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The Search of Salt Spring Smallmouth

By Rodney Hsu, Fishing with Rod | Published in August 2002

Our lakeside accommodation by St Mary Lake on Salt Spring Island

For many years, I have been hearing wonderful things about a tiny little place among the gulf islands. Salt Spring Island is known to be a popular holiday destination, yet it has managed to stay low keyed to avoid becoming a grand tourist attraction such as Victoria. The island is a favorite hangout for artists, farmers, naturalists and of course, anglers. In the mid 1990's while I was still mountain bike racing, I was told that a bike tour around the Saltspring is a must. When I started spending more time wetting my line in BC, I began to find out the quality fishing this island offers.

My urge of catching a bass has become stronger this year after hearing stories of dozens of hook-ups from people who have visited St Mary Lake. St Mary Lake is the largest lake on the island that is famous for its smallmouth bass fishing. Comparison between the strength of a bass and a salmon has always been a hot topic among anglers in North America, but I wasn't going to make any assumptions until I have tried both of them out. In Eastern Canada and many parts of US, bass fishing is a popular fishery. In British Columbia, it is only being done by a small number of anglers. In the last two decades, bass fishing has become extremely common in Japan and many other Eastern Asian countries. What exactly is making these fish so attractive? I was extremely eager to find out. During a weekend in early August, I decided to make a trip to Salt Spring Island and search for the infamous smallies of St Mary Lake.

The morning of our departure was a circus, as we did not plan for the trip until two days before. Realizing that there were only two ferries leaving to the island on that day, I woke up early and made a reservation just for precaution. Just before we took off to the Tsawwassen terminal, I rushed by Berry's Bait and Tackle to pick up some necessities. While lurking through the shop, I stared at a huge selection of bass offerings and scratched my head. Jig, jerk bait, grub, tube bait, these are all terminologies that most West Coast anglers would never come across. Thankfully, after being helped by a couple of bass experts at the shop, I was able to pick out a few products and more importantly knowing how to rig them up.

The ferry ride was long, and I was restless and anxious to test out my weedless jigs. We arrived in Long Harbour at 2:00pm, and what a beautiful place it is! Cabins could be seen along the forested shoreline. As the ferry docked onto the pier, seals popped their heads out on the water surface and looked on curiously. After we had landed, the meandering, narrow road took us through scenic countryside until we reached out destination. Lakeside Gardens was where we called home during our stay on the island. It's a camping resort that locates along the northshore of St Mary Lake. We stayed in one of the little cabins available at the resort, which are called cabanas. Each cabana is built by the water, allowing us to enjoy the lake view. Cooking and dining tools were provided, while a communal washroom is only seconds away from the cabin. Once we settled in at 3:00pm, I was eager to survey the waters, so we paddled out with our fishing rods without any great expectation.

Not knowing what we were doing as we were bass newbies, we began to chuck spoons at any direction in the middle of the lake. After all, spoons are universal lures that no fish can resist, right? Cast after cast, not a single hit was felt. As frustration began to emerge on the boat, we noticed one boat drifting slowly and quietly along the weedy shoreline. Two anglers on the boat were tossing their bait or lures towards the weeds. I recalled those boring nights when I watched the Bassmaster tournament on TNN, these gentlemen's fishing techniques were just like what I saw on TV! Realizing what I had done wrong, we quickly paddled to the nearest shallow weed bed.

My first smallmouth bass from St Mary Lake

I tied a squid-like weedless jig onto the end of my line. We began casting to the edge of the exposed weed bed, letting the jig sink for a few seconds before jigging slowly. After many casts under the bright sunny day, we did not feel any tugs at all. As it began to look depressing, my girlfriend started mumbling, "I think I got something..."

She reeled in slowly and curiously. The weight on the end of her line was not fighting, it seemed like a clump of weed to me. As soon as that thought passed through my mind, line started to peel off her reel. It was a fish after all! Seconds after that, the hook popped out of the fish and we never saw its face. The atmosphere on the boat suddenly changed. Knowing that we are doing something right, we quickly returned into our casting and jigging mode. Minutes later, as soon as I started jigging after a cast, I felt a dead weight on the end of my line. I quickly reeled it in, keeping the tension. As the "weight" was brought closer to the boat, it began to fight! Once again, the sound of the drag broke the silence. Fish on! Seconds later the fish emerged and shook its head as it leaped on the water surface. By this point both my girlfriend and I were beyond excited. It was refreshing to see a different species being caught for once. It was a medium sized fish. I grabbed onto its mouth with my fingers and held it out of the water for a couple of seconds while my girlfriend snapped a photo of it. A couple of head shakes and it vanished into the deep after I placed it back in the water.

