Wild coho salmon and coastal thrills off the remote shores of Vancouver Island.
- By: Rob Lyon
It was a gnarly ride down Union Channel in the teeth of a nasty squall. Spray surged over the blunt aluminum prow of the punt and mixed with the droppings from scattered gray clouds, making for a cold and dreary scene. To left and right, blackened timber slopes rose through the wet. Only a thin hem of mud or rock separated sea from full-on rainforest, a far cry from the palatial grounds enjoyed hours earlier at Painter’s Lodge on the northwest shore of Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
Mike Barker sat in the stern, his hand on the throttle of a big outboard and a wry, determined countenance on his face. Grin or grimace? It was hard to say. No matter, traveling out a deep glacial inlet, my photographer/wife, Pamela, and I looked forward to visiting with Mike and his family while fishing a very special piece of the remote and rugged British Columbia coastline.
Kyuquot Sound/Checleseht Bay is roughly a hundred square miles of wilderness seacoast located at the corner of the biggest island off the West Coast of the Americas. From Cape Scott, at Vancouver Island’s tip, running south for a hundred miles to the roadless village of Kyuquot, where we were headed, there exists only one other settlement, a ghost fishing village tucked in an inlet at Winter Harbor. The rest of the island’s northwest coast remains as it was since time out of mind.
I have sea-walked by kayak down the entire outer coast of Vancouver Island (and Haida Gwaii to the north for good measure) with an eye for the grandeur of the country and the pull of a salmon on the old bucktail trailing in my wake. I carried fly tackle with me every inch, every mile, every month of the way. Nowhere did I find more inspiration and better coho fishing than Checleseht Bay.
In recent years phenomenal catch rates of coho and king salmon have been recorded along Vancouver Island’s northwest coast. Those fish frequent the area because the Continental Shelf drops like a cliff just off the island and shelf-feeding species get bottlenecked close in. Those salmon swim in all directions, some south to Washington and Oregon’s streams and British Columbia’s Fraser system. Others head north to the Skeena River country and Alaska. It’s a veritable King’s Highway, an El Camino Real, for Pacific salmon.
These Cohos are largely wild fish and have remained under the fly-fisherman’s radar while conventional anglers visit the area to take home limits of kings. Mike Barker is trying to change that, introducing anglers to coho salmon on flies through his Kyuquot Beach House operation.
Leaving Crowther Channel, we ducked into calmer waters within a maze of islands. We passed a sodden first-aid flag on Okime Island, home of a small local hospital. We motored slowly into the protected cove with no respite from the rain, respecting the no-wake zone sign near the native village by Walter’s Island, where Mike’s operation is based. Rain continued as we reached Mike’s dock and found lodge staff trooping down the pier with umbrellas and smiles, ready to help with our bags.
Early the next morning Pamela and I nursed second cups of coffee as Wayne, our native guide, ran the punt wide open. We bounded over glassy swells toward a river mouth not far up the bay. A change in weather painted the sky blue and a night tucked in at Mike’s cozy lodge did wonders for our spirits. Looking to the northwest horizon, a monolith called Cape of Storms, jutted deep into the North Pacific, providing Checleseht Bay with a tenure of grace from Nor’easters. The air was invigorating, as fresh sea air only can be, and the tide rose as we shot the surge channel at Greenhead and sped across a mile of open inlet to Battle Bay. Arriving within sight of the mouth of Battle River we made out a disturbance on the surface. Seals perhaps? Otters, was it? Dogfish? No. What looked like a small pod of coho salmon, also known as silvers, rolled along shore.
In fact, I saw a couple pods of salmon, working herring or something else in the shallows on either side of the river mouth. Wayne cut the motor and we drifted in, the boat humping and falling in the wake. When the water settled, I stood on the bow and worked out line. We drew close and I cast the fly and stripped like hell to compensate for the boat’s drift. Nada.
Rolling my line up and out of the water, I punched the heavy Clouser to the same spot, breaking it just a bit so I wouldn’t line the fish. I gave it a three-count and started a retrieve. About three pulls in, the fly stopped. I lifted hard and a coho shot out into the bay, my line roostertailing behind, the big Galvan reel ticking in muted protest, a grin blossoming on my face. There’s nothing like coho in the salt. Those fish are acrobatic and offer a dragonfly-quick change of direction!
I let out a whoop, glanced at Pamela, and found her grinning back. I played the fish tight while Wayne jockeyed the boat. Then I leaned over the side of the punt and tailed a heavy, bright coho. It was a wild fish, like all we caught that week, and I released it to continue its journey toward natal waters.
Wayne motored slowly back within casting distance. Salmon still flashed and rolled near shore. I got up on the bow and checked the hook. I worked out line and cast. I waited a moment, made four strips and hooked a small salmon. Nonetheless, it ripped up the little cove and by the time I had that seven-pound hen silver in hand, the water near shore was placid, absent of evidence of fish.
When visible salmon were scarce, black rock bass (Sebastes melanops) made a fine middleweight opponent. We worked the edge of enormous kelp beds with weedless needlefish patterns and Clousers that Dave O’Brien, who works at Michael & Young’s fly shop in Vancouver, sent along for the trip. Along with rock bass we caught lingcod, straight up on the fly or indirectly via a greenling or bass that those toothy lings tried to take away from us.
