Salmon, it seems, do not sleep in. Given the choice between a midmorning snack and having a bite just as the sun is rising, they will always opt for an early breakfast. Stay cool in the morning, have a siesta in the afternoon. Makes sense to me. And so our adventure begins before the day has even started.
We're on Sonora Island, one of the Discovery Islands in the northern reaches of the Strait of Georgia, about a 50-minute flight from Vancouver. Our guide is steering us out toward the fishing grounds, half an hour away, where my wife and two children will hopefully experience the exquisite rush of seeing their line suddenly jerk from the stillness while they manically grip the rod, and everyone in the boat begins shrieking, and their arms feel like falling off because this is the biggest salmon ever.
But first we have to get there.
We are not 10 minutes into the journey – after a short detour to watch the sea lions near the dock – when we are distracted by something big, black and furry ambling along the shoreline. A black bear, of course, which is not altogether unheard of in the wilds of British Columbia, but is somewhat rarer in midtown Toronto, where we live, so we pull over for a closer look. The bear is flipping over boulders as if they were beach balls, trying to rustle up whatever it is bears eat. It's entrancing and we could watch for hours. However, the sun is fast rising and presumably the salmon are also thinking of breakfast, so we steer somewhat reluctantly away.
Scarcely a minute later, a call comes through on the radio. There is a bunch of "black and whites" in a nearby inlet. Our guide looks at our kids, looks at me, looks at the kids again. A pod of about 20 orcas is another sight that if we skip now, we probably will not see at home. They are massive, silent and spectacular, moving past us toward the Pacific with pure grace. They are also snacking on salmon as they go. As indescribably gorgeous as they are, they are definitely not going to help us catch anything.
Welcome to family fishing at Sonora, one of the best fishing spots in the world, if only the other wildlife would let you get on with it.
A few years ago, I wrote about fishing for salmon in the Dixon Entrance, the channel of water at the northern edges of B.C. between the Queen Charlotte Islands and Alaska. That was a true wilderness experience: big ocean, small boats, long hours on the waves, all blurred by loads of alcohol. Stellar ingredients for a salmon excursion, to be sure, though a little problematic if you want to bring the kids along.
The plan this time was to do just that. I needed to find a way of distilling the most memorable parts of that experience – the extravagant beauty of coastal B.C., the thrill of plucking a 10-kilogram coho from the deeps – from some of the more debauched elements of the trip. Sonora Resort, on the southern tip of Sonora Island, seemed to be a perfect solution. Fishing would be part of the mix, though so would hiking, grizzly-spotting and, most important, as we soon discovered, staff that would conjure up Oh Henry! bars whenever our six-year-old happened about.
Strictly speaking, the waterway we are on is known as Calm Channel. But for all concerned, it's Billionaires Row, a riviera of sorts for some of West Coast's richest folks. Directly across the water from the resort is tugboat tycoon Dennis Washington's summer digs, a retreat that includes a golf course, two 300-foot yachts and a helicopter pad. Next door is auction exec Dave Ritchie's invitation-only Warm Springs Resort. You know you have made it when your summer cottage is actually a private fishing lodge. In this neighbourhood, Sonora Resort fits comfortably, owned as it is by Brandt Louie, the billionaire head of London Drugs and the IGA grocery chain, among other interests.
All of this is of note only in what it says about the setting. In a province brimming with spectacular scenery, and exceptional fishing spots, this is the kind of place where people with the means to pick anywhere find themselves.
The resort itself got its start as a fairly standard Scotch-and-cigars fishing joint. It was not until Louie took it over in 2001, and refurbished it as a retreat for couples and families, that it began to resemble the high-end oasis it is now, with a five-star spa, gourmet cuisine, sumptuous rooms and a bartender practically begging to fix you any kind of concoction, at any hour, all as part of the package.
In truth, we could have easily let each day slip away, our feet on the deck, kids forgotten in the movie theatre, seals and eagles hanging about, and us confronted with no greater challenge than choosing between the tagliolini allo scoglio and the salmon panzanella for lunch. But even amid this splendour, expecting a coho to come find us or a grizzly to saunter up for a showing was a bit of a stretch.
So we were forced to set off. The plan was a quick strike: to the fishing grounds early and back before either the salmon or the kids knew what hit them, our little guy not being the sit-quietly-and-wait-for-the-moment sort.
Once we get past the bear and the orcas, and have a quick peek at some rapids that are too cool to skip, we are there. It looks like every other part of the inlet: deep water below, blue skies above, mountains left and right. But our guide assures us that this bit of aqua is different. Here is where the fat ones hang out. And sure enough, within 20 minutes of our rods being fixed into position on the boat, a line twitches, ever so slightly. We do not notice. All we see is our guide leaping toward the rod.
I had seen this before. You have barely realized that your line moved and the guide has already grabbed the net, figured out the kind of fish and calculated its weight.
Ours here is a big one. It could be a tyee, meaning 30 pounds (13 kilograms) and up. Bagging a tyee gets your name on a whiteboard at Sonora for the summer. (The board had a startling number of chief executive officers and celebrities on it, either a sign of the clientele, or that they are just blessed at everything.) This one pulls and pulls, each tug a recrimination, and a stab of doubt – if we lose it, will we get another? On and on it goes, until the fish refuses to dignify things any further, or just tuckers out. Regardless, it is ours. Not quite a tyee, but still, proof: We weren't boating, this was fishing! Exhibit A was in the hold.
After that fish, we catch two more in quick succession. Even the salmon here aim to please. And with that, it's time to turn back. Lunch on the deck waits, as does the movie theatre, the tennis courts and the hiking trails. Tomorrow, we start all over again.