Vancouver Island’s five major west coast sounds are quick onramps to Pacific’s ‘Salmon Highway,’ great bottomfishing grounds.
By Jeff Holmes
This month, most of our Willamette and Columbia River spring Chinook are binge eating herring along the coast of Vancouver Island before finishing their trek south. Soon the bulk of the run will brave the gauntlet of sea lions from Desdemona Sands to The Dalles Dam, but first they’ll tuck into the five protected sounds on the British Columbia island’s vaunted west coast to gorge on the herring spawn, adding to the layers of fat for which they’re famous. The open ocean is too rough to fish until late spring, so the only pressure our springers see in Canada is from island locals and the very rare off-season tourist specifically targeting saltwater springers. The arrival of our kings also marks the very beginning of migratory salmon season along “The Salmon Highway,” the funnel-like migration corridor created by close proximity to the continental shelf.
Most mornings on the island’s west coast looks something like this as the sun breaks over mountains, signaling brilliant beginnings to potentially epic fishing and wildlife viewing to come. (RUGGEDPOINTLODGE.COM)
In late May comes the first push of big kings – which Canadians call springs – along with increasing plankton and baitfish, followed by waves of all five northeast Pacific salmon species from early summer through early fall. Salmon from California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia’s Fraser River system all fin past the island’s ocean ports situate din protected sounds.
If Vancouver Island is indeed a Salmon Highway, then by midsummer it is a 12-lane Los Angeles freeway at rush hour, and Chinook, coho, sockeye and more are the cars. Fishing boats are the outgunned highway patrol, but every cop makes his quota as more speeders streak past, gobbling baitfish as they go. There is no better place to fish for ocean salmon within a day of the Northwest than the island’s west coast, nor is there any place featuring excellent halibut angling all year summer. Halibut limits are the rule, and I have had 50-salmon days out on the ocean. Amazing salmon and halibut fishing – along with great lingcod and rockfishing – are reason enough to visit Vancouver Island, but the wildness, wildlife, and cool travel experience combine to make a visit one of the Cadillac outdoor trips for Northwest sportsmen. The drive alone features a beautiful ferry ride and the island’s gorgeous mountains, rivers, and lakes, as well as an opportunity to visit another country full of mostly very happy and nice people. With few exceptions, I love Canadians and Canada and look forward to a couple trips a year.
RIGHT NOW, SUMMER of 2016 will be the best time in many years to make the trip north, and now not later is the time to plan. The exchange rate has swung back mightily in our favor, making trips very affordable. Today a Canadian dollar is worth 70 cents US. This means very good things for us when we travel north and presents a not-so-good scenario for our friends from the north coming south; just two years ago the situation was reversed. Along with a great exchange rate, a barrel of oil is under $30 right now, a mind-boggling figure driving gas to prices of decades ago. Cheaper petroleum makes everything cheaper, even in Canada where gas always costs more. When the exchange tilts in our favor, Canadian fishing operators want American dollars even more due to the downturn in the Canadian economy. This makes private fishing charters even more affordable, as well as lodge stays. In both cases, the Canadian charter model is not so much like America’s. Almost all boats are privately chartered, making for a more intimate and enjoyable experience in most cases.
When you compare the costs of an Alaska or Queen Charlottes trip with a Vancouver Island fishing vacation, there is no comparison, yet there certainly is between the fishing experiences. Many Vancouver Island trips result in bigger trophies and bigger bags of ocean fish for the freezer than more expensive trips to the north. That isn’t to say there aren’t unmatched opportunities in Alaska and further north in Canada, but for convenience, cost and extremely high quality combined, nothing beats the west coast of this 300-mile-long island. For those like me who like to drive and stay somewhat in control of their own travel, all of the island can be reached in a long day’s travel from just about anywhere in the Northwest.
FROM NORTH TO SOUTH, remote to popular, Vancouver Island’s protected sounds are as follows: Quatsino, Kyuquot, Nootka/Esperanza Inlet, Clayoquot and Barkley. Each offers amazing fishing and wildlife viewing, but the further north you go, the higher the cost and quality of experience. That said, the best day of salmon fishing I’ve ever enjoyed occurred in the furthest south port of Ucluelet on the northern tip of Barkley Sound. Along with halibut limits, we released 50 salmon for two rods and kept limits of Chinook and coho. Literally the whole west coast is excellent. Here’s a brief overview of the five protected sounds of Vancouver Island’s west coast and Port Hardy, the furthest north post on the Island and another good option.
With its proximity to the so-called Salmon Highway, every trip to the west coast of Vancouver Island has resulted in a “Tyee spring” for author Jeff Holmes. Canadians call mature Chinook “springs,” and a legitimate 30-pound or larger fish is a “Tyee.” At least five different protected sounds along the Pacific provide quick onramps to salmon-filled waters. This whopper came out of Kyuquot’s Rugged Point Lodge. (JEFF HOLMES; RUGGEDPOINTLODGE.COM)
· Biggest North Coast outpost (5,500 residents);
· Route to Quatsino Sound;
· Marina and full range of services;
· Excellent salmon fishing;
· Good halibut, lingcod, and rockfish;
· Starfish Charters’ kooky captain who worked in film industry and is a bottomfish and salmon expert.
