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Extreme Salmon Fishing in British Columbia’s Haida Gwaii

Big Chinook (King)

British Columbia’s Haida Gwaii archipelago is the Galapagos of the North — and for me, it’s a veritable fishing mecca!

In This Fishing Article You Will Discover:

  • How to Catch Massive Haida Gwaii Salmon
  • How to Reel in Huge Halibut
  • What To Expect When Fishing the Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands)
  • How to Find the Best Fishing Lodges
  • Facts & Info About The Haida Gwaii Archipelago

On the ocean, I feel alive. Rain hammers my wind-burned face and drips down the front of my heavy floater coat. Our fiberglass boat smashes against rolling waves as I full-throttle the howling outboard motor, en route to the plentiful angling grounds. My fishing buddy, Mike, grimaces — gripping the seat in a futile attempt to steady himself as the bow crests one wave and comes down hard on the next. I laugh out loud in spite of it all, both fresh and salt water dripping into my mouth as it opens.

Yes — on the ocean, I feel alive.

Fish Fight!

A double-header (two fish hooked simultaneously) is not uncommon.

North By Northwest

Referred to as the Galapagos of the North, the Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) typify the greatness of Canada’s 25,000-km-long Pacific Coast. Its shores are alive with slimy rockweed and sea lettuce. Rocks are sharp with jagged shellfish of a thousand varieties and crawl with crustaceans. Inshore, bays thick with jungles of bull kelp reveal Titanic sea lions nosing through the surface as they cough, snort and bark — the ocean’s crudest beast and foe to the salmon angler. Further out, humpback, grey and minke whales spew mist into the air then tail-flip their bodies beneath the waves, staying submerged for hours on a single breath.

Before Europeans ever knew of this place, the Haida First Nations called it Xhaaidlagha Gwaayaai — Islands at the Boundary of the World

And that doesn’t even touch on the fishing.

Haida Gwaii is home to the best salmon fishing on Earth. These are the first landmasses migrating salmon encounter on their way from the Arctic feeding grounds to the Pacific Northwest spawning streams. The undeveloped, raw and rich nature of the waters that surround the 1,800-plus islands and islets creates a natural abundance of baitfish — prime feeding grounds for predacious sportfish needing to fuel up on protein for their journey home.

M.V. Marabell

The M.V. Marabell is an ex-Second World War Minesweeper.

Tiny Langara Island, the northernmost point of the archipelago and home to arguably the hottest fishing in the Haida Gwaii, features a half-dozen lodges fiercely competing to supply their guests with a share of this salmon bounty. So fierce is this competitive spirit that guides from opposing lodges are known to exchange sour glances as they pass one another on the water, and some lodge owners carry on feuds with one another that have lasted years.

Oh, the politics of fishing, as foolish as they are.

Anyone who has spent a moment or two with a cut-plug herring dunked in the cold waters surrounding these islands is well aware there is no need for competition of any kind. Lodges are booked to capacity from May to October, and the amount of salmon feeding in waters just a few minutes’ run from any fishing lodge is astounding. Anglers must pace themselves — Fisheries and Oceans Canada allows for a total possession limit of eight salmon; four of which can be caught daily. (And in each of those respective limits, only half can be chinook.) This means one can hypothetically max-out one’s possession limit just two days into a trip.

Chinook Salmon

The author with his first chinook of the trip, a nice 20-pound fish.

In the Haida Gwaii, the hypothetical is real. Just ask fishmaster Ken Beatty of the MV Marabell, one of fishing lodge giant Oak Bay Marine Group’s three Queen Charlotte Island-based operations. Originally from Victoria, BC, Beatty has fished the Pacific for 30-plus-years. A seasoned fishmaster at the Marabell, he cruises the waters around Langara Island in a bright orange Zodiac, test-mooching well-known locations such as Cohoe and McPherson Points and Langara Rocks, as well as less-fished locales like Explorer Bay. (Incidentally, that’s where in 2004 guest Roy Castlesky landed a monstrous 70-pound chinook.)

