Category Archives: travel

HUNT FOR BIG SALMON By Craig Boddington

 

HUNT FOR BIG SALMON

 

The first story I got paid ‘cash money’ for was a fishing story, published in the old Fur-Fish-Game magazine. For those who study ancient history, it was about fishing for grayling on Alaska’s Tanana River, back when I was a very young Marine lieutenant attending the Army’s mountain warfare school at Fort Greeley. I received $35 for it!

Coming into Black Gold just at sundown, a welcome harbor.
Coming into Black Gold just at sundown, a welcome harbor.

Since then there have been very few fishing stories under my by-line. In truth I’m not much of an angler. And certainly not an expert angler. However, there are exceptions…at least in interest, if not expertise. I just got back from sort of an annual hunting—er, fishing—trip with my buddy Jim Rough at his Black Gold Lodge at Rivers Inlet, British Columbia, on the mainland northeast of the northern tip of Vancouver Island.

 

Jim’s a serious, experienced, and well-traveled hunter, and I met him through hunting, at one of the major conventions. Hunting is his passion but, as a proprietor of Black Gold since 1988, salmon fishing is his business. So, while mooching along, lines in the water, we talk mostly about hunting…while we hunt for big salmon.

Jim Rough ties into a nice coho salmon—although not nearly so large as the chinooks, pound for pound they fight even harder.
Jim Rough ties into a nice coho salmon—although not nearly so large as the chinooks, pound for pound they fight even harder.

Yes, they’re down there, somewhere in that cold water, and the job is to find them. It’s impossible to know exactly where, but we troll long-known hotspots with shore and off-shore structure: Cranston, the Dome, Rough’s Bluff, the Wall, maybe Bull, Cow, or Calf Islands. We play with the depth and the weight, and of course we mess with the bait, usually herring, double-hooked to get just the right roll, and we work the tides.

: You never know what you might see at Rivers Inlet. Marine mammals are common, but this young grizzly bear was caught at low tide scavenging along the kelp line.
: You never know what you might see at Rivers Inlet. Marine mammals are common, but this young grizzly bear was caught at low tide scavenging along the kelp line.

Salmon Tournament

Some years ago, Jim got the crazy idea to hold a salmon tournament with a combination of fishing and hunting trips as prizes. It must have worked—and I must like it—because this event was just past our 10th Annual Craig Boddington Salmon Fishing Tournament. The where for big salmon is tricky…but so is the when. It’s a short season up there, July into September, but typically late July sees a good run of big salmon, returning from the depths of the Pacific…but exactly when varies.

Honestly, this year the fishing for big salmon was slow during the tournament, picking up fast just as soon as it ended. Sort of like timing the peak of the whitetail rut: “You should have been here last week…wish you could stay until next week.” Even at the slowest, there are some big fish around, but it takes luck, patience, and persistence. This year, the swells were a bit rough, and Jim and I had just gotten to a drop-off near the Wall, 40 pulls down with herring and a ten-ounce weight, when a fish hit, gently at first…and then the line bent double. We fought for an hour, maneuvering to keep out of kelp, maintaining pressure, losing line, reel screaming when the fish ran, gaining some back, losing more, arms and shoulders on fire, we finally got him in, at 45 pounds my best salmon to date.

It wasn’t even the biggest in the area, either. There’s skill involved in spotting and stalking big salmon, but there’s at least a bit of luck in getting them in the boat…and it’s not going to happen every time. I claim no expertise in anything fishing-related, but after a decade of hunting big salmon I’m better at it than I used to be…and you still won’t boat them all. Two years ago. we had a much bigger fish all the way to the boat. The fish was right there, Jim had the net…and then the line broke. We saw him clearly, surely a 60-pounder, gone. A big fish like that might take you from one side of the inlet to the other and back, boats scattering to give room. Anything can go wrong: Hook thrown, tangled in kelp, too much drag…or too little. And sometimes, like the big fish I just caught, everything goes perfectly.

