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Fishing the Lower Fraser River, BC
Article & photos by Ian Forbes


Fishing Guides & Accommodations | Access | History
Sturgeon | Chinook Salmon | Sockeye Salmon | Coho Salmon | Chum Salmon | Pink Salmon | Steehead | Cutthroat Trout | Dolly Varden & Bull Trout

My 17 foot Clipper canoe was dancing like a dry leaf on the deceptively fast current of the Fraser River. I had been dropped off in Hope with enough supplies to last a few days and I was paddling down to Haney, a distance of about 80 miles. Butterflies were dancing in my stomach from nervousness because the Fraser is not a river to take liberties with. Lives are lost every year due to a momentary lack of respect. I was by myself, and if I made any mistakes it could prove fatal. There was no back-up support and nobody would know where to look for the body. The main purpose of my trip was to get a feeling of what Simon Fraser must have felt like in 1808 when he broke out of the treacherous canyon and paddled into the broad river valley of what we now call the "Lower Mainland". Of course, I also had other things on my mind.

The Fraser River is a first class angler's destination. Its secrets are slowly being learned by a bunch of dedicated fishermen. Five of the six Pacific salmon species spawn in the Fraser River and its tributaries. Resident rainbow trout, and its big cousin the ocean going steelhead swim its silty waters. And, the gypsy like cutthroat trout are here, there and everywhere. Fishing for sturgeon is gaining a world wide following and guides are doing a steady business. Recent catch and release regulations are having good results in preserving these prehistoric monsters.

I wasn't thinking of sturgeon while I was in my canoe though, I was too busy trying to read the river from above. I had everything in waterproof bags and I was wearing a life jacket, but I didn't want to make the mistake of getting pushed into a sweeper along the shore or get crunched onto a submerged gravel bar. A flipped canoe and lost equipment puts a damper on any trip. The flat surface of the Fraser belies its treacherous current and the silty water hides submerged dangers. A buried stump or conflicting currents can easily cause a canoe to suddenly veer sharply to one side and flip an unwary paddler into the river. Wind is also a factor, especially through the section known as "Flood", where the Fraser Valley compresses into the mountains and acts like a wind funnel. A light breeze near Abbotsford might be a roaring gale at Flood, and wind blowing against a strong current always creates problems. The best plan is to stay on the inside of most bends and look for a different texture on the river's surface. A different texture or colour usually indicates a change in the current. It could be a shallow bar or submerged log. This is usually more of a problem with motor boats than with rafts or canoes. A canoe's shallow draft allows it to slide over most obstructions. The problem with canoeing a river though is choosing the proper route, and the decision has to be made from well upstream. Once committed you can't stop or go back in the current. However, my Clipper "Tripper" is well designed and does track well when being lined upstream from shore where ever it is possible. A few times I had to go ashore and choose another route around an island. Occasionally, I portaged the canoe across an island to access a better fishing spot.

The Fraser is braided into dozens of different channels and the smaller ones change from year to year. There are hundreds of islands in the river from Hope to Vancouver. They break up the flow and provide shelter for migrating fish. High water in the summer removes sections from some islands and adds it to others. Large trees are washed away from hundreds of miles upstream and they end up in the Fraser River Delta. They also pile up on the islands and cause mini-jambs that change the river's flow. A deep hole one year might be totally filled in the next. This change also affects the fishing. Fishing guides have to constantly update their data. The neophyte is better to go with an experienced angler before attempting to fish the Fraser on his own. However, there are several areas that consistently hold fish year after year. Once learned, it only takes adjusting to the local conditions at that time.

I wasn't worried about catching fish though; in August I could expect anything from cutthroat trout to sockeye or Chinook salmon. If I fished single eggs or fly fished with small weighted nymphs I was also likely to catch Rocky Mountain Whitefish. I pulled into most islands on my way downstream and tested the water. Sometimes all it took was a few casts before deciding it wasn't worth the effort or more exploring. The water was either too shallow, too fast or just plain uninviting. Other places just called out to be fished. Most of the time my efforts were unrewarded, but occasionally a cutthroat nailed my spinner or fly. And, a few times I was surprised by a sockeye salmon. Sockeye don't usually attack lures, but when there are lots around they might be taken on anything. The most common method of fishing sockeye is with a pencil sinker and long leader with only wool on a hook. I didn't bother fly fishing on my canoe trip as much as I normally would because I was pressed for time and just wanted to explore the water quickly. A spinner or spoon can be easily flipped into an inviting pocket while drifting by, and done often enough it will produce the odd fish.

Gradually, a pattern for the more productive water became apparent. The head of the islands seemed to pay off for sockeye salmon. They held in water just faster than walking speed, and right at the lip where the depth started to form. If the water looked productive I used the pencil lead and wool method. The sockeye seemed to prefer green to other colors. The cutthroats stayed more in back eddies and close to the bank, and anywhere a small creek entered the Fraser always seemed to hold a fish or two. I didn't catch any Chinook, but I wasn't using the proper tackle, and didn't I fish where they normally hold. Chinook seem to prefer deeper water and heavier current than other salmon species.

The islands are the only practical places to camp. Most of the Fraser's shoreline is too brushy to set up a tent. Campfires should only be lit on the open gravel bars and never close to trees. A note worth mentioning. Much of the shore along the lower Fraser is privately owned or on Indian Reserves. Many of the islands also belong to the Native bands. Some islands are posted, but others are not. On some islands the First Nations peoples do not mind non-native intruders, but on others they will ask you to leave. It is in the travelers best interests to purchase a map and pay attention to what is private. If confronted by First Nations it is better to be respectful of their land and quietly leave. If you are polite and understanding of their problems you might be allowed to stay. I had no problems on my canoe trip and several times shared a beer with native fellows who were attending a net.

