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Fishing Adventures: How To Catch The World’s Largest Salmon With Your Rookie Girlfriend

Slow Troll

Home of the world’s largest chinook salmon, Rivers Inlet, British Columbia, is a place where wild fish tales are a way of life. (I can dig it.)

In This Fishing Article You Will Discover:

  • How to Catch the World’s Largest Salmon
  • Where to Catch the World’s Largest Salmon
  • What To Expect at a Fly-In Fishing Lodge
  • View Video Footage From Rivers Inlet!

The fog is a lead blanket around our 17-foot sportfishing boat as we pass Whale Rock, near the headwaters of British Columbia’s Rivers Inlet. These morning mists dull the senses; all I hear is the idle of a four-stroke and the clunking in-and-out of gear as I dance my cut plug herring — the choice bait in these parts — a mere seven metres beneath the ocean’s mirror surface. Three seconds in gear, two in neutral… three in gear, two in neutral. I am motor mooching, a technique where the boat pilot uses the motor to impart a “dance” to one’s bait, enticing salmon.

And I am doing so with purpose, searching for the famous “tyee class” salmon, a chinook over 10 kilograms (30 pounds).

It is my last morning in famous Rivers Inlet, a fishing locale internationally regarded for producing the world’s largest chinook (king) salmon — as well as inconsistent fishing. Four fish over 40 pounds had graced our weigh station during the week, including a massive 52-pound lunker the night before, but none had my name next to it on the whiteboard. Just over two hours left to fish. Three seconds in gear, two in neutral.

Big Fish!

The author with their prize catch: a 43-pound chinook. Note the scars on the salmon’s tail – remnants from a seal attack.

Like an alarm clock to my sleeping girlfriend, first-time angler and Fort McMurray, Alberta, born-and-raised Erin O’Connor, the portside reel screams off line. To a salmon fisherman, the sound of a spinning single-action reel at the peak of low slack tide is akin to a devout Catholic hearing the Pope’s sermon from Vatican City. Mouth agape, I hop over Erin’s stretched out legs as she comes to and tries to ascertain what had disturbed her dreams. By the time I have the 10-1/2-foot mooching rod in hand, whatever struck my cut plug has taken 30 metres of line and it isn’t slowing down. All I can do is cup the reel, let it run and smile at the realization that of the three rods with bait in the water, this fish chose the one with the Islander reel; the Rolls Royce of fishing reels.

My heart is a bass drum. Every chinook caught in the headwaters of Rivers Inlet thus far this week had been a tyee, all but one over 40 pounds. There was little doubt this was be an exception; the fact a 52-pounder was caught at Whale Rock less than 12 hours earlier seconded that notion and the buckling, rainbow-arch on my rod added a third confirmation. I had convinced a tyee to bite — now I just have to bring it in.
Upon the fish’s first surface-breaking roll, Erin gasps. It is a true Rivers Inlet brute, no doubt pushing the scales past the 40-pound mark. And then, as quickly as it appears from the dark-green depths, it nose dives to the bottom and with a vulgar display of power, holds, refusing to budge. With 20-pound test as tight as a towrope and my tough Kufa-brand rod looking like a buggy whip, it proves impossible to move this fish until it makes another surface run. And so it goes for 25 nerve-racking minutes before the fish fatigues, rolls over next to the boat and succumbs to a well-placed net by rookie angler Erin. With a hollow thunk, the flopping chinook lies at our feet, stretched almost from gunwale to gunwale.

“This is boat six,” Erin calls into the radio. “We’ve just landed a pig.”

Rivers Inlet, BC

Rivers Inlet is a scenic, protected inlet perfect for salmon fishing.

