Fishing Heaven Is A 65-pound King, Rain Gear,
A Princess Named Charlotte
By Terry W. Sheely
Somehow I thought fish heaven wouldn’t be this screwed up.
The spring storms, according to every soothsayer, meteorologist and historian on record, should have howled
through and cleared out two weeks ago, yet here I am squinting into buckshot pellets of rain, fighting wind and whitecaps and losing sight of British Columbia as it sporadically disappears into purple-gray sea level clouds.
We should be mooching our plug cut herrings smack on top of the season’s monster surge of king salmon, hooting, hollering, grinning and kicking back 20 pounders like on earlier trips. Instead and like everybody else at Langara in early June last year we were groveling and begging for bites.
And the strain is starting to show. Guides from one of the other lodges are getting surly—flinging frozen herring over their customers heads at other lodge boats, targeting moochers who obliviously wander too close or run too fast. We’ve never seen that before. Those guys need a fish real bad—a fish fight to take the edge off.
On past trips here, when the predictably explosive salmon bite faded Jim and I were able to fill out the day
yarding up hallies and filling the white cooler with delicate snowy fillets of ling cod, yelloweye and half-a-dozen varieties of rockfish—but no, not this year.
We’re biding our time, tolerating the weather and dilly dallying salmon, making light of the careening barometer, waiting for it to happen. And I know it can happen—I’ve done this before, right here, on the north tip of the Queen Charlotte Islands, just over the horizon from Alaska, where fishing heaven is called Langara.
But this year the northern climate is throwing a snit—going through the change, they say.
The calendar is arguing that we’re a mere 13 days from the summer solstice but Jim and I are buried in fleece, 8 pounds of winter rain gear, two pairs of pants each, wool hats, neoprene gloves, polypros top and bottom, Merino wool socks and the only reason I’m wearing sunglasses is so the sleet doesn’t hurt so bad. ‘08 was a strange, cold year in the north country, especially offshore in the ‘Charlottes.
There was that day the wind was a raging gale, hurling whitecaps and piling up wet mountains. We fought it
hard—took a break at lunch to refortify with steak sandwiches, chicken soup and a nap, went back out for the afternoon and got beat up some more. I’m a dark-thirty-plus-an-hour-later guy—everybody who fishes with me knows that, but by 4 o’clock, fingertips fading to blue, cheeks fried red by the wind, eyes batting saltwater, biteless and butt kicked I finally concede and reluctantly ask Jim what he thinks about “going in early.”
Early, as it turns out, actually occurred for the rest of the fleet hours before we even thought about it.We’re the last boat to nuzzle up to the dock on the Charlotte Princess, a 135-foot yacht converted to a luxury mothership. The ‘Princess is the floating home to 30 salmon fishermen and a fleet of distinctively yellow 17-foot custom-made Fat Cats, open boats with tiller mounted 50-hp 4-stroke Yamaha motors.
The Charlotte Princess is anchored for the season—June 4-September 2--in Henslung Cove an indentation in the south side of Langara Island on the north end of British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte archipelago. Langara supports the last acre of solid ground before BC turns into AK.
Part of the Oak Bay Marine Group of lodges, the Charlotte Princess is a mothership operation supporting a fleet of two-man kicker boats and self-guided fishermen. A roving fish master, Shawn (Cookie) Pennel rides herd on the scattered sport fishing fleet from a high-speed launch, packed with extra supplies. The anchorage is calm and protected from all but the stoutest winds. Today the Princess, under normal conditions a rock of stability, is rocking into the wind and waves--gently, but she rocks.
Jim and I climb the metal stairs, barely noticing the lumps of soggy eagles hunkered on piling tops, shake off the wet rain gear, stick our noses into the hot smells rolling out of the galley, and head for the shower.
Even on a bad day, fish heaven is still fish heaven.
A month after we leave—a feat that in itself became a rock-and-roll adventure--I hear the story of Eric Bruener and his two hour standup fight at Cohoe Point with a 65-pound king—biggest salmon of the year for the lodge. Jim and I pounded that point, with most of the sport fleet, for four days in June. Bruener caught his fish on
Even in salmon heaven 65 pounders are a matter of great skill, greater luck and magnificent timing.
Langara Island is a small ragged island that bears somewhat of a resemblance to a dropped seagull egg. It lies at the extreme north end of the Queen Charlotte Islands, some 50 miles west of the northern BC mainland. From the fishing areas you can see the white glaciers ofAlaska just 30 miles, give or take, across Dixon entrance. This Island is the first land mass that runs of feeding salmon encounter as they migrate toward mainland natal rivers down the coast.
Wave after wave of migrating salmon collide with Langara, stay to gorge on the huge balls of herring, squid and shrimp that collect here, then move down the rest of the archipelago, resting and actively feeding to continue southward.
Langara is the initial contact point, ground zero for salmon impact and the spot where most of the top-end
Queen Charlotte fishing lodges are concentrated. Oak Bay has two floating lodges anchored here, side-by-side; the MV Marabell and MV Charlotte Princess.
The Reel News publisher/editor Jim Goerg and I have fished several times from the classic Marabell. This was our first time on the 135-foot Princess, a restored, updated and spit and polish reincarnation of a luxury yacht. It’s a full service operation, including chef-prepared meals of prime rib, jumbo mango prawns, rack of lamb, chicken stuffed with artichoke hearts and sun dried tomatoes, roast duck, halibut, halibut and more halibut. If
you don’t like the menu or the red and white table wines the chef indulges special orders.