Although there are dozens of small streams entering the Fraser between Hope and Vancouver, there are only three important river systems: the Harrison and the Chilliwack and the Pitt rivers. The once great runs of salmon and steelhead on the Stave were mostly destroyed by the dam. There are still a few coho and pretty fair numbers of migratory trout, but essentially, the Stave is finished as a salmon stream. The Coquitlam River is another stream destroyed by man. The gravel taking operation wiped out spawning beds and removed all food needed by fish to survive. Small streams like Kanaka, Norrish, Ruby and Silverhope are all worth a look, but their output is small in comparison the major rivers. Numerous important rivers such as the Lillooet, the Silver and the Chehalis feed the Harrison. The Chehalis has a hatchery a short distance from its mouth and it is a major contributor to the Harrison system. The Chilliwack/Vedder also has a hatchery and it is the most popular and productive river on the Lower Mainland. The Pitt is one of the most important coho tributaries of the Fraser and it is the least accessible river on the Lower Mainland. Access is either by air or a long boat ride up Pitt Lake; then, transportation is required to get upstream. The Allouette is a small tributary of the Pitt that suffered for years from lack of water due to the B.C. Hydro dam on its headwaters. Recently however, B.C. Hydro has released more water and the Allouette may eventually come back as a salmon-bearing stream.

The most interesting and best fishing water lies between Flood and the city of Mission. Downstream from the Mission bridge the river is more sedate, less braided and it is affected by the tide. The banks are dyked and log booms are often tied to pilings driven into the river, making casting from shore impossible. However, there are a few popular bars downstream where it is possible for set line fishing. Anglers set up with lawn chairs, coolers, umbrellas and their rod put in a holder. It's a social thing while waiting for a fish to bite. Everyone seems to have a good time and nobody worries if the action is slow. When somebody hooks a fish everyone lends a hand. From Haney downstream the commercial traffic increases and at New Westminster there are ocean going freighters.

Although my canoe trip was thoroughly enjoyable and a total success, I could have had more fishing action if I had used a motor boat. Once the prime fishing areas are located it takes only a fast boat and a bit of river running knowledge to reach them. The bare minimum boat acceptable on the Fraser is a 12 foot aluminum skiff with a 10 horse power outboard. With two anglers in such a small boat it takes a fair while to travel much distance up river. And, a lot of care is needed not to crunch the propeller on the rocks or tip over in the strong current. The Fraser is too fast and too wide to row across and getting back to the launch point can be impossible if the motor breaks down. A 25 hp motor and a 14 ft boat are more practical and a jet boat is ideal. It is very difficult to judge the depth in the silty currents of the Fraser and it's no place to hit a gravel bar at full speed. Commercial fishing guides are the way to go for anyone unfamiliar with the river. Finding guides is easy by using the Internet or asking at local tackle stores.

FISHING GUIDES AND ACCOMODATION

Lodging & Services on the Lower Fraser River
BC Sport Fishing Group: The Fraser Valley, rich with rivers and surrounded by the Coast Mountains offers an incredible backdrop to unique and amazing world-class Salmon fishing and Sturgeon fishing. We offer a great fishing experience while maintaining a sustainable fishery. more
Bluewater Rockies Sportfish Guiding Company: Our fish guiding company serves the Vancouver, Fraser Valley, and Whistler areas. We specialize in river sportfishing, targeting western Canada's top sport fish which includes all 5 species of Pacific salmon, steelhead, trout and of course, the prehistoric Whi... more
Great River Fishing Adventures: Imagine your line screaming off the reel - the heart pounding excitement as a world-class freshwater fish launches from the water. See & catch more salmon than you have ever dreamed of & even the purist fly anglers will be obsessed with the sturgeon fishing. more
Pitt River Lodge: Only one hour from the city, we’re Vancouver’s ultimate fly fishing destination, the only lodge on the entire river! Drift the Pitt River with the most experienced guides, & enjoy our comfortable full service lodge. Exceptional year round fishing for salmon, ... more

Learning the Fraser's many channels and the holding lies for the various species is a full time job. The river changes every season and only anglers with the time and equipment to spend 200 days a year on the river can learn the secrets. Whereas an experienced angler can quickly learn to fish most smaller rivers throughout the world and locate the obvious holding lies, the Fraser is beyond the ability of the weekend angler. Just by it's murky water and huge size, learning how and where to fish the Fraser is an overwhelming task. A fishing guide on the Fraser earns his money and is value for every dollar spent. A jet boat is almost a necessity to cover the water safely and not every angler can afford the cost of such an outfit. Most guide boats are about 20 feet long and take up to four anglers. They are stable enough to anchor in the Fraser's strong current and fast enough to cover a long distance quickly. It can be several miles between each fishing location. It's not unusual to run 20 miles upstream from the boat launch site. And, at times, a lot of running around is necessary to find the fish.

There are dozens of full time and part time fishing guides working the Fraser River from Hope to Haney, and many of the part time guides work in partnership with full time guides. In this way they keep notes and up to date information available for the clients. Almost every tackle store in the Lower Mainland has a list of guides available. "Freds" tackle store in Sardis was one of the first with a full time guiding service, and its owner, Fred Helmer, has been looking after clients for years. Fred is one of the more knowledgeable sturgeon guides around. Another first class sturgeon and salmon guide is Vic Carrao of STS Guiding. He works out of his home in Mission and has several part time guides working for him during the height of the season. Vic is on the water over 200 days each year and almost every day during the salmon season. He has a suite in his home for out of town guests. Frank Staiger offers one of the only true fishing lodges on the river. His Fraser River Fishing Lodge sits on a hill overlooking the river near Abbotsford and the view is breathtaking. Frank guides himself and has other guides working for him. Mark Laynes of Cascade Charters is another guide specializing in sturgeon trips. These are but a few of the guides available and most guides can arrange for accommodation in the vicinity of Mission, Abbotsford or Chilliwack. Guides use the same boat launches as the public does and either meet their clients there or transport them to the launch site.



ACCESS

For anyone seriously considering learning the Fraser's secrets on their own I suggest buying Eileen McGuire's book "Fishing Fever". It covers the Fraser River in detail from Mission to Hope. For more information visit their website at www.fishingfeverbc.ca or email: fishingfeverbc@yahoo.ca .

