Photo Credit: Emily Bulmer
Fish on! Rolling in the deep off BC’s northwest coast.
It’s 5 a.m. and people are everywhere, scuttling onto boats like tiny crabs searching for shelter. I see our guide, Fred Hutchings, waving at us. “Got your licences?” he calls. Four groggy-eyed women, somewhat sleep deprived from the hostel the night before, wave back. We are embarking on an annual trip to the Prince Rupert waters.
“Alright, let’s get out on the water—the bite’s on!”
Today, the water is calm and the fog is thick, but the tides are just right, and the real keeners have already left. We toss our backpacks (warm layers, sunscreen, rain gear, lunches, cameras—check!) over the rail and clamour onto the boat.
Hutchings looks at his watch and GPS and opens the throttle, speeding us along an unknown trajectory through the fog. He shouts the plan over the noise of the motor: “It’s a 10-mile run just to get outside the harbour, then another 10-mile run across open waters to where we’ll try for salmon. It will take about an hour to get out there. If the salmon aren’t biting you can go bottom fishing for rock fish, red snapper, the lings...”
I’m not too worried. Though there are no guarantees, there’s always something to catch and see on a day out on the water. I am a little worried about getting seasick, however. I search around for something to fix my sights on, but the fog is as sticky as a limpet, so instead I sip on my ginger tea, adjust my anti-nausea acupressure wristbands and double check my pocket for Gravol.
We hear other boats nearby as Hutchings throttles down. From the banter on the radio, we know the fish are biting: “Yeah we got some beauties—some nice silvers and a Tyee,” reports another skipper. The loose clomp of gumboots fills our ears as we clear the deck and get ready to put the gear in the water.
“OK ladies, I can’t do this alone—you all have to learn how to work together to get a fish in.” Hutchings smiles as he baits the hooks. With over 20 years fish guiding experience, he’s in his element. A few more last-minute instructions and we’re ready to go: “You never set the hook when you are fishing out here—be quick and start winding to keep the slack out of the line...”
He can’t finish his instructions before Lois yells, “Fish on! Fish on!” We all hoot and holler as she winds as fast as she can. “Keep a bend in the end of the rod! Grab the net!” he shouts, getting right to the point.
“Hey! Fish on over here!” Gail is in the running now, too. “Oh no, I lost it! NOOO!!”
The drama of coho fishing has ramped up to full volume in less than five minutes, and we’re all busy keeping the bend in the rod, the slack out of the line and tips up, as we also try to keep our lines from crossing, interfering with the motor and out of the way of the person landing the fish. It is tricky, though, and there are a few tangles and fish lost in the mayhem. Hutchings flashes from the wheel to the deck and back again, keeping us on course, baiting the hooks and netting fish, seeming to have his tentacles in everything all at once. In less than an hour, we lose as many fish as we land, and get our limit (four each) of shiny, silver coho.
The fog has burned off and we can see the bright green cedar covering Melville Island. “Look—wolves!” I point out as two sleek creatures run along the shore, their grey fur matted and dripping. Although it is only 7:30 a.m., I feel as though I’ve had a full day. Hutchings reports our catch to the other boats, and with big smiles we pack up our gear and head farther into open water.
If fishing for coho is a sprint, then fishing for halibut is the marathon. We set our gear—down, down, down into the deep—and wait. Halibut limits have gone down in recent years and a 70-pound halibut is currently the largest fish you can keep.
With not much to do other than jig the line and shoot the breeze, we relive our coho catch with gusto: “I can’t believe you lost that one—did you see how big it was?”
“Yeah, but it just went crazy on me at the end there—what was I supposed to do? It was Godzilla!”
It is easy to see how fish tales happen—the excitement, competition and camaraderie blend together, creating long-exaggerated yarns, taking more than 15 minutes to describe something that only took three minutes to unfold.
We have some bites and some battles, between us pulling up an octopus, skate, ratfish and a dogfish—not exactly what we’re after, but we remain hopeful.
There’s a bite on my line and it is big. With big cheers of encouragement, I wind as fast as I can, hauling back hard on the line. Wind, haul back, wind, haul back and, bracing my foot on the side of the boat, I give it all I’m worth. My arms shaking, adrenaline pumping, I pull the thrashing, fighting piece of plywood up to the side of the boat. In a flurry of action, Hutchings hauls the halibut in the boat and has it hogtied before you can say “rodeo clown.”
The wind starts blowing up and we turn back to the harbour. Nearing Metlakatla, we see a pod of orcas and watch them breach and blow spray into the wind. We cross our fingers, hoping the crab traps we set earlier in the day have not been stolen or raided, a rising problem in the sport-fishing community. There are three species of crab you can catch locally, Hutchings explains: Dungeness, red rock crab and tanner crab, and you can only keep males greater than 6.5 inches across the back. We pull the traps in and see that we have some keepers.
“Anyone can catch a fish,” Hutchings says. “When you book a trip, check to make sure the vessel is Department of Transportation certified, and if you want the gold standard of fish guiding, ask the guide if they are a Certified Tidal Angling Guide (CTAG). There are upwards of 100 charter boats out of Prince Rupert and you want to make sure your skipper has the skills and qualifications.”
He adds that it’s also a good idea to find out legal limits for fish and requirements for transport. Fish can be processed—cleaned, cut and vacuum-packed—at Dolly’s Fish Market or Rupert Meats. Hutchings’ final piece of fishing advice is to book your trip early.
What a day—slamming coho action, a halibut prizefight, wolves, orcas and full crab pots, all within 10 hours. Happy that I passed the “green around the gills” stage without incident, I can save my Gravol for the next excursion. As we pack our coolers of fish into the car, we shoot dates for next year back and forth. By hook or by gaff, we’ll be back.