Vancouver, British Columbia
Where Upscale Urbanity and Lions Gate Lager
Mountain Glaciers, Wild-Eyed Fish Guides,
Heli-Hopping-Fly Guys, Cuban Cigars
Rivers of Salmon, Trout and Steelhead
Originally published in July-August 2010 Northwest Flyfishing magazine
Vancouver, British Columbia
By Terry W. Sheely
Still wobbly but shaking off the golden hangover of Winter Olympics ‘10 Vancouver is a city ready to return to its sea-to-mountain roots, where fly fishermen scream like little girls and splash downstream following bulging
wakes, palming reels leaking fat line, then celebrate with legal Cubans, clutches of fresh oysters and a rugby scrum.
Where else, eh?
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada is an urban anomaly, a seething metro area of 2.1 million people who
couldn’t possibly be more ethnically and culturally diverse, divided by possibly the richest anadromous fish river in the country, backed into the spectacular and uncivilized Coast Range mountains and the eastern lip of the Pacific Ocean.
With winter steelhead running in just about every stream and river within an hour’s drive time, Fish Camp
Vancouver is an urbane metropolitan jump-off with all of the gravy. It’s just one short step away from some
of the finest adventure and fly fishing in North America; river boats and heli-hops, rip tides and wolf Chilliwack
steelhead and Pitt River trout.
Vancouver is a GoreTex town in a Brioni suit.
And it doesn’t know it.
The Vancouver city web site lists 22 outdoor activities from lacrosse to lawn bowling, rugby to ice rinks but not one mention of fishing--fly or otherwise. Twenty-two, coincidentally, is also the number of fishing guides at BC Sportfishing Group, just east of town, has at the ready to put on the water for steelhead, trout, salmon and sturgeon.
That the city is a glut of ambrosia indulgences is a fine sweetener that most fly fishermen find to be well merited and perfectly acceptable.
We fishers, after all, work long hours in the hope of a faint tug, fall into unforgiving chill waters, skitter down mud-slickened banks, paint our faces and hands with sunscreen, endure windburn, snow, sleet, rain and travel, spend money like Olympians and have a damn fine time at it.
So who is to say that we don’t deserve to draw a Lions Gate Lager at the Steamworks in Gastown, wallow in oyster sweetness at Joe Fortes Seafood & Chop House, watch the drunken spotprawns wobble at Kirin Seafood,
then put our feet on the railing at Granville Island, hang a blue cloud of Havana in the evening air and weigh tomorrow’s options: A ferry ride to Cowichan River brown trout, coho in the Vedder or doubling back for another helping of Chehalis River steelhead. Maybe a heli-ride for mountain trout. Who’s to say?
As if to validate its personification as rugged outdoor Mecca this ornate international city, matriarch of Robson
Street’s diamond-and-fur farms, actually offers metropolitan fishing on bus lines no less. But to be fair the transit water falls well short of the opportunities that can be found an hour or so in any direction but south.
When Vancouver is promoted to Fish Camp, it becomes a base for fly-fishing exploration without peer. No
other urban area has so much, so close.
While there is a dearth of summer steelhead, the area is well endowed with late winter steelhead rivers, big runs of summer and fall salmon and underpublicized trout and Dolly Varden fisheries that can be absolutely unbelievable.
In the city, saltwater boats are available at the marinas to be day-chartered for chinook, coho, pinks and chum salmon still bright and aggressive before they plow upriver into Fraser River. Kayak rentals will thread into sea-run cutthroat and salmon water in Indian Arm, and small lakes dot the cityscape with planted trout or panfish. Bank casters congregate with September coho and November steelhead bound for the Capilano and Fraser rivers, and some try for steelhead and salmon just east of the north end of Second Narrows bridge.
If you absolutely need a break from fishing, there’s world-famous Stanley Park and aquarium, 184 tennis courts, 11 beaches, three urban golf courses, opera, ballet, rock climbing at Squamish Chief, SCUBA dives at Whytecliff Park out at Horseshoe Bay, Zodiak romps to gawk at whales, flightseeing, Granville Island’s eclectic market and…..well, you get the idea. If you want it, it’s somewhere in Fish Camp Vancouver. Check the tourism website.
