Published in February 2010 The Reel News
Five Days of Kings and Halibut, Rockfish and Whales on a Tricked Out Minesweeper Fishing The….
Salmon Gateway To B.C.’s Inside Pass
Last Summer The MV Marabell Came Home To Hakai Pass And We Went With It To See If The Fishing Is Still As Good As I Remember It….
By Terry W. Sheely
Wide-eyed, tight-lipped young Jimmy Casey is scrambling over the boat seats, stumbling across gear and dancing past his parents, holding his bowed rod high and pointed at 27 careening pounds of king salmon, following it around the 18-foot boat and praying it stays away from the stringers of kelp in Hakai Pass.
In a nearby chase boat the fish master is hovering and smiling, in the distance off Barney Point a whale fluke splats, coho anglers troll around the fight and stare, and a nervous Papa Jim Casey picks up the net and tries to remember the instructions—hold the bag bottom to the handle, dip don’t spear, lift don’t derrick, net the head not the tail, stay cool—it’s just his son’s biggest salmon ever, the biggest chinook on the floating lodge for this trip--so far.
And there is always reason for nervousness where Hakai kings are concerned. Several years ago a record-smashing 85-pound king was caught in this very spot where the sea surge is rising and falling on the rocks of Odlum Point where Young Jimmy is gently palming the rim of his single action knuckle buster.
Jimmy, a fishing fanatic and Puget Sound Angler from Anacortes, is playing the king like a seasoned veteran,
matching the waltzing salmon step-for-step. When the big chinook makes its last boat run, glides to the top and rolls on its side, Papa Jim dips the net and a cheer goes up from the other boats.
Good kings have been hard to come by on this mid-July trip to the salmon gateway between open ocean and the Inside Passage along the edge of north-central British Columbia. But while kings are tough for most of us to find, we’re rippin’ into unusually large coho, dodging pinks and putting white meat in the fish boxes in what has to be one of the most scenic small boat fisheries in the Northwest.
Our operating base is the MV Marabell, a 1942 WWII minesweeper that’s been converted into 136-feet of polished wood and brass and refloated as a floating fishing lodge for the Oak Bay Marine Group (OBMG). The fishing program is self-guided small boats with a roving fish master to ride herd on the scattering of anglers, provide extra gear and keep track of the hot spots. The renovated Marabell has boats, rooms and dining tables for 26 fishermen.
The Marabell is anchored in a steep-walled cove on the northwest side of roadless Hecate Island, a large island in a large scattering of small wilderness islands between the ocean and Inside Pass, north of Rivers Inlet and south of Bella Bella.
Hakai Pass is a salmon freeway that can clog up with migrating kings, coho and pinks. The anchorage is calendar art, framed by swags of moss on the drooping branches of towering cedars and hemlocks, centered on the mirror of a kelp-ribboned cut that leads into a neighboring pass, protected by walls of gray and black rock. Our 18-foot self-guided fish boats are tied in like nursing pups, and outfitted with electronics, VHF radio, 10½-foot Lamiglas and Kufa mooching rods matched with Shimano 2000 GT single-action knuckle busters or, if you really want one, Penn 320 LD double-action reel. Both are loaded with 25-pound monofilament. For halibut, we carry Shimano TLC 66-H and Rhino 6-foot rods with ShimanoTLD20 reels, Tuff line, and a gaff and net.
Our catch is cleaned, filleted, vacuum-packed, frozen and boxed each day.
Hecate Island is the heart of the Hakai Lúxvbálís Conservancy Area, an eco-tourism paradise on the edge of the Hakai Recreation Area. A pair of long, distinctive white sugar-sand beaches nearby have been sailing landmarks for decades. The sand is stitched with wolf tracks and bordered by jumbles of scoured logs and foreign drift.
It was at this anchorage that the MV Marabell began its life as a floating fish lodge, but after several years the ship moved to Langara Island in the Queen Charlottes. Last year it returned to Hakai. I hadn’t fished the broken islands and protected points of this small-boat Mecca since the late ‘90s and when I learned of the return of the Marabell I jumped at the chance to see if the fishing was as good as I remembered.
This time my wife Natalie came too and we planned to cut a few divots out of a well-packed fishing schedule to explore this amazingly scenic coast line, watch the humpbacks and orcas breach, maybe jump ship for a walk on the white sugar sand and have ourselves an adventure in the kayaks that OBMG was adding to the Hakai wilderness mix.