Rivers Inlet

Our Grumman Goose skims over the peaks that guard the mouth of Rivers Inlet, about a 45-minute jaunt north from Port Hardy on BC’s Vancouver Island. Although I had been to Rivers Inlet once before, this trip was different. There would be fewer beers, no cigars and a bit less cursing. This trip, my partner in fishing was also my partner in life. I had brought Erin to experience salmon fishing — any fishing — for the first time. She had long been curious as to what I was up to on my sojourns to the coast and the stars finally aligned for our first couples’ fishing trip at Oak Bay Marine Group’s King Salmon Resort. Whether it would be our last, well, we’d have to wait and see.

Located about 500 km northwest of Vancouver, Rivers Inlet is a deep glacial fiord that stabs inland for about 40 km from the open ocean. A labyrinth of channels, narrows, arms and bays, it has become one of salmon fishing’s most famous destinations. Rivers rose to fame in 1951, when a then-world-record chinook of 82-1/2 pounds was sport-caught. During this time, dozens of canneries opened along the shoreline, and commercial fishing vessels plied the waters right to the mouths of the Whonnock and Neechanz Rivers. Things are different today — of the canneries, commercial vessels and world-record chinook, only the latter remains; music to a sport fisherman’s ears.

The headwaters of Rivers Inlet have created a perfect storm in which to foster monstrous chinook and coho.

The salmon that return to the headwaters of the inlet are late-maturing stock. This means rather than a four- or five-year-old fish, as one usually finds, one is probably going to hook into a six-year-old chinook. The difference is that a six-year-old has had one more year to gorge itself on baitfish, growing fat and strong — larger than any other chinook salmon, anywhere in the world. (The 80-pounder caught in Rivers Inlet in 2008 proves this beyond a doubt.)

The difference is that a six-year-old has had one more year to gorge itself on baitfish, growing fat and strong — larger than any other chinook salmon, anywhere in the world. (The 80-pounder caught in Rivers Inlet in 2008 proves this beyond a doubt.)

Fish On!

Two anglers try to catch a massive, 40-pound-plus chinook salmon.

Learning Curve

As Erin and I make the 45-minute run to the mouth of Rivers Inlet from our lodge at the headwaters, I know this first full day would be the test. I am about to either make an ocean angler out of this northern Alberta girl, or… not. I can see the trepidation. The 4:30 a.m. wake up call had not gone over well, and the Mustang floater suit she donned was a far cry from the designer jeans she left at home. Still, there is no denying where we are. As we skim across the flat-calm water at 35 knots, our eyes wander to the surroundings. Thick coastal rainforest dripping with dew and moss towers beside us, stretching up the abrupt edges of the glacier-carved fiord. Rivers Inlet’s beauty is staggering: calm waters hidden between high mountains of green and grey — mountains still tipped with snow, even in August — creates a setting so strong and bold it makes other vacation destinations seem impotent by comparison. And then there is the solitude.

The only way into Rivers Inlet is via boat or plane. We are far from cell phone and TV signals, traffic, urban noise — far from anything, except salmon, whales, sea mist and fellow anglers.

Arriving at the fishing grounds, near Calvert Island, we settle into a slow cruise and I bait Erin’s hook, showing her how to impart a classic 45-degree by 45-degree cut to turn a fresh-thawed herring into a rolling cut plug. (She crinkles her nose at the brine-salted bait, but by day two it’s her magic touch with the herring that begins to bring fish to the boat.) And then we troll.

Cutting Bait

Erin cuts some bait – after a day, she went from rookie to pro.

“What do we do now?” she asks as I pour us both a cup of coffee.

“We fish,” I remark. We were fishing the mouth of Rivers Inlet for coho salmon, a species that prefers shallow, quick trolled bait to the slow, lazy offering for a chinook. But we don’t fish long — before we start to catch. The tell-tall tugging of a smaller-sized salmon begins to bounce Erin’s rod tip up and down, and she freezes with excitement before looking to me for advice.

“Grab the rod,” I laugh. “It’s your fish.”

Erin pulls the rod and fumbling only momentarily, sets the hook and feels the weight of a live, wild salmon for the first time. After a quick tug of war, the silver fish is tumbling behind the boat.

“David!” she screeches. “I caught a fish!”

First Fish!

