In British Columbia’s Remote Great Bear Rainforest
- By: Greg Thomas
- Photography by: Greg Thomas
In British Columbia’s Remote Great Bear Rainforest
story and photos by greg thomas
I don’t fly well, believing that the easiest way to endure the air is to wash down a NyQuil with Maker’s Mark, close your eyes and hope for the best. So I fly, but I’m not sophisticated about it. In other words, I am not the Most Interesting Man in The World. In fact, during flights I often study the attendants’ expressions. If they look calm I’m cool; if their eyes get wide or if the plane hits one of those airless pockets, I sink my fingers into the armrests. Every time a pilot drops the landing gear I look out the window to see if the engines have fallen off. If I were religious I’d cross myself after each landing.
I’m not the worst. Take John Madden, the former Oakland Raiders coach and CBS football announcer, for instance. There are a lot of people who say he doesn’t fly—and instead travels via a pimped-out bus—because there isn’t a plane in the world that creates enough thrust to get his substantial frame off the ground. Another theory, with reference to Madden’s sponsorship of an anti-fungal foot ointment, goes like this: “He’s afraid of flying because his plane takes off with a whoosh, and then there’s a flock of wild geese migrating over here (honk, honk), and then they slam into his plane, and there he goes circling down to pieces (boom!). Not even Tough Actin’ Tinactin can get you out of a pinch like that.”
More likely, Madden doesn’t fly because shortly after graduating from Cal Poly University, 16 of his former teammates and a student manager died in a plane crash. Billy Bob Thornton, the Hollywood mega-star, says he’s not afraid of flying, but instead he’s afraid of “crashing.” Which pretty much sums up my stance.
All of that was on my mind this past October as I geared up for a trip to the central British Columbia coast and a family-run luxury fishing/eco lodge called Nimmo Bay, which rests just southeast of the north tip of Vancouver Island and adjacent to the beautiful Broughton Archipelago. It’s a sparsely populated region, very isolated and wild. If Bigfoot lives, he lives here. Nimmo Bay caters to serious fly fishers and takes them to some of the most remote and productive salmon and steelhead waters in the world, all via helicopter. During my visit we’d fly in a five-seat A-Star model that’s owned by West Coast Helicopters and piloted by Peter Barratt, an avid fisherman who has 40-some years of aviation experience. I’d researched those details before accepting an invite to Nimmo Bay, attempting to quell my concerns about flying in a helicopter for four straight days, up and down narrow river corridors lined by towering evergreens, and over high mountain passes with granite cliffs on each side.
There was good reason to take my chances. In October, the central coast hosts a glut of silver salmon, plus sea-run cutthroat trout and Dolly Varden char. From Nimmo Bay Lodge, which is nestled at water’s edge amongst old-growth spruce and cedar trees, and at the very bottom of 5,000-foot-high Mount Stephens, anglers fly out and test dozens of prime streams, including many that I’d never even heard of, such as the Kakweiken, the Ahnuhati, the Kilbella, the Kingcome, the Seymour, the Wakeman and the Smokehouse, among others. With the helicopter we could hover above a stream or quickly conduct a fly-by, to see if particular sections of those rivers held fish. If we saw silvers we’d land, cherry-pick the prime pools, then take off to another stream at our whim, multiple times a day.
Silver salmon are one of my favorite fishes, a bias I developed during youth, when my parents took my sister and me to southeast Alaska each summer. We’d go in August and early September when the silvers (also called cohos) first arrived. At that time we slung Pixies, Blue Foxes and Coho Bolos at them, and the results were great. These days I pursue silvers with a fly rod and consider them to be amongst the greatest flyrod fish in the world, right there with tarpon, steelhead and trout. Why? Because silvers are aggressive in salt and fresh water; they grow large (they average between eight and 15 pounds); they make long runs and jump like crazy, often a half-dozen times before being landed; they are excellent table fare (whether baked, grilled or smoked); anglers find them during the Pacific Northwest’s gorgeous late summer and early fall; and they return to rivers in numbers much greater than their equally desirable cousins, the king and Atlantic salmon, and the steelhead. But that doesn’t mean they are always easy.
By the second day at Nimmo Bay, I knew the silvers would be difficult. British Columbia’s temperate rainforest was suffering through a severe drought. The skies were sunny and the air was warm, which made for great flying conditions and T-shirt opportunity, but the rivers were running super low and crystal clear. The silvers were podded up, 10 here, 20 there, most of them holding in the shadows and the deepest portions of the runs. Still, they were easy to see, and so were we. If they spotted us first, they bolted. If they saw a line flash over their heads or if a fly landed heavily on the surface, they bolted.
