Searching for Salmon

If you want to experience the awe inspiring spectacle of a salmon run, consider making a trip up to the hatchery on the Big Qualicum River in the next week or so. I headed down island and checked out the Big Qualicum River Hatchery and was amazed at the number of Chum Salmon (Oncorhynchus keta)  and Coho Salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) that were in the river and the spawning channels. Both of these species are late-in-the-year spawners, so now is an excellent time to look for them.

The Chums definitely outnumbered the Cohos, but with a little searching I was able to find several of the striking red-sided salmon in the spawning channels and main branch of the river. The hatchery releases 100,000 chum, 5,000 coho, and 2,000 chinook each year, so the ratio between Chum and Coho seems about right.

Coho Salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch)
A Coho Salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) photographed from one of the many counting fences that cross the spawning channels. Note the red sides and greenish head.

There are quite a few old Chums spawned out on the banks of the river, but I wasn’t able to find any spawned out Cohos to photograph. I love working with dead fish as subjects, but the Chums on the shore were well decayed and not very photogenic. I tried to get a couple of shots of the salmon in the water, but the light wasn’t great for transparency and it was hard to see the fish well. Might be better to visit the hatchery on a sunny day, especially if you’re planning on taking photographs.

Coho Salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch)
Not much of a view of this Coho Salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch), but you can get an idea of the rich colour of the fish.

It’s easy to separate the Cohos from the Chums. Look for fish that are bright red on the sides and somewhat greenish on the back and head. The Chum are more blotchy on the sides and not nearly as bright, looking almost grey in the water. With a little patience you’ll be able to see both species in the river and spawning channels.

Spawning Channel at Big Qualicum River Hatchery
A spawning channel at Big Qualicum River Hatchery. If you look closely at the water in the bottom right hand corner you can see several Chum Salmon. Click on the image to make it larger.

There are several trails that wind along the river and in many places counting fences allow you to cross over the spawning channels and watch the fish as they make their way up stream. This network of roads and trails is part of the Big Qualicum River Regional Trail, a 10 km long gravel hatchery road that follows the Big Qualicum River and eventually takes you to Horne Lake (suitable for family cycling).

All in all, the Big Qualicum River Hatchery is a very interesting place to visit right now – there are lots of salmon in the river and plenty of other wildlife viewing as well. Gulls are numerous and signs that black bears are visiting the river for the feast are evident.

Make sure to stop at the bridge over the Big Qualicum River on Highway 19A (Old Island Highway) before or after you’ve visited the hatchery. It’s a great spot to see numerous species of birds and the occasional seal that is also searching for salmon!

Getting There:

Use the Google Map below to find your way to the Big Qualicum River Hatchery. Note that typical access is via Horne Lake Road onto River Road. While Fisheries Road takes you to the hatchery, the entrance to the hatchery parking lot from this road was gated. Zoom in to see more detail.