Double Shot for Salmon

How two very different operations fish famously productive waters on the central coast of British Columbia.

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Salmon Surprise
I watched Dave Lewis clamp his line into a clip and lower the light spoon he’d just tied on until it flashed 60 feet down off the portside downrigger. I wasn’t expecting to see that spoon again minutes later, on the other side of the boat, when it nearly smacked me in the face. As I sat on the starboard gunwale watching my own bent rod for the telltale pop of a fish grabbing the bait, a 12-pound coho salmon burst 3 feet out of the water below me, next to the starboard downrigger cable. There was that green-and-white spoon, stuck in its jaw. Left: Dave Lewis is quick on the rod once a downrigger clip pops.Doug Olander
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Crazy Fish
I shouted something unprintable and added: “Dave! That’s your fish!” At the same time, Lewis was snatching his rod from the holder to start cranking slack line like crazy. In mere seconds, before its strike had even registered, a coho had grabbed his spoon 60 feet down, and rocketed up and out of the water on the other side of the boat. Salmon fishing is nothing if not unpredictable. Left: Lewis shows off a crazy coho. On light line, their great acceleration, sudden turns and leaps generally shine.Doug Olander
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A Piece of North Pacific Wilderness
Hopes for just that kind of action had brought me to one of the Northwest's renowned fishing areas, Milbanke Sound on the central British Columbia coast. Lewis, a fishing journalist and contributor to Sport Fishing, had flown over from his native Wales to join me and another fishing buddy (also my spouse), Jackie, in the adventure of sampling two very different fishing operations here.Map by Brenda Weaver
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Welcome to Central Coast Adventures
We started at Trevor Gustafson's Central Coast Adventures in Shearwater, a moderate run from the open waters of Milbanke Sound, and after three days, transferred to George Cuthbert's West Sport Fishing in St. John's Harbour, five minutes from the edge of Milbanke (and the Pacific).While the two operations offer entirely different kinds of experiences, they share in giving anglers plenty of action in these bountiful waters.The ramp down to the dock from the lodge reveals how low the low tide is.Doug Olander
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The Chinook: King of Salmon
While there's the potential to hook any of five species of Pacific salmon in these waters (chinook, coho, pink, chum and sockeye), nearly all the effort and catch involve chinook and coho. Most of Gustafson's effort reflects his preference — that of seeing his anglers battling in trophy chinook salmon; he considers coho a nice diversion. (In Canadian parlance, these trophy chinook would be tyee, as any salmon of at least 30 pounds is designated.)This photo shows a beautiful chinook (also known as king), but it's still a pound or two shy of making the trophy tyee mark.Dave Lewis
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A Run South to Lines In
With tyee in mind on our first morning, Gustafson ran us a good ways south of the small, bed-and-breakfast, Whiskey Cove Lodge, to the area of famed Hakai Pass. Though many other guides from Shearwater focus on the region’s most popular salmon spot — Cheney Point — Gustafson does consistently well where he took us, well south of Hunter Island, and finds less competition there.Dave Lewis
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Deadly Weapon
Gustafson trolls primarily anchovies, pinning the head of the soft baits in a plastic protector (such as that made by Trinidad Tackle) with a toothpick, something of a secret weapon since most anglers in this area who pull bait use herring.
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Downriggers Make a Difference
Downriggers are used on most boats, as on Gustafson's 23-foot Grady White Gulfstream. He's found that salmon tend to bunch up around a couple of steep points, which is where he directs most of his effort, working back and forth just off the precipitous, rocky shore. While we caught several good salmon to 25 or so pounds, we didn't luck into a tyee that day. But Gustafson has put a number of salmon in the 50s into his boat, fishing this spot.Dave Lewis
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A Different Way to Fight Fish
Anglers using tackle supplied at nearly all B.C. resorts will fight their fish on single-action mooching (think: large fly) reels (aka "kuckle busters," since traditionally these had no drag or anti-reverse) on 10-foot-long, ultralimber mooching rods. This tackle offers a whole new way to fight fish for most anglers from the States, and is in itself part of the northern adventure. These ominpresent single-action reels are generally spooled with 20-pound or, sometimes, 30-pound monofilament.Doug Olander
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A More Familiar Way to Fight Fish
At the same time, it’s also a real kick to fight salmon on the light spinning and baitcasting tackle I’m used to, so I brought some with me, and we caught salmon both ways.Dave Lewis
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We were able to troll 15-pound braid (placed at the far back of the downrigger clips) successfully. I found that salmon tended to come up to and fight at the surface more on the skinny braid, with so much less water resistance than mono.Doug Olander
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While the Hakai Pass area is a favorite of Gustafson, he sometime runs to Cheney or beyond (south) around Cape Mark. Or, if a windy patch thwarts plans to run outside, no worries: “Even when winds are big and waters get rough, we have great opportunities for sheltered fishing in inside waters,” Gustafson says. “We almost never miss a day of fishing during a season.” Here, Lewis and Jackie join Gustafson for some light-line coho action in a shallow bay where fish were queuing up near a river mouth and leaping like so many huge mullet.Doug Olander
