Well Ok, this piece isn’t about the River Wensum at night, and the species might not technically be a barbel, but it is as close to barbel fishing as you can get. Legering baits on the river bed. Even float fishing in a fast current, but there any similarity to our own fishing ends. For this bottom feeding species is the world’s largest freshwater fish, topping out at over 1000lbs in weight. There is no need for a mammoth expedition to some remote outpost in a distant backwater of the world. No compulsory innoculations, language problems, corruption payments or worry over your best tackle
getting lost by the airline (although it may happen). For the venue is British Columbia on the west coast of Canada, regularly served by many of the world’s leading airlines. I first “discovered” the fabulous fishing of B.C. while on assignment to write up a story on the Halibut fishing off Vancouver Island. Doubled up with superb Salmon fishing I thought I was in piscine heaven. That was until I tuned in the tiny portable TV set at the campsite, to a fishing show where a man was standing in the water cradling what looked like a six-foot barbel! Now that was something I had to look into.
The following year I was all booked up, having tracked down the best operator in the area. I set myself the target of catching a giant White Sturgeon from the Fraser River. If I caught one on the 10-day trip it would be deemed a success. If I broke the 100lb barrier it would be heaven indeed. At dinner that first evening I was celebrating with a beer having passed both targets. Add to that, vast Salmon of 30lbs taken on light tackle, and you will see why my subsequent trip with a few friends got totally out of control .As word got round of my success, the “friends” suddenly mushroomed into a huge crowd of 27 gung-ho, sturgeon-mad English anglers. By the end of that one-week we had recorded 189 Sturgeon to over 300lbs, and I promise you the fishing was nothing more than average. So here are the facts, which is what you want to know if interested in sampling this outrageous fishing holiday.
The Fraser River is vast.1000 miles long and is known to have not only the largest population of White Sturgeon in the world, but the biggest individuals as well. The rod and line record for the river was well in excess of 1,200lbs, and there is an excellent chance of breaking the 200lb barrier. I would suggest an average weight for a white to be 80lbs, and even then you can target two different groups. The Fraser River has both the biggest fish, and the most, with the main hotspot being a place called “The Big Eddy”, near the town of Mission. From here upstream to the junction of the Harrison River you have dozens of spots to try. If you want a high average size then the Harrison River upstream from where it joins the Fraser is the place. It has a gin-clear runoff from Harrison Lake up in the forests, and two spots regularly produce. Either the bottom end of the lake where it narrows down to become a river, or between the Indian cemetery and the tributary of Weaver Creek. When the Salmon runs occur then the Sturgeon start to gorge on both the eggs and the spent Salmon. Such high protein feed means the Surgeon can pack on weight daily, And at the tail end of the Salmon run, when the mortality is at its highest rate, a 100lb Sturgeon can pack on up to 50lbs of fat in just a few weeks. So how does the system of catching one work? Being totally bottom feeders they have an extendable mouth to hoover up food, and a series of barbules, which are unbelievably sensitive for food location. I have tried several times to catch them from the log booms moored to the bank, and from the bank itself. Despite having the right bait I have only had one bite. Boat fishing is the only way to go. For this you hire an aluminium jet boat.
Think of a metal speedboat and you would be close. The difference is in the power unit. These are high tech, state-of-the-art machines designed specifically for running boulder-strewn rivers at high speed. You could not use an outboard in shallow water as the propeller will ground on the bottom. A jet boat has an inboard engine with a stern propulsion tube that acts just like a jet, hence the name. They can top thirty knots, so hang on to your hat! If it rains, and the area is in the Pacific Rim rainforest, then the boat has a complete zip-around canopy to seal you in. Add to that a boat heater and you can see you have every luxury you could want. The tackle side is fully catered for, and there is no need to take any of your own rods. The guides use around a nine-foot, one-piece Lamiglas blank designed exactly for taking the strain on big fish, but giving plenty of bend on 100-pounders.
Reels are either Shimano TLD 15 Lever drags, or Shimano Calcutta. The line is always braid, ideally Gorilla braid in the 150/200lb breaking strain. Such high strength is used not for the strength of the fish but due to the fact that the rivers are prime logging areas. On both rivers you will see tug boats hauling vast rafts of immense logs down to the sale area or sawmills. Every so often a boom comes apart and one of the logs becomes stuck in the bottom. If they lodge in soft mud and have an end sticking up, they are called “dead heads”. Dangerous for both jet boats and for Sturgeon to snag a line on. Many times I have had the line running around a tree on the riverbed, and thanks to the amazing strength of the braids have manoeuvred the boat to clear the snag and land the fish. Terminal tackle is simplicity itself. A small plastic running Clements boom, a barrel swivel. Three feet of doubled 200lb braid for the trace, and a Canadian 6/0 hook. Nothing complex about that. A 1lb lead holds the rig in place on the riverbed and the rod is placed in a holder. Three rods are fished at once. Any more would risk a tangle.
