Big Days in BC
A little adventure in a lot of water.
Gray’s Sporting Journal | May/June 2016
You know it’s going to be a good day when you start off dressed in PVC,” says Phil, zipping his yellow Viking rain jacket from navel to chin before turning the ignition key. We’re getting a late start, and for the previous 30 minutes I’ve stood in a moored boat anxiously watching other guests launch west toward the Inside Passage as Phil handled critical lodge business at the dock. Their running lights fade into the fog of a narrow channel through which, just the day before, our ﬂoatplane had skated down under cobalt skies. But this morning the sun has been swallowed by the Great Bear—8 million acres of sodden British Columbian rain forest.
Our ride toward the ﬁshing grounds starts smoothly enough, protected by sea-washed cliffs sentried with sea lions bobbing in the kelp beds. However, as we round the granite promontory of Addenbroke Point in Phil’s 17-foot center console, Fitz Hugh Sound suddenly cops an attitude, with large rollers building from the south between Rivers Inlet and Calvert Island.
Running wide open through a stabbing rain, Phil motions toward Calvert’s coastline, a verdant band lying under the marine fog layer. “They just found a thirteen-thousand-year-old fossil footprint on that island!” he shouts, grabbing the wheel with both hands as a following sea suddenly outruns our bow. “Oldest in North America!”
With the notable exception of some ﬁerce battles waged over BC’s coastal timber, not much has changed since that ﬁrst inhabitation. Ragged coastlines of old growth cedar and spruce are shrouded by fog in every direction. Bald eagles are as common as sparrows; breaching humpback whales no more unusual than the gray squirrels bounding through your backyard. Here and there, whitecaps are dotted with commercial ﬁshing vessels and recreational runabouts. Secluded coves nestle private sailboats setting out crab pots.
From the crabs, whales, bears, and eagles to the much-disputed timber, both land and sea along BC’s Inside Passage are fat with resources. Indeed, the Great Bear Rainforest has some of the highest biomass output on the planet, including 11 strains of Chinook salmon. Although Rivers Inlet produces some of the world’s largest king salmon, I’ve come for the coho, or silver salmon. Speciﬁcally, chrome-bright saltwater salmon taken on a cast ﬂy.
Legacy Lodge at Rivers Inlet is primarily a catch-and-keep operation, but several years ago co-founder Phil Dawson began developing a saltwater ﬂy ﬁshery around the silvers. When the ﬂy ﬁshing is good, it’s remarkable. When conditions change, however, the pattern can be tough to reestablish, and today marks a wicked, two-hands-on-the-helm kind of change.
With the Legacy ﬂeet congregated off Philip’s Point to our east, Phil is running toward the lee of a more distant peninsula, where we eventually punch through the squall and slip around a granite bend into calmer water. Our console bristles with 10½-foot mooching rigs, 9½-foot bucktailing sticks, and 9-foot ﬂy rods. The inaugural drips of a steady rain have already found their way down my collar.
Having been here since early July, Phil is accustomed to being soggy. The margins of his hands are bleached the color of wet bread, and the skin— scarred by hook, blade, and ﬁn—looks like it might slough off in a hard rain. But he deftly rigs two bucktailing rods with the steadiness of a man who relishes the nicks and cuts as reminders of good days at sea.
“I just want you to catch a few coho ﬁrst so you can feel the power of these ﬁsh,” he says, knowing full well that I’ve come here to cast ﬂies, not pull them behind a boat. But over the years, I’ve also come to know that when my friend Phil sets his mind to something, it’s going to get done. He’s type A of the ﬁrst order. The type who rises at 4:30 and starts making furtive noises around hunting camp in the hopes that someone else will get up to help him seize the day. The type who runs a successful commercial real estate business in Phoenix and, in his spare time, builds a fabulous British Columbia ﬁshing lodge from scratch. The type who has lung surgery, and then runs the Boston Marathon for rehab. The type whose ever-patient wife—watching good-humoredly at the dock as her husband hustles back and forth from the lodge ofﬁce to confer with his accountant, check in with the chef, consult his guides, ﬂirt with said wife, then hurry off in yet another direction to give a good-luck nudge to the bow of a guest’s departing boat—looks at you standing there in your yellow PVC rain suit, zipped to the chin and waiting on the captain, smiles knowingly, and says, “For the next three days, he’s all yours.”
OF COURSE, HE’S RIGHT. Saltwater cohos are incredibly powerful, and it takes only a few laps with a bucktailing rig to prove it. Though there is no real magic to the technique, it is deadly. Cruise at three knots trolling a streamer with a nose blade spinning like Inspector Gadget’s propeller hat, and you will get bit. It’s usually more of a tug than a hammer blow, but come tight on 10 pounds of ocean-bright silver salmon, and it will rip across the surface like a boneﬁsh, rocket into serial cartwheels, drag you from stem to stern.