Another source of important information is the lower Fraser River chart/map produced by FISH.n.MAP Company. It can be acquired from most Marinas and Lower Mainland tackle shops.

In the Vancouver/Richmond area there are several boat ramps and marinas on the lower Fraser River. Almost all of the land along the shore is private and access is difficult. Log booms tied to shore or pilings prevent viable fishing locations. On the north arm of the Fraser on Lulu Island there is a boat launch at Richmond Marina near McDonald Beach Park. Still on Lulu Island, but on the south arm of the Fraser there are a couple of ramps off the end of #2 road. Along River Road on the Ladner side of the Fraser there are a couple of boat ramps between the George Massey tunnel and the Alex Fraser Bridge. There is a boat ramp at Captain's Cove marina on the south shore of the Fraser almost under the Pattullo Bridge. There is another ramp on the north side of the Fraser just to the west of the Port Mann Bridge. On the Pitt River, upstream from the highway bridge and at the mouth of Katzie Slough there is a ramp at the Pitt Meadows and Skyline marinas. There is a sand bar for fishing at the top end of Deas Island, a couple of small ones on the north end of Annacis Island, two more on either side of the Pattullo bridge and bars on either side of the Fraser just upstream from the Port Mann bridge. This is a very commercial section of the Fraser and not very appealing from an angler's point of view.

The Fraser becomes more attractive the farther upstream you go. There are small bars at either end of Barnston Island, across from Pitt Meadows. Access to the island is off 104th avenue from Surrey. Fishing opportunities start to pick up as you move upstream. On the north side of the Fraser at the Kanaka Creek Bar there is Derby Reach Park and Allard Crescent Park where there is camping, sight seeing and good fishing. It is a natural resting place for trout, Dolly Varden, steelhead and salmon. There is a boat launch just upstream at the end of McKay Avenue. Across the river on the Fort Langley side there are two boat ramps near the top end of McMillan Island. The Albion ferry crosses the Fraser here and services this section. Following River Road upstream from Forth Langley you come to Nathan Creek bar and Two Bit Bar near the end of 272nd street. This Crescent Island section is a natural resting place for all upstream migrating salmon. Anywhere along the island can be good, but a boat is needed to reach it. Above Crescent Island and across from Silverdale is Duncan Bar. Duncan Bar is considered one of the better salmon fishing locations. It produces Chinooks throughout the summer and coho in the fall. On the north side of the Fraser across from Crescent Island is the Stave River mouth and Ruskin Bar. This bar produces all species of fish found in the Fraser. Chum and pink salmon flood into this area in the fall and attract trout and char that feed on their eggs. There is also the remnants of a steelhead run. Coho, Chinook and sockeye hold temporarily off the mouth of the Stave prior to moving upstream. Further upstream and just below Mission is Matsqui Island that is Indian reserve land. Access is only by boat and shore access on the island is discouraged. There are several locations around the island with good fishing from a boat. At the top end of the island there is a good bar for salmon. On the north side of the island near the upper end is a well known sturgeon fishing hole. Sturgeon are also taken just downstream from the highway bridge.

The Mission bridge marks roughly the upper limit of tidal affected water. It is also a boundary for some fishing regulations. There is a public boat ramp just upstream from the bridge on the Mission side of the river. There are several good spots from the bridge to the famous Hatzic sturgeon hole, but few can beat this well known location for giant sturgeon. Right in front of the Mission Bells sturgeon can be seen rolling or jumping throughout the season. Hooking one of the monsters is a lifetime thrill. It is all catch and release angling. Although log booms are often tied up in this area, cutthroat trout and salmon often hold near the mouth of Hatzic Slough. Cutthroat are notorious for moving in and out of the slough. Slaughter House Bar and Wades Creek Bar are between Hatzic and Dewdney. Access is by walking a short distance along the dyke from Hyde-Buker road. There is a boat ramp in the Dewdney Nature Park at the mouth of Nicomen Slough. Access is off McKamey Road. Nicomen Slough is one of the great cutthroat locations along the Fraser. They treat it like a lake and are constantly moving in and out of the slough. They often follow the salmon heading for Norrish Creek and spawn in the creek themselves. Coho are taken by trolling or casting in the slough. The whole area along the Fraser near the mouth of Nicomen Slough and Strawberry Island is excellent for salmon and trout. There is also a deep hole that produces a few sturgeon.

Just upstream from the Nicomen Slough is the mouth of the Vedder/Chilliwack River and the Sumas Canal. This is a natural resting area for all salmonids. The Vedder produces some of the largest runs of salmonids in the whole Fraser Valley. They all hold below the river's entrance prior to moving upstream to spawn. There is a summer and Fall Chinook fishery, autumn runs of coho and chum, and winter run steelhead. Following the salmon are cutthroat trout, Dolly Varden and a few resident rainbows. Sockeye salmon also migrate past the mouth of the Vedder from mid summer to early fall. Unfortunately, there is no shore access to the mouth of the Vedder and it can only be reached by boat. The southern shoreline is within the McGillivray Game Preserve and has no access. Just above the river's entrance is the lower end of Bowman's Mill bar, and access is by boat only. This is an excellent location for salmon and trout. River current and high water changes the location of the sand bars in this area from year to year so they have to be re-learned each season. There is a rough access boat launch through Cattermole Timber's log sort yard (Sumas Log sort yard) off Industrial way. Permission is necessary from the office before driving through the yard. 4WD is recommended to launch a boat over the gravel at the Big Eddy Bar, and there is limited parking. Just upstream from the log sort is Old Orchard road (off Industrial Way) where there is another rough gravel boat launch used by car toppers and small trailers. Turn into a driveway just after the sharp corner on Old Orchard Road. This accesses a gravel bar that will be covered in water during freshet. 4WD can be necessary to launch a boat at certain times. And again, there is limited parking. Across the Fraser from the log sort is the upper end of Nicomen Island. Access to the river is from Johnson Road where it crosses Hwy 7, then onto Nicomen Island Trunk Road, then onto McDonald Road. Follow McDonald Road to the end and over the dyke to the river. On the same side of the river and farther upstream at Deroche is another boat ramp near the end of Tremblay Island Road. Turn onto Athey Road just before the Deroche bridge over Nicomen Slough, follow Tremblay Road to the dyke road, turn right and then left after a short distance. It is a rough gravel launch suitable for cartoppers and small trailers. Wingdam Bar is downstream from the boat launch is one of the more popular spots on the north side.

