Bar Fight On The Fraser The shifting braids and rough bars of this twisted river are sizzling pick up spots for loose jade and wild summer silver
By Terry W. Sheely
East of Vancouver and short of Hope you can see the bars from the highways. Patches of promising gravel flitting between guard rails along the four-lane monotony of Trans Canada Highway 1. From aerial overlooks and osprey viewpoints on the shoulder of Highway 7 the bars look like topographical teardrops; wedges of stone and cottonwood plowed up by monster floods that split the wide river into braids and current seams, eddies and restless chop. Six boats are lined up on the bar below the high curve on Highway 7 where I sit on my heels, reading the water. Long rods are bent tight and pointing downstream. Fishermen sip coffee and beer and wait and watch. I flip a chip of busted road tar over the edge and into the downhill ferns. Bar Flies. The Fraser River is flush with road-tripping B. C. bar flies—salmon and steelhead sliding into the big easy, ducking the hard current, dodging the bad water, resting on seams in the quiet swirl where bar gravel skitters from shallow to hat floater. Bar fights on British Columbia’s Fraser River are as unique to the Northwest as they are productive, and they are very productive. Bar fishing techniques are a cross between plunking and hog lining, with room for boaters, bankees and boaters anchored to the bank. Pick a fish migration lane, anchor a lure—there are several traditional favorites—settle back and wait to get bit. Two hours either side of the tide turn is when most bar fights break out—it’s that predictable. In fact I’m counting on it. Tomorrow I’ll be sitting in a boat like those below me, swilling black coffee, re-telling old fish stories and spoiling for a bar fight. I’ve been promised a nasty one. A king to clobber. I’m packing my heavyweight Spin-n-Glos, my flat sinkers—I’m ready. In front of us are some of the largest runs and biggest salmon north of California and south of Alaska rolling upriver in the Fraser hugging the splatter of islands and gravel bars from below Mission to above Chilliwack. That’s roughly 40 miles of mainstem Fraser River water that from March through November is a conduit for hundreds of thousands of salmon and steelhead bound for dozens of major tributaries—Vedder, Harrison, Lillooet, Stave rivers, Sumas Canal and Dewdney and Nicomen sloughs, among others. Big rivers breed big fish and the Fraser is a monster flow that spawns a mix of hatchery and wild fish--60 pound chinook, coho in the 20s, chums in the high teens, sockeye by the tens of thousands and odd-year pinks by the gazillion. Add big runs of big (Thompson, Vedder and Chehalis ) steelhead and an amazing white sturgeon catch-and-release fishery and you begin to get an idea of just how versatile and productive this southern BC river can be. The Fraser’s seasonal fishing calendar starts with early summer run chinook, followed by up to 20 million sockeye salmon, then August pinks (odd year pink runs are massive reaching up to 28 million salmon.) Pushing the pinks upriver is a second run of kings. This run of fall kings is often a catch and release fishery targeting fish over 40 pounds. After the sockeye, pinks and kings are in the river the coho and chum salmon arrive. And every of those fish will pass a bar. The Lower Fraser River bar fishery is just an hour from the population centers near Vancouver, and about a two hour drive from Seattle, which puts it within comfortable trailering range for private boats. Ramps and beach launches, campgrounds, RV sites and motels are scattered along the river from Mission to Chilliwack. Trans Canada Hwy 1 follows the south bank, and Hwy. 7 parallels the north. When bar fishing is hot, expect crowds at the ramps, but there’s a lot of fishing room on this big river. For local info, directions, recommendations and current hot spots I’d recommend contacting Fred's Custom Tackle Fishing Adventures, 5580 Vedder Road, in Chilliwack, 604-858-7344. They keep track. Professional fishing guides are a sensible option, especially for first-timers unfamiliar with this wide river and its complex fish patterns. Two of the biggest operate at opposite ends of the prime bar fishing zone. Vic Carrao runs STS Guiding Services (www.guidebc.com) out of Mission and upriver Tony Nootebos operates Harrison Bay Guided Services, (www.harrisonbay.com) which is based in Harrison Hot Springs just outside of Chilliwack. Both run more than half-a-dozen guide boats on the Fraser, both target bar fishing for salmon, both offer solid how-to advice, and both are in love with the Fraser’s