Chinook please

Speaking of the English and we Americans, Churchill said we are “one people divided by a common language.” This is also true of Americans and Canadians. Up there, the big salmon we hunt are called Chinook; we know them as kings. Aggravating the language barrier, up there a chinook of 30 pounds or more is called a “tyee.” Catching one yields a special cap and a pin…and your name on the “Tyee Club” board for the rest of the season. I’ve made that board several times…but definitely not every year. A 30-pound salmon is a big fish and a worthy adversary. You know my biggest (so far), and I’ve admitted to the one that got away. I’ve seen bigger salmon come into the lodge; hooking them takes luck, but boating them takes luck and skill. I’ve noticed that most of the bigger fish are taken by anglers with more patience, persistence, and experience than I can claim.

Black Gold is actually a floating village, big logs anchored to shore. It rests in this sheltered cove only during the short July-September fishing season, and is towed to and from winter harbor in between.
Black Gold is actually a floating village, big logs anchored to shore. It rests in this sheltered cove only during the short July-September fishing season, and is towed to and from winter harbor in between.

Black Gold

We love to eat salmon, and at Black Gold they’re filleted, vacuum-packed, frozen, and beautifully boxed for the trip home. A big chinook is the prize, but as uncertain as a big whitetail, so we spend part of our time fishing for the “other” salmon. We call them “silver,” but in Canada-speak they’re coho. We tend to fish for them in deeper channels, not always deeper, but with lighter weights. Pound for pound, I think the cohos fight harder than the chinooks, and certainly jump more. We catch a lot of cohos in the ten-pound class, a marvelous eating fish—and they get bigger, occasionally over 20 pounds.

Barbless hooks are an awesome conservation measure, but because of their acrobatics I think we lose more cohos than chinooks. On the other hand, we catch more of them, and often a pink salmon will be caught. Fishing is fishing; sometimes we go for long hours without a strike…and sometimes, often along a tide line at slack tide, the action is almost too fast and furious, and you never know what you might see. Rivers Inlet is a paradise for marine mammals: Whales, usually hump-backs; black-and-white orcas (also hunting salmon); seals and sea lions; occasionally dolphins or porpoises. Sea otters, once rarely seen, have moved into the area and are now frequently encountered. The shoreline is gorgeous, typically a rocky beach line with primeval conifer forest above. We see lots of eagles along the shore, occasionally deer and grizzly bears.

: Rivers Inlet is a paradise for marine mammals. Whales and orcas are usually seen, and some of the rocky islands are favorite hauling-out places for seals and sea lions.
: Rivers Inlet is a paradise for marine mammals. Whales and orcas are usually seen, and some of the rocky islands are favorite hauling-out places for seals and sea lions.

Rivers Inlet is a magical place, with several lodges tucked into the myriad inlets and channels. The lodges vary in the number of “rating *s” they might receive, but Black Gold is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. There are no permanent structures on the shore. Instead, Black Gold is a floating village, towed into place by two ocean-going tugboats when the ice breaks up in June, anchored for the short season and then, in September, towed to a safe winter harbor a few dozen miles up Rivers Inlet. Yep, has running water, all the amenities, and choice of “lodge” accommodations or self-catering. It’s comfortable rather than fancy, but for a few days a year it’s been home for more than a decade.

 

After 30 years the organization is excellent, but just getting there is an adventure. To Vancouver, then to the South Terminal across the runway, where Pacific Coastal runs scheduled flights to Port Hardy, northern tip of the island. Then a half-hour float-plane trip across the sound to Rivers Inlet and Black Gold. That last short flight is gorgeous, and I’m always amazed at how well it works…but weather (in summer, especially fog) can be an issue.

The “class photo” of our 10th annual Craig Boddington Salmon Fishing Tournament at Black Gold. The prizes are hunting and fishing trips, including opportunities in Africa and New Zealand as well as Canada and the U.S.
The “class photo” of our 10th annual Craig Boddington Salmon Fishing Tournament at Black Gold. The prizes are hunting and fishing trips, including opportunities in Africa and New Zealand as well as Canada and the U.S.

Every year I hope to hook into a really big salmon. Sometimes it happens, sometimes not…and sometimes I get them to the boat (and sometimes not), but I’ve never failed to catch fish. I look forward to taking home a box of tasty salmon, usually with some ling cod, perhaps a halibut, and savoring them throughout the year. But here’s what I look forward to the most: Black Gold rests on a network of huge floating logs, securely anchored to shore in a sheltered cove. That gentle rocking motion offers the best sleep I’ve ever known!