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Nice Morning for a Long Run
More often than not during midsummer, the Pacific here generally lives up to its name. A calm ocean made for a pleasant run of 26 miles (from Whiskey Cove, seen here) to “the Mushroom” — a large, fairly smooth plateau a few miles off the coast that rises to 230 feet or so.Dave Lewis
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Spread Rig Hangs a Halibut
Once at the Mushroom, Gustafson positioned the boat so we could drop our halibut gear down 400 or so feet, where the hump slopes away into deeper water. In productive areas like Milbanke Sound, I’ve found it’s rare to have much trouble connecting with halibut, and the pickins proved productive here. In fairly short order, we’d gotten four flatties to the boat, all of legal size (meaning, in British Columbia waters, a maximum length of 133 centimeters). Gustafson (left) hung a good one on bait (a pink salmon belly) with a wire spreader rig.Doug Olander
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Next Up: A Flattie on a Storm Swimbait
Gustafson was surprised to see Lewis and me forsake bait. Instead, Lewis hooked a good fish using a Storm WildEye Giant Jigging Shad swimbait with an 8-ounce lead head that he’d brought from the United Kingdom.Doug Olander
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I opted for a 6-ounce speed jig on a Quantum Cabo spinning outfit with 30-pound braid, not ideal for such deep water, but I decided, with almost no current or wind drift, to live dangerously. Of course I hung the largest halibut of the morning — not a monster barn door but big enough to nearly spool me after a long, screaming run that did justice to some pretty good tuna I've hooked, and a hell of a move for a torpid bottomfish!Dave Lewis
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Almost Maxed Out
After a prolonged battle during which everything held together, though I often felt that a certain something between reel and lure would surely have to give, Gustafson gaffed a fish of 70 pounds or so, near the maximum-length limit.Dave Lewis
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On to West Sport Fishing
After three days of countless popping downrigger clips, bent rods and released fish, Gustafson ran us past Cheney Point and into St. John's Harbour, where we hopped out onto the dock of West Sport Fishing.Doug Olander
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Opulence Gone Wild
This new-for-2014 operation features a three-story lodge that was known for years as the King Pacific Lodge and as one of the British Columbia coast’s most luxurious fly-in, floating fishing resorts.Doug Olander
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Self-Guided Fishing
Thus began two-and-a-half days of a very different experience. For one thing, we’d elected to fish self-guided, an option at West Sport Fishing (as at many British Columbia fly-in operations). So it was up to us to find and catch our own fish.Doug Olander
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Early Morning Crowd at Cheney Point
Of course finding them wasn’t exactly like looking for the needle in a haystack; from the lodge, it was a run of just over five minutes to the start of the fishing grounds just south of Cheney Point, and lines in.Doug Olander
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Classic Plug-Cut
As Lewis drove the boat, I barely had time during the short run to Cheney to plug-cut and rig a dozen or so herring — cutting off the heads on a bevel so the body would roll when pulled through the water on a double-hook snelled rig.Doug Olander
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Purpose-Built Boats
The fleet from which West guests fish, whether guided or not, is better and certainly newer than most provincial fly-in fishing resorts. The 20-foot, high-sided, center-console Ironwoods are white aluminum but have the look and feel of fiberglass. While the cockpit is very tight, it does offer those trolling (which accounts for most fishing here) the advantage of having rods and riggers all within quick/easy reach.Doug Olander
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Another Hefty Coho
While Lewis piloted the boat, I kept busy playing deckhand. While it was pick-and-scratch at times, we also enjoyed periods when we could barely get both lines down before a chinook or coho would grab a bait. We did get our tyee, though most of our chinook were in the 20s. We also boated plenty of coho in the midteens like the one Lewis admires, left.Doug Olander
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Dredging Deep Yields Surprises
On our last full day, when George Cuthbert joined us, we made the hour-plus run, along with several other lodge boats, across Milbanke Sound to the halibut grounds on one of the guides’ figurative radar screens. A few halibut were picked up in the 400- to 460-foot depths, including a nice keeper that Lewis hooked, again on a big Storm swimbait, as well as a couple of good-size silvergray rockfish like the one shown here.Doug Olander
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Toothy Monsters
A while after, rather than just running back across the sound, we stopped to drop along the jagged, rocky reefs 100 to 250 feet deep off the southern end of Price Island and were quickly awarded with lingcod strikes. They would jump on both metal jigs, as this one that gobbled a PK Lures jig as well as lead heads and plastics.Doug Olander
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Voracious Predator
We released some, including one that Jackie battled to the boat that proved to be about as long as she is tall. Fortunately, lings are extremely hardy and also lack swim bladders, so these fish can be photographed and put back in the water when they'll swim strongly back to bottom as did this large female held by Geroge Cuthbert, head honcho at West Sport Fishing.Doug Olander