And then we let them go. Because that’s what ﬂy ﬁshermen do, right?
Watching the ﬁrst silver salmon snake from my grip into the blue-green waters of the sound, Phil says, some-what dubiously, “Release the ﬁrst one. Okay, yeah. Good karma.”
Several more silvers come easily on bucktails trolled past the north end of a rocky islet. Every time we idle past the kelp beds, a ﬁght breaks out on our stern, but after three or four ﬁsh, we switch to the 8-weights for casting. It’s soon clear that deciphering their new pattern will be a challenge. On the heels of a recent warm spell, the strike zone has migrated much deeper. Radio chatter tells us that the moochers are ﬁnding ﬁsh at “seventeen pulls,” or the number of arm-lengths of line they are stripping off their reels to hang cut herring straight down. Seventeen pulls is about 20 feet deep.
Riding the casting platform with both outsteps wedged against the hull, I stack mends into a rocking sea and watch broad loops of my full-sinking line straighten downward into a zillion gallons of salt water. Cast after cast follows mend on top of mend, but our drift takes us right on top of the sunken line, and my retrieve keeps running straight up through the water column rather than riding in the plane of a desired depth. Periodically, we abandon the cast ﬂy and return to bucktailing, which is to say, catching ﬁsh.
The good news is we have escaped the wind. The bad news is we have to go back around the point if we want food. Though Legacy Lodge offers fully guided packages, most guests pilot their own boats, bait their own rigs, read GPS and charts themselves. The freedom and sense of accomplishment gained from self-sufﬁciency attract a lot of anglers who know how to hang herring and just need a plush base, a ﬁne vessel, and someone to bring them a hot meal out on the water. Unfortunately, the lodge’s chow boat can’t reach us beyond the point, where whitecaps have formed a Trump-sized wall between me and a warm breakfast burrito. As the radio crackles with garbled cautions (“too big out there” . . . “not a good idea”), Phil rummages through the glove box and ﬁnds a pack of cheese crackers. We wolf down three apiece, then return to furiously stacking ﬂy lines in open water.
ALTHOUGH MOST OF THE summer has been placid, by day two I have embraced my inner broncobuster. We start the day bucktailing off Philip’s Point, where shoreline kelp forests host an underwater game of hide-and-seek between Chinook salmon and voracious sea lions. On our third pass, a Tyee-sized boil erupts behind my bucktail. It swirls again behind Phil’s ﬂy running parallel to mine, but that’s the extent of it, so we ease offshore, pick up a couple of fat cohos on bucktails, then get distracted by a humpback whale bubble-netting herring 75 yards from the boat. The lumbering cetacean positions himself beneath the baitﬁsh, corrals them into a tight ball with discharged air, then punches up through the school in a National Geographic moment that leaves me spellbound.
“Let’s head for Calvert,” Phil says, having patiently indulged my shutter clicking. Spinning the boat westward, he levels his sights on the island’s coniferous perimeter about four miles across Fitz Hugh Sound. A gauntlet of whitecaps looms between us and our objective. Phil pulls two pairs of clear safety glasses out of the console, leans into the throttle, and shouts, “It’s gonna be a little wet!”
Halfway across, I’ve found my rodeo rhythm, hanging on to the console with my left hand while my right arm ﬂops in counterbalance. I keep my knees bent as rain stings my cheeks and salt spray washes across my shoulder every time the boat crashes over a wave.
Twenty minutes later, the sea spits us out at the mouth of a waterfall dumping pure, fresh water into the sound. There is a bald eagle perched in a shoreline cedar. When we glide to a stop, it takes wing.
Phil has some amazing footage on his website of ﬂy ﬁshing for cohos in these very kelp beds, the kind of video-game, pocket-water casting that bass anglers and snook aﬁcionados crave.
But with waters so warm lately, the cohos are just too deep to effectively work ﬂies through the salad. We get one follow, then move off the kelp to pull bucktails, picking up a couple of ﬁsh before going back to stacking line over long casts into the sea.
Blind-casting ﬂies in the ocean always makes a hookup feel about as likely as lassoing a unicorn, but it says something about the sheer number of cohos along this part of the coast that an angler can cast just about anywhere and have decent odds of hooking a silver. So I give it my best effort, riding the casting deck like a giant surfboard, rolling great mends into the swells and varying retrieves until my stripping hand aches and my left knee swells over its nylon brace. After 45 minutes, I have to sit down.
