Three Days In Ucluelet
An Affordable British Columbia Fishing Adventure
Salmon, Halibut, Lings, Rockfish, Lady Cynthia
The Canadian Princess
By Terry W. Sheely
Lady Cynthia in the bright purple coat has the rod handle wedged under her right arm, sun visor slipping over her left eye, she’s leaning back, struggling to brace her feet on a slippery deck, cranking hard on the reel handle and losing.
One-hundred and eighty-five feet deep in the saltwater on the gravelly flat of La Perouse Bank a British Columbia halibut is running and flapping toward Washington’s Neah Bay and taking a lot of Lady Cynthia’a line with it.
Her rod is arched, her arms aching, jaw set and the railing is coming up fast when dad, David Whittall reaches in grabs the rod and holds it off the railing just long enough for Cynthia to catch her balance, get a new grip, snub the run and start the hallie pumping inevitably toward the fish box built into the stern of the Raven Princess.
For the Coquitlam, BC team the 35.2 pound halibut became the big fish for the boat, big fish for the lady, white slabs of prime dining, and an indelible father-daughter memory. A sifting brown cloud of krill, tiny shrimp-like crustaceans that are prime feed for game fish, drifts under the boat. Skipper Dave Payne calls out, “salmon at 60 feet and 40 feet; bring ‘em up.”
A rod goes off in the bow, another on the port side, another in the bow and then my rod tip is slapped down. A lot of memories and fish dinners being made today.
It’s the end of July 2010 and since 6:10 a.m. my wife Natalie and I with a dozen other anglers have been on board the 52-foot Raven Princess, one of a half-dozen sport cruisers in the Canadian Princess Resort fleet of charter boats based in the scenic fish and vacation town of Ucluelet, British Columbia.
Pronounced You-Clue-Let, the town of Ucluelet, pop. 1,650, is a scattered collection of small shops and stores, getaways and recreation located on a narrow spit of high ground between Ucluelet Inlet and the Pacific Ocean on the southwest corner of Vancouver Island at the edge of Pacific Rim National Park. Part of the town overlooks the picturesque calm waters of the inlet and harbor, the other stares out at a spectacular ocean beach with surfer-size breakers, sea stacks, main line of migration routes for hundreds of thousands of chinook, coho, pinks, chum and sockeye salmon pouring down the west coast of Vancouver Island, near and offshore halibut banks, inshore rockfish and lingcod reefs and one of the most famous beaches in the Northwest.
It’s a rare location of fishing opportunity that brings good B. C. saltwater fishing into paved-highway range for trailered saltwater boats ferried over from the mainland, that also offers charter boat day-trip affordability, or full resort/charter boat packages; all a day’s drive from Seattle, or a scenic 40-minute flight from the South Terminal of Vancouver International Airport on Pacific Coastal Airlines.
The name Ucluelet is derived from a Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations word that translates into “place of safe harbor;” a harbor now home to several sportfishing charter and resort operations.
We’re staying at the town’s largest operation, the Canadian Princess Resort, built around an historic and permanently parked hydrographic ship that in another life was sent on “top-secret assignments for the Royal Canadian Navy.” The Canadian Princess was launched as the William J. Stewart in 1932, ripped into Ripple Reef in Seymour Narrows near Campbell River in 1944, was beached to avoid sinking, refloated and eventually towed to Ucluelet where it is now part of the Oak Bay Marine Group (www.OBMG.com). Resort guests can stay in an historic stateroom onboard the moored Canadian Princess or, as we did, chose a modern room on land in the two-story resort complex.
Our room has queen size beds, cable television, microwave, hot showers and a balcony overlooking the marina harbor. It’s how my wife prefers to define a fish camp. We ate buffet breakfasts and sit-down dinners onboard the CP in the Steward Dining Room and ordered take-out boxed lunches for fish days.
Canadian Princess Resort cruiser fishing packages include 7-hour guided trips with tackle, rods and lures (we used jigs exclusively; 4 ounce Point Wilson Darts and Port Alberni Magics for salmon and bottomfish) bait, fish cleaning, freezing and packaging. Some anglers brought coolers others bought waxed fish boxes and the resort can arrange for canning, smoking and shipping.
The boats accommodate a mix of resort guests and day-trip walk-ons, which makes for an interesting composite of fishermen and conversations.
On our boats we fished with a hard-core diehard who plans his annual two-week vacation to be on the water when the salmon run is hot and knots a reservation “flag” to the railing to mark his preferred fishing station; a father and 9 year old son on a “guys day”, a German student on his high school graduation adventure exploring British Columbia alone; a diabetic motorcycle jockey festooned with skulls and crossbones who eats a mountain of French fries and a burger that must have removed most of a barnyard and then complains about his sugar readings. There’s a quiet guy with the Tacoma Narrows Airport that who says not one word to anybody, and a family of three from Montana on their annual vacation road trip and they’re loving it.
