The Juan de Fuca Coho Fishery

An iconic British Columbia fishing destination

Introduction

The Juan de Fuca Strait is bisected by the Canada-US International boundary, as it separates the Olympic Peninsula from southern Vancouver Island. It runs on an east-west axis from the southwest side of the San Juan Islands to the open Pacific Ocean near Port Renfrew.

The Strait drains all the waters of Lower Georgia Strait and Puget Sound. This region contains a diverse number of coho salmon production units. The Fraser River is the largest, but Puget Sound and the east coast of Vancouver Island are blessed with many excellent coho systems. Unfortunately, for two decades depressed interior Fraser River coho have driven management actions on many Canadian coho fisheries. Fortunately, most of the BC streams in the Salish Sea have benefited from untold hours of volunteer restoration, enhancement and hatchery work; and hatchery production on the US side has played a key role in keeping coho production up. Washington State currently adipose clips 100 per cent of their hatchery coho. This means Juan de Fuca Strait offers decent clipped coho fishing opportunities in the summer and fall, and in certain years wild coho can be kept after Oct. 1.

Photo by Chase White.
Photo by Chase White.

Fishing Infrastructure

The entire region has excellent recreational fishing infrastructure because of its history as a premier fishing destination. Greater Victoria has a full range of services, including independent tackle shops, guided fishing trips, marinas, launch ramps, along with hotels and restaurant services for tourist anglers. The distance between Victoria and Port Renfrew is 109 kilometres, and the scenic route is in excellent condition. Sooke is located about a third of the way between Victoria and Port Renfrew and is the main access point to Juan de Fuca Strait. It supports resource industries and sport fishing is an important part of that overall economic contributor. There are at least a half dozen marinas and launch ramps in the general Sooke area. The community offers guided fishing trips, tackle shops, excellent restaurants and accommodations ranging from bed and breakfasts to luxurious hotels and resorts. Port Renfrew is the final jump off spot to Juan de Fuca Strait. Just a decade ago, the community was on the economic ropes. Recreational angling played a big role in breathing new life into the community, which now offers everything anglers need.

Coho can be taken in Juan de Fuca from the surface to over 100 feet down. Photo by Chase White.
Coho can be taken in Juan de Fuca from the surface to over 100 feet down. Photo by Chase White.

The Fishery’s Run Timing & Locations

The Juan de Fuca coho fishery was always different than the historic and famous Georgia Strait coho fishery. The Georgia Strait once supported catches of a million coho per year for sport and commercial fisheries. Then, in just a decade, those stocks abandoned the Strait and the catch plummeted to a few thousand fish. The reason why is still unknown. Juan de Fuca’s fishery focused mainly on migrating adults, with the bulk of the effort taking place from Labour Day until mid-October. That pattern has not changed. The big change affecting fishing relates to the non-retention of wild coho, which usually lasts until Oct. 1 each year.

The prime coho fishing period really starts on Labour Day weekend and continues until the first heavy fall rains arrive. Waves of different runs pass through the Strait during this time period. Photo by Chase White.
The prime coho fishing period really starts on Labour Day weekend and continues until the first heavy fall rains arrive. Waves of different runs pass through the Strait during this time period. Photo by Chase White.

However, there was always an under-appreciated second opportunity to retain coho. This occurred in July. Unfortunately, the opportunity was swamped by the effort to bag a trophy chinook. In fact, these smaller coho, ranging from three to six pounds, were relegated to box topper status or as trip savers if the chinook fishing was slow. You’d never hear anglers getting excited at the prospects of going after coho at Beechy Head or Otter Point. But the fish were there and often in good numbers. They’d followed the feed up the Strait and could often be found eastwards as far as Race Rocks or in mid-Strait waters adjacent to Victoria. By the end of July, they’d gone, leaving a gap until the end of August when the big coho fishing show started. Here’s the good news. Those coho are still there most years and, given the chinook non-retention regulations that we are apt to see again in 2020, could provide anglers with an early season hatchery coho angling opportunity.