That fish was the only one we landed during our first afternoon on St Mary Lake. We paddled back to the cabin after an hour to freshen up and eat dinner. That evening we spent a couple more hours fishing around the same weed bed until dusk. The result was optimistic. We hooked into many fish, however our landing ratio was very low. Only five fish or so out of the twenty fish that we hooked were brought to the boat for a glance. We were delighted, but at the same time very frustrated. That night I was very sleepless, those long line releases haunted me. I was determined to reach a higher success rate for the rest of the trip.

Nina's tiny smallmouth bass

The next morning, we were up and ready to go just after sunrise. While Nina was getting ready, I decided to do a few casts in front of the cabin. I slowly dipped my feet into the muddy bottom, and casted directly out towards a floating dock that was 20 meters from shore. Once the jig sank for a few seconds, I started jigging. Several jigs later, I could feel a huge tug on my line! A quick jerk of the rod, the fish started to dive into the weeds and seconds later it was off the line. Still half awake, I stood there with my mouth wide open.

At this point Nina had walked back to the cabin. She asked, "What are you doing?"
I replied by asking, "Did you see what happened??"
"No, what?"
"A fish... A fish actually grabbed the jig right in front of me... Right in front of the house!"

We both chuckled for awhile then rowed the boat towards where we were fishing yesterday. "There is no doubt that we are going to catch more than yesterday." I thought, based on last night's result. The morning turned out to be quite the opposite. For hours we rowed around to different spots and not a single fish were hooked.

Frustrated, we decided to head back to the cabin for a late breakfast. However before we did, we tried another spot one last time. This time, I decided to attach a Drennan float above the jig, allowing the jig to suspend in the water longer. The technique that I used was similar to what crappy anglers do, I jigged and let the float sit on the surface for several seconds. After repeating the process several times, finally the float disappeared in the greenish water. A strike and a minute later the fish was landed. This occurred several times in a row. Unlike the sleepy fish that were hooked by bottom jigging, these float hooked fish ran as soon as they were hooked. Seeing how many fish I was hooking, Nina was eager to use a float too. Instead of the late breakfast that we planned, we ended up spending an extra hour fishing at that particular spot.

Besides fishing, there are other activities that non fishers can participate in too. That afternoon we decided to leave fishing behind for awhile. An afternoon dip in the St Mary Lake under the scorching sun was extremely refreshing. We spent several hours driving around the island. The trip to the lookout point on Mt Maxwell was breathtaking, and I recommend all to check it out while on the island. Deer were a common sight on the island too. Motorists are always warned to look out for them. There are many art studios that tourists can visit, it's a great opportunity to appreciate some of the best Canadian artists' work.

Our second evening's fishing result was not very successful. Heavy wind drifted our small row boat around, causing undesirable fishing conditions. Although the fishing wasn't too spectacular, I was very satisfied by what I witnessed. I've already heard about bass' ability to strike surface moving preys with a big splash. During our trip, that was something I looked forward to see. It wasn't until the second night when I saw one particular bass that continuously leaping from the water right by some lilly pads. My attempts to catch it with my float setup failed, but it did startled me when it came up and slammed on my tiny Drennan float. I was truly amazed, and I will definitely remember some surface swimming lures when visiting St Mary in the future.

After we parted from Lakeside Gardens on our last day, we decided to tour the island some more as we had six hours of waiting before the ferry departed. Our drive took us along the seashore on the northeast side of the island. While scanning along the coastline for interesting objects, I spotted a long pier. I was still itching to fish, so needless to say we decided to kill the rest of the day by doing some jetty fishing. Some locals were already fishing on the pier when we arrived. One kid informed me the type of species that I may find and the likelihood of catching a salmon was pretty large.

Kelp greenling from Salt Spring Island

We only had our light spinning rods, so we decided to cast our tiny worm jigs into the kelp bed where species such as rockfish, greenling may present. Saltwater pier fishing is always very exciting, just seeing schools of small fish by the pylons can entertain me for hours. It wasn't long before we felt bites on our spinning rods. Within one hour or so, we caught and released some very beautiful kelp greenling. I was amazed by how many redrock crabs were caught in cages when they were brought up by the crab fishermen. At one point, a crab fisherman found a very surprising catch in his cage that brought laughter onto the entire pier. Inside his cage, there was a large perch hopping around! It seems fishing rods are not necessary when you are after the big ones on this island.

Our trip ended with a long, wavy ride on a small BC ferry. Spending three days was simply not enough to enjoy Saltspring fully. We shall be back next year, with a longer trip planned out. Many thanks to Mark Toole at Lakeside Gardens for his most pleasant hospitality. If you wish to escape from your busy urban life without traveling for days, Saltspring Island may be your perfect destination.