After bagging several chinook salmon from Barkley Sound on day one, this trip was already a success and we still had day two to look forward to. We spent the remaining afternoon resting up at the Whiskey Landing Lodge before heading to the Ucluelet Aquarium for a brief visit. Last year, we were able to donate two Pacific halibut to the aquarium so I was eager to catch up with curator Laura on their status. It turned out both fish have been transferred to the Vancouver aquarium and another facility in Toronto.
While we were there, a few volunteers returned from a day of collection so our timing was bang on. The collected specimen included lingcod, kelp greenling, and rockfish. The star of the transfer was a giant Pacific octopus which took awhile to make its way into the holding tank.
Ucluelet Aquarium is a community aquarium and all specimen are caught in nearby waters and released back to their habitat at the end of the summer season. The exhibits reflect the West Coast marine habitat and its inhabitants. If you decide to do a fishing charter with Big Bear Salmon Charters and stay at the Whiskey Landing Lodge, then this is a must visit as it is right next door to the lodge.
Our goal on day two was to possibly give halibut a try if weather permitted. The marine forecast did not look promising, but Darren thought we may have a two hour window at first light. We motored out of the inlet at 6:30am and the swells were already looking fairly intimidating. The ride to the halibut ground was very fun, but it did not look good for fishing. Once we arrived at the chosen spot, Darren assessed the condition and decided that it was worsening so we had to turn around. A little disappointed about missing the halibut fishing, but one has to trust the skipper as he knows best and always puts his clients’ safety in priority. The offshore fishing is always a gamble, especially early in the season when weather is still unstable.
With one option scratched, we decided to make our way back to the sound for more chinook salmon hunting. Instead of returning to the same spot where the fishing was a little inconsistent, Darren took us to Swale Rock, another well known spot for productive chinook salmon fishing. The condition in the sound was much more desirable. Swale Rock is further inside the sound so the water was almost flat calm. Light rain was drizzling down from the sky and the nearby islands were blanketed by thick fog. The boat was filled with anticipation as we dropped both rods down. Could we bump into some good fish?
Since I did not manage to bring in a keeper yesterday, the gang decided that I should have the first go. The bite was almost immediate, right after Darren was having second thought as scattered kelp pieces drifted by us. I dove for the rod and set the hook on my own while Dan began filming with the camera. The hook-set was good and the fish gained some line before approaching the surface in the far horizon. Unfortunately, the dreadful pop could be felt when the flasher surfaced. It is not uncommon to have fish being lost when they surface, because the sudden pop of the flasher on the surface can change the tension of the line.
Slightly embarrassed, I said Iwan should have the next go as he had the smallest fish on the day before. I was not about to lose two fish in a row for the team! The action could be considered non-stop, because as soon as Darren dropped the rig down to the depth and turned around, I saw the line popping out of the downrigger clip right away. “Fish!”, I screamed, making Darren doing a 180 and setting the hook. Iwan grabbed the rod and played the fish carefully while I made the comment of not losing the fish. Just as I finished the words, his fish also popped off as it neared the surface!
Zero for two, Iwan and I were now scared to touch the rods. We decided to give Kitty a go at the next fish. Once we finished trolling the rest of the path, Darren drove the boat back to the starting point to repeat the troll. Instead of trolling back, he believed that trolling in the same direction where we were heading against the current was more effective. Previous two fish were caught in the same area, so we were hoping for the same results.
Sure enough, like magic, the bite came again when we reached the “hot spot”. There clearly was a school of fish feeding in the area. Darren handed the rod to Kitty, who seemed a bit hesitant after the hard fight on the day before. This fish took a good run and the reel handle injured one of her knuckles in the process. These reels are known as knuckle busters for a good reason. With her injured right hand which she used to reel with, this was turning into a struggle.
Darren gave her a hand by lifting the rod as she could barely do it on her own. The fight must have taken at least 5 minutes before the fish surfaced. Kitty walked back, kept the rod as high as possible so Darren could reach the fish with the landing net. The fish was not particularly long, but it was thick. Although it was smaller than her first fish on the previous day, Kitty thought it put up a more exhausting fight.
The knuckle was quite cut up from the reel handle during the fight so Dan took care of the battle would in the cabin while the rest of us waited for another bite. Dan and I thought Iwan should have another go because this was his one and only West Coast trip for the year. When the bite finally came, he was glad that we gave him that chance!
This fish took the longest run of the day. Once it stopped moving, it really stopped moving. For awhile, Iwan could not move the fish at all and it was a waiting game. Once there was some movement, he was able to gain some line and the fish started approaching the surface. It felt like a much bigger fish than all others, and it was. Once the fish zipped across the surface from one side of the boat to the other, the challenge was to bring it closer to the boat. Somehow that became an impossible task. Whenever Iwan pulled it closer, it dove down and took out some more line.
This tug of war went on several times while we nervously watched on. I was quite certain that the fish was going to come loose but finally Darren gave the landing net one long reach and precisely scooped up what could be considered as a trophy fish for early spring. To everyone’s surprise, this fish must have been close to 20lb! Iwan could not have been happier because it was possibly his biggest chinook salmon ever.
The bites were very steady for three hours as we made the same trolling paths repeatedly. Dan picked up a small legal fish next and it was my turn to redeem myself. The next bite came literally seconds after Dan’s fish once Darren dropped the rig down. I grabbed the rod once again and gave it a firm hook-set. It felt like another good fish which also took a long run. As the fish approached the surface, I made sure the flasher did not jeopardize the line tension by preventing it from popping in and out of the water. The flat sea made that task easier.
This fish cooperated once it was near the surface. I was confident that it would be landed. I was gaining line at a steady pace when out of no where, a big patch of kelp came floating past the boat. With only seconds to react, Darren and I did our best to keep the fish out of the patch but it floated directly over the line. I held on and hoped the fish would stay on but it was not meant to be. The pressure from the kelp patch kept the fish under it , which eventually snapped the leader! Talk about bad luck! Perhaps the guide needed to set the hook for me to improve the landing ratio.
A little disappointed but we were still hopeful that the bites would carry on. We quickly motored back to the starting point, retied and sent the rigs down again. Just like that, the bites turned off like a switch. It was the only troll that did not produce a fish when we went through the same spot. I found it more comical than frustrating, as anyone who fishes frequently understands how common this can be.
Seeing that the bites had turned off just after Noon, we decided to call it a day so we could enjoy a bit of down time back in town before heading home. Once we docked the boat and Darren started cleaning our fish, the local visitors came.
At first, a harbour seal circled by the cleaning station looking for goodies, then a group of sea lions took over the spot. They barked and chased each other around, selectively grabbing the best part of the salmon carcasses we discarded while leaving the guts behind.
Just like that, our annual visit to Ucluelet came to an end. This quiet seaside town has become one of many spots in this province where I look forward to visiting each year. It’s not just the fishing, but the atmosphere, friendly people and wildlife make this a fabulous fishing retreat. Beside the hot fishing between June and August, it is worth considering a visit to Ucluelet in April and May.
For more information on West Coast salmon and halibut fishing charter trips offered by Big Bear Salmon Charters, please check out their website at bigbearsalmoncharters.com. For more information on accommodation at Whiskey Landing Lodge, please visit their website at whiskeylanding.com. Both offer early season fishing and accommodation packages in April and May!