July 2016

July 2016
July 2016
July 2016

Bottom Fish and Not Halibut!

Larry E. Stefanyk

 Salmon fishing can range from productive and exciting to disappointingly dull and unproductive. In the latter case, bottom fishing often saves the day. The British Columbia coastline harbors a cornucopia of bottom-dwelling fish that are often overlooked by anglers enamoured with salmon. Best-known is the rockfish family. Coastal Fishes of the Pacific Northwest lists 26 species that have been recorded at one time or another. They range from miniature pygmy rockfish, fully grown at seven inches, to hefty yelloweyes weighing 30 pounds or more. Most prized are deep-water (200 to 600 feet) species like yelloweye and canary rockfish, which attain the largest sizes. Smaller species like quillback, black, brown and copper rockfish — all available at moderate depths (30 to 200 feet) — also provide good sport and excellent eating. For sheer fun, black rockfish are often taken right on the surface, where they readily hit cast flies or lures.

 Lingcod are another species encountered by anglers. Despite their name, these toothy beasts are not cod, but the largest member of the greenling family. "Large" used to mean up to five feet (or more) long and 100 pounds. Sadly, these behemoths are gone from heavily-fished waters, but they are still possible in some of the more remote areas. Fortunately, more and more anglers are releasing large lingcod, which are spawning-age females. Another good reason is that smaller fish — less than 20 pounds — are of better eating quality.
Smaller members of the greenling family are available in many areas, most notably kelp greenling and rock greenling. Peaking at three to four pounds, they are strong, frisky fighters on light tackle, and even better eating than lingcod.

Cabezon, largest members of the sculpin family, are homely critters that prowl around kelp beds. They bite something like a rockfish, then usually make one or two short, determined runs. What follows is akin to dead-lifting a bucket of cement, then what appears from the depths is a sight that often scares the bejabbers out anglers the first time they see it — a huge, gape-mouthed head the size of a dinner plate, with pectoral fins of the same diameter fully extended. However, like most sculpin they are mostly all head — a case of the fish being about as long as it is wide. Although most anglers scorn them as a food, Cabazon flesh is as tasty as other bottom fish.

 Another species that will never win any beauty contests is skate. The largest member of this flattened family of fishes is called big skate. They have been recorded at up to eight feet long, which would put them at well over 200 pounds. The most disconcerting thing about big skate is not their length but the way they cover so much area. Being compressed from top to bottom has done strange things to their bodies — flattened them into an almost diamond shape, with a long, skinny tail tacked onto the stern almost as an afterthought.
 I don't know that anyone actually sets out to fish for skate, but they do pop up occasionally, especially when live or dead baits are fished over flat, muddy bottoms near the mouths of rivers. Their sheer size make skate a worthy adversary on the line, and they are quite edible. The wings, which make up much of the fish's mass, can be prepared in a number of ways, including deep-frying small pieces in a light batter and serving them as scallops.

 Another well-represented species along the coast are the flatfishes — everything from hand-sized sand dabs to halibut easily topping 200 pounds. Flounder and sole can often be caught at depths ranging from 30 to 100 feet, making them ideal for trout- and bass-weight spinning or casting tackle. They put up an amazingly strong, active fight for their size, and are unsurpassed as table fare. Many folks consider lemon sole the tastiest of the flatties, but the truth is that most of the family offers some mighty fine eating. The exception is arrowtooth flounder, also incorrectly known as turbot. As these fish reach lengths of two feet or more, they are often mistaken for small halibut. Don't believe it. The flesh is soft, mushy, and bland. A few friends have ignored my advice to release arrowtooths they have caught, and all have been totally disappointed with the results.

 Seaperch are some of the sportiest fish found along our coastline. Reaching lengths of up to 16 inches, these deep-bodied scrappers will gladden the heart of any angler. Largest of the family are pile perch and striped seaperch — commonly called surfperch. Pile perch are usually found in protected waters around piers, pilings, bridges and jetties. Although wary by nature, they can be tempted by carefully-presented offerings on light line. First-time pile perch anglers are always surprised when they initially hook one, for they are much stronger than most freshwater game fish of equal size.

Striped seaperch prefer the more open waters found along rocky or sandy shorelines, and can even be found in heavy tidal flows. Boat anglers can jig or fish bait for them with light spinning or bait-casting tackle, but surf-casters must, of necessity, use heavier gear. It must be strong enough to make long casts with heavy weights. As hang-ups and lost tackle are a fact of life in this type of fishing, surf anglers use disposable sinkers like small cloth bags filled with sand or rocks, pieces of scrap metal, discarded spark plugs — virtually anything that has little or no value and is heavy enough to cast well.

 These are but a few of the so-called bottom fish most commonly encountered by anglers probing the waters of British Columbia, merely a fraction of the 542 species listed in Fishes of The Pacific Coast of Canada. So if the salmon refuse to cooperate, take some time out to try for halibut, lingcod, Cabazon or deep-water rockfish. Better yet, dig out some light tackle and try for shallow-water rockfish, greenling, flounder or perch. Be warned, however, that it can become addictive.

Huxley’s Run: 

For two days in a row we had fished the Tyee Pool at the mouth of the Campbell River for chinook salmon. And for two days huge schools of pink salmon swam beneath and around the rowboat. As waves crested in the tide rip, the pinks were visible; like paintings on small walls of water.
It was to be one of the largest returns ever of pink salmon to the Campbell and Quinsam River systems that year. All we knew was that tyee fishing was very slow.
When the wind picked up and made rowing almost impossible, we picked up and headed back into the estuary to the dock. Just past the dock we noticed some of the pinks had schooled up, showing themselves on the surface as the full return to fresh water took over their bodies.
“Lot of them,” I said, boating the oars.
“Sure are,” said Brent. “Fresh in too.”
We looked at the pinks, then at each other, then at the pinks.
Brent went up to his truck and got his five weight fly rod. Minutes later I quartered the rowboat just upwind of the pinks and Brent started casting.
Even though it was the estuary, with virtually no current, the wind made it difficult to row the boat and keep it off the school of salmon. On his fifth cast, Brent hooked one. My hat. His fly hit it at speed and knocked it off my head. I let go of the oars, picked up my hat and removed his fly.
“We keeping that one?” he asked.
I slapped the hat back on and rowed into a position that he could both reach the school of salmon and not cause me further injury.
The first pink hit quickly and put up a marvelous fight on the light fly rod. It still had sea lice on it. It was about as fresh in and fresh in gets.
Brent then took the oars and it was my turn.
Again and again we took turns on the rod and the oars. Again and again the pinks took the fly, some leaping into the air in wild vaults, others heading deep to the estuary bottom.
We took a break and reflected on what we were doing. We had intended to fish for chinook salmon of over 30 pounds in the annual Tyee Club of British Columbia tournament. It’s a fishery that takes patience and that involves many tides without so much as a nibble.
And just on a whim, without real interest, we had decided to try the pinks.
The pinks were super silver, ranging from three to five pounds and, to a fish, put up extraordinary struggles on our light gear.
“How many anglers from around the world would give their eye teeth to have this kind of fishing?” I asked.
“A lot of them,” said Brent.
“And here we are taking it as an afterthought, as something to pass the time until the wind goes down and we can get back out in the hopes of getting maybe one fish the entire season,” I said.
“Only in Campbell River,” said Brent, and made another cast.

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