Fish heaven may be breaking wet and windy this week but the meals are served like manna, along with a hot tub soak, private staterooms, good solid fishing tackle, rain gear, boots, boat, bait, and dawn-to-dusk angling for a mix of salmon, halibut, ling cod, yelloweye and several varieties of rockfish, and Cookie.
Boat tackle is built around custom mooching rods, 10 ½-foot Kufa rods outfitted with either a Shimano 2000 GT Single Action (knucklebuster) 320 LDs or Double Action conventional reels, carrying Triple Fish 25-pound main lines, Maxima leaders and laser sharpened double-hook rigs.
Halibut gear is 6 foot Shimano TLC 66-H rods and Shimano TLD 20 reels. Boats also have first-aid, kits, VHF radios, fish-depth finders, nets, flying gaff and communications with the fish manager for extra gear, lunch or
The first full day we're on the water at 6 and some boats have been fishing since 5AM. We see a couple of small kings--20 pounders—netted and one giant skate.
Jim and I motor mooch and continuously move from proven spot to proven spot circling the island looking for luck in the all the known hot spots: Lacy Island, Cox Island , Iphigenia Point, Bruin Bay, Boulder Bay, Gunia Pt., Cohoe Pt., Andrews Pt., Explorer Bay, McPherson Point, Langara Rocks, and Langara Pt. lighthouse.
Changing locations is like running through buckshot and more than once I stop to let the sting dissipate and when Jim offers a pull down stocking hat to replace my wide-brimmed felt favorite I grab it along with his
extra gloves. Mine are still buried in the luggage.
By coincidence two old friends are also on the ‘Princess this week, Dave Vedder and Doug Wilson both writers-photographers from the Seattle area and seasoned salmon addicts. We keep in radio contact sharing bite information but so far there’s not much to share.
I conjure up a salmon strike at 22 pulls in 120 feet of water and get rewarded with two teeth marks raked down the herring scales.
Doug and Dave find a pocket of chinook inside Explorer Bay, quickly add a couple of bright kings to their fish box and give us a call. The bite fades before we get there. We find a long tapering rock shelf and boat a few tasty ling cod.
Back at the ‘Princess the crew is getting the bad word on tomorrow:
“Forecast Winds NW 20 to 30 Knots. Strong to Local Gale Force Northwest Winds Cloudy. Seas Near 2 Metres. Wind Easing to Moderate-to-Strong Northwesterlies."
We tempt the high slack at McPherson’s Point. The wind has let up some, and rain is coming in squalls. Jim
catches a red hot 20 pounder that eats the cut plug on the run and slack lines him. I catch and release a small halibut that hit about 20 feet under the waves.
We check in with Cookie—anybody catching anything?
“Everybody,” comes the reply, “is full of hope and expectation."
We call it a day after 9 hours and one salmon in the box. Dave and Doug are already back in with a fish box
bulging with bottomfish--5 lings, 3 yelloweyes, several rockfish and one ratfish that Vedder brought back just for me.
The next couple of days yo-yo between short salmon bites and decent weather breaks to no salmon bites and ugly squalls. Slowly Jim and I add fish to the catch.
Strange this climate change.
On the last slack of the last full day a wad of kings moves in. Dave and Doug have a double bouncing them from
one end of the boat to the other, circling each other, ducking, each trying to convince the other to give up their fight and grab the net. In other nearby boats I see a rod go down then two more. We change course and my rods tries to leap out of the holder.
It’s a 26 pounder that fights like a 36. Jim nails another and fish fights are breaking out all around us.
We’re jacked when we finally call it a day. A hot chinook run has moved in—at last, and we’ve got decent
weather and tomorrow morning to fish before flying back to Sandspit and connecting with a turbo-prop flight to Vancouver.
I wake up at 5 a.m. full of hope, stick my head out of the porthole for a look at the morning and catch a face full of blowing saltwater. The weather that was moderating last evening, has taken a turn—it’s worse.
Drizzle and gray has changed to a chain of squalls that are beating up the inlet, swallowing the island’s graphic features, blowing whitecaps, grounding the eagles.
We crash out to Cohoe and see a few salmon caught. Apparently, the first good run of kings is still here, blown
apart, but still feeding. Three of our yellow boats tuck and run back in. Two guys in our group go out to 300 feet of water, out of sight in the blowing gray and well beyond the usual salmon fishing range. They catch two 30-pound class kings in this no-man’s land.
The wind is beating us sideways, streaming down my glasses, half blind, and fighting the boat. It's a mess. At 8:30. Jim sensibly suggests we go in. I hold out till 9 and then cave. We're one of the last boats in.
The orange and black Twin Otter float plane is scheduled to pick us up at 11:30. At 4 p.m. the weather improves enough for the pilot to skate in, snatch us and get off the water. He takes the long-circular route home over the water and around the mountains.
As we fly over Cohoe Point it looks almost flat. A few white caps and a bunch of boats. The squall has blown through. The kings have arrived.
Weather is always a reality in the Charlottes. Sometimes' it’s sunny and flat,sometimes it's 10 foot waves and no visibility. Pack sunscreen shorts and fleece coats and insulated long johns. You'll probably need it all.
But that’s the price.
And for my money, fishing heaven on a bad day is still fishing heaven.
-------For More Information------
Oak Bay Marine Group
1327 Beach Dr
Victoria BC V8S 2N4 Canada