I missed my annual visit to my family’s home in Bliss Landing, British Columbia last year as my daughter was born in March and I was enthusiastically adjusting to fatherhood. This year I carved out some time and made plans to spend some days up here with my father and two college friends from Portland. While the fishing has been consistent, the size of the fish we’ve been catching has been disappointing with only two keeper Chinook coming home with us in four days of fishing.
I’ve asked my Dad before if he thinks that are luck is a lack of experience or a lack of fish, and in his mind it may be both. Well, I think that we would both agree that our collective experience is no longer a limiting factor. Everything involved, at least on the technical side of things, is dialed in. Downriggers and their attached lines spend more time in water. Our trolling gear is fine-tuned and tackle mostly limited to what we now know works. There’s very little, and I can say at this point that this is true for all of the fisheries I participate in, “riff-raff” or novelty tackle in the tacklebox. We’ve become better and faster at recovering from and avoiding malfunctions that in previous years stymied or ended the day’s angling. With that said, fishing has been slow and this has been stated by others online who see fishing near us and by the staff of the tackle shops I frequent while up here. Knowing that others are in the same boat does help ease the feeling that is is not us, but them.
We have had some success with our two keepers coming aboard and some very nice wild Coho being caught and released. Our two keeper Chinook were caught at around Sarah Point, but we’ve gotten into hot bites of undersize fish at Sutil Point, Grant Reef, Mystery Reef, and off of Kinghorn Island. Almost all of the fish landed have been on the same flasher/spoon combination that was suggested to us by a young buck at Marine Traders in Powell River. Normally and despite purchasing suggestions from tackle shop employees I’ll wave off these acquisitions as novelty or last-ditch, but in this case I owe credit where credit is due. At least in the case of the spoon he recommended which was a black/green Silver Horde Coho Killer. I used his flasher suggestion as inspiration to choose my own.
Humpback Whales Off Hernando Island
In our run from Sutil Point to Grant Reef on a day before the smoke really came in we spotted some whales approaching us. We were quick to see they were bigger than Orcas and cut the engine as two humpback whales cruised by. The whales circled back to our boat and the following video is the amazing encounter.
My family set down some new roots with the purchase this past spring of a second home on Whidbey. The island is surrounded by multiple marine areas, all with separate and regularly changed in-season regulations and I plan on wetting a line in all of them throughout this summer and hopefully into fall. Without a boat and shore-bound, all of the photographs will be of fishing from the beach using rotator/hoochie combinations, lead jigs, buzz bombs, and big spinners occasionally.
Long distance shot of J-pod orcas. This group included the mother carrying her dead calf. They were spotted in BC waters the next morning.
This post will document my limited fishing endeavors this summer and fall. With a new addition to our family this past spring, I’ve been understandably called upon to spend more time at home. This means no BC trip this year, but more focus on beach fishing and new additions to my rod and tackle collection as I focus on landing salmon closer to home. Luckily its a pink year and I’ve had some friends pass off some knowledge they’ve gained past summers hooking coho from the beach.
Stunner wild coho from Bush Point in late July
Hazy Point No Point
High tide/evening bite makes for a winning combination
First salmon on a Dick Nite spoon, although I’ve caught a coho that had a Dick Nite and some leader hanging out of its mouth. They’re never my first choice because I’ve never felt confident rigging them.
Hooked only two Coho this Fall season on the Skykomish but I’m happy with that considering I only made two trips out. The first was on October 2nd on the Upper Snohomish and the last this past Sunday farther upstream on the Sky, about a mile downstream of Sultan.
The second one got off nearly as quickly as it was on and the river couldn’t have been more different, running at about 6000cfs and only about a foot of visibility. We still were able to scout some promising new runs and get skunked on the old-reliables, Both my fish were hooked on a 50/50 BC Steel Pen-Tac spoon.
I spent the Christmas holiday in Pacific City, Oregon with my fiance’s family. Pacific City is an amazing home base for river fishing. There are the Neskowin, Three Rivers, Little Nestucca, and Salmon Rivers all nearby and holding fish. There is a winter steelhead hatchery on Three Rivers, but typically of any winter hatchery steelhead river the rush of fish brings a rush of crowds to the banks. I overheard at the tackle shop in Hebo that the vehicles at the hatchery hole were “stacked in like cord wood”. Katlin’s family has a farm above the hatchery and I’ve had success fishing for both native salmon that are passed through the hatchery weir and resident cutthroat which seem to be always around.
