Fly Fishing for Coho

by Vic Carrao

The Fraser Valley is truly one of British Columbia’s jewels when it comes to fly-fishing for Salmon. The Harrison River is a fly fishers dream, located only 2 hours east of Vancouver, BC.

There is something special about targeting salmon on this river system. The water is gin clear, fish are abundant but not always willing to bite the fly. Because this river system has returns of Chinook, Chum, Sockeye and Pink salmon, you must understand fish migration and habitat preference if you’re going to target one specific species.

Coho salmon are one of those species that you really need to understand to be successful. They don’t like to mix with the more aggressive species like Chum and Chinook Salmon. So where do you start looking to find them? What type of water does Coho prefer? If you can answer these two questions, your well on your way to understanding how to target them.

Coho or silver salmon prefer slow-moving, slack or what we call dead water. They often lay in water as shallow as 2 feet, staying clear of the more aggressive species, especially if the water has good current speed. Side channels, backwaters and even deep holes with no current seem to be the Cohos favorite hiding spot when no other species are present.




On the Harrison system, places like Harrison Bay, Pretty Flats, Aquarium, Grave Yard, Morris slough and Chehalis confluence are favorite locations for Coho.

When you look out onto Pretty flats, all you see is acres upon acres of shallow water, often less than knee deep. If you spot a small darker looking area, that is usually a deeper hole, 3 to 5 feet deep often holding a dozen or more Coho.

There are two basic strategies when targeting Coho on the Harrison River, keep in mind these strategies would apply to most large to medium sized rivers on the Pacific Coast.

Your two choices are to target: Migrating Coho or Staging Coho. Migrating Coho are moving up into the river usually from a main river system or the ocean. Staging Coho are fish that have arrived in their home waters and have to know where to go, they often have several weeks or even months to wait before spawning occurs.




If you are targeting staging Coho, you will need to search for those deeper side channels, backwaters and shallow flats or large main stem runs with slow-moving deeper water. If you’re targeting migrating Coho, you will need to fish close to shore where the current is minimal. Coho travel so close to shore, anglers are often wading out past where the fish travel. I have caught many Coho casting behind anglers waded out in 3 feet of water. On the Harrison River, Fraser River and most Fraser Valley sloughs, this is most often the case.

Understanding some of these basic migration and habitat preferences will be key to success when targeting Coho Salmon anywhere on the British Columbia Coast. The same can be said for Chinook Salmon, Sockeye, Pink and Chum Salmon. Understanding fish habitat and migratory preferences are the keys to success.

Gear selection and angling techniques used for Coho vary depending on the type of water you choose to fish. When fishing the backwaters, side channels or shallow flats we prefer to use a floating line, slow sink or slow sink tip monocore line. Combine either of these lines with a long 12 to 16-foot leader and you have a great shallow water presentation. Keep in mind these fish are usually in the staging mode so they are just swimming around in circles for days and often weeks. They spook quite easily, hence the reason for using long leaders.

When targeting migrating Coho, your line selection will vary depending on depth and current speed. We like using a Versa Tip or changeable tips for easy and quick change when conditions are constantly changing. More often than not, water depth and speed can change two or even three times in a small stretch of river. Having the ability to quickly and easily change your line will often be the difference between success and failure.

Using shorter leaders with sink tips lines is usually is what is required for targeting migrating fish. Again, the speed of current and depth will determine sink rate and leader length.

Fly selection for Coho salmon is broken down into two groups, minnow imitation and attractor flys. Minnow imitations include Rolled Muddlers, Sculpin, and Leech Patterns. Attractor flys would include just about anything that has flash. We like to refer them as Flash Flys. Some commercial patterns would include, Christmas Tree, Kelseys Hope, Illusion. We prefer to tie our own using three basic colors of crystal flash. Blue, Green & Crystal.

One very important factor when choosing the right fly for water conditions is sink rate. The sink rate of the fly combined with the fly line has more effect on success than the fly itself. What I mean by this is that more often than not, I see anglers striping too fast or not fast enough. This is usually because the fly is sinking too fast or not at all. Combining the right weight of fly with the fly line is critical to success. I would even go as far to say that its probably the most important factor of all, once you found the fish.

If you were to look through our fly boxes you would start to see that most if not all of our salmon flys are weighted. For Coho, we like to use bead headed flys for shallow water, barbell eyes for faster deeper water. I guess the easiest way to me to describe the optimum weight of fly combined with fly line is to say that regardless of the water type, depth or speed, don’t let the fly or fly line control your rate of retrieve. If your fly requires moderate retrieve action to attract a strike, then don’t let the fly line or weight of fly make you retrieve too fast, or on the other hand too slow.




I guess I could go on and on about fly presentation, fly choices, lines and so on. Hopefully, the information above will help you get started as you search out for that elusive Coho on the fly. If you have any comments, questions or suggestions, please feel free to contact me.

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