bright, slab-sided chinook, Like all Northwest rivers the Fraser is beset by political management, net fisheries, and up and down ocean returns. Chinook, especially, have been hard hit in recent years. But still, the Fraser is one of the finest big fish, big run bets in the Northwest. The first runs of chinook nose into the Fraser in March and May 1 when salmon season opens the river is plugged with fish at all the popular bar spots, according to the guides “Prime time for chinook bar fishing is June15-October 15th,” according to Nootebos, and “we continue to bar fish right through October for chinook, pinks, coho and chum salmon,” adding, “Some of our best chinook fishing is from Aug.20th to Sept.20th.” Carrao tells me that downriver he gets into solid summer chinook in June, and points out that, many of the rivers that flow into the Fraser have their own distinct stocks of chinook that vary in size and genetics and arrive at different times. “The average (summer chinook) is between 18 -25 pounds with good numbers of kings in the 25 to 35 pound range. The fall run brings in the biggest fish,” he said, including enough 40 to 60 pounders to get the heart pounding on every hook up. Bar fishing isn’t brain surgery, but it has its quirks. According to Carrao, “bar fishing is simple. Find yourself a nice gravel or sand bar, make sure you have a lawn chair, umbrella for rain or shade a cooler with lunch and beverages. Standard Fraser bar tackle starts with a medium to medium-heavy rod, 10 to 12 foot, with a line rating of 12-30 pounds, capable of hurling up to 20 ounces of sinker lead. Some anglers favor large spinning /surf rods. Local favorites, Carrao said, are Shimano 12-foot surf rods and 11 to 13 foot Shakespeare Ugly Stiks. Popular with local level-wind disciples are 11-foot Abu Garcia Concord and 11-foot Trophy Fraser River King. Reels should be capable of holding a minimum of 200 yards of 25 pound test. The basic bar rigging is built around a 6 or 8-inch spreader bar attached to the mainline, a piece of 6 inch mono tied to the bottom with a snap swivel attached to a piece of lead. Attached to the spreader bar is a leader 36 to 40 inches ending in a No 2, No. 0, or No. 00 winged Spin-n-Glo. According to Carrao, “this rigging is effective in most areas of the Fraser although anglers in the lower river below Mission bridge make some slight changes to the bar rig and most prefer to use cured salmon roe with or without a Spin-n-Glo. Nootebos said his guides, “typically use large Spin-n-Glos in size 0 or 2 and run them off of a spreader bar. Recently, though we have been hanging the Gibbs Tee Spoon under the same type of rig with great results. We often add scents to the lures for added attraction, when allowed.” “I'm not really sure who began using Spin-n-Glos on the Fraser,” Carrao said, “but over the years certain color patterns have been developed that produce the best results. Colors depend on the targeted species; over the years I have found that one color will out produce another, time and time again. Water clarity does play a role but not as much as you would think. Only when visibility is at its poorest (do) I change over to darker colors. “If you were to survey 10 avid steelhead anglers for their number one lure you would probably get 10 different answers. If you were to survey 10 avid Fraser River Bar fishermen for their favorite color of lure you would get two answers—both Spin-n-Glos. “Don't leave home without a red cap/chrome and green cap /chrome. These two colors are by far the most consistent producers on the Fraser for early chinook. When the water clarity becomes poorest I like to use the same lures but with some black added to either the wings or a black scale added to the body. Carrao also has a small bag of guide tricks to put an edge on his bar techniques. “Spin-n-Glo's come with 2 styles of wings, Mylar and rubber, Mylar being the more popular of the two. Most anglers feel it's the vibration (of the wings) combined with the color that attracts the aggressive hits from migrating salmon. There are two tricks that I have learned that increase the turbulence and vibration of the Spin-n-Glo. The first one is placing a hole in one of the wings with a hole punch. It puts the Spin-n-Glo off balance, creating more vibration. The second trick is to drill the line hole larger and on a slight angle which throws the lure off balance creating more turbulence or vibration.” The rigs are pinned to the bottom by two styles of lead weights, according to Carrao, pyramid and wedge. “I prefer wedge weights for gravel bottoms and pyramid for a sand bottom,” the guide said. Weights vary by