The prime coho fishing period really starts on Labour Day weekend and continues until the first heavy fall rains arrive. Waves of different runs pass through the Strait during this time period. Sometimes the runs are predominantly wild, while at other times most are fin-clipped hatchery stocks. When the fishery moves into October, the runs tend to back up in the Strait, waiting for the rains to bring the water levels up. By now the fish are larger, including many hooked nosed northerns, the fish are still biting hard, the water is often flat, but the conditions tend to be foggy.

The coho fishery at the east end of Juan de Fuca, from Sheringham Point to Victoria, occurs from the beach right out to the international border. Anglers have to search for them. The location of the feed and the direction of the tidal current determine where the fish will be found. Conventional wisdom suggests the ebb current pushes the schools to the west and offshore, while the flood current brings them up the Strait and inshore. Generally, this makes sense as the best bites usually occur on the flood.

The coho fishery at the Port Renfrew end of the Strait starts earlier. Swiftsure Bank can be awash with coho as early as June. Their numbers build through July and August, and by September big, mature fish can be found migrating into Juan de Fuca from offshore waters. I remember releasing a spectacular coho, well over 20 pounds, at Logan Creek during a Labour Day weekend Chinook Derby. I had to release it because it was a wild fish. Had I caught it in Port San Juan, I could have legally retained it. This is an interesting point because Port Renfrew really has two distinct fisheries. The outside fishery is for passing coho stocks, and the inside fishery is for local San Juan River coho. The San Juan has a reputation for producing trophy-sized fish.

The Juan de Fuca coho fishery will not disappoint. Photo by Tom Davis.
The Juan de Fuca coho fishery will not disappoint. Photo by Tom Davis.

Coho Tactics & Gear

Tactics

The fishery is dominated by trolling because this is a searching type of fishery. Anglers start near the beach and troll at varying speeds from just above normal to three or four knots until they encounter passing schools of coho. The trick is to try to stay on those schools for as long as possible. When anglers slip off that school, they generally resume the same tack in search of another group of fish. On an outgoing tide, troll diagonally across the flow, but in the same direction as the current. This takes you into deeper water and down the Strait. The same strategy occurs on an incoming current, except the direction of travel is up the Strait and towards shore. If the trip timing is planned perfectly, you can take advantage of the tide in both directions, avoid fighting the current and cover as much ground as possible. Anglers also focus effort along the tide rips and look for actively feeding birds. Coho can be taken in Juan de Fuca from the surface to over 100 feet, but the money range is usually from 25 to 60 feet down.

Trolling is a common method of fishing for coho on the Juan de Fuca because you're searching for schools. Using hoochies and flashers, such as the ones pictured, will help bring fish to the boat. Photo by Chase White.
Trolling is a common method of fishing for coho on the Juan de Fuca because you’re searching for schools. Using hoochies and flashers, such as the ones pictured, will help bring fish to the boat. Photo by Chase White.

Gear

The gear choices are pretty standard. Small to mid-sized hoochies and spoons, or anchovies and minnows on shorter leaders behind full-sized revolving flashers are the most common setups. Artificial herring strips are also a good bet. Great primary colours include glow, UV, chartreuse, blue, green and chrome mixed with secondary colours in purple, black, pink or red. A good leader length guideline would be to use your winter chinook gear, but shorten the leaders by 10 to 15 per cent and troll up to twice as fast.

 Anchovies and minnows on shorter leaders, behind full-sized revolving flashers, is another common setup for coho. Photo by Chase White.
Anchovies and minnows on shorter leaders, behind full-sized revolving flashers, is another common setup for coho. Photo by Chase White.

The tactics and gear used at the head of Port San Juan are a bit different. This fishery is a throwback to buck-tailing days. Fishing with light rods and reels, no weight or very little weight while employing rapid course changes and using smaller spoons, baits and flies will produce fish when the coho are staged up prior to entering the river. There is also a very popular beach fishery near the bridge over the river.

Be sure to check regional regulation variations for time, area and gear restrictions that affect coho angling in the Juan de Fuca area.

Photos taken with the help of Bon Chovy Fishing Charters

Address: 1814 Mast Tower Rd., Vancouver

Phone: 604-763-5460

Email: info@bonchovy.com

Website: www.bonchovy.com