Phil is indomitable, stacking line from the stern, switching ﬂies, even sneaking on a 1/8-ounce egg weight to get his ﬂy down. Just as it seems we aren’t going to decipher the rules of a changed ﬁshery—just when I have stooped to resting my rod’s butt section on the gunwale and my personal butt section on the cooler—my rig comes tight in a gravitational surge that stretches my ﬂy line a good foot before I can even lift a bend into the rod. A 10-pound silver rockets into the air.
Compared to the bucktailing rigs, this ﬁght feels more hand to hand, leading me twice around the boat before I can cradle the gasping salmon under its taut belly, slip the barbless stinger hook out of its mouth, and slide it back into the sea. I haven’t exactly broken the Windtalker’s code, but as one who believes less in luck than in action and consequence, I know that the strike has resulted from some magical combination of weather, tide, water temperature, boat drift, line weight, ﬂy selection, casting angle, casting distance, speed of retrieve, and sitting on my ass.
Now I just have to ﬁgure out how to repeat it.
YOUR BOAT ISN’T AS bloody as the others,” says the kid at the dock, wet sleeves drooping past his knuckles, his observation posed more as a question than a statement. It is true that on the third and last day of the trip, Phil and I return with a relatively clean cockpit. The other boats have ﬁlled tub after tub with rich pink ﬂesh, as proud anglers and dock hands slip and slide in slickers and galoshes, weighing each catch before pushing their tubs toward the processing house.
It’s not that we hadn’t kept ﬁsh. I like eating fresh salmon as much as the next guy, but we had focused so intently on ﬂy ﬁshing that my well-conditioned impulse to release more than we kept had prevailed. And until we fully dialed things in, even most of the ﬁsh taken on bucktails seemed worthy of return. But on the last day—one of the biggest of the year in terms of weather and waves—the cast ﬂy ﬁnally came together.
As moochers ran a lazy circuit around our position, every few minutes the commotion of clanking gear, shifting bodies, and mufﬂed hurrahs drew our attention through the fog toward one boat or another, where some angler stood braced over a bent rod. We followed suit and hammered a few silvers on mooching rigs at 17 pulls, just to put a few in the box.
Turns out, stripping line off the mooching rigs gave me a more practical feel for the strike zone, and as the clock ticked down toward my midafternoon ﬂoatplane departure, we rapidly changed ﬂies to work toward that depth.
“Try this gnarly thing,” Phil said, handing me a chewed-up chartreuse Clouser. It was a little heavier than what I had been throwing, and on the ﬁrst cast I felt the ﬂy running more on a level plane than swimming up from the bottom. When a coho hammered it 20 feet from shore, I knew we had found the depth. Only problem was, after one ﬁsh, thread wraps exploded off the ﬂy’s head, and tufts of chartreuse bucktail pulled loose in my hand. Coho like sparse ﬂies, but a summer of hot action had laid this one to rest.
Digging through Phil’s ﬂy box, I unearthed a gray-over-white Clouser with a Fish-Skull head and more ﬂash than a Pink Floyd light show. Its heft whispered “The One.” I looped it to my leader so that it would jig freely, made a couple of backcasts, and let it sail at 11 o’clock off the bow. The ﬂy-and-line combination was perfect to quickly get the ﬂy to the proper depth before the boat drifted over it, producing a long, level retrieve through the strike zone. On the second cast, a fat chromer offered conﬁrmation just as time expired. We worked him alongside the boat, snapped a few photos, and then stopped to assess the wall of wind and water building deep in the sound. I had sunk a 30-foot jumper right at the buzzer, but our return was going to be now or never.
The radio buzzed with warnings from guide boats shepherding the ﬂeet back to camp in raucous waves. Halfway around the point, our bow was pointed toward the sky more than the horizon. If the engine had failed, 30-knot gusts would have driven us helplessly into the granite. One guide later told me that the last three days had been the biggest of the year. Another said that last morning was the biggest he’d ever seen. In fact, our ﬂoatplane would not even make it to the dock that afternoon, beating a foggy retreat at the gutcheck point between Port Hardy and Cape Caution.
But there is no way to know this as we barrel back toward the lodge with our bloodless decks and restored conﬁdence. We just need to get home. With one hand holding the hood of my yellow slicker and the other welded to the console rail, these daily thrill rides have become as integral to the experience as the angling. Phil yells something at me over the wind and waves, streams of water gliding from the corner of a broad smile as he shouts, “Nothing like . . .”
“What?” I holler into the wind.
“Nothing like a little . . .” We lean shoulder to shoulder as his voice trails off in a wild sea.
“I SAID . . . nothing LIKE . . . a little ADVENTURE . . . with your FLY FISHING!” ✦