We fished them with seven- and eight-weight rods, with floating lines and long leaders. A variety of flies works well for cohos, and the traditional patterns stood out here—pink bunny-strip leeches, and orange and pink Pick-Yer-Pockets. If a pod didn’t spook with our first casts, a quick strip retrieve brought two or three fish racing to the shallows for the fly. Typically, we caught a fish or two from a pool before they wised up, including some super-bright cohos that may have weighed 10 to 12 pounds.
Even while inspecting those fish we kept our ears open and our attention directed into the forest, listening for any cracking sticks or crunching leaves, which might have indicated a grizzly bear’s presence. At one place, Barratt—with a shotgun strapped to his shoulder—walked my friend, Dan Summerfield, and me to a good spot, then headed back to the helicopter, which was a few hundred yards away, around a corner and out of sight. We could tell by Barratt’s demeanor that bears were near, and a couple of paw tracks on the bank proved that.
As Barratt waltzed out of sight Summerfield hollered, “What did Peter say to you?”
“Oh, nothing really,” I lied, already starting to laugh. “He just said he’s been charged twice by grizzlies at this very spot. And that we should make lots of noise.” Summerfield glanced up and down the run, which contained a hundred or more silvers and said, “All yours,” while quickly reeling in his line. A few seconds later he was headed for the helicopter.
I used to get so amped up about fishing trips that I would only consider them a success if the gods smiled and the fish, large ones, came to hand one after the other. I had to change when a friend told me, “You’re no fun because you’re always angry and the fishing’s never good enough.” Now when fishing, I try to channel the approach I take to golf, where I’m competitive to a point, but won’t let a bad tee shot or a sand trap ruin my day. If I start to lose it I say quietly, “Dude, it’s sunny and 75 degrees out. You’re not at work. Enjoy yourself.” Same goes for the fishing; it’s not the Barnum and Bailey Circus with trained animals that eat on cue, nor is there a roof over the proceedings—any number of weather- and water-related variables might spoil the fishing on a particular day or for an entire trip. Over time, I’ve realized that we fish for an excuse to visit wonderful places, to meet new people and to see fresh landscape, and to escape the burden of our everyday lives. We come for fish but in the end our lives don’t depend on catching one. Like a Bahamian guide used to say when I would freak out after blowing a cast on a bonefish, “Hey, mon, it’s just a fish.”
Another way to mend your attitude toward fishing is to play the hand you’re dealt. At Nimmo Bay and the surrounding rivers the silvers may have been spooky, but the sea-run cutthroat and Dolly Varden weren’t. So one day, after catching a few cohos, I strung up a Cabela’s fiberglass three-weight rod and tied on a pink egg pattern. Barratt had said, “Anything that’s pink will get trout,” and he wasn’t lying. For an hour or two Summerfield and I took turns casting that beautiful little stick for trout and char that ranged to 18 inches. On the three-weight they were big sport, especially those sea-run cutthroats, which I consider to be the most underrated fish in the Pacific Northwest. Anyplace we found a riffle we found cutthroats and char and the numbers mounted—by the time we climbed into the helicopter, we’d released a couple dozen fish. If we’d focused a full day on trout I truly believe we could have landed 100 or more, and I expect some of the cutthroats would have stretched past 20 inches, which is an amazing size for sea-runs. In retrospect, we probably should have dedicated a day or two specifically for sea-runs, because one of my goals in this fishing life is to catch one that borders on five pounds. And the rivers around Nimmo Bay are considered to be the best places in the world to do just that.
On another day, under a glorious blue sky, we decided to take a small aluminum skiff and run through the various saltwater coves and inlets to look for sea urchins, which I wanted to taste, and to fish sinking lines and Clouser Minnows along the bull kelp beds for black bass and, possibly, ling cod. Lodge owner and operator Fraser Murray and his friend, Irvin Speck, joined us, occasionally stopping to look at First Nations paintings on yellowish rock cliff faces that rose straight from the salt for hundreds of feet.
At the first kelp bed we drifted on a light tide, casting into pockets between the 40-foot-long kelp strands. Our weighted flies and lines sank fast, but the water was clear enough to follow the descent down 20 or 30 feet. Often we could see bass moving to a fly, and inspecting it thoroughly before biting. When the fly disappeared, whether we could see a fish or not, we set the hook. Those bass dug hard for bottom or wrapped our leaders around the kelp, but we still managed to catch almost every fish we hooked—even though we played many of them on that three-weight rod. Talk about bent.
There were so many bass and rockfish, which ranged up to five pounds, that we couldn’t get our flies all the way to the bottom where Murray said we might get grabbed by a 30-pound ling cod. No worries; we enjoyed our time thoroughly, laughing and joking while keeping ourselves busy taking fish off the hook and releasing them gently back to the kelp. I could have continued for several more hours and done the same thing the following day, but too soon, the sun sank and we reeled in for good, the fishing portion of our trip having ended.