Unquestionably the most popular boat ramp along the river is at Island 22 near Chilliwack. There is ample parking and a very busy regional camp grounds nearby. Access is off Cartmell Road near the end of Young Road. There is a daily boat launch fee or a seasons pass. Island 22 is central to most of the better fishing locations. Queen's Island and Gallagher Bar are right across the river. Grassy Island is just downstream and there is a group of small islands scattered upstream and down. The mouth of the Harrison is just a short distance upstream on the north shore of the Fraser. Migrating salmon constantly move through this area and hold briefly along the bars and islands. When a run comes through it seems like every second person has a fish on. Although many anglers bring boats there is fair fishing right in front of the campsite. There are two very rough boat launch sites for cartop boats or small trailers further upstream from Island 22 and off Ballam Road. The Ballam Bar and Peg-leg Wilsons offer fair fishing from shore, but parking is limited and 4WD might be necessary as it is over loose river gravel. Another rough boat launch is located at the end of Jesperson Road and then onto Carey Road. Follow Carey Road over the dyke to the gravel boat ramp. Jesperson's is at the bottom end of Greyell Island. Trout and salmon can be found anywhere along Greyell Island and slough.

The mouth of the Harrison River is a magnet for all salmonids. Cutthroat trout move through the area constantly, and the Harrison system has runs of five Pacific salmon species along with steelhead and Dolly Varden. Dollies are more numerous in the Harrison/Lillooet system than in most other Fraser tributaries. Sturgeon hold in the deep pools in the Fraser below the Harrison and dine on decaying salmon when they are flushed out of the Harrison's tributaries after spawning. There are runs of sockeye in Weaver Creek and the Birkenhead, and the Lillooet has some of the earliest spring running Chinook. Boat access on the Harrison is at Kilby Park in Harrison Bay. There is fair fishing for cutthroat from shore along the bay. Turn onto School Road at Harrison Bay and follow the signs to Kilby Park. Calamity Point, where the Harrison meets the Fraser, is a place to avoid in any small boat.

Continuing on the north side of the river, there is access to several bars and sloughs off hwy 7 on Cameron Road. Turn off Cameron Road for access to the river on Limbert Road and Hamilton Road. Across the river on the south side is the Gill Bar, McGrath Bar and Ferry Island Bar. Ferry Island bar is in a park directly downstream from the Agassiz-Rosedale bridge. Gill Bar is off the end of Gill Road that intersects with Camp Road. It is possible to carry a car top boat to the water at Gill Bar.

Upstream from the bridge on the Agassiz side is First Nations Indian reserve and white people might not be welcome. There was access off Whelpton Road and over the dyke to Bridge Road. There is the remains of an old boat ramp there. On the south side of the Fraser at Popkum there is access to the river off Julseth Road (5 km east of exit #135) and Halvorsen Road. This is a lovely piece of water that is excellent for cutthroat trout. The Fraser splits into several channels and it looks more like a small stream.

Continuing upstream on the south side, the next major fishing location is Herrling Island. There is an exit off hwy 1 to the island. The road winds down under the railway and onto the island over a gravel bar. It could be covered in water during freshet. There are several rough tracks through the island and it is a popular spot for off road vehicles. With a 4WD truck, or occasionally high clearance 2WD, it is possible to drive to the river and launch a car top boat. Fishing can be quite good all along the island. Cutthroat trout can be found anywhere along Cattermole Slough between Herrling Island and the south shore.

The next fair access upstream from Herrling Island is the Cheam View bar. Access is from the west bound Hwy 1 only. So, if traveling east it is necessary to take the Laidlaw exit #153, then cross under the freeway and back onto Hwy 1 westbound. From there it is about 4 km to an un-marked exit off the freeway. Follow this rough road downstream and parallel to the railway tracks to the old Cheam View Station and park at the end of the road. Cross the tracks and hike down a steep bank to the bar. This is a great location for all salmon species, and especially Chinook. Gold Dredge Bar is upstream from Cheam View. Take the same exit #153 but turn right onto Laidlaw Road and park about 200 m further along. Cross the tracks and hike the dyke over Gold Dredge slough and onto the bar. Across the river on the north side is Johnson's Slough. Access is from Johnson's Slough Rest Stop. All this area from Herrling Island to Hope can be very windy.

Access to Hunter Creek Bar, Bulger Road Bar and St Elmo Road Bar is off hwy exit #160 at Laidlaw. Follow St Elmo Road (Old Yale rd) downstream for about 5 km and through the Ohamil Indian reserve (Shxwowhamel First Nations) to a gravel road turnaround at the end. It is a short walk to the river. For the Bulger Road bar take the same route on St Elmo road but only for 1.6 km and follow the narrow Bulger road to the river. There is space for about two or three vehicles. It could be possible to launch a small boat there but the boulders along shore are large. For access to the Hunter Creek bar, park at the rest stop and hike along Hunter Creek and under the highway bridge to the Fraser River. It is about 300 meters on a reasonable trail. Fishing is better during higher water when salmon migrate closer to shore.

Floods Bar and Silverhope Creek Bar access is off hwy exit #165. When traveling east take the Floods Hope overpass over the highway, then right onto Floods Hope Road for about one km. Turn left onto Floods Road, then left again after the tracks onto Yale Road. Follow Yale Rd to the end (about 1.2 km) and hike down to the river through some private property. This is not suitable for a boat launch because the trail is steep. For access to the Silverhope Bar follow Yale Road upstream to the Bristol Island intersection where it becomes Tom Berry Road. Continue along Tom Berry Road until just before the bridge over Silverhope Creek, then turn left down a gravel road to the pollution control centre. Park near there and hike along the trail to the creek mouth.
The Hope area has access in a few locations: at the mouth of the Coquihalla River, just below the highway bridge and across the river on the Landstrom Road bar. To reach the Ferry landing bar and the Coquihalla bar it's necessary to right on Coquihalla St, then left through a residential area. There is access down to the river across the huge gravel bar at the mouth of the Coquihalla River. Landstrom Road has been eroded away by the Fraser and access is limited and dangerous.