Beatty, who grew up fishing the waters of Vancouver Island’s Port Renfrew, is so adept at catching salmon he’s given to handicapping himself — trying yet-unproductive depths or areas to locate the at-times hidden cache of salmon. But once he has struck silver at a given depth or location, he’ll make a general announcement over the radio for anyone willing to join in his fun.

With the fishmaster’s advice, as well words of wisdom from deckhands like Angus Prittie, Steve Scherling and Marshall Horne, visitors to this lodge are as guaranteed success as a fisherman can be.

But remember: it’s called “fishing,” not “catching.” Only Poseidon can give 100 per cent odds.

Fishing, Simplified

In a world where new-fangled lures like swim-baits, holographic plugs and increasingly realistic soft baits in a rainbow of colours pop up every year — often catching more fishermen than fish — angling around Langara Island is an homage to the past. Your gear is simple. Two barbless hooks. One herring, soaked in a salty brine then given the classic 45-degree by 45-degree slice to create a rolling cut-plug. A six- or eight-ounce banana weight. A single-action reel and an 11-foot mooching rod. Strip out between seven and 70 pulls of line and wait for the telltale tug-tug-tug of a salmon nibbling at the bait.

It’s called motor mooching. Unlike classic trolling, one uses tides, currents and wind, all in unison with the boat’s motor, to create the illusion of a wounded herring with your cut-plug; prime target for hungry salmon.

In the case of chinook salmon especially, rarely is a fish taken at full-troll. In four days of fishing, I caught chinook in excess of 20 pounds at a dead-drift; trolling under power of current and wind alone. Last summer, deckhand Steve Scherling bagged a season-record 60-pound chinook at Langara Rocks, drifting dead-slow with a cut-plug at 90 pulls down.

Coho Salmon

Coho salmon are aggressive and delicious!

Coho, which swim at shallower depths and faster speeds than the big chinook, can be hooked at full-troll, however anglers should still impart some erratic motion to their bait, kicking the motor out of gear — even into reverse — to allow the bait to flutter and dance beneath the surface in-synch with the natural tidal currents.

The take of this cut-plug herring is one that requires patience. At first, a salmon will usually nose or nibble the bait, imparting that famous tugging action to the rod. Rookies will set the hook at this point — and they’ll be the first to lose a fish. Those in-the-know simply remove the rod from its holder, perhaps stripping out a couple pulls of line, and hold steady, waiting for the next set of tugs. At this point, the salmon, now more confident in its meal, will hit harder. Reel in any slack line and when the fish starts to run, set the hook! If all goes according to plan, at least one of those twin 6/0 hooks will be firmly imbedded in the bony jaw of an offending salmon.

Now it’s all up to you. Quality monofilament, secure knots and a working knowledge of the West Coast’s signature, single-action “knuckle duster” reel will all come into play if you want the glory of boating what is pound-for-pound the fiercest fighting sport fish in the Pacific.

Ling Cod

The author with a large ling cod – the perfect fish for “fish ‘n chips.”

Bottom Fishing

You never really know what will bite when you lower your line into the North Pacific. When targeting chinook, a wayward halibut can bite, or a ling cod or black bass might make the trek upward to chase a herring intended for coho consumption. However, no trip to Langara Island would be complete without targeting these bottom fish.

Bottom fishing hot spots are found everywhere you look. At tiny Lacy Island, five minutes’ run from the Marabell, fellow guest and Albertan Greg Lorenzo couldn’t go more than a minute or two without a 25-pound halibut on his line. I had arm-weakening luck a half-mile off Langara Lighthouse, where, in 300 feet of water ling, yelloweye rockfish or halibut greeted my twin hooks every time they arrived on bottom.

You may even find yourself as lucky as James Baker, who visited the Marabell a few years back and caught three halibut weighing 190, 200 and 210 pounds during a single trip.