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Protected Waters Teem With Fish
Late that afternoon, a breeze made conditions a bit sloppy “out front,” so we made the run south the “back way,” a very scenic channel that extends southwest, to Cape Mark. In the lee of the cape, we drifted shallower reefs and drop-offs in 50 to 150 feet and — using light spinning gear with 15- or 20-pound braid, and smaller lead-head and metal jigs — really had a blast, hooking up either on the way down or once near bottom nearly every drop. Here, Cuthbert snatches up a lovely yelloweye rockfish that Lewis hooked on a lead head and big plastic tail.Doug Olander
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Astounding Variety
As rewarding as the action was the astounding variety: In a couple of hours of drift-jigging, we released lingcod, greenling, and a host of rockfishes including copper, canary (like the lovely specimen Lewis admires in this photo), black, yellowtail, vermilion, China, yelloweye, quillback, and othersDoug Olander
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Inbound for the Outbound
The next morning, after a final few hours of very rewarding salmon action, we dashed back to the lodge for a final meal, a buffet not quickly forgotten and, with our boxes of frozen fillets, headed off in the turbo chopper that will carry outbound guests for a 10-minute ride to the airport at Bella Bella.In a couple more hours, we'd be back in Vancouver ... all too soon.Doug Olander
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Riding Shotgun
There's just gotta be a selfie, right? Coming off a great trip; my expressions speaks volumes.Doug Olander
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Thanks for the Memories
Just one of visions that filled my head on the trip back to Florida -- the early morning the sun rose like an orange ball behind a layer of coastal fog thick enough to enhance it but not obscure it. Quite a backdrop for hooking salmon.Doug Olander
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A Tale of Two Great Fishing Lodges
Very different operations, very different experiences -- and from our experience, an angler can't go wrong either way. Just depends on one's preferences and budget.
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Planning a Trip -- Timing
Most British Columbia fly-in lodges operate from late May until early September. The weather in July and most of August is at its best; June might be a bit less reliable, but the tyee bite can be wide open. Whenever you might want to go, try to book the winter before; better operations fill up their short season far in advance. Often, as in this shot on the open coast just north of Cheney Point, late summer days start misty but clear with an increasing seabreeze that makes the waters a bit choppy but pleasant enough.Doug Olander
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Planning a Trip -- Flight Ops
You'll need to fly into Vancouver (its international airport shown roughly in the center of this photo) and overnight there before flying up-coast next morning. We stayed at the Fairmont Vancouver Airport, which makes the trip as easy as it could be; the very upscale digs are part of the airport, so you're right there. The hotel also offers a "fish valet" service, which will make sure your boxes of frozen fish are in the walk-in freezer overnight when you return and have them ready to go with you when you fly out the next day. Some operations, such as West, fly you directly up to the lodge the next morning as part of the package. For others, such as Central Coast, you'll need to arrange the 1½-hour flight to Bella Bella on a regional carrier such as Pacific Coastal.Courtesy of the City of Richmond, B.C.
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Planning a Trip -- What to Bring
Be mindful of weight limits for regional and/or chopper flights. The rule of thumb for clothing up here, even in midsummer, is plenty of layers. “Put it on/take it off” is the order of most days to accommodate changing conditions on the water. Most operations (such as West Sport Fishing) offer full, insulated rain suits and deck boots for all guests, but always check on availability before deciding to leave that bulky gear at home.Doug Olander
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Don't Leave Your Light Tackle at Home
As noted, it’s fun to bring some of the light tackle you’d use back home, but many anglers rely on gear provided, which is generally high quality.Dave Lewis
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Nocturnal Invader
Pack a few squid jigs with you if calamari is to your liking (and/or fresh squid is a bait you'd like to drop for halibut and other bottomfish); squid armies show up around the dock of West Sport Fishing once darkness falls.Doug Olander
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The Board Tells the Tale
Dock staff at West Sport Fishing religiously update the board daily that accounts for every fish brought in; this keeps anglers' catches straight and ensures all catches are within legal limits. When a group leaves, the board is quickly wiped clean and names of the incoming anglers go up.Doug Olander
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Heli-Jet: In and (Quickly) Out
It's clear to see that the staff of West Sport Fishing doesn't mess around at "change" time. Inbound anglers, their gear and supplies for the resort are offloaded with a chain of resort staff in minutes, and just as quickly outbound anglers, their gear and fish are loaded on. (Generally an extra flight will be made carrying just their boxes of frozen fish.)Doug Olander
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A Tail of a Whale
Keep your camera handy! Whales can show suddenly, sometimes at the edge of kelp beds just offshore -- and a just yards from a boat. You'll see countless eagles as well as sea otters and more marine wildlife. For general information about visiting the coast or interior of British Columbia, visit HelloBC.Doug Olander