A lively, interesting mix and every one is a fisherman.
I wanted to spend as much time as possible on the water and arranged for back-to-backmorning salmon and halibut fishing from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m.; followed by an afternoon charter for salmon and halibut fishing from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. On our third and last day I opted for an afternoon nap and switched the afternoon halibut-salmon charter trip for an evening bottomfish charter to pound nearby reefs for white meat from 4:30 to 8:30.
The resort/charter packages start at $239 for three days, two nights and two fishing
trips, and top out at $950 for five days, four nights and four fishing trips.
We timed our trip to hit the overlap of migrating kings and early silvers with good prospects for halibut. Our skipper said that for the last week excellent king catches were being taken less than an hour out of the harbor along the Long Beach Peninsula.
He’s worried though, that the bite is starting to fade and points the Raven Princess toward La Perouse Bank, the Big Bank northeast of the mouth of the Juan de Fuca Strait.
It’s a two hour run one way. We cross troughs of water 500 feet deep to reach the bank and 185 of water where both halibut and ocean running salmon congregate.
We’re handed good rods pre-rigged with candlefish-style jigs; 4 ounce Darts or look alike Magic’s--both 6 inches long, with green backs, white bellies.
There’s krill bait in the water, birds screaming, diving and feeding and the fish are here—salmon near the top, halibut on the bottom.
We work the jigs with a jig-and-retrieve technique; sweeping the rod up, dropping the jig into free fall, swimming it for three cranks of the reel handle, and repeating. Sweep, drop, swim……and repeat until we’ve covered every inch of water from the bottom where we hope for halibut but would love a ling, up to where the coho and kings are feeding just under the surface. In short order the deckhand wraps the net around a nice mix of halibut and salmon mostly coho (a mix of keepable hatchery fish and releasable wild fish), a couple of respectable kings and cookie cutter halibut around 15 pounds. Everything was caught on the jigs. A wall of fog follows us back to the dock where we learn that the boats that stayed close and fished the beach limited on kings to 31 pounds, and had a few halibut to boot.
On the second day we again make the four-hour run (two out two back), with a repeat of the action only this time a few more kings are in the mix and there’s lots of smiles grinning down into the packed fish box.
The late afternoon bottom fishing trip turns out to be full of surprises.
We change boats, climbing above the Salmon Princess for a quick run to a nearby cluster of reefs around Sail Rock. The rods all carry the now-familiar green and white Darts, which work just as well on the rockfish and lings as they did on the salmon and halibut.
We’re into rockfish right away.
At one point I catch a small greenling, 10 inches at most, smile to myself and lower it back to the reef. It doesn’t take too long before I’m into a large ling cod that couldn’t pass up the floundering greenling. It’s a good fish, well past 20 pounds for sure and it’s on the surface. I holler for a net. Both nets are in the stern landing rockfish. I holler again. A minute goes by, the ling shakes, thrashes and rolls. Another minutes passes, I holler again for the net. Just as the deckhand, breathless and slimed, arrives with the cavernous net the big ling thrashes and the hook flies free. It lays on the surface for a tantalizing second, then dives as the net comes over the railing.
Down the railing another surprise is unfolding.
One of the Montana kids was slammed as his jig dropped and the reel was in freespool. The inevitable backlash is monstrous. While he picks at it, his father grabs the line to keep the jig from snagging bottom. He feels a tug and then another and slowly starts to hand line in the fish that he’s certain is a small rockfish.
When the 17-pound king looms just under the surface chaos breaks out on the Salmon Princess. The surprised deckhand runs for the net, the skipper runs for the deckhand, the father hangs on to the line and the fish decently wallows on the surface waiting to be netted. Turns out to be the biggest salmon of the afternoon bottomfishing trip.
The fish box swells with a variety of bottomfish that runs from greenling to ling cod, and a big spread of rockfish: blacks, yellowtails, tigers, Chinas, coppers and one king salmon.
Fog obscures the rocks, but the horn blare can be heard off the Amphitrite lighthouse at the end of Coast Guard Road.
Fish, eat, nap, soak up scenery, walk the beaches, nap—and then repeat it.
The plane out, a Short 500 33-passenger turbo prop is fog bound and two hours late arriving at the paved airstrip, in the clear-cut with the abbreviated terminal. The plane is a workhorse that resembles a merganser in flight, a long beak, under slung around the fuselage and wing.
We blow through the fog at less than 500 feet for a blue-sky, low level flight across Vancouver Island, above Nanaimo, over the Strait of Georgia, past the mouth of the Fraser River to South Terminal in Vancouver.
My wife is asleep in the seat. I enjoy the view—mountains, lakes, saltwater. We packed an amazing amount of recreation, comfort, relaxation, fishing, fish new sights and newer acquaintances into such a short long weekend.
I could do this again!
For specific information:
Canadian Princess Resort
Oak Bay Marine Group
Ucluelet Chamber of Commerce