.204 RUGER: THE BEST VARMINT CARTRIDGE? By Craig Boddington

It was a perfect setup for prairie dogs; we had a big shade tree to our left, three of us in line on portable benches, with a big colony stretching away before us. Stephen Shen was on the left, Gordon Marsh in the middle, me on the right. Interestingly, all three of us were shooting the .204 Ruger cartridge: Stephen a Savage 116, while both Gordon and I were shooting Ruger No. Ones, his in blue/walnut and mine stainless/laminate.

Left to right: .17 Remington, .17 Remington Fireball, .17 Hornet,
The .17s run from very fast to “medium” and all are useful but, in common, the light .17-caliber bullets hold up poorly in wind. Left to right: .17 Remington, .17 Remington Fireball, .17 Hornet,

It wasn’t universal; Bill Green was off the right, popping away and having a ball with a semi-auto .17 HMR . This was Gordon and Bill’s annual prairie dog shoot out of Cheyenne, hunting with Craig Oceanak and Nick of Timberline Outfitters. It was my second shoot with them; for Stephen, CEO of Vector Optics, his first ever. We had other rifles, .223s and .22-250s. However, except for Bill, who clung to his .17 HMR and walked in some amazing shots, the .204s did the majority of the work.  There are many excellent varmint cartridges, so it struck me as unusual that three among our foursome were shooting .204s…but I think we made good choices.

The various .22 centerfires are the classic varmint cartridges—but only a few have become popular. Left to right: .22 Hornet (1930); .222 Remington (1950); ,220-250 (1965); .220 Swift (1935); .223 WSSM (2002).
The various .22 centerfires are the classic varmint cartridges—but only a few have become popular. Left to right: .22 Hornet (1930); .222 Remington (1950); ,220-250 (1965); .220 Swift (1935); .223 WSSM (2002).

When I say “varmint cartridge” I’m thinking rodents that eat grass and dig burrows, and thus cause problems for farmers and ranchers. Woodchucks in the East; prairie dogs, rock-chucks, ground squirrels and gophers in the West. Developing cartridges and rifles for this class of pest is primarily an American phenomenon, and we’ve been doing it for a long time.

The .204 Ruger is readily adaptable to the AR action and is chambered by numerous manufacturers. This super-accurate AR in .204 Ruger was made by MGA in Spring, Texas.
The .204 Ruger is readily adaptable to the AR action and is chambered by numerous manufacturers. This super-accurate AR in .204 Ruger was made by MGA in Spring, Texas.

The requirements are simple: Accuracy, range, and minimal recoil. Accuracy because we’re dealing with small targets. A ‘chuck is comparatively large, but an upright prairie dog is only a couple inches across. A “one-MOA” rifle is thus a 200-yard prairie dog gun. One-half MOA is really the starting point. Ranging capability does depend on how you go about it. The rim-fires are great fun for short-range work…and stalking the edges and shooting from field positions with center-fires is excellent training. But if you set up from deliberate shooting positions and try to reach out several hundred yards, fast, flat-shooting cartridges are essential.

My Ruger No. One .204 Ruger in stainless and laminate regularly turns in half-inch group with both 32 and 40-grain loads. Although a bit slower, I prefer the 40-grain load because the heavier bullet holds up better in wind.
My Ruger No. One .204 Ruger in stainless and laminate regularly turns in half-inch group with both 32 and 40-grain loads. Although a bit slower, I prefer the 40-grain load because the heavier bullet holds up better in wind.

In a big ‘dog town you might shoot steadily all day, with numerous breaks to cool and clean barrels. When I was a kid, I did a lot of prairie-dogging with a .264 Winchester Magnum—but it’s silly to take that much pounding. The 6mms and .25s remain excellent crossover cartridges: Varmints with lighter bullets, big game with heavier bullets. Power is not an issue; at close range the .22 LR is plenty good for the job.