When we got back to the lodge I was greeted by Becky Eert, who co-manages Nimmo Bay with Murray. She said, “Jelena will meet you in the massage room in 10 minutes.”
Ah, the massage. “When in Rome,” I’d told Summerfield the night prior, after he’d rolled his eyes at me when I’d told Eert, “Yes, yes, I believe I will have that massage tomorrow after fishing.”
Again, I am not the Most Interesting Man in The World, so when I was told I could be partly clad or unclothed for the massage, I chose the partly clad option. But I didn’t understand that I was supposed to be under a blanket when the masseuse arrived. Instead, I was wearing only my boxers, propped up on one elbow as if auditioning for Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue. Jelena took shelter behind a curtain until I concealed myself, then hit “play” on some earthy music. She dribbled some sort of oil on my back and was just sinking her palms and knuckles into my muscles when the tightness of a tucked-in blanket caused my left arch to cramp. I leaped from the table as if a hornet had stung my ass and poor Jelena jumped back in surprise. “It’s OK, it’s OK,” I said, “it’s me, not you, my foot, not your fingers.” Shortly, I was back under the blanket with my boiled-white chicken feet sticking out the end. An hour later, when the massage ended, I felt like a thousand bucks, super relaxed and ready for the evening meal. As I walked into our private cabin I spotted Summerfield pouring some complementary red wine, which the staff brought to our digs each day. I pointed at an empty glass and said, “Yes, Muffy, that massage was just wonderful. And now I believe I will take a shot of that wine.” Naturally, Summerfield said, “Pour it yourself, spa boy.”
We took our wine to the deck and soaked in the fall sunshine, gazing across a serene Nimmo Bay, and reflected on our trip. Summerfield said, “There is a ton of water here, and you can fish a lot of it in a day, and they feed you like a king.”
He was referencing the lunches we enjoyed, sometimes on flat mountain benches with 2,000-foot cliffs falling off on three sides and 100-mile views across British Columbia’s rugged and snowcapped Coast Range extending beyond. Barratt would land the helicopter, set up a table and place the goods on top. One day, for example, a lunch menu from the wonderful chef Sandi Irving read like this: rosemary garlic focaccia bread, assorted meats, cheeses and pickles, roasted mushrooms, parmesan soup, homemade crackers, antipasto, tamari almonds, chocolate walnut bars, coconut/date squares and a selection of berries, plus red wine. And a hand-written note saying, “Happy Adventuring!”
“Yeah,” I said. “That was a little better than what we ate on the Bighorn the year Kent [a mutual friend] did the shopping. Remember that? Remember asking him why he didn’t buy any vegetables or fruit with the 200 bucks we gave him and he said, ‘What do you mean? Pepper is a vegetable.’”
Summerfield rubbed his chin contemplatively, then said, “What Peter said about a helicopter being the safest aircraft made sense. I’m not afraid of flying anymore.” He paused, then asked, “They have a spring steelhead program here, don’t they? Could you imagine fishing six rivers in a day, hitting all the prime pools, and coming back to a nice, warm cabin, a cedar hot tub, and an amazing dinner in the evening . . . instead of sleeping in a soggy tent, stuck next to the only blown-out river in the province?”
I’d preferred Summerfield as an equally fearful flyer, when I could stomp my foot on a floatplane’s floor and see the fear in his eyes. I quickly thought back to a conversation about helicopters I once had with a Delta pilot during a layover in Atlanta. He’d asked, “Do you know about the Jesus Nut?”
I turned to Summerfield and said, “Really? You’re that comfortable flying now, and you don’t even know about the Jesus Nut?”
“What’s that?” he said.
“Oh,” I chimed, “It’s just this single little part that keeps the main rotor on the mast. A pilot once told me that if it fails you go straight to the ground.”
Summerfield scowled and said, “Are we flying back to Port McNeil or are we taking a boat?”
I said, “Flying,” even though I knew we’d make the two-hour run by boat, early the next day.
Greg Thomas is this magazine’s editor. He lives in Missoula, Montana.
Nimmo Bay Lodge rests at the back of an idyllic cove and offers great access to dozens of highly productive salmon, steelhead and trout streams.
Dan Summerfield, Fraser Murray and Irvin Speck admire First Nations painting on cliffs that rise straight out of salt water. Some markings, in red, can be seen slightly below and left of center on the yellowish rock wall.
Marine life, salmon and bears are found in abundance at Nimmo Bay and in the surrounding Great Bear Rainforest. Next page: The author with an October silver of 12 pounds or more.