To research urban angling, I’d suggest talking to someone behind the counter at Berry’s Bait and Tackle on the
West Minster Highway. Don’t let the name fool you, this place is heavy into fly stuff, bulges with local info and is always worth the stop.
For wandering fishermen, there are three optional routes from Fish Camp Vancouver and two of three arrive at
quality fly fisheries within an hour’s drive. The third involves the steelhead, salmon and trout rivers flowing off the east side of Vancouver Island. Those fisheries, however, start with a ferry ride from North Vancouver’s Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo which is really pushing a day trip.
In just about every river in the Fraser Valley, and there are many, winter steelhead are on the bite from late December through April and typically some of the best fly fishing is reserved for April and May when rivers warm a bit, late chromers arrive and fish become more active..
The most popular fish route is Trans Canada Highway 1, four lanes that run east to Mission, Chilliwack, and Harrison Hot Springs, all towns with dynamic fly fishing river and lake opportunities for trout, steelhead and salmon and monster white sturgeon. Although to succeed at sturgeon will mean exchanging the fly rod for a stout piece of conventional tackle designed for the task.
Beyond Hope, the Trans Canada and Coquihalla highways push north toward Spences' Bridge on the Thompson
River with its legendary September-November catch-and-release steelheading. These fish come straight up the Fraser through Vancouver. A bit farther at 200 to 250 miles from Vancouver thru spectacular Fraser Canyon and the Thompson River Valley is the justifiably famous scattering of Kamloops trout lakes surrounding Merritt and Kamloops.
The second and less traveled route is Highway 99 north toward Squamish on the highway pounded flat by Olympians and skiers bound for Whistler.
Not a month turns in this neighborhood that doesn’t offer a fish that will give a fly a tug. Winter weather permitting, sturgeon, trout and Dolly Varden can be picked at all year, bridge fisheries between seasonal runs of anadromous salmon and steelhead that surge into the Fraser River system.
The first salmon, big aggressive spring chinook arrive in April just as winter steelheading is winding down. The general peak for river salmon is August-November, and for winter steelhead January to April. In the Fraser
between Harrison and Mission, August offers the best chance of finding that golden needle in 1,000 miles of
river: that 20+ pound summer-run steelhead sniffing its way up the Fraser to the Thompson River. The odds are slim, but these big summer-runs come straight up the Fraser and can be caught when they take a break at the mouths of clear-running tributary streams, like the Harrison and Vedder, or resting in the lee of Fraser River gravel bars and islands.
Here’s a rundown to put in the One-Of-These-Days file under Fish Camp Vancouver.
People who should know believe the Pitt River is the quietest fly fishing secret in the Northwest and probably British Columbia and they could be right. The river flows out of rugged Garabaldi Park southeast of Whistler
through steep roadless mountains and into Pitt Lake which eases into the Fraser near Mission an hour up Hwy. 1 from Fish Camp Vancouver. Above the lake, the river cuts through roadless mountains limiting access to boat or floatplane which when added to the catch-and-release policy puts a serious dent in fishing pressure.
The Pitt is a glacial river that supports every anadromous fish in B.C. including outrageously heavy bull trout. They average three to five pounds, the grinners are 10 and 15. Fly fishing in the Pitt is understood to be good to excellent year round for rainbow, cutthroat and bull trout contingent upon reasonable water clarity.
The river produces winter steelhead from January through May and rainbow and cutthroat are most aggressive in August and September when gorging on sockeye eggs. Steelhead, along with everything else, are a wet fly show. Down deep and dirty. Pattern colors vary with every change in water color. The upper river tends to peak for the fly between March and mid-May.
Sockeye hit the Pitt in August, followed by coho in October and a strong chum salmon run. Most regional fly fishing outfitters, and there are many, put the Pitt on their calendars during peak fishing seasons.