Bait is split into three good catchers. Salmon Gills. A section of Lamprey. A ball of Salmon eggs. The latter is the best by far. But the way it is presented might prove interesting. There are five species of Pacific Salmon, all of which run the Fraser and its tributaries at some stage of the year. Pink/Humpback, Coho, Dog/Chum salmon, Sockeye and the largest, the Spring/King/or Tyee, which is the largest of its species in the world, topping 125lbs. When the Salmon are packed up ready to spawn, the Sturgeon are at the downstream end, mopping up eggs and dying fish. Depending on the species of Salmon running at the time, the guides use a marinated gob of eggs, the size of a golf ball, spooning it into a small section of women’s tights. Elasticated thread ties it up, and the hook is nicked through the mesh just once, making it look something like a hair rig. With the rig lobbed just fifteen yards down current the rod is placed in the holder, the reel locked on strike drag, and you wait for the bite.
Now comes the tricky part. Despite its immense size, White Sturgeon give you a tiny bite. The tip barely taps away, and you have to wait until it pulls down firmly before you set the hook hard with several upward strikes. The majority of the Sturgeon will come straight to the surface, and leap clear of the water, even fish to 400lbs,which makes an impressive sight when just thirty yards away. Once hooked up, the guide makes an assessment of the size and either fight the fish from the anchored boat, or slips the anchor onto a buoy and you drift off after your quarry. Sturgeon to 120lbs can be manhandled aboard for photos and tagging. Anything larger and the boat goes to the shore and you get to beach the fish there. They can be docile in the shallow water and chances of getting good pictures before release are excellent. The guides are superb in this respect and know all the angles to get the best shots.
White Sturgeon in the Fraser River system are protected, with all fish being released alive. In recent years they have implemented a tagging programme whereby the fish is brought inboard and placed in a canvas sling. It is then measured and a bar code chip injected under its skin. This is then recorded into a manual scanner and the next time the fish comes aboard the chip can be scanned, just like the bar code at your local supermarket. Already in just a few years the guides have recorded in excess of 3000 Sturgeon, covering a wide range of sizes. The White Sturgeon was harvested commercially, but for its meat, not for the eggs (caviar) as is the case with the Beluga Sturgeon. Some illegal commercialling still goes on, and with an age span of up to 80 or 100 years, the species is susceptible to over fishing. You would expect the same fish to be caught continually, but there is still an amazingly low recapture rate on tagged fish, thus indicating a strong head of stock. One particular trip I had a large group of Brits over all hauling on the big fish. When most had cracked the 200lb barrier you could virtually see the British freshwater angler’s mind at work. What about a change of rigs? Would bigger baits catch bigger fish? Two lads sharing the boat I was on were serious anglers. One a matchman, the other a barbel angler. Talk got around to whether Sturgeon would take moving baits, then to bait trotted down the current with a float. Our guide, Fred Helmer, was all for a bit of experimentation and soon adapted a Salmon rig using a Mooching reel, which is a centrepin reel with a central drag control nut, and shotted up a float using pipe lead. Our duo took it in turns trying to trot the bait down in the current and after an hour had a bite which they missed. “Give it longer “said Fred. So with four pairs of eyes focusing on a float we waited for it to happen. When it did our matchman Paul needed nerves of steel to let that float stay under, but his strike produced wild cheers as the rod folded over and a Fraser River Sturgeon cleared the water. Fortunately it was a forty pounder, but Fred still proclaimed it as being the first float caught Sturgeon ever!
How many can you get in one day on standard legering techniques? Of course the guides have the occasional blank, but it is rare. They keep in touch by mobile phones to tell each other the spots and baits, plus these jet boats are so fast you can change areas in minutes. The best day for big numbers was by Fred and his guides fishing without clients. 27 sturgeon in excess of 100lbs. That’s the best, but I do feel an average would be three a day, a good day 7- 10. Add to this Salmon to 30lbs and you see why arms get tired. If British Columbia’s Fraser River system sounds like paradise it would not be far from the truth. For nowhere in the world will you get so many shots at achieving your personal best freshwater fish. As far as Barbel fishing in the UK is concerned, it is never quite the same after you have cradled a 7 – footer in your arms and watched it swim away unharmed.
TIME OF YEAR- August to November inclusive. Rain starts around mid-October. May-June water too high and cold due to winter snowmelt. Guide costs. Not cheap. Allow $700+ Canadian, but split between 2/3 anglers for full boat charter. License extra.
ACCOMODATION– Loads of hotels/motels, some quite cheap. Lots of Shopping Malls etc. You are in the main town area, just ten minutes from the river.
FLIGHTS– London to Vancouver, usually via Calgary or Edmonton. The town of Mission is about 1 ½ hours drive inland from Vancouver airport.
TRANSPORTATION– Taxi can be arranged. Car hire at airport. Handy to have if you want to fish local smaller rivers for Salmon
PRICE GUIDE- Depends entirely on how many boat days you have, and whether you share rooms/car etc.Remember the more anglers in the boat the less fish you catch. Most people usually go two to a room/boat/car.
COPYRIGHT- GRAEME PULLEN. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.