When the seas were too big to risk crossing, we worked the lee shore of myriad islands. Motoring from islet to reef, inlet to cape, we searched for signs of schooling herring, diving birds and jumping fish. When we found what we were looking for, we scooted to the action. Salmon, likely as not, swam under the herring. We sank our flies through the chaos and stripped them erratically. Most of our success came from spotting jumpers, moving in close and covering the action with a dry line.
Wayne was the consummate guide, taking quiet control while remaining responsive to my suggestions, a difficult and subtle guide dance. Never have I fished with a smoother, more intuitive guide in that regard.
On the last night of the trip, we gathered around great plates of baked halibut fillets in cream sauce. Mike’s lovely wife, Lynn, came in with the girls and were rays of sunshine. Little Ava coiled herself around daddy’s legs, while Isabel sniffed out Allison’s banana bread. Pamela copied Allison’s granola recipe (which we still eat every day at home for breakfast). After guests went to bed, Mike told me about his dream for the lodge, a desire to host fly anglers.
“I want to bring in fly fishermen with the spirit of exploration in them,” he said, “guys who want to spend their time out here exploring for coho, catching and releasing, and enjoying the intense natural setting they’re in, not just looking to fill the freezer. There are plenty of coho moving through the area and there’s no one out there fishing it.
“And the other thing,” Mike continued, “Lynn and I would like to create an experience with more transparency for the people that visit here. (We want to set up a) little spike camp on a sandy beach, a break from the luxury of four walls and a roof.”
I had to laugh, considering these four walls were on a postage stamp island a stones throw from a postage stamp settlement in the remote northwestern reach of Vancouver Island. But Mike was right. Doing it on your own took planning, equipment, prior experience and time, exactly what we have so little of anymore.
“Exactly,” he said, his bright eyes flashing. “When the weather is good around here it’s nothing short of paradise, and that’s pretty much when the fish are in—July, August, September. The perfect time to hang out in a little camp on the beach. The (clients) might not get Allison’s home-cooked meals, the hot tub and the soft bed, but a wall tent on the beach with a little woodstove and everything they really need, you know, and fending for themselves, is a pretty sweet thing. The experience of camping, living, sleeping…. Hell, living on a wilderness seacoast, even for just a week, is something they will remember for the rest of their lives.”
Allison packed a final lunch the next morning. We threw some rainwear in a dry bag, just in case, and hiked onto the dock for a final go at the salmon. Motoring in the no wake zone around the northern end of Walter’s Island, I cocked an ear toward the native community. I was rewarded with a buzz of a chainsaw high on the hill, two dogs barking, a single outboard reluctantly firing up, kids laughing and nails being pounded. Then we were around the corner and putting on speed.
We motored north in a light chop and a light sea mist, heading for our money-hole at the mouth of the Battle. Nothing disturbed the surface as we glided toward shore. I climbed onto the prow and shielded glasses with a hand, scrutinizing the narrow river mouth for salmon. Polarized lenses are a blessing here and after minutes of fruitless searching I detected several flashes. I told Wayne to position us just to the near edge of the river outflow. From there I cast well up and across river, mending as the fly drifted back to the mouth. When it reached the spot where I glimpsed fish, I started a quick, darting retrieve. It took a half-dozen such casts before I struck silver, a sleek aerial-prone fish. When I hung that coho on the Bogagrip it read nine pounds.
By this time we had drifted well away from shore. Pamela sat down heavily with the camera in hand. Wayne was looking for fish. I asked myself if I wanted more, maybe one more fish, maybe several. And the answer was no. I felt sated and would quit at the top of my game.
Wayne pointed to a nearby islet and five minutes later, in a little cove, we jumped off the bow into water the color of the Caribbean! We had tasty halibut sandwiches that Allison packed and a slice each of her hefty apple pie. I wondered if the guys trolling in choppy waters off the shelf could even eat their lunch. Wayne brought an extra Thermos of coffee, which we shared. Wayne told a little about himself, about working a local logging operation when he was younger, and now, with two young boys, he worked the fishing season for Mike and did some carpentry around the village in the off season. The carpentry didn’t pay as much, he said, but at least he was home with the family.
“Besides,” he said, “I love to fish!” Sure enough, I turned and saw a smile creasing his brown face. He told me he he’d never seen anyone catch coho that they actually cast to—clients troll for them as a rule.
“Well,” I said, “that’s because they hadn’t tried.”
Wayne left us alone and motored off to check a prawn pot. I climbed a sand berm onto a narrow spine of the islet. Then I tunneled under giant salal, hiking toward the high point of the rock. When Wayne returned we would head back to Mike’s and swap the punt for the Bayliner, then scoot up the long inlet to our rig at Fair Harbor.
Then I lay back, lingering a little longer in that sweet half-consciousness, and imagined how Mike’s visionary spike camp might appear.
I saw a white canvas wall tent with the front flaps tied open, a green, two-burner Coleman set on a driftwood plank. I pictured a cluster of fly rods bungeed to a homemade rod rack above a bucket of fresh rinse water and a white, clamshell beach curved in a half-moon crescent around a shallow bay. Directly to the west, a white-capped sea stretched to a distant horizon where a blood-red sun set. A small driftwood fire crackled in a rock-lined pit, while a vagrant sea breeze feathered a tendril of smoke overhead and into the woods. Around that fire, watching that sunset, three guys sat in beach chairs in the sand. Their hair tussled, their faces sunburnt —they looked content.
Rob Lyon lives in Lopez, Washington, and frequently fishes the Pacific Coast.