HISTORY
Unfortunately, there is no written history prior to white man's arrival. First Nation's people have an oral history but not a written one. Stories were owned by the storyteller the same way today's writers own a script. Native stories passed on verbally were filled with conjecture and mixed with the spirit world. Dates were inaccurate and blended with special happenings in the past. Due to lack of foresight, white historians seldom listened or wrote down many of the First Nations stories. When the whites intentionally destroyed the First Nations culture many of the stories were lost. Today, we only have smattering of information about what went on prior to white man's arrival.

Alexander McKenzie was the first white man to discover the Fraser River. He did so by coming from the north near Fort St John in 1793. With a group of voyageurs he paddled up the Peace River and through the only gap in the Rocky Mountains from Alaska to Mexico. He continued southward up the Parsnip River, over the height of land, and down to the Fraser River. There he established a camp near what is now Prince George. McKenzie was looking for a river route to the rich, fur trading areas on the coast. Somehow, Alexander missed the large Nechako River entering the Fraser from the west. Had he done so he would have surely followed that route to the coast. Instead, with a few native guides and the same weary voyageurs he paddled down the Fraser to what is now Quesnel. He established contact with some Carrier Nation natives that informed him the Fraser River was impassable farther downstream. They suggested he follow their trade route to the coast through what is now known as the Blackwater or Westroad River. Frustrated by the Fraser's continued southward direction, and information of bad water ahead, McKenzie left the Fraser and embarked on his famous journey to the coast near Bella Coola. After an arduous trip back through the wilderness, and across Canada once more, McKenzie returned to his home in Scotland.

A dozen years later Simon Fraser re-traced Alexander McKenzie's trip through the Peace Portal Rapids and established a camp at Rocky Mountain Portage, and another at McLeod Lake. There, he left his lieutenant James McDougall in charge. While Simon returned for supplies, McDougall did some exploring on his own. He traveled down to the Fraser River and discovered its tributary, the Nechako River, which McKenzie had missed. McDougall then followed the Nechako up to Stuart Lake, Fraser Lake, Francois Lake and into what is now known as the Lake Country.

When Simon returned he discovered several other omissions in McKenzie's diary, and abandoned it in 1806 as a source of reference. Like McKenzie, Simon thought the Fraser River was the northern portion of the Columbia. With McDougall, Simon explored the Lake Country the following year and they established another fur trading fort at Fraser Lake. When word came that Lewis and Clark were heading an expedition towards the coast from the south, Simon was determined to follow what he thought was the Columbia River to its mouth and claim it for England. He received his supplies in the fall of 1807 and headed down the Fraser on May 22, 1808.

Despite warnings by the native tribes, Fraser was determined to follow the river to the coast. Had he know what lay in store for him, or that the river wasn't the Columbia, it is unlikely that he would have continued. The first large tributary he encountered he named the Quesnel after his second lieutenant, just as he had named Stuart Lake after another of his lieutenants, and McLeod Lake after his friend Norman McLeod.

During their paddle south down the river, native horsemen were continually seen following the canoes along the shoreline. He was summoned ashore at one point and Fraser had a meeting with the Atnaugh nation. He was warned of unfriendly tribes and very bad water farther downstream, but he pressed on. The river canyon continued to narrow and the rapids grew in intensity. Many times the canoes almost swamped and portages were continuous. Eventually the canoes had to be abandoned and stored for their return trip. The Voyageurs continued on foot until they finally came to the mouth of another large tributary and a large native village at what is now the town of Lytton. The natives called their village Camchin and Fraser called their tribe Hacamaugh. Fraser named the tributary "the Thompson" after David Thompson, a partner in the NorthWest Company. Fraser thought Thompson was exploring the same system farther upstream, when in actual fact David Thompson was in the Rocky Mountain trench following the real Columbia River. Ironically, Thompson never did see the river named after him.

Fraser acquired more canoes from the Hacamaugh nation and continued downstream with native guides. The route became tortuous in the extreme. The local natives had built a net-like lattice work of vine ropes, poles and ladders along the cliffs. The packs and canoes had to be dragged vertically up these precarious structures. Death awaited every mis-placed step. Simon was astounded how the Indians climbed like spiders up the walls and cliffs. Without the native's help it is unlikely the voyageurs would have survived the ordeal. It was now near the end of June and at the peak of spring run-off. The river continued to grow in fury. Due to the exhausting trip, Fraser's notes in his diary were a little sparse, but he wrote about never having experienced anything like those incredible hardships.

Eventually, the voyageurs passed the worst of the canyon and they came to Spuzzum where Fraser discovered the intricately carved native burial tombs. At Hope the river turned abruptly to the West and Fraser began to realize he was on a completely different river system than the Columbia. His native guides from the interior refused to continue with him for fear of the hostile Musqueam tribes on the coast. When they paddled into the Gulf of Georgia, Simon was disappointed that he couldn't see the Pacific Ocean. He knew he was in salt water, but didn't have the supplies to continue. The hostile natives on shore made any landing dangerous and they continued to fire arrows at the explorers. The natives were only kept at bay by the occasional musket fire as a warning. Fraser confirmed his location as the 49 degrees latitude, which was well north of the Columbia's 46-degree latitude. The decision was made to return. Several voyageurs threatened to desert, but Simon convinced them to stay for the safety of all. On July 6, 1808 the group returned up the Fraser canyon and was safely back at Fort George on August 5th. It was an astounding expedition that is a tribute to the tenacity of the voyageurs and their leader.