Hot flies shift with the season and the species, but egg patterns are required in the late summer, spring is for alevin wets and fall pattern boxes need egg patterns, a heavy load of salmon attractor patterns and big dark streamers that will be eaten by sculpin-crunching bull trout. Both single-hand and Spey rods are comfortable.
This is where hardball is played for steelhead and salmon in southern B.C. Just an hour east of Vancouver on Hwy. 1 near the city of Chilliwack this river attracts more fishing pressure than any river in the region, possibly the province, then wads those assorted fishing styles together in a crazy chaos of flies, floats, bait and hardware. It’s a touchy recipe that has been known to produce jail time and headlines. And it’s worth it. The
river is medium size, beautiful, drains a monstrous chunk of southern BC, swings from quick and wadeable to
slow and boatable, produces staggeringly huge steelhead and chinook along with normal-size coho, resident trout and Dolly Varden.
It’s a rare day when the river doesn’t hide something big willing to pull back.
For non-resident clarification, the Vedder-Chilliwack is one single river, a hyphenated marriage, not two separate streams. The river changes names at the Vedder Street Bridge just down the street from Fred’s Custom Tackle, on the south side of the city of Chilliwack Downriver from the bridge the river is the Vedder; above the bridge the Chilliwack. Mostly it’s called the Vedder. It covers roughly 23 miles of fishing water, and
the big guns are winter steelhead, summer chinook and October coho.
Winter steelhead start trickling in late November with a big rush in December, more in January and continue into May. Winter steelhead begin tapering off as the first June run of summer kings arrives. These are mostly "white kings,” with a fondness for baits and floats and difficult, though not impossible, to bring to the fly. A second and later run of steelhead and early run of fall kings often overlap the summer chinook fishery. The mélange is completed in October when coho join the kings and steelhead.
These coho are aggressive and great on the swung fly or dredging runs with heavy sinktips. Coho peak in late October but a few brights will stay in the mix until early December which is when winter steelheading starts and the cycle repeats.
The Vedder’s salmon and steelhead runs are heavily enhanced with hatchery plants so thick that it’s easy to overlook the river’s native rainbow, cutthroat, sea-run cutts, Dolly Varden and whitefish all great sport on six-weights with small nymphs, beadheads, egg patterns and fry streamers. Fred’s at the bridge keeps track of hot patterns.
Typically, steelhead and salmon rush up the slow water until hitting pools near the ends of Wilson and Lickman roads. No double-hauling here, these fish hold tight to the banks in pockets and slots. Paved roads follow the entire fishing portion of the river. Good boat launch off Hwy. 1 for the lower sections.
January steelhead, July chinook and mid-October coho.
One of the region’s unsungs, the Harrison is a short, deep tree-lined flow between Harrison Lake and the Fraser
River near Harrison Hot Springs. Two separate hatcheries pull steelhead and salmon into the Harrison and it’s been known to put out 8-pound cutthroat. It’s a wonderful fly stream with a gentle, slough-like flow with resident trout and dolly’s punctuated by the late summer and fall runs of steelhead and salmon passing through to the hatchery at Chehalis River or up Harrison Lake to the remote Lillooet River.
The cold-water bubble at the Harrison’s mouth often attracts Thompson River summer-runs taking a break from the Fraser migration. And if you see a beast in the window-pane water, relax, it’s probably a sturgeon. Best fished from small boats and despite sporadic midge and mayfly hatches it’s entirely a wet fly show.
A guide with a jet boat is needed to fish this remote 90 mile long rough-and-tumble beauty. The river originates on Lillooet Glacier in the Coast Mountains near Whistler. It’s adventure fishing, roadless, unfished, full of big bull trout, exquisitely spotted rainbows and aggressive cutthroats. The river flows into the north end of Harrison Lake some 40 miles north of Harrison Hot Springs. It’s an ideal fly rod river for swinging alevin, salmon fry, egg and big sculpin patterns. The river fishes best in March, April and early May before
summer glacier melt discolors the water. Unfortunately, most of the salmon and steelhead hit when the river is high and dark with glacial silt, but their spawn keeps the big resident char and trout fat and aggressive.