Word to the wise: you should consider releasing any halibut bigger than about 80 pounds, and certainly release any ling cod larger than 25 pounds. Not only are these fish important to the breeding stock as they are almost certainly large females, but their meat is usually mushy, slimy and unpalatable — the result of decades of bottom feeding. A 25- to 50-pound halibut or 15-pound ling cod, however, offers just about the finest seafood there is.

Conversely, a yelloweye or other rockfish can usually not be released if it is brought up from below one or two atmospheric pressures (as little as 33 feet). The telltale sign will be a swim-bladder protruding out through its mouth, which has expanded due to the change from the high pressures of the deep to the low pressure of surface. The fish is as good as dead, and will not be able to return to bottom with an engorged bladder.

Yelloweye Red Snapper

The author with a yelloweye rockfish, or red snapper – one of the best eating fish you can catch!

Angling Paradise

These islands represent a true pilgrimage; the pinnacle of angling excellence where skills honed from a lifetime of drowning worms are tested to their limits during 15-hour days on the rolling Pacific. There is no better fishing anywhere. A 25-pound chinook or halibut exceeding 40 or 50 pounds — a fraction of their maximum — will have you panting in exhaustion before the fight is half done. And when you return, you, your family and your friends will dine like royalty on a bounty of flash-frozen and filleted fish that would cost a king’s ransom at the supermarket.

As related to me by fellow guest Robin Jacobson, a South African clergyman visiting the lodge for the first time, the downside of fishing at Langara Island is that it may just ruin you for any other fishery. You will spend your days dreaming of the islands. They will call you back. It is both a blessing and curse that you can’t visit just once.

It is both a blessing and curse that you can’t visit just once.

P.S:

Haida Gwaii Facts

Visiting the Queen Charlotte Islands is to be a stranger in a strange land. Untouched by the last ice age, the geography is decidedly different from the mainland coast, equal parts inviting sandy beaches and jutting, obtrusive rock. Forests, thick with growth from the cool yet stable yearly climate and plentitude of rain, hold both the smallest Sitka blacktail deer imaginable — locals call them “German shepherds” — and the world’s largest black bears. (In an effort to curtail the exploding blacktail deer population on the archipelago, residents are allotted an unprecedented bag limit of 15 deer per person.)

This cool but stable climate equates to rain — year round — and a mean temperature that varies by only about nine degrees Celsius from December to July. Humidity stays stable as well, averaging in the high 80 percentile during summer, and mid 90s in winter. This all translates into one long, grey, rainy season throughout the calendar year, with few blue-sky interruptions and even fewer causes for summer clothes.

Unlike the deer, human populations are sparse. While centuries ago, as many as 14,000 Haida occupied the islands, about 7,000 people call the Queen Charlottes home today. The two major centres of Masset and the Village of Queen Charlotte (formerly Queen Charlotte City) compete for the title of largest with about 1,000 residents apiece. Cell phone coverage is spotty and unreliable. Services are limited. History abounds.

Shipboard Accomodation

Shipboard accommodation is not fancy, but it’s cozy and clean.

Home to the Haida people, warriors of pre-settlement North America, longhouses, centuries-old totems and rich culture permeates the landscape. However, so does poverty and other social issues, as can be seen in Old Masset or Tlell, with many decrepit houses, unkempt or abandoned, littered amongst the trees. The Charlottes have also been the battleground for ecological wars. Perhaps the most famous of these was the felling of the revered Golden Spruce in Masset Harbour by a disgruntled forestry worker, an event documented in the book The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed by John Valliant. The islands have even played a role in shaping 20th century world history, when Port Clements, a hamlet on the shores of Masset Inlet, became the supply centre for spruce trees used to build First World War military airplanes.

Resources:

Oak Bay Marine Group: www.obmg.com

Tourism BC: www.hellobc.com

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About the author: David Webb is a Vancouver, BC-based travel writer, photographer and magazine editor.

3 comments… add one
  • Michael Apr 27, 2010

    Jealoussss…….

  • amanda Apr 27, 2010

    What is that red fish, and why are you not afraid of it?????

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