It’s the greatest fishing destination on Earth. It’s a vacation fit for couples and fishing buddies. It’s luxury and it’s a frontier. Step into your rainsuit, learn to cut a herring, master a single-action mooching reel and…Welcome to the Haida Gwaii!
In This Salmon Fishing Article You Will Discover
- The Excitement of Northern Salmon Fishing
- The Beauty of the Haida Gwaii
- How To Catch a Salmon
- How to Cook Salmon
- And More!
It’s a fact — 4:00 a.m. in the Haida Gwaii is easier than 8:00 a.m. back home will ever be. Bleary-eyed from our wake up call, I breathe deep pure salt air and let the morning chill and the coffee’s kick rouse my senses from slumber. Sunlight hides below the eastern horizon. Above is only the bone-coloured dawn — a tone that carries downward and to the wrinkled-rippled north Pacific. Evergreens loom overhead as coal-dark silhouettes atop the weather-beaten cliffs of Langara Island. It’s pure irony that a setting this serene will bring about so much heart-pumping action.
My eager partner, Erin, and I stomp our rubber boots over metal grating en route from the warmth of the breakfast galley aboard the MV Charlotte Princess, our floating fishing lodge moored in the famous Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands), to our open-air 17-foot “Fat Cat” boat; a custom fishing craft painted to match the rain suits we’ve donned — or the “Fat Suits,” as Erin dubs them with a wink-and-smile.
The 50-horse Honda idles as I tie a few leaders and apply a delicate 45-degree by 45-degree cut to a couple of brined herring — an effort to perfect the Haida Gwaii’s signature salmon bait: the cut plug. Within seconds of disembarking, the wet air cuts through all five layers of my clothes and imparts that damp frigidity only the West Coast can throw down. The flat-bottomed boat thump-thumps against choppy seas like hammer against a sheet of plywood. Mist drips from my unshaved face. Erin, up front and taking the brunt of the choppy, ever-increasingly large waves, hunkers inside her rain suit for warmth.
Sunlight finally halos the horizon. Ahead, bow and stern lights of fellow fishboats mark our destination. I roll off the throttle and our boat glides to a stop near Andrews Point, a famous fishing hotspot a mere 10 minutes’ run from the Princess. A half-dozen yellow boats bob around like floating bathtubs; a half-dozen more trail us. Oak Bay Marine Group is the only operation that allows guests to head out before the sun, and we’re rewarded with the sweet cream… first access to chinook territory and the coveted morning slack tide bite. Yeah — I freakin’ love salmon fishing.
Erin pours coffee while I begin to rig up the rods. It’s the final part of my favourite scent-combo: salt air, outboard motor exhaust, black coffee and brined herring. (Salmon anglers understand.) It’s Erin’s second time salmon fishing and her first time in the famous Haida Gwaii. Legendary the world-round for fertile waters rich in all five species of Pacific salmon, plus bottom fish such as halibut, red snapper and lingcod, it is no hyperbole to proclaim the area as the greatest fishing destination in the world. But it is also the untamed north: even in the summer temperatures can get into single-digits, rolling open-water waves can send even iron-gutted anglers to the gunwales and while the Princess’ boats are wonderful fishing crafts, they offer no protection from the elements; rain and wind being one’s ever-present fishing companion in the Haida Gwaii.
It was for those reasons Erin had been nervous about fishing the True North. But after a wildly successful introduction to salmon fishing at Rivers Inlet in 2008, I knew the world-class salmon fishery and tear-inducing beauty that is the Haida Gwaii would outweigh any weather woes. And for the waves, well, that’s why they invented Gravol.
Hook-jabs and knife-cuts on my hands sting like horsefly bites as I reach back into the bait brine while rigging up our two 10-foot mooching rods with my custom cut plugs. The bait sinks 20 and 30 pulls via six-ounce banana weights and I kick the outboard into gear — but only for a moment. Then I kick it back out. This is motor mooching, not trolling. For effective moochery, one must use the varying engine speed, the tides and even the wind-drift to create a dancing cut-plug — to successfully imitate wounded herring sought-out by chinook salmon feeding during the easy slack tide.
Despite the ferocious fight, chinook are lazy by nature. They are creatures of opportunity. Rather than marauding through baitfish schools, mouth agape like a great white shark, the chinook will saunter into a school of baitfish and thrash its thick body and wide tail, stunning hapless herring with the impact. At its leisure, the fish then swims beneath the bait, collecting sinking, stunned herring in its famously black-gummed jaw. This is the science behind cut plugging: your offering must be mistaken for a real wounded herring. And wounded herring don’t move quickly. So just when you think you’re mooching too slow — you’re just going slow enough.