Another solid winter steelhead river, the Chehalis is a steep-walled generally clear, quick little river that feeds into Harrison River north of Chilliwack. Several pluses; the big hatchery and public access on Morris Valley
Road, decent road and bank access and a campground. It’s a predictably good producer, one of the best rivers to fish without a guide, and the right size for single-handed fly rods. Chehalis winter steelhead are some of the earliest to arrive in the Chilliwack area, with a big push hitting in November. The fish are there all winter and March and April can be very good just before runoff hits. Spring flips the aggression switch which is a prime for
fly fishing. On the lower end is a camping area that fronts prime steelhead water. The Chehalis also has
summer kings, fall coho, pinks and later chum. Bring waders and staff.
This is a local stream in the Mission area with a fair run of extremely late winter steelhead arriving in February and March. The March fishery, in fact, can be very good for fly fishing, the winter-runs are aggressive the water
in good pre-runoff shape. Don’t be surprised to find a few cutthroats here, as well.
Less known, less fished and therefore attractive destinations are several rivers north of Vanvcouver, about halfway to Whistler. One of the best is the Squamish River, a big glacier stream of late (February to May) running winter steelhead, plus chinook, coho, chum and pinks. The steelhead, coho and chum salmon are aggressive tend to hold in wide, shallow riffles and offer premium fly-fishing opportunities. When the pinks are in this river can be a hoot in late summer. In addition to the seasonal anadromous you’ll find Dolly Varden,
cutts and a fewrainbow trout.
In addition to the main river the Squamish has four main tributaries well worth fishing: the Elaho, the Ashlu, the Cheakamus and the Mamquam. According to local fly fishermen very few steelhead are seen before the end of February and the big push doesn't arrive until April. The most popular fishing areas on the Squamish are above and below Cheakamus River confluence.
The Cheakamus is a tributary into the Squamish, small water and can be flat-out excellent for spring steelheading. Most of the smaller rivers in the Squamish area catch late winter-spring runs of steelhead that go largely unnoticed. If you like prospecting for silver, this is the area. Try not to hook a skier on the backcast.
Fish Camp Vancouver:
Local Intel: B.C. Tourism, http://www.hellobc.com;
Vancouver Tourism/Visitor Centers, www.hellobc.com/en-CA/VisitorCentres/Vancouver
Harrison Hot Springs Resort, 337 rooms. Five mineral hot spring pools, massage, steam, sauna, tennis courts, and trails. BC Sportfishing Group operates on the first floor with 22 guides (fly and conventional) for salmon, steelhead, trout and sturgeon.
Click the mouse to: www.fishingwithrod.com/fishing_report/lower_mainland and check out Rod Hsu’s timely fishing reports on lower mainland rivers. This guy keeps track of steelheading.
It ain’t fly-fishing but the Fraser’s mother lode of white sturgeon is a catch-and-release option that needs to be tried at least once. Some of these behemoths reach 11 feet. Excellent in the fall when sturgeon gorge on salmon casualties. Specialized sturgeon guides and outfitters are everywhere and they all provide tackle. Chilliwack’s Island 22 access is in the heart of the action.
Less sensible than fly-fishing or sturgeon encounters, but an alternative to daytime TV.
Try Langara Golf Course (www.vancouverparks.ca), a redeveloped par-71 course with clubhouse and jogging trails; Fraserview Golf Course), a 225-acre par-72 course overlooking the Fraser River; and the University Golf Club (www.universitygolf.com), a par-72 course at the University of British Columbia.
Outside the city, the par-72 Furry Creek Golf Course (www.golfbc.com) is near Britannia Beach along the
Sea-to-Sky Highway. The surroundings are worth the putt, steep mountains rising straight from the water's edge.