current speeds, usually from 12 to 20 ounces. Where you cast is critical, according to both guides. “Most of the popular bars fished for chinook will have what I call a travel lane,” Carrao said, which shifts at various water levels. It’s critical to find the lane the fish are migrating in. If you’re on a bar without other anglers, change casting distance and weight every couple of hours until you hit a fish, then take note on the water level, current rate, amount of weight and how far you cast. And do it again. “Cast the lure, set the rod into a holder and wait. Clip on a cow bell and go look for agates or jade. We get a lot of that on these bars,” Carrao said. Most boat fishermen anchor up along the offshore bars (where there’s no conflict with bank fishermen) but basically the fishing technique is the same. “Plunking from the boat is much the same as sitting on the bar and fishing, Carrao says. “The rods can be a bit lighter than a shore rod as you don't need to cast as far. Bar fishing isn’t the only way to smack a summer or fall chinook in the Fraser. Casting and trolling is very productive in the creek mouths. Long-time Fraser fishers favor casting Gibbs Kitimat and Gibbs Koho spoons in sizes 45 and 55, targeting confluences where tributary water is clearer. Fraser fish, Carrao says, rest and clean out the Fraser silt from their gills in these clear-water hot spots. “I prefer to cast the Gibbs Kit-A-Mat's or Koho spoons (more than) float fishing as it's much more effective for covering deeper and larger bodies of water. Locate the area where the deeper water begins, cast to that point and allow it to sink to the bottom, then retrieve with a slow consistent retrieve across the current. Each cast should be 1 to 2 feet further towards the back of the run, pool or slot, remember to use the current to your advantage by allowing the lure to sink. If you are fishing fast water the current will add lure action and you may want to slow the retrieve even more,” he advises. One distinct chinook troll fishery is at the confluence of the Sumas Canal where it meets the Fraser Rivers main flow approximately 5 miles above Mission. The Vedder River, a widely known big king river, flows into the Sumas Canal and spills clear water into the Fraser’s silted water--especially during the spring king fishery. “Where these to rivers meet can be a productive place to catch chinook,” Carrao points out. The most productive lures are the Gibbs Kit-A- Mat and Koho spoons in sizes 45, 55 and 65. The depth is only 5 to 10 feet so the troll speed will determine size of lure. I would recommend carrying a variety of colors in the No. 35 to 55 for casting and 45 to 65 for trolling in either a Kit-A-Mat or Koho spoon” Carrao says. Another popular troll lure is the Gibbs Tee Spoon, Carrao says, recommending blade lengths from 1 in to 3 1/4 inch. These are light spoons for trolling the shallows at the Sumas mouth. Tides are important for bar fishermen in the lower Fraser below Chilliwack. According to the guide services, salmon ride the incoming tide until the tide changes, then stall out and rest in slack water. Best tides are two hours before high slack and for an hour or so after the high slack. Carrao isn’t shy about sharing good spots. “The Fraser itself offers great November fishing. Bar fishing with bait in the lower river below Mission is excellent for coho, jacks and chum in late October and November, and most anglers prefer to use cured salmon roe. They set up the same as in the early season, with a spreader bar, weight and bait. Duncan Bar and Two Bit Bar, both off the Glen Valley River Road, offer excellent fishing for coho,” he points out Just above Mission there are several productive sand bars that are fished heavily mostly by local anglers. Walters Street Bar, Slaughter House Bar and Dewdney Park Bar are productive coho bars in November. Most salmon angling between Nicomen and Chilliwack is from boats. Strawberry Island is one of the only shore accessible bars in this area, according to the guide. Sumas Canal, Up Down Bar, Bowman's Bar and Henderson's Bar are all boat access. Up Down, Bowman's and Henderson's offer some of the best bar fishing the on the Fraser. In November it’s a prime bar for late coho, fall chinook, chum and Thompson River steelhead. The action can be furious, but; retention is limited so it's not a great fishery for those looking to fill the freezer,” Carrao admits.
“It's a great way to wind down the salmon season” the guide smiles, “standing over a hot fire sipping some warm brandy, I mean hot chocolate while telling stories of the big one that got away.” But that’s just bar talk.