The area had been hit by heavy rains and the big river, the Nestucca, had a chocolate milk quality to it and was close to flood stage. I’d spent a couple days trying to get some bites at my favorite hole on the Kellow Fur Farm up above the Cedar Creek Hatchery and decided early on day two to head out to explore the Little Nestucca River and see if it was in better shape.
The Little Nestucca runs along Highway 130, which I headed up via 101 from Pacific City. The river is a thing of beauty and despite the rains had beautiful water clarity, a nice steelhead green. I saw at least a dozen promising pools as I searched for a safe pullout and route down its steep banks to the river. I didn’t have to drive far before finding one of the more beautiful pools I’ve seen in person. There were two fisherman working it with spoons so I initially drove past them searching for some solitude, but a narrow canyon portion above the pool convinced me that I’d have a better chance getting into a fish below the major whitewater I was seeing upstream…so I turned around. I went back to the hole where the two other anglers were fishing and tried to determine if it would be feasible or even polite to squeeze in above them without interfering with their experience.
Lucky for me I watched one of the anglers pack up and climb if the trail to the road. I asked out my window if he’d have any luck and he said that they’d been hooking some cutthroat. I pulled myself out of the truck with my gear and luckily the other gentleman was packing up and heading out as well, leaving me alone at the fishiest spot I’d seen all week.
The pool was perfect for float fishing with all of the components (head, body, and tailout) within one long drift on the centerpin rod. Being by myself, I started my drift at the head of the pool and simply let it float through the body and to the top of the tailout. I had never caught or seen salmon or steelhead in this river but had been told by my soon-to-be father-in-law that they were in there. ODWF describes the steelhead and salmon fishing as “fair” on this river.
With this information in the back of my mind I soon gave up on float fishing and thought I’d switch to some smaller spinners to try and get a cutthroat while I was there. I worked my way down the hole with a small bronze spinner and when I got to the top of the tailout I saw two steelhead swimming nearly at my feet. I stopped putzing around with the spinners and immediately switched back to the centerpin.
While I was in Hebo visiting the local tackle shop I decided to pick up some locally made steelhead jigs. It’s a habit that I believe brings me a a little good luck when fishing away from home. Help support the local economy and use what the locals are using to catch some fish.
I tied on a local 3/8 oz pink maribou jig with a flashy body and within ten minutes landed what I thought may have been a steelhead, but soon realized that it was just a late-run native coho. I was a bit off my identifcation game because I had seen two steelhead (where there’s one there’s another), but had also seen a larger fish rise above the tailout (A coho is more likely to break surface in my experience). The v-shaped tail and hooked beak gave it away for me, but I was still surprised that I was catching a bright-ish coho this late into the season.
After a quick picture I retrieved my jig and revived the fish and he swam away with strength. I have to say that the coho didn’t fight much, a few head shakes but no real runs that would normally have me on my toes with the centerpin. Still a beautiful fish and I felt lucky as I always do when I catch a native fish in a beautiful setting.
I took Sunday off from fishing and our plan was to head back to Seattle around noon on Monday. I carefully broached the idea of me going out one last time to my fiance with the idea that I’d be fishing before anyone woke up anyways and back with enough to time to pack and say some goodbyes to the family. She was alright with that and so I headed out before dark on Monday morning, hoping to be the first (or even better, only) fisherman at the hole at sunrise. Highway 130 is a narrow, curvy road with a view of the river and its many fishing spots for miles. You can bet that if you see a vehicle parked on the side of the road that means a fisherman is down on the bank getting a line wet. The river’s access does not suggest any sort of combat fishing and on the contrary, seems to lend itself to the kind of reclusive style of fishing I prefer: Away from the hatchery crowds and elbow-elbow, synchronized casting gong show. I’m bringing this up because if I see a truck parked at a spot where I know there is a fishy stretch of river, I keep driving. There are too may great spots to crowd another angler looking for solitude.