We all have our favorites, but without question these are the three most popular centerfire varmint cartridges, all made by numerous manufacturers and readily available: Left to right: .223 Remington, .204 Ruger, .22-250 Remington
We all have our favorites, but without question these are the three most popular centerfire varmint cartridges, all made by numerous manufacturers and readily available: Left to right: .223 Remington, .204 Ruger, .22-250 Remington

However, the biggest problem with cartridges above the .22 center-fires is even that modest amount of recoil makes it impossible to call shots through the scope. This is especially important in the windy West. As range and wind effect increase, not every shot will hit. The ideal situation is to observe the strike through the scope and correct. You can’t do this while you’re lost in recoil! I’ve often said that prairie dogs are great teachers, both for precise shot placement and for calling wind. The buddy system works, taking turns spotting and shooting—but you’ll learn more if you can call shots through the scope and make your own corrections.

Velocity is important in a versatile varmint cartridge, but extreme speed isn’t everything! Few factory loads break 4000 fps, mostly with lighter bullets. Left to right, these are most of the modern 4000 fps merchants: .17 Remington (25 gr.); 204 Ruger (34 gr.); .22-250 (40 gr.); .223 WSSM (40 gr.); 220 Swift (40 gr.); .243 Winchester (55 gr.).
Velocity is important in a versatile varmint cartridge, but extreme speed isn’t everything! Few factory loads break 4000 fps, mostly with lighter bullets. Left to right, these are most of the modern 4000 fps merchants: .17 Remington (25 gr.); 204 Ruger (34 gr.); .22-250 (40 gr.); .223 WSSM (40 gr.); 220 Swift (40 gr.); .243 Winchester (55 gr.).

We have multiple choices, and the arguments for one cartridge versus another are actually pretty thin. The little .22 Hornet, introduced in 1930, was probably the first center-fire intended for varminting. It retains a following and I love it—but with modest velocity it’s limited in range. Introduced in 1935, the .220 Swift was the first commercial cartridge to break 4000 fps—and it’s still among few that do. Accurate as well as fast, the Swift still has fans, but for many years the .22-250 has been the most popular fast .22 center fire.

Gordon Marsh marks a prairie dog for Stephen Shen. Spotting for your buddies is half the fun of a prairie dog shoot, but the learning curve is steeper if you can call your shots through the scope. The .204 Ruger allows this; the fastest .22 centerfires have a bit too much recoil.:

In the 1930s there were several wildcats based on the .250 Savage case necked down to .224-inch. The most common was a 1937 version called “.22 Varminter,” legitimized by Remington in 1965 as the .22-250 Remington. The .22-250 isn’t as fast as the Swift, but close, and is very accurate. Other fast .22s have included the .224 Weatherby Magnum, .225 Winchester, and .223 WSSM, but the .22-250 is today’s preferred long-range varmint cartridge.

Wholesale Hunter’s Gordon Marsh on the bench with his Ruger No. One in .204 Ruger. A great varmint rifle isn’t just the action and cartridge! Also needed is a good, clear scope with plenty of magnification and a sweet trigger. Marsh modified this Ruger with a crisp, light Jard trigger
Wholesale Hunter’s Gordon Marsh on the bench with his Ruger No. One in .204 Ruger. A great varmint rifle isn’t just the action and cartridge! Also needed is a good, clear scope with plenty of magnification and a sweet trigger. Marsh modified this Ruger with a crisp, light Jard trigger

If there’s a problem with the .22-250, it’s simply that, unless gun weight is fairly extreme, there’s just too much recoil to call shots through the scope. So, over the years, many of us have consciously sacrificed velocity and range and used milder .22 center-fires. Developed by Remington’s Mike Walker as a bench-rest cartridge back in 1950, the mild and super-accurate .222 Remington filled this niche perfectly. Its lack of popularity today is coincidental. In the late 1950s the U.S. Army was looking for a smaller-caliber military cartridge. The .222 Remington didn’t have quite the velocity they wanted, so the .222 Remington Magnum was created with a longer case. It wasn’t popular as a civilian cartridge and wasn’t adopted by the military, losing out to the .223 Remington.

: I like to spend at least part of my time in a prairie dog town shooting from field positions. Misses increase, but the training is invaluable! Here, I’m shooting sitting with the .204 over a tall bipod
: I like to spend at least part of my time in a prairie dog town shooting from field positions. Misses increase, but the training is invaluable! Here, I’m shooting sitting with the .204 over a tall bipod

The .223 (5.56x45mm) is also based on the .222 Remington, with a lengthened case and shorter neck. We could argue that the .222 Remington is the more accurate cartridge, and the .222 Remington Magnum is faster. But what’s the point? As our military (and NATO) cartridge, the .223 Remington/5.56x45mm is today’s most popular center-fire cartridge, and it’s a marvelous varmint cartridge.

