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February 22, 2005

B.C.'s Spectacular Kyoquot Sound

Just two hours from Vancouver, anglers find world-class fishing for salmon, halibut and lingcod.

Salmon Freeway at Rush Hour
Ocean conditions, always critical to the success of any salmon year class, are a primary factor accounting for such good fishing. Unusually warm north Pacific waters in the early 1990s produced weaker year classes of salmon, thanks not only to the water temperature but also its byproducts, notably hordes of rapacious Pacific mackerel (that in normal years seldom swim farther north than California) with a taste for salmon smolts. Warmer temperatures also mean less coastal upwelling; hence less nutrient-rich waters, reducing overall productivity.
Cooler water increased the survival rate. That has spelled greater abundance of salmon in recent years and, presumably, again this year when four- and five-year-old fish return to their streams of origin. (It's a good bet that chinook averaging well over 30 pounds are mostly four-year-old fish.)

By virtue of its geography, Kyuquot is well-situated to take advantage of this increase in coastal productivity. During the summer, most mature chinook salmon are migrating somewhere, and many pass this area. Stocks returning to major rivers in the Lower 48 (from California's Sacramento to the Oregon/Washington border's mighty Columbia) and Alaska, as well as many to British Columbia's Fraser and Skeena rivers and countless other streams, end up heading north or south along northern Vancouver Island. Also, David pointed out the nearly convergent contour lines on a nautical chart showing the sheer canyon walls just offshore of Kyuquot - rising from depths of more than 4,000 feet barely a mile off the Brooks Peninsula, just north of Kyuquot. That means that many migrating fish preferring to feed along the upper continental shelf edge are further bottlenecked into a smaller area near shore.

In other words, think of the waters off Kyuquot as a salmon freeway at rush hour. The kind of action I saw certainly bears out that analogy. The upper "lanes" are habituated largely by coho (silvers) - less sought when trophy chinook (kings) are the order of the day. (Not only are coho smaller but also, part of the season off Kyuquot, anglers have been allowed to keep only hatchery coho, which are readily identified by absent (clipped) adipose fin. At times, wild coho outnumber their hatchery-raised brethren many times over.) More than once we'd have to pick up and run farther offshore since the coho were so thick that often getting a lure down past them into their larger relatives was nearly impossible.

Normally, chinook feed beneath the silvers - in 60 to 200 feet of water or even deeper; hence the popularity of downriggers. Each of the five Murphy Sportfishing boats is equipped with three Scotty electric downriggers. But - I suppose because the waters were so replete with voracious salmon in competition - at times, chinook were well up in the "coho zone." For example, at one point during our first day out, I was trying to lower a spoon on the port downrigger when I had to pause to help land one fish of a double hookup.

Moments later, we spotted a big king whacking at the spoon that fluttered lazily at the surface just 20 feet behind the transom! I thought about all the hours trolling that many salmon fishermen put in just to hook one chinook of that size.

No worries here about baitfish being yanked off hooks or hands smelling of old herring all day, as is so often the case when pursuing Pacific salmon. Despite a great abundance of bait in the water (typically herring offshore and both herring and needlefish - sand lance - near shore), thin spoons, plastic squid and Tomic lures account for all the salmon aboard Murphy lodge boats. (The profusion of baitfish in the water, by the way, showed with the salmon we caught - all were porkers in prime shape.)

B.C.'s Cannery Option

Actually, you can take it with you: It's entirely possible for visiting anglers to take frozen fish on flights headed home. But it can be a hassle, and, especially if you're traveling alone with gear, you may be limited to a rather modest amount. Of course, as checked baggage within your allotment, the price is nice. But anglers willing and able to spend some money can skip the hassle and enjoy their salmon smoked in any number of styles, and either canned (which I can recommend) or professionally cleaned and vacuum bagged (to keep perfectly well for up to a year, they claim). The product is then FedExed to home or office. Given the cost of high-quality fish (when one can even find it) in markets, more and more anglers are opting for the cannery route.

For most who fish British Columbia, that means St. Jeans Cannery and Smokehouse, which has been in the business for more than four decades and each year processes literally tons of sport-caught salmon and bottomfish from resorts up and down the coast. These lodges - which include Murphy's - are set to ship anglers' catches to one of six St. Jeans depots, or you can bring it to their facility at the south terminal, Vancouver International Airport. Ultimately it all goes to the plant in Nanaimo, which covers 2 acres.
For more information on B.C.'s cannery option, call 250-754-2185 or visit www.stjeans.com.

Whatever you plan to do with your fish, be advised that if an angler wants to keep full limits, and if the fishing's as hot as it has been, that's a lot of fish: eight salmon of which four may be chinook, three halibut, plus lingcod and other bottomfish. Make sure you can use what you keep!