So I got to the hole early, probably too early as I had about a half hour to kill before there was enough light to see a float going down. I started at the head of the pool, using a orange and white maribou jig with a white head. This is a pattern that I have caught some coho on before and an appropriate one for the ever-so-mildly colored up water this early in the morning. I saw a fish surface right at the top of the pool behind a tree that had fallen down the steep opposite bank and into the pool. Long eddies were swirling on both sides of the head as the pool was being fed by a narrow canyon portion that was frothing with white water just up river.
WIth no bites or bumps twenty minutes in, I was starting to go over in my mind potential adjustments to my offering. Just about when I settled on a change the float goes down. I set the hook and had a couples strong head shakes before I see my line go limp, soon realizing the fish has swam directly across the bottom half of the pool body. I have to put a quick spin on my reel to get caught up and get tension on the fish again. As soon as I get pressure again the fish takes a run in the opposite direction, peeling off line.
Knowing that what I had was more significant than the other fish I had caught in the pool (more energy, stronger head shakes, and violent runs) I started going through the inventory in my head of all the things that could go wrong. Knots and weak points being at the foremost of those thoughts. I couldn’t do anything about that at this point and snapped back to worrying about the fish taking my line across the lip of the shelf in the pool or heading downstream below the pool. The steelhead took about four more significant runs before I had it close to the bank. I had lost a coho earlier in the year horsing it in because of some serious logs in the river, so I was careful to let it tire out significantly before I banked it. My arm hurt and my heart was thumping as I quickly snapped a photo, popped the jig out of its mouth and released it.
Photographs are important to me for not just memories but also to help keep track of the elements in my gear that work. I’ve caught all my steelhead and salmon on the centerpin using Drennan floats. They’re expensive but if you’re careful with them they’ll last a long time. Flourocarbon line and well-spaced split shot (spacing depends on the water speed) are other elements that I never change. A photograph reminds me of my leader length and size as well. I don’t love knocking any scales of a fish but am more careful with my salt water catches than river ones. Many of these fish, especially in a rocky river like the Little Nestucca, have beat themselves up on rocks just getting upstream. Regardless, I’ll spend as much time as it takes to revive a fish and make sure that jig hooks avoid snagging gills and pop them out with care. Here’s a good article from Northwest Sportsman on handling native steelhead.
I was pretty happy with myself after this and paused for a ten minute break before getting my line back in the water. This fish had fulfilled a goal I have every winter of just getting one steelhead. Any more than that is a bonus and any less leads to a long off-season of self-doubt and disappointment. The fight this fresh fish put me though stacks on its value. It assured me that I’ve come a long way in developing and implementing a system for centerpin fishing that works for me. With all of the variables and opportunities for failure, having a fish really put me through the ringer as I fight it is rare experience and one that I won’t forget.
Labor Day weekend started Saturday for me with a bi-annual float down the Skykomish River fishing for pink salmon. We put the pontoons in at Sultan and floated down to the Ben Howard take-out. While there were a fair amount of fish in the water, it was nowhere near the abundance we encountered in 2013. I hooked and landed four for the day, one on the centerpin and the others on twitched jigs. The highlight of the day came at the end of the float on the long flat section before the river bend that takes you to Ben Howard. I was casting to some rising fish, long casts from my pontoon with quick twitches on a white 1/4 oz jig when I hooked a fish that immediately jumped out of the water and then took off across the river and behind my pontoon. After a couple of minutes and a couple more runs I landed what must be the first Coho caught this high in the river, this early in the year. It was a beautiful fish and I broke my long-standing rule of never keeping a fish caught in fresh water. The Coho had sea lice and must have just come up the river that day.
On Sunday I went to Kayak Point County Park to have a picnic at a shelter reserved by a friend. Someone had brought a small boat and we used it all afternoon to drop crab pots in the calm bay off the shore where the shelter was. We had great luck crabbing and were treated to a crab boil, prepared by my longtime fishing partner and friend, Scott. Labor Day weekend was a great time this year and a fitting end to summer here in the Pacific Northwest.
The Kellows have a farm on Three Rivers in Hebo, Oregon. The property is about two miles above stream from the Cedar Creek Hatchery and holds native steelhead, Coho, and Rainbow trout. I caught this Coho on a spoon I purchased at a gas station in Quilcene, Washington. He inhaled my spoon and being without a net, I tailed him on shore to get the hardware out of his throat. I then revived and he swam away under his power.
View Fishing Spots in a larger map
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.