Although it was Alexander McKenzie and Simon Fraser who discovered the Fraser River, it was James Douglas who had the foresight to develop and build the province around it. As an assistant to the Hudson's Bay Company factor, John McLoughlin, Douglas built Fort Victoria in 1843 on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Acting just in time to prevent the Americans from claiming British Columbia, the British hold on the west coast was a precarious one. The forty-ninth parallel was just barely established as the international boundary. Despite being south of the 49th, Victoria remained British. In 1856, gold was discovered in the Fraser River, which caused miners and fortune seekers to flood into the new territory. By the spring of 1859 Victoria was being over-run by a rough bunch of foreigners. James Douglas had been made governor of Vancouver Island, but not the mainland. That didn't stop him from imposing an illegal levy in the form of a license on all foreigners entering British Columbia. Steamboats were built to move the gold seekers up to Yale. Douglas tried to maintain some sort of law and order and overstepped his authority on the mainland. He brought in Matthew Baillie Begbie, the famous "Hanging Judge", to carry out his wishes. The flamboyant Begbie was the ideal man for the job and he ruled with an iron hand. Unlike the wild cowtowns and lawless mining towns of the United States, the gold rush in British Columbia was a relatively mild one.

As the surface gold was cleaned out the miners moved farther up the river and every tributary was panned and sluiced. To by-pass the violent Fraser River canyon, many miners traveled up the Harrison to Lillooet Lake, Anderson Lake and Seton Lake where they paddled through a gap in the mountains and returned to the Fraser at what is now the town of Lillooet. Steam driven paddle wheel freight boats competed with each other for business on this system.

James Douglas had the vision of building a road up the Fraser Canyon and through the Thompson River valley to the gold deposits in Barkerville. Again, Douglas exceeded his authority and started the immense project in the winter of 1861/62. By borrowing from a local bank, he raised the funds to pay the labourers. It was a mind-boggling construction project for a territory of only 20,000 people. And, most of those only transients. Joseph Truch, later to become British Columbia's lieutenant governor, engineered the first bridge crossing of the Fraser at what is now the Alexandra Bridge. The same crossing point maintained today. The suspension bridge was built from steel cables built on the spot by cleverly weaving wire bales brought up by mule team. The job was so well done that no cable ever snapped and the bridge could hold a four-horse team and a three-ton load. James Douglas had his road and territory was on its way to becoming a province.

THE FRASER'S FISH AND ANGLING METHODS
STURGEON (Acipenser transmonanus)

The White Sturgeon is a unique example of a pre-historic fish ideally adapted to feeding in large freshwater river systems with a good biomass of a decaying meat supply.

The sturgeon has no internal bones, but like the shark, its tough hide holds it together. It has sharp, tooth-like ridges along its back and strange whisker-like barbels hang down below its nose. The barbels locate food, which is then sucked into a vacuum tube like mouth. There are no teeth. The sturgeon has the potential of a long life span, and its possible huge size makes it one of the premier sport species targeted on the Fraser River. Due to lack of knowledge of their numbers and an unknown reason for a die off of mature sturgeon in 1993, the Fisheries branch imposed a catch and release policy on all sturgeon, and this remains in effect to this day. Presently, the Fraser has a healthy number of sturgeons in all size categories. They range in length from two feet to over 12 feet, and have the potential to grow even larger. There are reports of sturgeon weighing well over 1000 pounds. It's not unusual for anglers to catch and release as many as 20 or more sturgeon in one day. There is an on-going tagging program to build up a database for these unique fish. Small electronically numbered metal tags are inserted into the exo-skeleton of the sturgeon. A scanner records the number and the sturgeon is released. All future catches are scanned without the need for another tag. Of the 19 sturgeon we caught one day in January this year (2001), three of them were re-captures. Two were recent re-captures, but one had been tagged two years before and had grown from 53 inches to 67 inches.

FISHING METHODS
Although many sturgeons are caught using standard salmon gear, anyone targeting these great fish should outfit themselves with Halibut type tackle. Due to the sturgeon's potentially huge size, it is recommended that stout rods and reels are used and at least an 80 lb test main line of the modern super fibers. Leaders are three to four foot lengths of dacron rather than monofilament. Dacron is more supple and easier for the sturgeon to suck into its tube-like mouth. The bait must be kept on the bottom in deep, fast currents, so eight-ounce weights are fastened to a sliding plastic tube on the mainline. The sliding weight is necessary to feel the gentle strike of a feeding sturgeon. The weight is prevented from sliding onto the leader by a heavy swivel. For bait, just about any hunk of meat will catch a sturgeon, but the most common baits are chunks of river lamprey (sold in local tackle stores), salmon or salmon roe. The bait is tied onto a size 6/0 or 8/0 hook.

Sturgeon cruise the entire Fraser River system from its headwaters to the ocean, and nobody knows their actual migration cycle. It's possible that Fraser sturgeons travel to the Columbia River system through the ocean and migrate up other rivers as well. They've been caught in the Somass River estuary on Vancouver Island. In the Fraser River they occupy the deeper holes and locate wherever dead salmon might wash into a back eddy. One of the most famous "holes" is right in front of the Monastery on the hill at Mission.

CHINOOK SALMON (Oncorhynchus Tshawytscha)
The Chinook is the largest of the pacific salmon, and in the Fraser System it reaches weights up to 50 pounds. However, the average mature fish is closer to 25 pounds. Chinooks are also called "spring" salmon in BC and "King", "Blackmouth" and "Quinnat" salmon in the United States. Jack springs (small male Chinooks) run about three to six pounds and is more aggressive feeders than the large salmon. Silver bright Chinook salmon heading for the Lillooet System start entering the Fraser in Mid April. Runs of bright fish destined for other Fraser tributaries, including those hundreds of miles away in British Columbia's interior, start arriving shortly thereafter, and the numbers of Chinook increase until they peak in July and early August. The lower Fraser also has a fall run of "White" Chinook that enter the Harrison River in September and early October. The flesh of the Harrison Chinook is a pinkish white, and more oily in texture.

