Fishing the shear tide with Brian Clive

June 24, 2011

At Naden Harbour the water’s about 48 degrees at this time of year.  Salmon migrate away if it rises above 55 degrees.

Thursday dawned clear and calm, the start of an extraordinary day at the Queen Charlotte Lodge fishing ground.

Guides and guests pay close attention to a running total of the fish brought in for processing, as this fish is flash frozen, packed up and shipped on the plane with us back to Vancouver.  Everybody wants to load as much salmon and halibut as possible into his package.  Four Chinook, four coho, two halibut are the mainstays.  The various less desirable groundfish include rock cod and lingcod.

Chinook are both the most desirable and the most abundant species available at this time.  Cohos are smaller, more delicate, and much harder to find.  By the last day Tony had two coho on his list, but I had caught only Chinooks.  It had made me feel a little strange over our first three days of fishing to watch Brian release 17 and 18 pound salmon as casually as I would slip a 14” bass back into the water.

Then I hooked a 26 pounder.  There seems to be a tipping point with salmon where the energy of the fish suddenly doubles.  The 22 pounder the day before was a magnificent fish, but the 26 pounder wore me right out.  It ran, sounded, shook the line until my biceps ached, then headed for bottom several more times.  While I haven’t caught one yet, I’m told the sheer power of a fish of tyee size, 30 pounds, reverberates in every muscle and tendon of the angler’s body after the fight is over.

But this day we needed cohos and the sea was calm, so Brian took us out about two miles offshore.  Hauling in large salmon is great sport and excellent tourism, but time spent with a knowledgeable instructor and a square mile of water is to open a world of wonder.

We were running slowly along in the boat when Brian suddenly perked up and pointed down into the water.  It was littered with tiny, iridescent spots.  “Scales.  Birds have been feeding on a baitball here.”

“Plankton is the basis of all of the life in the water.  It’s fragile and the wind  beats up the organisms close to the top of the water column and reduces the food supply.  But when a calm day comes like this, the sun produces an almost instant bloom.  This turns on all of the other life forms to feed on the plankton, so the bait fish, the birds, the salmon, all become active.”

There we were out there with nothing around us but water.  And birds, a lot of birds.  And apparently a river, because on the calm sea a stream came flowing by us like a sharply-defined river in the middle of nowhere.  It carried pieces of kelp broken off from the beds on shore, as well as enough algae on the suface to make it easy to see.

The birds, helldivers and gulls, congregated in great numbers around shoals of needlefish forced to the surface by the helldivers.  Brian called them baitballs.  The gulls could swoop in and grab mouthfuls of the tiny fish, they were that tightly packed at the top of the water.  “Of course a humpback whale will eat the whole ball.”  The feeding frenzy continued for several minutes until the birds gradually filled up, drifted away, and the baitfish were allowed to disperse.

So at 10:00 Thursday morning we set the downriggers for coho after hauling in Chinooks near shore for four hours.  “Coho are hard to find, but we’ll try out here for a while.”  Before long my rod twitched, so I ran through the routine Brian had drilled into me over many lost fish:  “Lift the rod off the holder.  Tip it over so the reel is down.  Reel in to the clip on the downrigger.  Feel the fish?  Jerk it off the clip.  Reel up to the fish until you feel it.  Set the hook! Still there?  Let him run.  Bring back line when you can.  Hold your right hand on the bottom of the reel to control the drag.  When your left hand tells you, let him have line.  When you can get line back, pump with the left, reel with the right.  When the fish comes near the boat, don’t worry about that.  Just play the fish.  The guide will get the lines and the downriggers out of the way and move the boat so that the fish doesn’t foul the motor.”

Brian expertly predicted each fish’s moves.  His coaching and seamanship were vital to our fishing success over the 11-hour days of the trip.  My part?  Once a fish was hooked, I didn’t lose it.  Getting to that stage was hard for me, though.  The unfamiliar mooching rod looks like a fly rod, and that turn-the-reel-over stage kept confusing me at a critical time.  But after enough repetitions muscle memory took over.  By the fourth and final day I found I could whip the rod out of the holder, flip it over, wind-wind-wind, flip the line off the clip, chase the fish down with the reel, then stretch its neck with a strong, smooth hook-set motion.

Brian commented when I set the hook on the first Coho:  “I’m surprised it can still swim.  I thought that hook-set would have fractured its neck.”  The eight-pound coho surged to the surface where it ran and rolled on top.  Brian told Tony and me that Chinooks will use the whole water column it a fight, often diving straight down 100’ or more.  “Cohos take to the surface when hooked, often jumping behind the boat before you can get the line off the downrigger clip.”

But that was our last coho of the day.  We couldn’t keep the blasted Chinooks off the hook.  Today the things were everywhere, and we were treated to the spectacle of fighting 16-26 pound fish in water so clear we could see every iridescent scale when the fish turned thirty feet below the boat.  When we brought them to the boat, Brian would reach down with the gaff and gently slide the unbarbed hook out, and away would go the fish.

But this is the land of the midnight sun.  We brought Brian back in at 4:30 to look after the fish and to give Tony and me a chance to do what we had been itching to try:  catch a salmon on a downrigger on our own.

Stay tuned for the next part of the saga.



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