Vector Optics’ Stephen Shen on a portable bench with his Savage 116 in .204 Ruger, of course with a Vector high-range variable scope. Inexpensive, accurate, and with a great trigger, Savage offers several variations of excellent heavy-barreled varmint rifles.
Vector Optics’ Stephen Shen on a portable bench with his Savage 116 in .204 Ruger, of course with a Vector high-range variable scope. Inexpensive, accurate, and with a great trigger, Savage offers several variations of excellent heavy-barreled varmint rifles.

With a 55-grain bullet at about 3300 fps it’s effective on small varmints to at least 300 yards, and even in a fairly light-barreled rifle it’s mild enough to call shots through the scope. New contenders such as the .22 Nosler and Federal’s .224 Valkyrie will also run through the AR15 platform and offer more velocity. We could also argue that they are “better” cartridges…but it remains to be seen if they can approach the .223’s popularity.

Stephen Shen of Vector Optics, Boddington, and Gordon Marsh of Wholesale Hunter on a fine Wyoming morning with a huge prairie dog town stretching away behind us! All three of us used the .204 Ruger as our primary rifles, in my opinion one of our very best varmint cartridges.
Stephen Shen of Vector Optics, Boddington, and Gordon Marsh of Wholesale Hunter on a fine Wyoming morning with a huge prairie dog town stretching away behind us! All three of us used the .204 Ruger as our primary rifles, in my opinion one of our very best varmint cartridges.

Australian fox hunters created .17-caliber center-fires because the light bullet wouldn’t exit, thus minimizing pelt damage. In 1971 Remington necked down the .222 Remington Magnum to create the .17 Remington, a 4000 fps-cartridge with bullets up to 25 grains. The .17s are useful, and today we have choices, from rim-fires up through the .17 Hornet, .17 Remington Fireball, and the granddaddy .17 Remington. Accuracy can be astounding and there’s plenty of power for prairie dogs and such, although I question the milder .17s on coyotes. The big problem: The .17-caliber’s light bullets just don’t hold up in wind!

 

The .20-calibers, bullet diameter .204-inch, are a recent development, spawned by good old American wildcatters in the 1990s. There are a number of wildcat and proprietary .20-caliber cartridges, but the .204 Ruger is the only factory .20-caliber. Introduced in 2004 as a joint project between Hornady and Ruger, the .204 is based on the .222 Remington Magnum case.

 

The theory is to split the difference between the .17s and .22 center-fires…and the actual result, to me, offers the best of all worlds. Again, we’re talking the specialized world of varmint cartridges. The .20-caliber doesn’t offer the heavy-bullet flexibility of the .22 center-fires for larger game. They are certainly effective on fur-bearers up to coyotes, but don’t minimize pelt damage like the .17s. Also, the faster .17s are prone to rapid fouling; the .20s are not.

 

The .204 Ruger took off fast. All major manufacturers load it, with bullet weights from 24 to 45 grains. At about 34 grains and lighter the .204 Ruger reaches or exceeds 4000 fps. I’m not usually quick to pick up on a new cartridge—especially in an unfamiliar bullet diameter! My usual mantra is (grumble, grumble): “We’ve got enough calibers and cartridges!” A Ruger No. One in .204, stainless and laminate in heavy-barrel configuration, came in as a test rifle. I was impressed enough to buy it and, nearly 15 years later, it remains my go-to prairie dog rifle.

Here’s what I like about the .204: Accuracy is consistently good with all loads. My preference is the 40-grain load, not the fastest at 3900 fps, but with that heavier bullet it holds up in wind better than the faster, lighter bullets. More importantly, it seems to perform about as well as the .22-250 at similar velocities with varmint bullets from 50 to 55 grains. Most important: With the lighter bullet and heavier barrel (smaller bore equals more steel for equal barrel diameter) it has less recoil than a .22-250, so I can easily call shots through the scope.

 

Requirements for an ideal varmint cartridge are simple: Accuracy, velocity, shoot-ability. If I had to cut down to just one, it’s the .204 I’d hang onto!