I’m lucky to have an amazing place to escape in my Dad’s home at Bliss Landing, BC. Seattle has me down and summer idleness sent me north to spend time with him for a full week of fishing and exploring parts of British Columbia’s Inside Passage. In the week I was there I went farther north then I had ever been in my life. Gordon, friend of my Dad and accomplished float plane pilot, nailed it when he said I was gaining a “new latitude”. While wallowing in the unmatched calm of Bliss is tempting with the unreal view and mesmerizing quiet, pocked with the sounds of gulls and seals, it was the two nights we would camp on Dad’s boat, the Orca, that turned into the highlight of summer.
I arrived last Wednesday and while rolling down the final stretch of forest service road bringing you to the property I encountered Dad, driving his trusty golf cart (the preferred method of transportation on the property) towards the boat dock to set prawn traps. I was serendipitously earlier than expected and immediately parked the car, carted my bags back to the house, and joined him to set the traps.
Dad and his two prawn traps are easily the most successful prawning operation going at Bliss. Two years running he’s caught hundreds of prawns more than anyone else and last year was awarded a prize for his accomplishment: One case of wet cat food-the preferred bait for spot prawns. Prawn traps are set in deep water, around 350-400 feet, and when you buy line for prawn traps it only comes in 400 foot lengths. Setting the pots is as easy as shoving them overboard. Pulling them is a different story. My Dad has his own tried true spots for prawn catching noted on the Orca’s GPS. They’re all a bit risky and lie right in the path of the occasional tug boats dragging giant barges of felled logs from northern logging operations. We’ve tensely watched through binoculars as these barges slowly make their way south and over the water where our pots are. This happened in June when I was there and mercifully our pots were dodged by the tugs. Because of this hazard it seems no other non-commercial prawn fishermen will lay their pots at these spots.
Being a gambler and having experienced the grueling disappointment of pulling an empty prawn pot, Dad sticks to his risky spots and it seems to pay off every time. We pull the pots up by hand and it’s a workout as each prawn pot has a giant segment of tractor chain in it to properly weigh it down. You’re arms get tired so you start pulling with your legs and body’s momentum. Soon that gets tiring and you switch back to your arms. The whole time your hands are burning from gripping the heavy line and when all’s said and done you’re upper extremities feel like wet noodles hanging off your shoulders. I inevitably squat down on the coiled rope and wet buoy to count the prawns and send them into the bucket, my hands on fire and lungs out of breath. When we returned to pull the pots on Thursday morning they were full of 100+ prawns which I brought home. We remove the heads in the boat and I separated our catch into small, medium, and large prawns before freezing them in seawater to pop into my freezer at home and eat throughout this winter. I’ve said it before, they are like no prawn you will ever eat…they are wild from the freshest water and worth any effort to get them on the dinner plate.
Besides prawns we fished for delicious Dungeness crab. After dragging up a prawn pot, crab pots are a walk in the park. You drop them on a sandy bottom at a depth of about forty feet and wait overnight or even just a few hours. On this trip we tried a couple of other spots to prospect as they say, but pulled one pot full of 6-7 starfish and another empty one. The night before our last full day in BC, we went back to where we knew crabs were crawling and pulled in 6 keepers, 2 shy of the limit. People experiment with all kinds of baits for crab (chicken necks?), but Dad has found that fresh bait works the best. He usually just goes to Safeway in Powell River and asks the seafood department for their salmon scraps which they gladly hand over. The scraps are then frozen in the bait cage that fits into the pot. We were lucky enough on this trip to catch our own salmon and use unfrozen, fresh bait that proved to work very well.
Sandwiched between our prawn fishing and our crab fishing was some of the most successful salmon fishing I have ever had. Fishing for salmon is a bit of a curse in my family. I can catch a boring rock fish as quickly as I can get a hook in the water, but an old boot has more action than a rock fish. My rock fishing highlight is the time I threw a little guy back and he sort of floated in a daze on the surface for a minute. That was just enough time for a bald eagle to come down from a tree and pluck him out of the water. I felt I’d just caught an eagle his lunch and that will likely never happen again. I grew up spending summers on Lopez Island in the San Juan Islands. Each summer for years we would fish for salmon and catch absolutely squat. I felt, going into my adult years, that I would never be a salmon fisherman. The Bliss Landing house changed the game for the Spring Chinook salmon run north of Bliss, along with the wild and hatchery Coho runs, provide some of the best opportunities to catch salmon on the North American west coast.
Dad knew that I would want to spend a lot of time with gear in the water while I was visiting. To mix things up he decided we would take the boat about an hour and a half north where the geography and accompanying ecology change dramatically. At Bliss Landing, the ocean water temperature is a cool 62〫, while a mere hour north it drops to a frigid 45〫. This drop in temperature causes drastic changes in air temperature, weather patterns, and in the type of life that can thrive in it. Beyond the water temperature you also find an increase in large mammal predators. Wolves, cougars, and most notably, grizzly bears are all abundant in the northern section of British Columbia’s Inside Passage. Our first night we moored at Big Bay on Stuart Island and the woman working the small store told us of a nice hike to a small lake. During her explanation of how to get to this lake there were a number of red flags that came up for me. First, she told us to walk a little ways on the trail we could see from the dock, and then “just go into the woods” and we would find it. Hmmmm. Next, she asked us if we would be hiking alone or together. Together. She then asked if we had a dog with us. No. She then revealed that we may need to be careful because a boater had spotted a cougar swimming from a neighboring island onto Stuart Island. Wow. Ok. The vision of a cougar swimming in 45〫water from island to island made me think that this cougar was very hungry and likely pissed. Also, Stuart Island is not very big and I’m not sure anything could have dragged me on a hike into the woods at that point. The next night, while mooring at Cordero Lodge, I got to hear about how a cougar had come out of the woods and killed both of the caretaker’s dogs on the boat dock.