Cycling might be the best way to explore the city year-round. TransLink (www.translink.bc.ca) publishes the Greater Vancouver Cycling Map & Guide. Line up two-wheel rentals at: Spokes Bicycle Rental www.spokesbicyclerentals.com).
Silly to fight the wretched traffic. This city has a workable transit system of buses, trains, streetcars. Check it out at olympichostcity.vancouver.ca/gettingaround/publictransit
Urban clamor or fjord tranquility; both can be seen over the pointy bow of rental kayaks. One heads up the placid waters of False Creek flanked by the cityscape of Yaletown and Granville Island.
The other launches at North Shore's Deep Cove for Indian Arm, a tree-lined, finger-shaped fjord that bends north for 19 miles into the mountains. Rentals and tour operators at Ecomarine Ocean Kayak Centre www.ecomarine.com) and
Deep Cove Canoe and Kayak Centre
Scuba divers get a face-full of wolf eels and large Pacific octopus. Spectacular marine dive areas. Gear and info at the Granville Market dive shops. Great dive sites at Cates Park in Deep Cove on the North Shore and Whytecliff Park near the North Shore's Horseshoe Bay.
One-hour along the Sea-to-Sky Highway is Squamish Chief a techie rock climber's dream with multiple routes up granite face.
Put on a lifejacket and board one of the high-speed Zodiac-style boats at West Vancouver's Sewell's Marina
(www.sewellsmarina.com) for up-close views of gray whales, maybe an orca, sea birds and seals.
Wildlife tour with a First Nations guide from Deep Cove with Takaya Tours
Berry's Bait & Tackle Ltd: 14651 Westminster Highway, Richmond,
www.berrysbait.com Don’t let the name throw you, this place is heavy into cool fly stuff, fishing know-how and it’s just north of the Blaine truck-route border crossing. Downtown Vancouver, look up
Michael & Young Flyfishing Supplies Inc,
1245 W Broadway, 604-639-2278
Take a salmon break from steelheading and stop by North Vancouver's Capilano Salmon Hatchery to oooh and ahhh at the returning slabs. Plenty of eagles.
Sure, we know you’re here for the steelheading, but if you want to pack home a fresh fillet you might think about a saltwater charter. Wads of coho, chum, kings, pinks and maybe sockeye pile into Vancouver streams and the Fraser River in late summer and early fall.Try
Bites-On Salmon Charters (www.bites-on.com) for fully guided fishing from downtown, out to English Bay, Howe Sound and the Strait of Georgia. ), or
Sunwolf Outdoor Centre
Fred’s Custom Tackle in Chilliwack,
STS Guiding Services
Silversides Fishing Adventures,
Fraser Valley Angling Guides Association
BC Sportfishing Group,
Custom River Fishing w
BC Fly Fisher Guiding Company
Valley Fishing Guides Ltd.
Squamish & Whistler Fly Fishing Guide Service Brackendale,
It would be derelict to book a trip to Vancouver and not take advantage of the jaw-dropping viewpoints from a couple of thousand feet high in a float plane over the Coast Range glaciers, inlets and river valleys. Sweeping vistas of the city, waterfront, mountains and forest. Vancouver has one of the largest networks of floatplane routes in the world. "Flightseeing" excursions from the city are offered by Harbour Air Seaplanes
West Coast Air
Fly into Vancouver International Airport, grab the shuttle to the South Terminal, and just try to ignore the monstrous papier-mâché floatplane and mounts of staggeringly-proportioned steelhead and salmon. This is the jump-off for fly-ins to northern fish lodges, camps and adventures.
Where else will you see a decent cricket game, curling, lawn bowling and rugby? Traditional English-style pitch and lawn bowling in Stanley Park;
rugby (www.bcrugby.com); and curling, at the Vancouver Curling Club
Steelheading, by comparison, almost seems sensible, eh!
This city is into stylish food. Best pick up free copies of Eat Magazine and City Food for reviews, menus and recommendations. The city has a smorgasbord of restaurant diversity and the Tourism Vancouver website (www.tourismvancouver.com) has a searchable database.