Fishing techniques for these large salmon are similar to that for the sturgeon except slightly lighter tackle is used and lures are often tried rather than bait. The most popular bait for Chinook is cured salmon roe and #2 Spin-n-Glows rank number one for lures. Chinook are commonly fished from shore using a bar set-up with a stake and tube holder for the rod. Like sturgeon fishing it is a waiting game. But, once the salmon takes the lure the action is non-stop until either the fish comes to net or breaks off. It's not uncommon for large Chinook to run over a mile downstream on their first rush. This is where a guide and a fast boat come in handy. Many shore bound anglers just run out of real estate and watch a rampaging Chinook disappear with all their line. Although anglers targeting sockeye take many Chinook, the more consistent action comes from known Chinook holes. Again, this is where the guides earn their money. Being on the water daily throughout the season the guides know the current hotspots for Chinook.

SOCKEYE SALMON (Oncorhynchus Nerka)
The sockeye is the most popular salmon on the river for the average fisherman. They arrive in huge numbers and spread over shallow bars close to shore. Ranging in size from 5 to 10 pounds they put up a wild battle until subdued. They might run wildly downstream while jumping continually, or rush right at you and beach themselves on shore. Sockeye are recognized by their bluish sheen on the back, lack of spots, pointed nose and prominent eye. When mature, their silver sides turn bright red and their head turns a grass green.

Sockeye have a four year cycle and most tributaries of the Fraser with a rearing lake have substantial runs that arrive different times during the summer. They begin arriving during the June freshet season on the Fraser and runs continue to migrate through mid-September. Most Fraser tributaries have high abundance years of sockeye and low abundance years. The year 2001 is expected to be a good year.

Fishing techniques for sockeye are fairly simple. They are found near the head of islands and riffles in water from two to five feet deep. Cast across or slightly upstream, then let the lure swing downstream while maintaining a slight tension. Most of the takes are at the bottom of the swing. Medium to light tackle is used and even flyrods are effective. Rods from seven to nine feet are used, along with spinning or bait casting reels. Pink, red or grass green wool is used as a lure on a 2/0 hook and a five or six foot leader. Pencil lead or slinkies are used to get the wool down.

There is some discussion about whether most sport caught sockeye are snagged in the mouth by a method known as "Flossing", which was named after flossing one's teeth. There is no question that many sockeye are hooked this way when the leader pulls through their mouth and the hook fastens itself on the outside of the salmon's jaw. Any jaw hooked salmon can be legally accepted as a fair hooked fish and kept. Whether this method is morally acceptable is not this writer's opinion to decide here and I will leave that decision with each individual angler. After conducting many experiments I am also convinced that many sockeye in fact do grab the wool covered hook. I have seen them selectively choose one colour wool over another. It is legal however to fish using this method, and it does take skill to bring the lure close enough to the salmon for the sockeye to either bite or be flossed.

COHO SALMON (Oncorhynchus Kisutch)
The Fraser's coho are not as abundant as other species, but they are considered one of the premier gamefish. Known for their great strength and jumping ability, these 4 to 15 pound salmon aggressively take lures, flies and bait. Although many of the enhanced runs returning to hatchery streams like the Vedder and Harrison system are very abundant, the interior coho runs and those in the Fraser's small tributaries are in bad shape. Recent fishing closures have been the result of trying to protect these fragile runs. Once the coho leave the mainstream of the Fraser and return to the hatchery streams they are fair game for anglers. Coho fishing basically occurs from September through November.

Methods for catching coho run the full spectrum. In rivers, Coho seem to like slower water and often prefer sloughs and back eddies to the mainstream. Although it's almost impossible to retrieve a lure fast enough to "not" catch coho in the ocean, once they enter freshwater; coho like their lures brought to them slowly and deliberately. The best method with spoons and spinners is to adjust the weight of the lure to the water being fished. The lure needs to sink quickly, yet drift freely in the current with very little retrieve. Most of the strikes will occur when the lure is quartering downstream. Because salmon attack from beneath their prey the angler should bring the lure through the water just slightly above the depth the salmon are holding. Float fishing with small bits of roe, wool or plastic eggs is also effective, but the angler shouldn't stick with one method if it isn't working. Unlike steelheading where the difficultly lies in trying to find the fish, once coho are in the river they are easy to find. Convincing non-feeding fish to bite is the problem. Even spooked coho can be caught using the reactionary method. The secret is to bring the lure past the coho's face from behind so the salmon might strike before thinking. This is an effective method for fly fishermen who can often outfish bait or lure casters when coho are holding in the ideal water. Fly casters must have a wide assortment of sinking lines to adjust to the various depths coho might hold. Shooting heads are popular, as are sink tip lines. The loop-on sinking leader butts are a useful item to have for adjusting the sink rate of flies.

CHUM (DOG) SALMON (Oncorhynchus Keta)
Chum salmon have only recently become a sport fish and is quickly gaining a loyal following of anglers. They can be taken on most tackle and they fight with brutish strength. Second in size to the Chinook, chum salmon average from 8 to 15 pounds and often exceed 20 pounds. In the ocean they are silver with only the faintest purple bars running vertically across their sides. They have no spots anywhere on their body or fins. Once they enter fresh water they darken dramatically. The females don't darken as much, but the males turn brown and grey with dark purple bars, and they develop hooked jaws with large teeth. Hence the name "dog" salmon. Chum salmon inhabit the lower reaches of rivers and can actually spawn in brackish water. Although their flesh is white and not as appealing as other salmon the taste is excellent, and many consider the chum to be the best salmon for smoking.

Tactics for catching chum salmon are similar to those used for coho. It is hard to beat the float and single egg system used for steelhead, but chum will also grab spoons and flies. Because they hold in relatively shallow water chum make the ideal flyrod adversary. When chum are on the bite it's not unusual for fly casters to catch these aggressive salmon until the angler's arms are too tired to lift the rod. Green and blue are popular colours for chum flies, but pink is also used. Small lures or bait is often superior to large lures. Small pink marabou jigs suspended under floats are deadly on chum.

