 degrees Fahrenheit. Take along a weight forward floating line, a sink tip in the 225 grain range, a 425 sink tip and a full sinking line. A tip change system, for example Cortland, proves its worth here, providing a floating, clear, light sink (a ‘slime’ line), an intermediate and a heavier sink tip in one system with loop to loop connections for quick changes.
For line-splicing aficionados, cut 35 – 40’ of a 325 grain full sinking line and splice it to the 30-pound backing. Strip backing onto the deck and cast only the spliced tip. This tip pulls the backing and shoots well. More importantly it sinks level. Therefore it gets down and stays in the zone, returning in a level profile rather than on a diagonal.
Your reel, obviously anodized, should be top of the line, combining single-piece, lathed, bar-stock aluminum with a disk brake that could stop a 747. This is not a fishery for a click pawl gear and stopping the fish simply by palming the drum. Back that flyline with 130 yards of 30 pound backing or 200 yards of 20 pound backing. A large arbor reel (provided it will accommodate this much fly line and backing) demonstrates its worth when these salmon run with rocket speed directly at the boat. You will be raising your hands high over your head and reeling to recover – an absolute necessity in these days of barbless hooks.
Subterfuge in the leader department proves unnecessary for these remote, green fish. Attach 4’ of 15-pound test to the flyline and step down to 4’ of 12-pound test. If bite shock separates the Improved Clinch Knot at the fly, bump the leader butt to 17- to 20-pound test with the ‘tippet’ rising to 15-pound test.
If you intend on ‘whacking’ the streams in your quest, take along bear spray, your trusty tin whistle and a freshwater licence. Bear bangers are supplied.
The Road To Tasu Sound
The road to Tasu Sound lies right in front of your own home. Drive yourself to the airport and, from there, the rest of the trip is in the air. Land in Vancouver, B.C., stay over night at the Airport Delta and take their shuttle bright and early to South Terminal for the two hour flight north to Sandspit in the Queen Charlotte Islands. Nip next door to the heliport and be whizzed the short 15 minute flight to the deck of The Lodge at Tasu Sound, where within minutes you may be casting for coho..