Vancouver can be divided into dining areas. Downtown Robson Street alone has more than 50 restaurants ranging from Korean noodle houses to super-chic hangouts; Yaletown is where the “beautiful people” come to feed at the hippest eateries; Kitsilano is for vegetarian haunts, quirky coffee houses and fine dining.
Mid-priced restaurants line Denman and Davie Streets, and Broadway Street has almost every type of restaurant the city has to offer. Commercial Drive favors independent coffee bars and diverse ethnic eateries. South Main (SoMa area) is lined with small, eclectic joints. Granville Island brags up fine dining, and plop-down eateries. Concoct meals by cherry-picking the fresh veggies, deli meats, soups, fruits, sweets, breads and questionables in the incredible Granville open market.
Gottatry geoduck at Sun Sui Wah Seafood (www.sunsuiwah.com) and Blue Water Cafe and Raw Bar www.bluewatercafe.net). Salmon jerky at Granville Island Public Market (www.granvilleisland.com) and Salmon Village (www.salmonvillage.com). B.C. rolls at Tojo's Restaurant (www.tojos.com), and
alder-grilled salmon Aqua Riva Restaurant & Bar (www.aquariva.com).
Hot smoked salmon candy is featured at Salmon House on the Hill (www.salmonhouse.com) and Granville Island Public Market (www.granvilleisland.com), and watch the drunken live spotprawns wobble at Kirin Seafood (www.kirinrestaurant.com). Can’t belly up to seafood without an oyster gulp at Joe Fortes Seafood & Chop House (www.joefortes.ca), Blue Water Café & Raw Bar (www.bluewatercafe.net) or C Restaurant (www.crestaurant.com), and of course Dungeness crab at C Restaurant (www.crestaurant.com).
Perfect for toasting steelhead and re-arguing Olympic hockey finals. Doesn’t get any more Vancouver than Lions Gate Lager at Steamworks in Gastown, or maybe the odd flavors of chocolate-y Pelican Bay Brown and hibiscus-blended Jamaican Lager on the patio at Dockside Brewing Company in Granville Island Hotel. The city’s senior brewpub Yaletown Brewing Company’s signature Spicy Hills Special Wheat Hefeweizen or the nutty Downtown Brown or R&B Brewings infamous Icehole lager. More info go to www.justhereforthebeer.com
Fly Fishing British Columbia, 15 expert authors; Fly Patterns of British Columbia, Art Lingren; Vancouver Island Fishing Guide, D. C. Reid, Famous B.C. Fly-Fishing Waters, Art Lingren;
Vancouver area Fast Facts
Southside of Chilliwack this is the red-hot steelhead-salmon river in the region year-round, tops Sept.-Dec. with huge crowds and huge runs of steelhead, chinook, coho and assorted others. Miles of bank access.
Super fly river for fall & spring steelhead, dollies, and trout in roadless mountains just east of Vancouver.
Outfitters available and advised for expertise and boat access.
Big brawling centerpiece of the Fraser Valley, tough on the fly but fishable on the swing, especially from gravel bars and islands in the braids 20 minutes to an hour east of Vancouver. Bring a boat.
Access and timing are everything at this remote river at the head of Harrison Lake. Best in early spring—April—before runoff sours the water for memorable Dolly Varden, rainbow and cutthroat. Try the mouth for fall salmon and spring steelhead.
Go north an hour and get away from the crowds on the way to Whistler. This is just one of several underfished spring steelhead rivers that nudge the highway. Wade hard and swing harder. Lots of braids and runs. Major tribs are Elaho, the Ashlu, Cheakamus and the Mamquam. Don’t bother with steelhead until February and April is tops. Give coho and sea-run cutts a shot in October-November.
Park a boat at the confluence with the Fraser in late August and September and hope you drop a magnum leech on the nose of Thompson River behemoth taking a time-out on the migration to re-energize in the Harrison’s cold water.