The first fish Erin kept: a nice-sized pink salmon.

“David!” she screeches. “I caught a fish!”

With a smile even wider than hers, I dip the net in the water and take a small chinook from the sea — but it’s Erin that’s really hooked. And while we release the salmon to live another day — it didn’t feel right keeping a five-pound chinook when fish 10 times that size are around — it remains her most memorable moment of the trip; even more so than the tyee we were destined to catch on our last day.

As we troll off the southern tip of Calvert Island, at the mouth of Rivers Inlet, a disturbance in the water catches Erin’s eye. Three hundred metres in front of us, a humpback whale spews out a plume of mist and flips its tail in the air, signaling a deep, lengthy dive. There’s nothing like a whale to make you question your status as top-mammal on this planet. Erin and I stare at the leviathan as it vanishes, feeling infinitely small and humble in its presence.

A screeching reel tears small thoughts from my mind as a ferocious fish strikes hard against one of our quickly trolled cut plugs. I reach over the seat and clutch the offending rod, as Erin, well-versed from her own fishing experience earlier that day, begins to furiously bring in the remaining two lines before the coho that has my twin barbless firmly planted in its jaw realizes the quickest escape route is to wrap line-on-line and let friction set it free.

With a powerful surface run, the coho doubles back towards our boat, dangerously close to the last remaining line. It’s huge; Rivers Inlet huge. The fish comes so close to the boat that I see its hollow pupils focus on us, its mortal foes. It is a gnarly, predacious northern coho; its beak is so crooked, toothed and ugly it makes a pike look downright cuddly by comparison. With a thrash and a roll, though, my worst fear comes true and the fish wraps our lines. Before I can utter, “cut the…” my rod tip snaps upwards and the six-ounce banana weights bobs in the air, a limp leader flapping in the wind. Fish off.

I shrug my shoulders to my disappointed companion. Suddenly, the last of the three rods in the water is tugged fiercely downward. Shocked, I grab it, only to see the very same coho hooked on the line, thrashing on the surface a few metres from our starboard side and grinning mischievously at me as it had just minutes before. In an unbelievable display of aggression, the fish had come back for seconds after devouring the first cut plug. And in an unbelievable display of bad luck, before I can put my palm to the reel, the coho spits the second hook and is gone for good. I hang my head. The toothy, near-20-pound coho will forever be my “one that got away.” Twice.

The toothy, near-20-pound coho will forever be my “one that got away.” Twice.

Fish Kiss

The author gives a large, 13-pound coho (silver) a smooch.

Our shadows grow long and our fishbox grows heavy as we near 12 hours on the water. Our day is at an end; I slam the throttle horizontal and point the boat’s bow northeast, leaving behind Rivers Inlet’s mouth for the comfort, warmth and hearty plates of food that await us at King Salmon Resort. As if being saluted for her valiant first full day on the water, humpback whales flank our voyage home, flipping massive tails in the air and huffing mist from their cavernous blowholes.

“I think our plan tomorrow,” Erin says, finally prying her eyes away from the spectacular humpbacks, “should be to get up earlier.”

An angler is born.

Mr. Whiskers

A chubby, friendly seal eyeballs us from a piling.

King Salmon Resort

Situated at the headwaters of Rivers Inlet, Oak Bay Marine Group’s King Salmon Resort is mecca to the fisherman in search of trophy chinook salmon. The resort has a short season  — open only in July and August, when the chinook and coho are returning to their natal streams to spawn. What makes King Salmon Resort the quintessential hot spot for the chinook lover is its proximity to the river mouths. Huge chinook are caught within 10 minutes’ run from the lodge — and one of the most famous spots, Marker 16, is within eye-shot of the lodge’s dock. Oak Bay Marine Group Northern Lodge [former] General Manager Brook Castelsky explains the draw of King Salmon Resort.

