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! Thus began my hunt for big salmon.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!