Erin loves salmon fishing even more than I do. Three years ago, we both would have agreed the two of us venturing on a five-day excursion to a northern fishing lodge was an idea about as sound as a helicopter ejection seat. But in 2008, out of pity or a dare (I don’t recall which), she agreed to come fishing with me in Rivers Inlet, BC — a calm-watered salmon fishing destination renowned for super-sized chinook. And she loved it. She discovered the true secret of fishing, as Izaak Walton wrote in his 17th Century opus, The Compleat Angler: “’Tis not all fishing, to fish.”
Yes, Izaak and Erin, a large part of the salmon fishing experience is simply floating about in a boat, enjoying a good snack and a cold beverage, pontificating about life, the universe and everything with your buddy and enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of the sea (of which there are many). Like the salmon we pursued, she was hooked from day one.
Oh yeah, and in Rivers Inlet, we caught a 43-pound chinook. But ask Erin, and that lunker spring salmon isn’t the first thing she’ll mention. In fact, it might not even make the top three. (Top five, for sure. After all, many a salmon angler will go his life without ever breaking the mystical 40-pound mark, and Erin did on her first time out.)
The sun is has barely shown its full-self before the portside rod begins to bounce. The take on a cut plug can be notoriously soft at times. These flexible, 10-foot mooching rods will bounce in a tug-tug-tug manner; indicating a salmon is nibbling the herring. Don’t set the hook. Strip out a bit of line — completely counterintuitive to most freshwater fishermen — and stuff that bait right back into the fish’s mouth. Tug-tug-TUG! When you feel the weight of the fish, set the hook hard. Hard! As Oak Bay Marine Group Fishmaster Shaun “Cookie” Pennell says, “No, no… harder than that!” Unless it’s a delicate pink salmon on your line, you’ll need to lift that rod tip with authority to embed one or hopefully two of those barbless hooks in the hard jaw of these saltwater predators.
“We’ve got one!” Erin hollers.
The fish is heavy as a cinder block on the line, and it runs hard and fast out from the boat, getting airborne; showing off with a glimmer and a twist as if it’s doing us a favour. It’s a coho, but an impossibly large one at that, considering it’s June, not August when the coho would are known to storm in with size. Lacking the brute strength of chinook, coho make up for it with gravity-defying aerobatics, crazy-quick surface runs and violent headshakes. Do not underestimate them: on the hook or on the barbecue.
Erin swoops in with the net with point perfect form. I had shown her how to properly net a salmon two years ago — don’t scoop; hold the net vertical; let the angler bring the fish to you; pull straight up with at least one hand on the hoop — and she hasn’t forgotten. In fact, unlike most anglers (myself included) she never had to shed poor netting form before pursuing massive northern salmon. She never knew it to begin with.
The coho would weigh in at 13-pounds, after we bled it out and it sat in the fish box for the day. A hefty ‘ho to be sure, and a fine warm up for the chinook to come.
With the sun comes the warmth; this is good as I’ve drained the coffee and neglected, unlike my smarter half, to pack a toque. This is my third trip the Haida Gwaii, but I’ve never come so early. It’s mid-June, which is essentially springtime in this northern archipelago. This time of year is primarily a chinook and halibut fishery — and when it comes to chinook, there are plenty of teenagers-to-20-pounders about. These fish are fresh from their Arctic feeding grounds; they are mean and tough and punch well above their weight class. Halibut are ever-present; your lodge fishmaster will lead those in search of fish ‘n chips to GPS-marked bottomfish holes where we strong-arm halibut, lingcod and yelloweye from depths of 200 feet or more. It’s more a tug of war than fishing, but the fare is unbeatable. There really is no bad time to fish the Haida Gwaii.
Before our first fishing trip in ’08, I had promised Erin whale sightings. Rivers Inlet delivered in spades, with single-day sightings topping 20 unique humpbacks. This time, I had promised her Orcas; a species she had never seen in the wild.
Shortly after boating the large coho, a giant humpback lumbers into our path, huffing and tail flipping as it passes. We can smell its halitosis: an odour that both repulses and amazes. The amazement comes the same way as with every whale sighting; when nature’s most beautiful creature chooses to grace us with its presence, we are humbled and grateful. The repulsion comes at the reality of the scent. Whale breath — enough said.
