The adventure begins, Top Gun-style, low over Naden Harbour. Barrelling toward a tiny, gravel helipad on the edge of the water, our Sikorsky S61 helicopter swoops in for a landing. Only we're going too fast, intentionally so. At the last second, our chopper banks hard on its side, sweeps up and around in a tight spiral, and touches down, our tour of the grounds complete.
Welcome to the Queen Charlotte Lodge, a $1,200-and-way-up-a-night fishing resort atop British Columbia's Haida Gwaii. Around the corner, you can see the southern tip of Alaska. This place is so remote you can only come here in the summer, via helicopter, after flying an hour-and-a-half by jet from Vancouver.
This is Haida Gwaii land, a vast expanse of pristine, breathtakingly spectacular wilderness. It's also the site of some of the best salmon fishing in the world. When Bay Street titans and National Hockey League stars want to catch 40-pound Pacific chinook, they come here.
I'm barely an amateur angler, but when a friend suggested, six months ago, getting some pals together to go fishing, I assumed she was talking about searching for trout near Toronto. She meant something entirely different. What she had in mind was the sort of place where wildlife outnumber people, by far, and where landing a fish may mean going head to head with a shark first … but more on that in a minute.
Sure we're not keeping score …
There are six eager anglers in our group, though only two have been here before, or have much experience fishing. Not that any of us is keeping score: This weekend is about camaraderie and the promise of the open ocean, not about landing trophy salmon - at least, that's what we're telling ourselves. We'll have guides who know where the fish are, so what's the worst that can happen? That is, other than getting blown off the water by bad weather and returning to shore soaked, seasick and empty-handed, after investing a bundle to be here.
Oh yeah, that.
Mercifully, though, there's no time to worry about what could go wrong, as within an hour of landing we're on the water. There are two per boat, plus the guide. This afternoon, we're heading to Green Point, a rocky outcrop you won't find on a map, about a mile west of Klashwun Point in the Dixon Entrance, the channel leading to the Pacific. It's the farthest out we're legally allowed to fish, and once we get there, we'll be almost as near to Alaska as we are to the lodge.
Although it's August, there's a bracing wind whipping over the waves. We're wearing multiple layers of clothing, including thick windbreakers that can double as life jackets in the highly unlikely event we fall overboard. Our escort, Cole Adams, a 22-year-old big lug of a fisher from Vancouver Island, says that in his three years of guiding only one guest has come close to toppling over, and that was only because he was too drunk to reel and balance at the same time.
When we reach Green Point, Adams baits our hooks with anchovies and, using a downrigger, sinks the bait to 15 metres, where the coho and cod prefer to swim.
It's not until we begin the waiting game that I notice the other boats nearby, bobbing up and down, and rolling side to side. Over the course of the weekend, one of the guides will tell me that fully one-third of guests get seasick, and that once the nausea hits, nothing, not staring at the horizon or steering the boat, will save you. But I don't know this now. What I hear is Adams explaining that it was really rough yesterday, so bad that most of the boats had to head home after an hour. Today's swells, apparently, are just the tail end of that storm. "This isn't too bad," he says, with a sigh and a shrug.
I try to distract myself. Normally, assessing my failings works. Like, why it never occurred to me to bring along Gravol or seasickness wristbands. Suddenly, a coho stumbles across my bait, slightly salvaging the situation. This is fabulously diverting - until we pull it into the boat, and Adams bonks it, splattering blood across the hull.
I've got my face-saving fish. I've tasted the salt air. I'd like to go in now, please.
The next morning, we're on the water at 7 a.m., and Adams is ours until 6 p.m. By now, we know three things for sure: where to go, what we need to do when we get there, and sadly but surely, that there are no guarantees that you'll catch a fish. Just because ling cod and coho usually sit near Green Point 15 to 35 metres deep, doesn't mean we'll see any today. There's nothing more unreliable than a B.C. salmon, especially this year.
Great fishers, big talkers
I'm told, though, that the willingness to try anything is what distinguishes the great fishers from the lousy ones. The herring bait isn't working? Try the anchovies. If there are no coho 20 metres down, change the depth, move somewhere else, or go to the bottom and look for halibut.
This morning, Adams tries all of that, and more, and still we get barely a bite. But it doesn't matter, the satellite radio on board is blasting some great tunes and the Baileys is sweet. Plus we can see the others in our group, and they don't seem to be catching much either, so the trash talk should be, at worst, equal, when we tie up together for lunch.
In the afternoon, the fish finally deign to drop by. Though their whereabouts is always unpredictable, their behaviour on the line apparently isn't. As soon as the twine begins to pull, Adams can tell exactly what we've got. Coho careen wildly from side to side; halibut pull straight down; and ling cod do something else (which has already escaped me). But Adams knows, and before we're even aware of a bite, he's got the fish identified, mentally weighted and halfway filleted.
Back at the lodge, we find other fishers who are, apparently, just as good at sizing up a catch - the guest who had hooked the 20-pounder, mere inches away, until the freeloading sea lion or shark snatched it in midair. Fish stories, sure, except there's no denying that Haida Gwaii, and the surrounding waters, are filled with life.
The day before, the helicopter wasn't even on the ground before six deer had wandered over to check us out. As they posed for photos and sniffed for handouts, three orcas swam past in the harbour, so near and nicely timed that I wondered if they were on some underwater track. We had to wait until we hit the ocean to see the humpback whales breaching, but the seals, black bears and bald eagles all seemed to be cued up for our arrival.
By the second night, we are all instant experts on fishing, and it is time to put some money where our mouths are. Nine know-it-alls bragging in the lodge bar throw in $100 each, creating a decent pot for the one who lands the biggest catch, be it coho, halibut or cod.
I'd like to report that I soared above all rivals to win the $900 booty - except that's not how it worked out. A fat 30-pounder gift-wrapped himself for one of the folks, while I battled it out for the runts. No matter. What do you fish for, if not the splendour of the scenery and the hope for a good tale? A weekend on Haida Gwaii provided all this, and far more.
DROP A LINE
The three most established fishing resorts atop Haida Gwaii are the West Coast Fishing Club, Langara Fishing Lodge and the Queen Charlotte Lodge.
Queen Charlotte Lodge guided fishing packages start at $3,695 and run to $5,725 per person. 1-800-688-8959; www.queencharlottelodge.com.
West Coast Fishing Club guided fishing stays range from $4,550 to $7,000. 1-888-432-6666; westcoastfishingclub.com.
Langara Fishing Lodge guided fishing packages range from $3,995 to $6,795. 1-800-668-7544; www.langara.com.
All packages include flights from Vancouver, accommodation, food, as well as cold-weather gear, rods, hooks and bait. Some include alcohol with meals. Plan to tip up to $300 per person. The season runs from late May to the end of September. June and July are often the best months for catching chinook and coho.