We were told that the 2009 king run was tailing off early but was being replaced by a wave of coho that were arriving ahead of schedule and from all indications the silvers were going to stay late. Last summer’s coho were not only exceptionally plentiful everywhere along the coast, but big. On July 15th I watched a coho pull the Marabell’s certified scales down to 20 pounds and wondered out loud what that fish would have weighed had it fed into October. Already many of us were kicking back acrobatic coho less than 10 pounds and the
silver season was still in its infancy.
In a normal year Hakai Pass salmon action becomes dependable in late June- early July targeting chinook that
are migrating from the open ocean through Hakai Pass to the Inside Passage and on to Rivers Inlet, Smith Inlet and the hundreds of spawning rivers on the lower mainland and Vancouver Island. These kings are feeding, aggressive and can weigh anywhere from 10 to 60 pounds with many in the 20s. The legendary Rivers Inlet
kings come through here before they turn into Rivers.
In late July and early August the big push of kings, with a few memorable exceptions, is replaced by waves of
migrating coho and pinks.
Coho in Hakai Pass are caught that weigh up to 24 pounds and the later in the season the bigger the fish. Last year the limits were four salmon per day, two could be kings, eight in possession, two halibut, three lings, and five rockfish—but only three could be yelloweyes.
Throughout the spring-summer season MV Marabell anglers target halibut, ling cod and rockfish in the labyrinth of islands, points, coves and flats inside Hakai Pass.
The hottest bottomfish action, though, almost always develops a short-run offshore at South or North Pointers Rocks. Hakai halibut are typically chicken size, averaging 20 to 50 pounds; although a few 200-plus ‘buts are reported. My 44-pounder was the big ‘but on the boat for our trip. Experience long ago taught me that where halibut are concerned big is not always better. Halibut in the 20 to 40 pound range are perfect—they give a great fight, are often available in water less than 200 feet deep, and the meat is premier. Ling cod also get big here, and the black rockfish deserve special mention.
From past experience I knew to pack a couple of trout-weight spinning rods and reels, and a handful of blue, brown, white, red and green plastic worms with 1 to 2-ounce leadhead jigs just for the rockfish. The afternoon that Natalie and I nosed the kicker boat into the kelp streamers and broken rocks behind South Pointers turned into a trip highlight. The Casey’s, Jim, Janet and Jimmy, were already into the rockfish when we got there.
I broke out the six-foot trout weight spinning rods, strung up reels with eight-pound test mono, added five feet of 25-pound test mono for shock leaders, tied on jigs, and for two hours Natalie and I sight-fished over swarms of big black rockfish catching one to five pounders as fast as we could cast. Double headers were the norm. Worm color didn’t seem to matter as much as movement. Cast and hop it back with flips of the rod tip. It was rare to move a worm five feet before it was slammed. If we crackered one off a follower would eat before we finished the retrieve. The light rods and reel drags were tortured and each hookup was an adventure. It was frantic, fun and well worth packing the light rods. We kept one-day limits for cornmeal, lemon drizzle and hot peanut oil, and played catch and release until our lines frayed, one reel locked up and our arms wore out.
And all of that occurred just after we had limited on halibut, including my 44 pounder, and argued with ling cod to 25 pounds on the 160 to 210 foot flats around South Pointers Rocks. The only boats on the flat ocean with us were the Casey’s and two other Marabell anglers who were just dots on the distant horizon.
And although we didn’t know it, the best was being saved for last.
Just getting here is half the Hakai adventure. Our trip started in Richmond with an overnight at the Sheraton
Vancouver Airport hotel, and a morning flight from the South Terminal on a SAAB 340B twin engine 30 seater for the one-hour flight above the overcast to Port Hardy on the north end of Vancouver Island. At Port Hardy our group transferred to either deHavilland Beaver or Grumman Goose float planes for low-level hops up Queen
Charlotte Strait to Hakai. The overnight accommodations and air travel from Vancouver are part of the OBMG
Mountain tops jut through banks of fog and low clouds, and in the plane at 400 feet we look down on the backs of eagles and gulls, and watch for whales, black bears and wolves. A kayaker waves.
We arrive to a lunch of ribs, chicken and pasta that will hold us until 9 tonight when dinner arrives with decent merlots, pork medallions and rice.
A quick orientation, gear up in heavy yellow Mustang float suits, find our assigned boats and hit the water. Each boat is loaded with a bucket of brined herring, cutting boards, knives, pliers, assorted weights and a tackle box of pre-tied salmon and halibut hooks and leaders.
