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Tunkwa Lake Resort
Tunkwa Lake

Nanaimo River, Nanaimo

The Nanaimo River is a fairly large Vancouver Island river that connects with 3 lakes, located just outside of Nanaimo to the South. Being an urban river, the deep holes can get very crowded during the summer and early fall with swimmers and tubers. The upper river is much like the Chehalis River in Region Two, being mostly canyon waters that were once renowned for their large steelhead and chinook salmon with beautiful scenery. That recognition however has fallen away as fish numbers have drastically declined in the past few decades. That being said, the river still does hold low numbers of chinook salmon all 12 months of the year, along with a very small run of winter steelhead, and the typical fall runs of coho, chum and pink salmon. The river can also be a very worthwhile cutthroat trout fishery in the fall and a good rainbow trout fishery in the upper sections above the lakes in the summer.

Although the best years for the Nanaimo are well behind it, the runs are starting to make a slow comeback. There is a small hatchery on the river, which has a primary goal to help restore endangered runs of early spring and summer chinook salmon. The hatchery also produces some pink and coho salmon as well, although numbers produced are not very noteworthy. The steelhead of the Nanaimo use to be world renowned for their size and power, but declines in steelhead numbers all along Vancouver Island's East Coast has caused closures of the whole upper river during the winter, including many of the legendary canyon holes such as the bore hole.

The fishable section of the Nanaimo is quite long during the fall, as most of the river is open even up into the canyon. Access is fairly easy as many roads parallel the river and much of the river is easily wade-able in the fall. Below the Cedar Road bridge is tidal and much of it is First Nation's Reserve so be conscious of this as you fish as you may be asked to leave.

How to Get There?

Several access points for the Nanaimo River can be found along Cedar Road such as the bridge that crosses the Nanaimo River (to access the lower tidal section) and a popular hole behind the fire station in Homer off Burchell Road known as the firehouse pool (lower freshwater section). The upper river canyon is accessible from Nanaimo River Road, but you have to find trails down off the side of the road that can be quite a walk to the river. The area above the lakes is accessible by Nanaimo Lakes forestry service road and much of this road runs right beside the river. Once you have found an access point on the river, it is very easy to wade back and forth and fish the deep holding areas. During the winter this is much more difficult and access is limited. Make sure you check the regulations for closed areas during the fall and winter months.

Fishing Season

Fishing can be done all months of the year in the Nanaimo River. It is known to have chinook salmon for all months of the year, and coho salmon at times from September right up until January. Chinook fishing is best done between July and September. Pink salmon are in thick in early September and start to spawn towards the end of September. By the end of September the chum and coho salmon start entering the river, with peak runs of coho coming in mid October with the rains.

Fishing on this river is best done right after any large rain event. The river becomes extremely low in the fall and summer and fish will stack up in the deep pools. During these low water times fish are extremely picky. Generally it is best to hit the river a day or two after the river starts dropping, which is easily done as this river is one of the few that has a water level graph.

Winter steelhead are also present in this river, but runs have drastically decreased since the river's prime. Runs are so low in fact that the river has been closed above the highway bridge in the winter to protect low runs of fish. Winter steelhead typically enter the river in the early parts of January and will run until late April and into May. During the later season of March to May you might be lucky enough to tie into one of the river's early running chinook salmon. Be sure to treat any of these fish with the utmost respect as the runs are endangered and slowly rebuilding.

Along with salmon and steelhead, the river has good populations of rainbow trout and cutthroat trout. The lower river can be an amazing fishery for cutthroat trout up to 5 pounds in the spring and fall, and the upper river above second lake is a nice scenic area that can be good fishing for rainbows into the summer and fall months.

Fishing Techniques

The Nanaimo River, just like the majority of Vancouver Island Rivers, is a bait ban river. This can make fishing quite difficult during the low water periods when the fish are stacked. During this time jigs in pink, purple and orange, and colorado's in silver dead drifted under a float can be deadly for all species of salmon. Be sure to get your presentation down to the bottom of these deep pools as many are over 20 feet deep. This can make float fishing effectively very difficult.

Since this river is so large, the main method of fishing is swinging spoons in the large runs, or casting and retrieving spoons in the deep pools. Casting and retrieving in the deep pools can be quite effective since they can get down deep in a hurry and can persuade stacked and stale fish to bite. Swinging spoons through the runs is a very good way of covering water quickly, and any fish you hit in runs are generally moving and will be very aggressive, generally hitting on the first cast. Spoons that work well include kwobblers in a 2/5 size in silver, little cleos in a pure silver or silver/orange combo (also in 2/5), and gold hammered fire stripe crocs in the 3/8 size. Koho and Kitimat spoons work well in dirty water or deep pools since their silver plating reflect more light, try these in the 35-45 size in illusion or orange scaling.

Fly fishing is also a very popular method on this river. Fly fishing however is quite difficult as most salmon stack up in deep pools, making it very hard to get down to them. If you can find a shallower run with fish that you can reach, good flies that are worth trying include:

Pink salmon - Pink marabou dumbbell eyed flies, pink handlebars, chartreuse marabou flies, and sparse pink flash flies.

Coho salmon - Olive flash woolly buggers, sprite and mickey rolled muddlers (natural will work too with some flash), flash flies, California neils and Mickey finns.

Chum salmon - Anything big and pink or green, flash flies.

Steelhead - They will respond fairly well to flies in here if you can find one of the odd fish that will come up. Big intruders that work elsewhere will work here in black, orange and pink, as well as roe flies and minnow patterns.

Fly fishing the trout is very popular in the summer and fall. Cutthroat trout take very well to minnow patterns and flash flies in the spring and into the fall. Once later in the fall, they will take very well to rolled muddlers, Mickey finns, flash flies, and roe/flesh imitations, as well as the old trusty crayfish patterns. The rainbow and cutthroat trout fishery in the upper is a popular summer fishery and can be effectively fished with typical dry flies and nymphs.

Important Notes

Before your first fishing trip to Nanaimo River, please make sure you know the following information: