fishing for Chinook Salmon
As I had hoped in a previous post, I managed to survive and successfully return from a recent salmon fishing excursion to the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. And because I lived I am here to tell about it.That may be either a good thing or an horrible waste of your time depending on whether you enjoy this or not.
I had certain expectations going into the trip and will say that nearly all were handily exceeded. Having only been to Vancouver Island once before on a family trip to Butchart Gardens in Victoria when I was a kid, I was actually looking forward to this fishing trip even more than the first visit to the island. Not that an 11 year-old kid doesn’t love touring a giant flower garden with out-of-town relatives, but it’s hard to top a fishing trip. My buddy Fritz has been to Nootka Sound several times before, and he filled me with visions of geographical beauty and fishing awe. To that end I was not disappointed. He also provided me with intel that suggested I may have an opportunity to use my fly rod. So with that in mind I went armed with Coho poppers and baitfish patterns courtesy of my friend Leland Miyawaki. Leland had given me some tips on how to present the flies, and I looked forward to executing the knowledge imparted upon me. Wax on, wax off. I would do my best to make Miyawaki-san proud.
A border crossing, chili dogs, and a not-so-rustic motel.
My Toyota Tacoma (AKA the Fish Taco) was commandeered for the trip so I stopped by Fritz’s house at 8 AM before we picked up his father on our way north. The back seat of the Taco was a bit tight, but apparently not too terribly uncomfortable as “Senior” quickly nodded off for one last stateside nap. Less than two hours later we arrived at the border crossing for some “Duty Free” bottled beverages and a couple cases of Kokanee.
Our first navigational snafu occurred immediately thereafter as we mistakenly got in the Nexus line for frequent crossers. In our defense, the line also appeared to be labeled “duty free” which we assumed meant us. This error in judgment meant we had to pull over under the humorless watch of Canadian security guards and go inside the customs office to pass inspection. Luckily it didn’t involve a body cavity search, and by committing this innocent infraction I think we actually made the crossing faster than if we’d stayed in the proper lane. A half hour later we were in line for the ferry to Nanaimo. With plenty of time to kill, Senior opted to take his first Canadian nap in the back seat while Fritz and I grabbed some chili dogs to ensure that the next leg of our journey would be pleasant for everyone concerned except Senior. Hey – you snooze, you lose, eh? The Canadian chili dogs worked more quickly than their American counterparts to which I am accustomed and I quickly became worried that I would be considered flammable cargo, which is strictly prohibited on ferries.
After an uneventful ferry crossing under thick clouds that afforded no view of our surroundings, we docked at Nanaimo and drove the next leg of our journey to the town of Campbell River. Along the way the clouds lifted and we finally saw the sun and blue skies that one expects to see in August. As we entered Campbell River we gassed up the Fish Taco and checked into our room for the night at The Rustic Motel. To me the term “rustic” conjures up images of a poorly chinked log cabin with rough hewn plank floors and a leaky roof. Based on my preconceptions The Rustic was certainly not what I would consider rustic, and after having stayed at the Ho Hum Motel in West Yellowstone, The Rustic was actually fairly posh.
The salmon were pink; my hat was orange.
Although I’d gone through a mental checklist of everything I could possibly need for the trip, it wasn’t until we were on the road that I realized I’d forgotten a hat. Now, I wear a hat nearly every day so why on this day I left home without one is still a mystery to me. I was able to remedy this as we stopped by the River Sportsman Outdoor Store, which has an impressive selection of hunting and fishing gear, and hats. My new hat for the week would be one that Fritz assured me didn’t look “gay”. After the tags had been removed he commented that the hat looked “a little gay”. I assumed he meant happy and cheerful, and I’ll admit that the orange was uplifting and a nice change from my normally selection of drab-colored hats.
The Pink Salmon were running and the Campbell River itself was abuzz with fishermen. Down south in the States the Pinks aren’t running this year, but just as they bring out the crowds down here, so do they draw hoards of anglers on Vancouver Island. I watched from a bridge as several fish were caught and lost by an equal number of gear and fly fishermen. I contemplated grabbing my 8 wt. and trying my hand at some Canadian Pinks, but two things kept me from doing so: First, an 8 wt. would have been silly overkill; secondly, I didn’t have a fishing license. I didn’t want to risk an infraction so soon after entering the country (and we’d pushed our luck at the border already so I was sure I was on their radar). Instead I returned to our room at the Rustic for happy hour before heading out to grab a bite to eat.
After dinner we stopped by The Tyee Club to watch as hopeful members rowed back and forth in the offshore channel trolling for a potential Chinook salmon that would earn them one of several nice prizes, one of which was a Sage SP gear rod. It’s a neat club with a long-standing tradition dating back to 1926. The club caretaker was quite the character and made the visit worthwhile, even though no fish were caught while we watched.
Breakfast and a kindred spirit.
The next morning we were up and ready for breakfast before the final driving leg of the trip. As we pulled into the parking lot at the Ideal Café I took particular notice of the Jeep Wrangler next to us. Badged with a large decal that read “Single Spey Fly Fishing Adventures” I immediately felt at ease knowing that somewhere inside there lurked a fly fisherman.
After we were seated at our table, Senior pondered aloud, “I wonder who the fly fisherman is?” Seated behind me at a table with his young son was Ken Moreau, the fly fisherman in question and owner of Single Spey Fly Fishing Adventures which is located just a short distance from the famous Roderick Haig Brown heritage property on the banks of the Campbell River. As fly anglers are prone to do, we struck up a conversation. I told him of our destination on Nootka Sound and how I hoped to employ the fly rod on some surface silvers, and Ken gave me a quick rundown on the river fishing on the Island. It sounds like they’ve got quite a fishery up there, and one day I’d like to go back with my Spey rod and swing for some steelhead. I feel as though I’m ahead of the game already as I now have a fly fishing guide to hook up with when I go. Never one to overlook an opportunity to make a potential future fan of Olive the Woolly Bugger, I gave Ken a card. When I returned home from the trip I was delighted to have received an email from him. Nice guy. Certainly an accomplished angler. I hope his son gets hooked on Olive
Next we drove up the island to a place aptly named Cougar Creek. If there was a town there I didn’t see it. Nor did I see a cougar, but there had been recent sightings. From what I could tell there’s only a log landing facility where timber companies bring their harvest and a seasonal settlement for campers who bring their boats to do one thing: fish.
We left the Fish Taco parked there and waited to be picked up on the dock by Fritz’s brother “Roberto” (he may be Mexican – there is some family debate). Roberto had been up there fishing for several days already, and the reports were favorable. As Roberto idled to the dock I was relieved to see that the boat wasn’t named the “SS Minnow” and that we weren’t destined for a “three hour tour.” Once aboard the 26’ Seaswirl Striper named “The Field Office” we made the short run to the small bay where our floating accommodations awaited us.
Nootka Sound Sports Fishing Charters & Accommodations is a very comfortable floating lodge moored in a protected cove that looks directly out into Nootka Sound. While proprietors Elaine and Vaughan Michaud have been running their charter business since 1975, the accommodations weren’t always so refined. In fact, to hear it told the original “lodge” was a bit rustic. I’ll never know, as the original structure at this location on Three Bay Cove was replaced with the current accommodations about 5 years ago.
It’s a very private lodge than can sleep several guests comfortably, though it was only the four of us for all but our last night. We were spoiled by Elaine’s stellar culinary skills, starting each morning at 5 AM with coffee, homemade scones and porridge to get us on our way. We packed with us our sandwiches for lunch and typically fished until mid afternoon, returning to the lodge for a break and a game of cribbage if one were so inclined to let Vaughan impart his dominance accordingly. We enjoyed some incredible dinner fare that included the likes of fresh-caught halibut and lingcod fish & chips, babyback ribs, Alberta steaks and more mouth-watering side dishes than one could shake a gaff hook at.
After dinner we would head back out for the evening bite and fish until dark – usually 8:30 or 9 pm. Following a friendly card game I usually turned in by 10:30 pm, and except for the first night I slept very well. Had I remembered to install my ear plugs the first night I’d have slept well every night. I had received fair warning that Fritz could saw logs, and I found that to be the case the first night. After that the earplugs were effective in drowning out all noises, including my own loud breathing that was confirmed by Fritz. In his defense I will say that Fritz is not in the same league as my buddy Stan the Goosemaster.
During the week we were treated like members of the family. And speaking of family, Elaine’s daughter Michelle was there for a visit. Michelle and her husband Ian Jensen operate a fishing charter outfit on remote Quatsino Sound, which is on the northern tip of Vancouver Island: Gold and Fish Adventures. Michelle’s daughter Sabrina was our dock hand for the week, making sure that imperfect docking maneuvers didn’t result in catastrophes. It should be noted that Vaughan offers full-service fishing from his own boat but my fishing compadres supplied their own vessel for our trip.
A fly rod sits idle.
Our first afternoon of fishing proved a bit slow on the catching side of things, but that evening I drew first blood by landing an 18 lb King. While that put a skip in my step, I also soon realized that my hopes of catching a silver on either a surface popper or a baitfish pattern fished near a kelp bed was not likely going to materialize. The Silvers run later in August and we were in the thick of the Kings. We would end up catching a few Silvers but the opportunity to employ the 8 wt didn’t happen. Although I dreaded having to return home and shamefully profess to Leland that I had failed him, I was able to live with the idea of fishing with anchovies behind flashers. Perhaps Leland will find it within his heart to forgive me after I present him with a nice fillet of Chinook and some smoked Coho.
This method seemed to get it done and by the last day I completely forgot that I was, at heart, a fly angler. I had been transformed into an unshaven, sea-legged, treble-hooking, bait-fishing, down-rigging, fish-killing machine. The closest thing to fly fishing that I encountered was the surprise sighting of a lone caddisfly which had stowed a ride inside the cabin of the boat on our first night. Nobody else on board found anywhere near as much amusement in this as I did. I think they dismissed me as some sort of curious fool taking photos of a bug, and they were right.
Chumming for Salmon
On our second morning Roberto checked the weather and decided that it would be a good day to fish “The Highway” (named for a particular area where the migrating fish pass through en masse). The Highway is located outside of the protected waters of Nootka Sound on the open ocean, and on this day the ocean was allegedly calm. What constitutes “calm” for a salty old sea dog doesn’t necessarily equate to the same thing for an Unaccomplished Angler more accustomed to fishing rivers for trout and steelhead. A wise man would have chosen to sleep in on this day, and Senior proved to be that wise man. A beautiful sunrise indicated that the day would be stellar, and our spirits soared over the prospects of getting into some bright ocean fish. As we made our run several miles from the mouth of Nootka Sound into the open sea, the marine fog obscured the sun. The swells grew to about 4.5 feet and The Field Office, while entirely up to the task and very sea worthy, bounced up and down on the waves like a toy boat (say that 5 times fast).
The wind was calm, however, so all we had to contend with were the ocean swells, which are almost always present in some form or another. As long as we were moving things were fine, but eventually we would have to stop or slow to a troll. God forbid we should have to bend down to re-bait a hook, but bend down to re-bait a hook we did. And that’s when Fritz started to turn green. Mind you I’ve rested my chest on the gunwhales of a boat and blown chow on the ocean before, so I know full well that it’s no laughing matter. To that end I only laughed silently as Fritz heaved his breakfast, then the previous night’s dinner and eventually every meal ingested prior to that. His involuntary gutteral groans signaled that his ribs were cracking and muscles in his stomach and lower back were tearing. I honestly believe Roberto derived some sadistic pleasure out of seeing his little brother hurling his guts over the side of the boat. Older brothers are that way – I have one of my own so I speak from experience.
As I said, I would not allow myself to laugh at Fritz’s misfortune, so the only logical thing to do was to join him in a bit of sympathy puking. Misery loves company, and soon we were both miserable. But in between chumming for fish we actually caught fish. Quite a few in fact, in a short period of time that seemed to last forever. After a couple of hours and ever-weakening physical conditions, Captain Roberto finally decided that we’d had, and caught, enough. Being the only crew member on board worth his salt, I think Roberto was getting tired of having to steer the boat, bait the hooks and land the fish while Fritz and I grew more and more incapable of much other than simply remaining upright. The decision to return to port was a relief, and running with the waves was much smoother. By the time we arrived back at the lodge some color had returned to our faces and we were feeling much better. “Much better” is, however, another relative term and it wasn’t until several hours later that I felt nearly 100%. Barfing is hard on the body, and my throat felt like raw hamburger for the rest of the day. But my abs had never felt to toned so I suppose it was worth it. Oh, the sacrifices we fishermen make to feed our families…
Some sideshow attractions.
*On our way back from our open ocean experience we saw a gray whale and calf in the sound. With my telephoto lens trained on the pair they put on a good show for us.
*I’d heard that it was common for bears to visit the shoreline close to our lodge. I was prepared for disappointment, which was not the case. In fact, right after we arrived initially at the lodge a momma bear and her two young cubs were there to greet us. Throughout the week they arrived at certain times, while another single bear came at other intervals. A three-man slingshot propelled fish heads from the deck of the lodge to the shoreline where the greedy freeloaders appreciative recipients munched down on the delicacies before going back into the woods to forage for other less flavorful foodstuffs. Admittedly I took way more photos of the bears than was required to document the events. After I got home and uploaded all the photos to my computer I gave pause to ask myself, “What was I thinking?”I suppose if I ever do a documentary on the fishhead eating bears of Nootka Sound, the 100 or so photos may come in handy.
*While changing his bait on one occasion Fritz got his hand stung by the tentacles of a poisonous jellyfish. It wasn’t too bad, and I offered to urinate on his hand to neutralize the toxins. I’m not sure if he knew that urine isn’t really effective in reducing the pain or if he just didn’t want me peeing on his hand. At any rate, Fritz passed on the offer and the sting didn’t prove to be too troublesome.
Bounty of the Sea.
We fished for 2-1/2 days and for just a couple hours on our last morning. Had we stayed longer we may have encountered our best harvest of the trip as the final morning proved to be the highest fish-per-hour ratio. We went 2 for 3, with Fritz and I each catching one last King, and one fish coming unbuttoned before we could land it (apparently the Long Distance Release is not completely foreign when salmon fishing with double treble hooks).
We successfully landed a total of 17 fish including 9 Kings that ran from 12 to 18 lbs, and 8 Coho that were mostly in the range of 11 lbs with one tipping the scales at 15 lbs. Not to worry, we left plenty of fish in the sea for propagating the species. I don’t know what all this converts to under the metric system, or even how many meters we traveled to get there and back. I can tell you we took 142 lbs of salmon to St. Jean’s Cannery and Smokehouse in Campbell River to be filleted and smoked, and it was 725 driving miles round trip. The trip was worth every click of the odometer and every day was enjoyable time spent with good friends, old and new. There’s a lot of leisure time involved with trolling for salmon, and the conversation was always engaging. Given our seafaring ways, we discussed many important nautical matters such as the presence of Atlantic Salmon fish farms in the Canadian waters and the age old debate of “Mary Ann or Ginger”. It was agreed that the fish farms are bad, and Mary Ann is the clear winner.
No trip taken by the Unaccomplished Angler would be complete without a few glitches, and to that end we did not disappoint. The 3:15 pm ferry from Nanaimo back to the mainland was sold out, so Fritz and I had to wait for a 5:45 boat. Senior rode back with Roberto, who had made prior reservations so they made the earlier sailing. Via cell phone Fritz learned that Roberto had somehow managed to get in the wrong line at the border and the trailer carrying the Field Office was too wide to allow passage. This caused a bit of a traffic ordeal and it took, allegedly, 15 minutes to clear traffic so they could back up and get in the right lane.
When we finally got on the ferry, the Fish Taco with roof pod was too high for the upper car deck, so traffic was halted as we pulled a U-turn on the deck and had to drive back and get on a lower deck. The stupid Americans in the white Toyota Tacoma smiled and waved apologetically to the slightly annoyed Canadian drivers waiting to board the ferry. In our defense it was the fault of the ticket booth employee who put us in the wrong line. After that it was clear sailing to the border where we passed through customs without incident. Clearly relishing the vision of his older brother stuck in the customs line with the boat in tow, Fritz asked two different border patrol agents if they happened to have seen the big boat that got stuck a few hours earlier. Unfortunately none were able to recall the spectacle.
Because of the late ferry sailing we were well behind all rush-hour traffic on I-5 heading south toward Seattle. However, the delay put us in the thick of construction delays and it was midnight before I rolled into the garage at home, smelling of fish and speaking with a Canadian accent. What is it about me and fishing and traffic?