One of the natural pluses of Hakai Pass is the convenient mix of comfortable inside water where we fish protected from the wind and storms that can lash the BC coast, coupled with the short run to the open ocean on good water days, taking advantage of the Pacific’s promise of halibut and big lings. It’s possible, even likely, to fish both ocean and inside waters in the same hour.
Our preferred pattern was to motor mooch and troll for salmon during the two hours before and after tide changes then run out to the huge flats of the South Pointers Islands for halibut, lings and fist fights with black
Our first coho effort was mangled with frustration, but not for lack of fish. Coho were everywhere and on the bite. Keeping them on the barbless hook was the problem. I lost fish 50 yards away and five feet off the net. On the run, on the jump and when they shouldn’t have come unbuttoned.
I played with various hookups before finally settling on a rig that included the smallest herring I could find, angle cut to spin super fast, single hook positioned just off-center of the backbone with a second hook trailing one-inch behind the tail. I bent the bend and barbless point on the trailer out of alignment with the shaft creating an offset pull and switched to four-ounce sliding round weights. The outfit was dynamite when fished just eight pulls behind the boat in the wake with two-ounces of lead. Problem solved.
Invariably balls of herring or needlefish would rise to the surface in carpets of concentric dimples, sometimes 50 feet across, other times 50 yards. Troll through the bait and the fish would go down; troll around the edges and hookups were almost automatic. Coho came into the net with their mouths crammed with needlefish tails.
Hakai Pass is festooned with known salmon hotspots—Spider Island, Foster Rocks, Barney Point, Bayley, Kelpie,
The Gap, The Breakers—but this time most of the salmon and almost all of the action was stacked and stalled out at Odlum Point. We prospected but the hot bite at Odlum was not to be denied.
The coho bite is a bit picky. Feeder coho are packed with thin needlefish and our baits are cut from fat herring. But the bite is on and everybody is catching their fish.
On the late afternoon of Day Three Nat adds a couple of 12 pounders to our bonk box, we release a bunch of 7 to 10 pounders and watch Jimmy catch his king.
That’s the straw that breaks my coho string. Enough coho--I’m going to find a king. I point the boat for the rocks and kelp that rises into Odlum Island. If ever I saw a king spot, this is it. The sky is gray, light diffused, tide coming up on high slack and almost all of the boat traffic is at least a hundred yards offshore where the coho are. The water whooshing onto the rocks at Odlum is black and as still as a mirror.
I fish out a pair of large herring, plug cut them into a slow-roll bevel and start the hunt, mooching in an out of gear along the kelp, smack against the rocks, reeling and free-spooling to hug a ragged bottom contour that, on my Lowrance, rises to 20 feet falls to 40 comes back up to 20 then plunges to 89 feet.
I can see the fish in my minds eye, feel it, I know it’s there—head into the light current, belly hugging bottom, taking whatever food the sea offers. I bring the herring across the 20 foot rock, free-spool it to the bottom, walk it across then climb the other side. Nothing. I swing the boat around and come back this time so tight to the rocks that I need to reposition the inside rod. The king bites and explodes into a searing run straight out into the pass. I catch a couple of glimpses of a big tail and broad back as the chinook plows through the
surface—enough to know it’s a 40-pound class fish.
Nat’s on the boat controls and I scramble to hold rod pressure and clear the second rod. For a split second I look away and the fish comes unbuttoned—a good 200 feet away, it simply comes unbuttoned.
Today is the last full day of fishing, we know there’s seared duck, carrot soup with coriander, and crème brulẻ on the dinner table but right now I’m this close to dialing in the king fishery. Nat’s had a good full day and deserves a nap before dinner. I shuttle her to the Marabell, then come back out to fish by myself.
It’s late in the game and the breaching humpback whales, the orcas crowding through our boats, the cartwheeling coho, the fanged ling cod and calendar beauty of this spectacular place all take a back seat. It’s all about the kings now, I know where they’re at and I know how to hunt them!
The boat lifts and falls on the surge that heaves up against the rocks. I can’t get any tighter to the wall
without leaving paint on the rocks and I’m working the throttle like a painter, a little more a little less—rise the baits and drop the baits, paint the bottom rocks, put the big chunk of tantalizing herring smack in the face of a feeding king.
