Flavourful wild Pacific salmon never disappoints, whether poached and served with a rich buttery sauce or savoured in all its robust red glory, delicately smoked and thinly sliced. But this princely protein is so much more than its tasty end result. Salmon are a keystone species, meaning that entire ecosystems rely on their abundance. Salmon feed not only humans, but also whales, bears, eagles, and a multitude of other species. In fact, the Pacific Salmon Foundation estimates that more than 130 different species of plants and animals rely on wild Pacific salmon.
Wild Pacific salmon are anadromous, which means they divide their lives between fresh and saltwater. Born in freshwater, they make their way to the ocean, then in maturity battle their way home against river currents, as far as 3,000 km (1,864 mi) to their natal waters, where they spawn and die. Their decaying carcasses, abandoned by eagles and bears, then fertilize coastal and inland forests with vast amounts of nitrogen. For thousands of years, salmon have also played an integral role in the cultural identity of this region’s Indigenous people, who recognize five tribes of Pacific salmon. We know these species as chinook, sockeye, coho, pink and chum. While they may look similar at first glance, each type of salmon has its own unique flavour and fat content. Prized chinook salmon have the highest fat content and offer a rich, buttery texture, while pink salmon, for instance, have lighter-coloured flesh and is more delicate in flavour. Versatile and nutritious, salmon can be grilled, poached, fried, baked, smoked or candied.
Throughout history, salmon have been captured through a variety of methods, some of which are still in practice today. For example, in the Fraser River canyon, fishers “gaff” or dip-net fish in the turbulent water below from perilous positions on rocks or wooden platforms. You can observe this Secwepemc (shi-huep-muh-k) fishing method at one of the four Xatś?ll (hat-sool) fishing rocks on the Fraser River, part of the Xat’sull Heritage Village, about 38 km (20 mi) north of Williams Lake. The heritage centre also offers a traditional roasted salmon lunch, prepared in a fire pit. The fishing grounds of the St’at’imc (stat-lee-um) people at Xwisten (hoist-in), near Lillooet, also offer demonstrations of their traditional wind-dry method in preparing salmon for the winters ahead.
There are many ways to experience salmon fishing in this region, whether it’s inland or closer to the ocean, with most visitors choosing a lodge as their home base. On the coast, millions of salmon make first landfall at River’s Inlet and Hakai Pass after battling northern Pacific currents in search of their natal streams. En route, these salmon pass some of the most famous fishing holes on the coast, including Odlum Point, the Gap and Barney Point, where gentle back eddies provide rest and feeding areas for salmon and outstanding fishing opportunities for anglers and Orcas. The Dean River is another well-known salmon fishing spot; some outfitters on the river provide a base camp for fishing expeditions. The tiny settlement of Kleena Kleene, just 31 km (19 mi) west of Tatla Lake on Highway 20 and mere minutes from Clearwater Lake, is a departure point for float-plane excursions to remote fishing lakes and rivers and the region’s celebrated alpine wilderness. Local guest ranches and lodges, some with canoe-to-your-door chalets, also offer land and boat touring, photography treks and working ranch holidays.
If you would rather watch grizzlies and black bears fish for salmon, or just witness this miraculous migration for yourself, consider staying at one of the region’s numerous fishing lodges in September or October. Many business operators are active environmental stewards, providing opportunities to educate their guests about salmon and their circle of life. Their guides can lead you along rivers and tributaries as they turn crimson with spawning fish, not only to fish, but also to observe. Pack your camera and longest lenses and take your place along the shore on a viewing platform or board a boat and capture grizzly bears fishing for salmon.
Witness the spawning spectacle for yourself just by hiking along the banks of the Atnarko River (Tweedsmuir Provincial Park), Quesnel Lake, the Bowron chain (Bowron Lake Provincial Park), Cariboo River (Cariboo River Provincial Park), Horsefly River (Horsefly Provincial Park) and the Mitchell River. In late summer or fall, keep your eyes trained on the water for a flicker of red.
Aside from the five species of wild Pacific salmon, you can also fish the region’s crystal clear lakes for kokanee salmon, the freshwater, or non-anadromous, subspecies of sockeye salmon. Follow Highway 24, known as the “Fishing Highway”, a modern, paved road that runs east to west between Little Fort and 100 Mile House in the South Cariboo (atop of the Fraser Plateau). Many of the lakes, including spring-fed Bridge Lake with its crystal-clear waters, are teaming with kokanee as well as burbot, rainbow and lake trout.
Whether you experience salmon through an Indigenous tour, watch local wildlife fish for dinner, or cast a line into a remote salmon river yourself, you are sure to appreciate your next meal of wild Pacific salmon when you understand the cultural and biological importance of this species. Start planning your trip to view spawning salmon, take a wildlife or eco-tour, or try catching one yourself.
By Jane Zatylny