Trip Details When: Salmon slide past Fraser River bars from May through November. Peak of the kings is June 15-October 15. The leading edge of summer kings moves into the Fraser in March, and since the season doesn’t open until May 1 there are large numbers of kings already bellied up to the bars. A second run of kings arrives in August, along with pinks and sockeye. In September coho and chums and the first early Thompson, Chehalis and Vedder river steelhead show. Good salmon fishing generally runs through November.
Where: Bar fishing is concentrated from the mouth of the Pitt River and upstream past the mouth of the Harrison River. Chilliwack is considered the center of the bar fishing universe, but there’s excellent spots in the Mission area and in between. You won’t go wrong launching at Mission and running upriver or at Chilliwack and coming down.
Access: Ramps and gravel bar launches along both banks at Mission and Chilliwack. Highway 7 parallels the north bank, TransCanada Hwy. 1 the south bank. Multiple RV parks, campgrounds, motels. The small ramp at the mouth of the Sumas Channel (Vedder River) adjacent to Hwy. 1 centers the bar fishery. North of Chilliwack is Island 22 a large gravel bar launch on west side of Young Road.
Charters and Guides: Lots of guides work bar fishing. Three of the largest services are: Vic Carrao’s STS Guiding Service in Mission, 604 671- 3474, www.guidebc.com; Tony Nootebos’, Harrison Bay Guided Services, Harrison Hot Springs. 604-796-3345, www.harrisonbay.com and Fred's Custom Tackle Fishing Adventures, 5580 Vedder Road, Chilliwack, 604-858-7344, www.freds-bc.com.
Best Season: Salmon runs begin in March and continue into November. The Fraser’s two chinook runs overlap in mid-summer. Best bar fishing for kings is June 15-October 15. September offers a full slate of possibilities: kings, sockeye, pinks, and early returns of coho, chums and steelhead.
Where To Stay: Chilliwack C of C Travel Info. Center,1-800-567-9535 or 604-858-8121 for a list of motels, hotels, RV parks, campgrounds and a map of the Chilliwack area. STS works with Fraserview Anglers Retreat, and Above & Beyond Anglers Retreat in Mission. Harrison Guided Services is located in Harrison Hot Spring Resort www.harisonresort.com, 1-800-663-2266.
Rods, Reels and Lines: Medium to medium-heavy rod, 10 to 12 foot rods, fast tips, rated for 12-30 pound test, capable of casting 8 to 20 ounces of sinker lead. Some anglers favor large spinning /surf rods. Local favorites Shimano 12-foot surf rods and 11 to 13 foot Shakespeare Ugly Stiks. Level-wind rods are 11-foot Abu Garcia Concord and 11-foot Trophy Fraser River King. Reels with a minimum of 200 yards of 25-pound Tuf Line or similar super braid, 30-lb. fluorocarbon leader material. Guides supply all gear.
Lures and Terminal Gear: Pyramid or flat sinkers 8 to 20 oz., three-way swivels, barrel swivels, 6 or 8-inch spreader bar that knots to the mainline, a piece of 6 inch mono tied to the bottom with a snap swivel connecting sinker lead. To the top of the spreader tie in 30-lb. fluorocarbon leader 36 to 40 inches. Favorite Fraser bar lures are No 2, No. 0, or No. 00 winged Spin-n-Glo, red cap/chrome and green cap /chrome. Cured salmon roe sometimes added to Spin-n-Glo or fished alone without bobber. Thin blade spoons like the Gibbs Tee Spoon may be substituted for the Spin-n-Glo. For trolling or casting, Gibbs Kit-A- Mat and Koho spoons in sizes 45, 55 and 65 in a variety of colors.
Accessories: Rain gear, polarized sunglasses, broad bill hat, sturdy rod holder/stake for gravel bar rig, Thermos, hot soup, good chair.
Salmon Limits: Salmon closures are possible from late August to Mid-October if run sizes falter. Chinook limit is 4 per day, one over 50 cm, Coho are legal to keep 2 hatchery fish per day from mid-October to Dec. 31, , chums 2 per day, pinks and sockeye limits and seasons are set just before the fisheries in late summer. Fishing licenses are available at sporting goods dealers.