PINK SALMON (Oncorhynchus Gorbuscha)
The pink salmon, otherwise known as the humpback, is our smallest salmon. It has a two year life cycle and seldom exceeds five or six pounds. In the Fraser, the pink salmon cycle is during odd numbered years, which makes this year (2001) the next cycle. It is estimated that up to 20 million of these small salmon could return to the Fraser System. Similar to the sockeye and chum, the pink salmon has no spots on the body, but it does have large oval spots on the tail, and this it the easiest way to distinguish it from other species. The pink salmon's flesh is very delicate and doesn't take freezing very well. It should be eaten fresh shortly after cleaning. It is excellent when canned or smoked.

The Humpy is often caught in the same areas and at the same time as the sockeye. The same tactics used for sockeye will work with pink salmon, but the Humpy is a little more aggressive when it comes to small pink lures. Lures should be fished slowly on a controlled swing. Again, it is the small lures that are more successful.

STEELHEAD (Oncorhynchus Mykiss)
steelhead are one of the truly great sportfish of the world. There is a mystique about them that attracts anglers from all over the globe. They are ocean running rainbow trout that go to sea after spending a couple years in fresh water. The number of years they spend in the ocean determines their size. Typically they run from 6 to 18 pounds, with the average being closer to 10. But, a few special races of steelhead approach the magical 30 pound bracket. Thompson River steelhead that must travel through the lower Fraser are one of those large races. steelhead are aggressive fish that will actually feed when in fresh water, and they take lures or bait with equal pleasure. There are two sub-races: the winter/spring running steelhead and summer/fall running steelhead. Both races spawn in the spring or late winter. Unlike the Pacific salmon, steelhead do not necessarily die after spawning. Given the right conditions, steelhead can spawn several times. It has been estimated that up to 10% can spawn successfully a second and even a third time. steelhead have gypsy like traveling habits. They may enter a tributary stream, stay for a few days, then return to the Fraser and head for another river. Or they might remain in one location for several weeks or even a month. They seem to prefer gravel under their bellies and often hold in tailouts of runs. Unlike the coho, steelhead seldom holds in back eddies or sloughs. They may travel in small groups, but are more often found alone until pairing up on the spawning gravel.

Tactics for steelhead run the full spectrum of angling methods. They can be taken on anything from bait to flies or just about any lure that is manufactured. Typically they are taken on float fishing gear with salmon roe or eggs for bait, or any of the plastic imitations. Live dew worms or plastic worms in various colours also take many steelhead. Many anglers use nothing but flies with excellent success. Catching the steelhead isn't the hard part, finding the steelhead is the secret. In the Fraser, that can be a lot more difficult than catching salmon. Due to their low numbers, steelhead are not as obvious as salmon in the Fraser's murky currents. Few steelhead actually spawn in the Fraser and only use the main river as a conduit to reach their natal stream.

CUTTHROAT TROUT (Oncorhynchus Clarki)
The cutthroat trout is the vagabond of the Fraser. It travels here, there and everywhere. One day there is dozens in one location and the next day they seem to vanish. The Fraser has a healthy population of cutthroat, which are most numerous from the mouth of the Pitt River to the Coquihalla River at Hope. The sloughs and side channels near the Harrison and up to Herrling Island are the places to look. Cutthroats prefer slower water and the edges near tiny tributary streams. Seemingly dead water in an almost dried up river channel can produce a bunch of fish. The Fraser River cutthroat isn't a large fish. It seldom exceeds two pounds and a four pounder is a trophy. But, its lack of size is more than made up for by its beauty and willingness to take a fly or lure. One of the great aspects of the cutthroat is the season it is caught in. The best fishing is during the winter and early spring when few other species are available. The Fraser River is always murky, but in the winter and spring it is possible to see bottom in three feet of water. During runoff the vision is measured in inches.

Tactics for cutthroat depends on whatever the trout is feeding on. Cutties may take anything available or dine selectively on one particular item. One of the cutthroat's downfalls is its willingness to feed on everything. They can be taken on every form of bait or lure. However, there are times when a particular insect is hatching or certain salmon fry are running. During those occasions the cutthroat may dine like the most sophisticated brown trout and the angler must match the hatch to be successful. Stoneflies hatch throughout the winter and salmon fry start migrating in March. April can see a variety of everything. Fishing some of the side channels of the Fraser River near Popkum is like trouting on a small stream. There's a dedicated bunch of fly fishermen that haunt the Fraser River sloughs for cutthroat. They are equipped with many of the old successful patterns like the wool body Professor or Silver Brown, along with some new ones like epoxy minnow patterns and the bead head Wooly Bugger in all its variations.

DOLLY VARDEN & BULL TROUT (Salvelinus Malma)
No layman can tell the difference between a Dolly and a Bull trout of the same size. It is safe to say that if the char is over three pounds it is probably a Bull trout. Dolly Varden seldom get larger than two pounds. Bull trout can grow up to 30 pounds, but in the Fraser system they are usually between three and 10 pounds. All char are distinguished from true trout or salmon by their pale spots. Whereas trout have black spots the char have only cream, orange or white spots. Habits of both these char are basically the same. They become predators once they grow longer than a foot. They eat insects and crustaceans while they are small but dine on other fish, either dead or alive, when they grow larger. These char are subject to over fishing because of their willingness to take all bait or lures. Char are definitely scent feeders and are more likely to take any lure if the hook is tipped with a bit of meat. They can be taken on flies but not as readily as lures. Fly fishermen should stick with large streamer or jig like patterns…the larger the better.

© Copyright Ian Forbes


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BC Rivers
Blackwater River
Bulkley-Morice River
Chilko River
Cowichan River
Elk River
Fraser River - Lower Section
Kispiox River
Skagit River
Squamish River
St. Mary River
Stellako River
Vedder-Chilliwack River

Writers:
Peter Caverhill
Brian Chan
Fred & Ann Curtis
Ian Forbes
Geoff Hobson
Gordon Honey
Steve Kaye
Fred's Custom Tackle
Ron Newman
D. C. Reid
Philip Rowley
Barry Thornton


Fishing the Fraser River, BC. Sportfishing the Fraser River, British Columbia, Canada