· Home to famed Winter Harbour (20 residents);
· Very remote yet reachable in a day;
· Amazingly close proximity to the ocean and excellent reefs with productive protected water for rough days;
· Halibut, salmon, lingcod and yelloweye rockfish abound in large sizes;
· Spectacular wildlife spectacles of bears, eagles, otters, marine mammals, more.
· Qualicum Rivers Winter Harbour Fishing Lodge: This is the premier Quatsino Sound lodge. Scarcely 15 minutes from the open ocean, it’s an amazing experience
Along with a very visible black bear population and lots of coastal wolves and cougars, bald eagles patrol the skies here and are EVERYWHERE. I’ve seen them whack mergansers and catch lots of fish, like this swarm of needlefish on the island’s north tip out of “Hardy,” as locals simply call their port town. But the true rulers of the marine environment are orcas. Residents root for them to slash into sounds to eat rafts of overpopulated sea otters and seals, which they do, often. On my last trip I saw perhaps 10 orcas spaced out in a line hunting a mile-wide swath of ocean. Later I’d see ravaged, bloody sea lions. (JEFF HOLMES; RUGGEDPOINTLODGE.COM)
· Very remote and much less pressured than sounds to the south;
· Operators here fish some of the same water that those out of Quatsino fish;
· Still easy to get to and very close to Continental Shelf – at 17 miles, it doesn’t get closer;
· Prime salmon, lingcod, halibut, rockfish and tuna fishing, with lots of trophy specimens;
· Super-abundant wildlife including common orca sightings;
· Rugged Point Lodge: Amazing lodge in protected waters, five minutes from the open ocean fishing grounds with a proven tuna fishing program and top-end Okuma tuna tackle.
Nootka Sound and Esperanza Inlet
· Tahsis (316 residents) provides services and a marina;
· Protected water close to open ocean is popular with Americans bringing their own boats;
· Along with Kyuquot, closest Pacific port to the continental shelf;
· Prime salmon, halibut; good ling, rockfish & tuna;
· Westview Marina in Tahsis is a hub;
· Many lodges – check reviews.
· Tofino (1,876 residents) is an artsy ocean port on the south end of the sound;
· Excellent salmon and halibut fishing, and decent ling and rockfish options;
· Most upscale and trendy port on west coast, with good restaurants;
· Some camping/pricey lodging;
· Lots of charter options.
· Ucluelet (1,627 residents) is the closest west coast port, located at north end of Barkley Sound;
· Long Beach and Big Bank are amazing and famous fishing areas;
· Excellent salmon and halibut angling, and good lingcod and rockfish;
· Nice working-class port with good lodging and food options;
· Excellent camping options;
· Kerry Reed of Reel Adventures Fishing, a trusted friend from the West Kootenays with 11 years experience guides the ocean. He’s excellent and fun.
Albacore in Canada? You bet, and lots of them, close to shore. The continental shelf is fewer than 20 miles from Esperanza Inlet and Nootka and Kyuquot sounds. I’ll be fishing tuna in Canada this August for my first-ever north of the border albacore slaughter. (RUGGEDPOINTLODGE.COM)
If you decide to make the trip, you should be able to count on your guide or lodge for information about the fishing trip and the local area you’ll be visiting, but for even more info about your destination and about the trek to get there, abundant online resources are available. While you can take the Black Ball Ferry from Port Angeles to Victoria to access the island, I greatly prefer BC Ferries and leaving from Horseshoe Bay in North Vancouver. That 11/2-hour sail lands you in Nanaimo, the jumping-off point for visiting all five of these protected sounds and ocean ports. As soon as you get to Canada and can find an open bank, be sure to exchange American money for Canadian. I’m sure my eyes light up when I fork over $1,000 and receive $1,300 in return, even if Canadian money looks like it belongs in a board game. For a while it made sense to use your credit and debit card in Canada, but the companies have caught up and fees greatly outweigh the advantages. The old model of exchanging cash is the way to go. Whether in Vancouver or Nanaimo, grabbing some groceries and additional fuel for vehicles is smart, as prices increase the further away from large towns one strays. And before you leave home, for God’s sake don’t forget your US Passport or your Enhanced Driver’s License to drive over the border. If you fly, the law has changed and a passport is now required. If you plan to take fish home whole, gilled and gutted, bring several large coolers. That’s my preference in order to keep fish as fish as fresh as possible. Even if you plan to forego the work and have fish processed and packaged in Canada, bring at least a few large coolers. And be prepared, perhaps, for a US Customs agent at the border to ask you why your truck is tilted backwards and leaking fluid, as happened to me a couple years ago as I struggled home with seven coolers containing four halibut, 12 lingcod, eight yelloweye rockfish, eight big kings and eight coho.
Top that, Alaska 🙂
Qualicum Rivers Winter Harbor Fishing Lodge and Resort’s Rob Knutsen and his wharf monger look incredulously at my stupidity in thinking seven coolers of big Chinook, coho, halibut, lingcod and rockfish would fit easily in a Toyota Tacoma. But with their help I got it all in and only had to leave one tote of belongings in Canada to get home. These days I bring enough coolers and a bigger rig to haul home hundreds of pounds of the best the ocean has to offer. (JEFF HOLMES)