Regardless of the cat problem, we were there for adventure and we were there to catch salmon. We arrived at Big Bay on Friday night and trolled that evening without a bite. The next night we would be mooring at the Cordero Lodge in Johnstone Straight and spent Saturday morning fishing before heading into Blind Channel for lunch. Blind Channel was pretty and bustling with large, cruiser boats trying to tie to their small dock. They had a sort of shack built around a BBQ being run by a college-age kid and that kid made my Dad and I one of the best hamburgers I have eaten in my entire life. I’m not just saying this because I was hungry. We’re talking a brioche bun with house-made BBQ and chipotle sauce, fresh fixings, and local ground beef packed with spices, minced onions and green peppers. Kudos to that college kid.
After Blind Channel we checked in at Cordero to let them know that we would be mooring on their dock and joining friends for dinner that night before heading north to fish in Loughborough Inlet. The hankering to head into Loughnorough was inspired by a desire to see a property that a friend of a friend of my Dad had purchased years ago. We boated up the inlet and arrived at the property, to find what I can only describe as a “spooky” scene. There was a very large house that years ago had been partially built by the owner, only to be abandoned when he ran out of the resources needed to continue building. It is a huge, beautiful house in the middle of absolutely nowhere that, in my Dad’s words, seems to be “returning back to nature”. The owner’s boat is moored on a small dock in front, but only to make people believe that someone actually lives there. It reminded me in spirit of the Stanley Hotel in The Shining and gave me some serious heebeegeebees. We motored away from the creepy property and decided to find a place to fish.
We chose the sunny side of the inlet by a vaguely described “green patch” that the woman who ran Cordero suggested. A spot that she grew up fishing with her Dad. We trolled along the shore with one downrigger pulling a green hoochie down to about 110 feet. In the morning we had seen bait fish jumping close to shore and usually bait fish jump out of the water when something is chasing them. This led to my Dad suggesting that maybe we should drag a buzz bomb off the back of the boat just to see what happens. This was a bit out there for me, as I usually only use the buzz bombs for mooching purposes. Despite my borderline-dismissive apathy, the bait fish were jumping and I ran a long line off the back with a buzz bomb. After twenty minutes the buzz bomb pole snapped hard and I reeled a nice sized Coho into the net, absolutely blown away that it had worked. The fish was beautiful and our first success of the trip north.
Giddy with the fact that we were no longer skunked, we head back to our night’s moorage at Cordero Lodge. Cordero is a restaurant and small lodging house run by two generations of Germans who built their property on float houses thirty-something years ago. Float houses are traditionally used by loggers and are built on large logs that allow them to be floated and moved as the supply of trees dry up and the operation requires a new forest to cut down. Cordero Lodge is this family’s lifework and due to illness and the lack of desire to carry on the struggling enterprise by the next generation, this summer will be the lodge’s last season. They serve a delicious German dinner in a floating dining room/bar filled with booths, a piano, and dozens of hanging bargees donated by many boats that have moored at Cordero over the years and enjoyed their hospitality.
After our obligatory shots of schnapps, my Dad and I retired early in anticipation of catching the “early bite” the next morning. My Dad had arranged a four hour outing with a guide suggested to us by the couple that ran Big Bay’s marina. We met our guide, Mike, at Big Bay at 7:30am and piled our bundled selves into his small, open boat for a brisk, fast ride through the Dent Rapids to Denham Bay. My Dad had seen the boats fishing at Denham the night before and decided that the logistics of trolling with 25 other boats on the same strip of shoreline was understandably not worth the effort. Mike was a pro and informed us that there was a system at Denham Bay where you trolled “starboard to shore” and that kept everyone looping around at a civilized pace.
We arrived at Denham and within fifteen minutes of having the gear in the water I had an 18lb Spring Chinook hooked, netted, and in the boat. It was unbelievable and an immediate testament to the benefits of fishing with a local guide. Mike was a great guide and a great guy to share a small boat with for four hours. He guides hunting expeditions as well and when we got into his boat I noticed two large bones setting on top of his flashers, keeping them from flying out as we motored along. My Dad wittily inquired if they were from dissatisfied customers and Mike dryly replied that they were Grizzly femurs. One from a ten foot bear and another from a smaller, nine foot bear. I thought they were merely a showy method for weighing his lighter gear down in his open boat. But when I reeled in that first Chinook, he used one of the femurs as a “fish bonker” to knock the salmon dead before putting it in the cooler. Using a bear femur to kill a just-caught salmon may be the most primal showing I have ever witnessed and Mike acted like it was the most sensible use of a bone in the world. Fred Flinstone would have been proud.
We caught two more salmon while at Denham, one small Chinook we released and Dad caught a beautiful hatchery Coho that we had for dinner the next night. It may have been the best tasting salmon I had ever had. Between the prawns, crab, and slab of salmon I now have a very full freezer in my Capitol Hill apartment. The fish should last well into winter and every time I dip into that seafood stash I’ll be reminded of this trip and more importantly my Dad, who made it all happen.
More photographs from the trip at my Flickr