The second king hits like the first and like the first it too shakes the hook at the end of a powerhouse long run. I slap the water with the rod tip and sit down. Down the wall Dwayne Mustard is also looking for a king. Dwayne works for OBMG. I’ve known him for several years and like me, the rest of Dwayne’s world shuts down when kings stand up. Everybody else is pounding the open water for good strong acrobatic silvers but Dwayne and I are dancing in the rocks and kelp, holding our breath and praying for a chinook.
The gray light turns a little purple, the slack water is flat and black, Dwayne hits a fish, a big coho hiding
in king country, calls it an evening and heads in for the seared duck. A few other boats are still working the salmon bite when my third king hits in 40 feet of water, with eight pulls of line, just inches from the kelp bed. This one, like the other two, is a torpedo and 200 feet out it jumps and flips completely over. Unlike the others, this one stays on. I hold the rod high, goose the boat into open water and settle in for the fight—a fight that completely circles the boat four times and sounds to the bottom twice before I can lead the fish into
the net. Smallest of the three, but at 25 pounds I’ll take it.
Tomorrow comes in warm, dry with low clouds. It’s our last morning to fish before the float plane arrives.
We head for the rocks, swing a little wide and slow to a crawl just offshore buying me time to rig the herring. We drop the king cuts into the water, check the slow-roll action and head for the rocks. Before we even get close we’re into a double header on coho that pounce on my painstakingly perfect king cuts and completely screw up the stalk. We re-bait and move in until the bow is inches off the rocks and sideways to the kelp. Morning light is weak and shines silver on the water. Everybody else it seems has coho fever, last hour fever, top off the fish box fever. We’re the only boat fishing kings.
I make a pass north to south. Nothing. Turn around and fish it south to north. I can feel the fish—he’s here,
somewhere. I put the rods in holders; port rod is out 15 pulls, middle rod eight pulls, starboard 21 pulls. We follow the bottom contours, hugging the rocks, nipping the kelp bed, snake-walking the boat side to side—spurting ahead slowing up. Raising the baits and lowering. In gear, out of gear, dancing for kings.
On the far side of a mini cove created by a C shaped wall of rocks and kelp the Lowrance reveals a bottom that climbs a steep incline from 80 feet to 30. We come into it slow, drop into neutral and walk the baits up the wall, using the speed of the coasting boat, to spin the baits. The water is 50 feet deep when the port rod, at 15 pulls, goes off.
This fish has shoulders. It runs straight out to coho land, pauses then runs again. Line is leaping off the knuckle-buster. In the distance the big fish swirls on the surface then dives. I wave off a pair of coho trollers that are bearing down on my stretched line.
The king swims left to right, and cuts a big half moon in the pewter-colored water, slugging it out, and then it sounds. The depth sounder reads 257 feet where the big king stopped powering down and I can feel it grinding its nose into the bottom, trying to dislodge the hook.
Failing that it runs again then starts to circle. Three times it circles the boat. Nat clears the gear and picks up the net. Twice more the king goes around the boat, but each circle is smaller than the last. Around us trollers are playing coho and watching. The fight is finished. The silvery fish is on its side, Natalie dips the net, the big head crosses the rim, I lower the rod and it dives into the bag. We holler outloud, high-five and I start to breathe again.
To stay on schedule we have to be back the Marabell by 8. It’s 7:20. We’re done. As we pass the point we see a lodge boat hook up with what is likely to be the last coho of the trip.
On the Marabell’s deck, our last minute king weighs in at 38 pounds, well into Tyee country and as it turns out the 26th largest king caught on OBMG boats in 2010 fishing at Hakai, Langara and Kano Inlet on the west side of the Queen Charlottes. That first fish, the one that got away, was bigger. We shower, pack up, enjoy plates of shrimp, mussels, scallops, fresh fruit, and lasagna and turn in our raingear and boots.
While we wait for the out-plane to splash down, the crew lines up fish boxes bulging with salmon, halibut, lings and rockfish. Someone erases our names from the daily catch board and writes in anglers with blank spaces where the pounds will go.
And now I know.
The fish of Hakai Pass are still here, and the MV Marabell is back.
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1327 BEACH DRIVE,
VICTORIA, BC, CANADA V8S 2N4
SHERATON VANCOUVER AIRPORT HOTEL
Provides free shuttle to the airport and complimentary parking for up to 21 days.
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Richmond, British Columbia V6X 1A3 Canada
Phone: (604) 273-7878