Like an incarnation of the Fish God himself, the mighty humpback’s presence brings with it another strike. This one is harder. Stronger. Chinookier. And it’s Erin’s fish for sure.
Keep your rod tip high, your line tight, let the salmon run when it wants to and reel in fast when you can. She knows the drill.
Oh, and keep your knuckles out of the knobs of your spinning single-action mooching reel. (Sorry Erin, should have told you that one first.)
Even an early-season chinook that may only outweigh our coho by a few pounds carries with it a fight that defies its size. Chinook have massive tails, and they love to use them with audacity. Erin reels wildly as the fish surfaces. It’s characteristic of a chinook to often come comparatively gently to the surface at first, pulling straight down and thrashing their heads side-to-side. Then we see it — or it sees us. It flashes its ever-so-slightly-yellow-tinged belly sideways at the surface. And it gets mad. This is when the fight begins: it bears straight down; the knobs of the reel blur in response. An early-season 20-pounder will fight like it’s twice that size. They’ll make a pike seem tame and walleye seem weak. Freshwater anglers: think lake trout. On steroids. And angry.
I watch her fight the fish, net in hand. I don’t even care that in mere moments a one-tonne sea lion will attack the fish like a Kodiak bear, leaving us with entrails and slack-open jaws. We are in the Haida Gwaii; salmon fishing success is a given. It, better than anywhere or anything else, typifies the adage, “There’s plenty more fish in the sea.”
By trip’s end, we would land chinook up to the mid-twenties; another foursome caught their daily limit of chinook before 8:00 a.m. the first morning; and one lucky guest, Carl Lund, even bucked the early season trend toward 20-pound chinook and boated a 44-pounder on the final day. Yes, salmon success is a foregone conclusion. It’s the experience during the time that matters. And the Haida Gwaii delivers experience full-on and in your face. It’s life in HD. It’s one of the country’s last frontiers. It’s so full of bald eagles, whales, salmon, halibut, sea lions and sea birds that it’s hard to believe. It’s everything the outdoorsman treasures.
And later that day, as we are encircled by an out-of-nowhere pod of Orcas — our fishbox full, our arms like jelly and our faces sore from smiles and sunburn — we could only sit awestruck in the presence of it all.
Know Before You Go
- Pack layers of clothing — including a moisture-wicking base layer and insulating outer layers.
- You can pack your own raingear — but outfitters such as Oak Bay Marine Group provides excellent rain gear and rubber boots.
- There’s no dress code at salmon lodges — pack for comfort.
- Take Gravol or other seasickness pills, even if you swear you’ve “Never been seasick!”
- Pack band-aids.
- Don’t forget your camera — and a waterproof camera bag.
- Sunscreen and sunglasses are a must, whether sunny or not.
- Take a toque and/or fingerless gloves in the early season.
- Feel free to bring your own saltwater fishing gear, but know the resort has it all on-hand.
- Don’t forget cash for staff/guide gratuities. They work hard to make your trip perfect.
Salmon Cooking Tips
The great thing about salmon fishing is the bounty of wild, organic meat you’ll bring home for your family and friends. Here are some tips to ensure your salmon tastes as good as it deserves to:
- Do not overcook salmon (or any fish). With salmon, over cooking is very easy — for best results, cook fillets medium-rare to medium well, then remove from heat. If you’re really raw-fish squeamish, cook medium-well, then remove from heat and allow it to finish cooking while it rests. Just remember: the more cooked it is, the “fishier” it will taste.
- When barbecuing, consider laying the fish skin-side-down right on the grill — no tinfoil required. When the fish is done, it scoops right off the skin. Some people like to eat the leftover cracklings (but not me).
- The author’s favourite way to serve salmon filets is one of the simplest: salt, pepper (lots) and a dusting of brown sugar or drizzle of honey. Toss on some diced fresh parsley if you’ve got it. Barbecue to medium and enjoy.
- Experimenting with pesto, teriyaki and even curry will produce delicious gourmet fare. Don’t be scared to try new styles — salmon is a surprisingly versatile fish.
- Quick recipe for the perfect barbecued salmon side dish: Slice up tomato, sweet onion and cucumber. Layer and alternate. Add fresh basil, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Let the salad marinate in the refrigerator for an hour before eating. It complements salmon perfectly.
- Consider sending some of your catch to St. Jean’s Cannery upon your return. I recommend the Can Smoked.