“King Salmon Resort… has a much different feel than our ship-board accommodation. I always enjoy sitting around the fire after a long day on the water sharing stories about the day’s events and making plans for the next,” says Castelsky. “While our Queen Charlotte Island Resorts are known for non-stop action, King Salmon Resort is known as the place to catch that trophy salmon. When your rod-tip buries itself in the water, chances are you have a trophy chinook on the end of your line.”

“When your rod-tip buries itself in the water, chances are you have a trophy chinook on the end of your line.”

Castelsky explains that in recent years, King Salmon Resort has gone from purely a trophy fishery to a fishing resort that is more accessible for all. “Our boats allow us to comfortably travel the length of the inlet where we find more salmon as well as halibut and ling cod. Bottom fishing trips has given our guests another enjoyable experience,” he says.

From my experience, though, King Salmon Resort does present some ironies for the newbie angler. It is a land-based lodge with a hot tub and private cabins, the waters of Rivers Inlet are usually calm and the scenery is second-to-none. Couples in particular find this lodge appealing because of its level of comfort. However, the fishing can be tricky. Newbies often find themselves making the hour-long run to the inlet’s mouth to fish for coho, rather than put in long hours of hard fishing for one or two strikes from a lumbering, tyee-class chinook. The paradox of Rivers Inlet is that the conditions are ideal for those new to fishing, but the trophy fishing is ideal for the experienced angler.

King Salmon Resort Cabins

Enjoy cozy cabins at King Salmon Resort.

Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but to fish purely for the smaller coho or pink salmon in Rivers Inlet is to miss the point. It occurred to me one afternoon, following eight hours without a bite, that fishing for chinook in the headwaters of Rivers Inlet is not fishing at all. It is big game hunting. You may only get one chinook — but it will be the fish of a lifetime when you do. Consider a trip to this 26-person lodge your limited entry hunt for trophy class chinook.

Simply put, there is no where else in the world where you can expect to see chinook the size you’ll see in Rivers Inlet. During my five-day trip in August of 2008, six fish over 40 pounds came into our lodge, including one over 50 pounds.

That does not happen in the Queen Charlottes, in Hakai Pass, in Prince Rupert or off the West Coast of Vancouver Island. It does not happen anywhere — except Rivers Inlet.

Up & At 'Em

The early bird catches the fish: 4:30 a.m. has never been so easy!

Fish Stoked

Following Erin’s announcement of our tyee that last morning, the lodge’s Fishmaster, a displaced Aussie named Matt, radios us his well wishes. Erin and I had sent our tyee in with a deckhand to get weighed in at the dock while we fish out the final hours of the trip. The official tally is 43 pounds; a monster to be sure, yet even more amazingly, there were three fish larger taken that trip.

“Congratulations Erin and Dave,” Matt’s voice reverberates out from the tinny radio speaker.

We are panting with excitement, and I am still pondering the act of giving my fishing buddy a congratulatory smooch — a new aspect of fishing to say the least.

“I couldn’t have done it without you,” I say. Our trip seemed choreographed by fate. The first few days had built up Erin’s confidence and our confidence as a team. All of this came to a head on the last morning, when our teamwork resulted in one serious hog of a chinook in our box. Erin, her face having relaxed from unbridled excitement to a more introspective look, turns to me.

“When I travelled to Australia and first got excited about surfing,” she explains, reminded of her trip by Matt’s accent, “they called it ‘surf stoked.’ I guess you could say I’m ‘fish stoked.’”

“I guess you could say I’m ‘fish stoked.’”

Whether it was the 20-odd humpback whales we saw that week, the excitement of the 40-pounder, the thrill of her first fish or just being there, living in the moment, forgetting life at home and taking in the most glorious example of nature there is, I can’t say. But that is it. She is fish stoked, and this Oil Sand girl now has a few drops of salt in her veins. I know it won’t be quite so easy to take off without her on fishing trips for a week at a time.

I smile back at her. “Nice job with the net.”

She is now my fishing buddy. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Hot Tub View

The view from King Salmon Resort’s hot tub is superb.

Rivers Inlet Fishing Video:

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

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