Articles and Photos by Terry W. Sheely
ON A RAT'S NOSE
Discovering Bamfield's Neighborly Salmon/Halibut
We’re hanging on and staring into a 90 minute buck-and-slam boat ride on an unsettled ocean toward a rumor of kings and halibut on the Rat’s Nose. Two months from now a Chilliwack angler will nail a 53-pound chinook at the placid mouth of Bamfield Harbor just steps away from the lodge we’re leaving.
Never know where the fish will be, but what I do now know is that they’ll be here—somewhere.
I’m discovering that the quiet little harbor town of Bamfield, BC (Vancouver Island), overshadowed by touristy Ucluelet and Tofino, its bigger brighter louder neighbors, is surrounded by salmon. Lots of salmon! Winter-springs from December into June, pass-by spawner kings May into July with halibut in the 30 pound range. Coho and pinks are late July deep into September along with halibut averaging 40 pounds, and from mid-September until winter blows in there’s a mix of hooknose cohos and late-kings. Fewer salmon but much bigger.
The GPS shows the trolling pattern of the Rat’s Nose bottom contour.
From August through mid-September an onshore fishery develops for beach-hugging kings that typically run in the high 20s and can hit the 50s.
In the open water to the south the ocean bottom rises into a series of offshore salmon and halibut banks that provide a huge pass-by fishery leading into Juan de Fuca Strait. Turn inland, north into southwest Vancouver Island and target chinook, coho, pinks and sockeye migrating into the funnel mouth of Barkley Sound/Alberni Inlet. The sound and inlet are enhanced by Robertson Creek Hatchery one of the largest chinook and coho producers on the West Coast, supplementing robust runs of wild chinook, coho, pink and sockeye from tributaries including the prolific Stamp and Somass river systems.
“More chinook are caught in the Barkley Sound than anywhere else on the entire BC coast,” brags one Bamfield charter, pointing out that, “fishing usually goes from late June through September” in Barkley Sound.
Any direction from town are islands, passes, and reefs that support one of the most productive, and little known, year-round fisheries for winter-spring (resident blackmouth) north of Olympia. A couple of years ago, the first week of June my wife and I fished these same winter springs from the nearby island resort of Eagle Nook Lodge and we loaded up on hot resident chinook 10 to 20 pounds. Quadruple hookups, big fat fish, lots of bait. That trip was an eye-opener.
I’m back to see what it’s like in mid-July, this time basing at Pacific Gateway Wilderness Lodge. (www.pacificgatewaylodge.com) on the headland cliffs at Aguilar Point off Bamfield Inlet and Trevor Channel. From the patio deck and my second-floor window I can see a humpback whale feeding on a ball of bait fish and sport boats trolling productive home water at Eagle Bay. Brady Beach, where Dan Weatherby found his 53-pound monster and won the prestigious 2016 Labor Day Salmon Festival is around the corner just out of sight.
Natalie Sheely caught this nice winter spring (June) salmon inside Barkley Sound in calm waters near the islands.
Until two years ago the lodge operated as Tyee Resort and Fishing Lodge, one of the anchor operations in Bamfield, a reputation that Pacific Gateway Lodge Manager Brandon Kostman says he is building on with an upgraded fleet of seven sport boats, ancillary activities, professional guides, lodge renovations, gourmet meals and fly-in drive-in packages. The all-cedar lodge sleeps 24 and is well positioned to fish both the open ocean banks and the protected quiet inside waters of Bamfield Inlet, Barkley Sound, the Broken Island Group and the lower end of Alberni Inlet.
Robertson Creek Hatchery typically releases 7 million chinook smolts, and 190,000 coho. Most years the hatchery returns passing Bamfield include 150,000 chinook and 100,000 coho. That’s a lot of salmon jammed into a narrow area, and doesn’t include the salmon passing by on the outside headed to spawning destinations down-island, on mainland BC and in Washington.
The broken topography and scattering of islands means that no matter the weather, fog or wind there’s water fit to fish.
Bamfield is a small fish town, with a big Coast Guard presence, world-recognized marine science center, boat harbor buzz, an artistic edge, and a lovely concrete mermaid perched on a rock below tide line near a lending library that’s squeezed into a phone booth.
It’s eclectic and home to 155 year-rounders who walk a brick, board and gravel path that serves as main street along weathered waterfront pilings, past brightly-painted houses, an artsy business district, half dozen fishing lodges, and a miniature subdivision identified simply as “the cat house.” I didn’t ask.
We’re in a 26-foot aluminum center console. TRN Publisher/Editor Jim Goerg is in the starboard seat, Vancouver hotel honcho Donald Pinkney in the port seat, and I’m standing holding the console rail and genuflecting beside guide Rick Taylor. Rick is alternately goosing and choking the twin 115 Yamahas, crashing and surfing through the remnant of a rare summer gale. It’s blowing out but still throwing steep waves high enough to hide freighters, and the run is a pounder. It’s 20 miles from Bamfield. Be worth it when we get there, Rick grins. The Rat’s Nose, he adds, is as good a bet as there is.
The Rat’s Nose is where bottom contour lines form on LaPerouse (AKA Big) Bank that bear a striking resemblance to the outline of a rat, and the best fishing is consistently in 202 feet of water right on the rodent’s pointy nose. On the HDS 8 GPS chart I can plainly see the rat’s outline and the tip of the nose is a solid bar of red tracking marks from repeated trolls. That’s the spot!
There the ocean bottom falls from the red nose off a bank just 180 to 250 feet deep into a 1,000 foot canyon. The intersection of canyon, cliff and shallows creates a natural concentration point for bait fish, shrimp, krill and other rungs on the salmon and halibut food chain. Where there’s food, there’s salmon, that’s the rule on both the outside and inside of Bamfield fisheries.
Rick sets the electric downriggers and rigs red and green Hot Spot flashers with plastic squid, blue on the starboard, green on the port. Rods are 10½ foot Shimanos with single action Islander reels. Plastic squids and thin trolling spoons like Coyotes, King Fishers and Coho Killers are trolling standards. Jim is giving his gear a full compliment of herring and shrimp flavored Smelly Jelly, his standard and he shares it. Drifting can be productive too, mooching herring or jigging Point Wilson Darts, and tends to mix more halibut into the salmon catch.
Fog is spread like ugly gravy between water and sky, but the wind is down though the waves are up, when Donald’s rod goes off. It’s a wild coho and is released. I land a small chinook, that goes back but gets the hood-doo off the boat.
And then it’s as though Rick flips a bite switch.
It’s a romp of small kings, 10 maybe 13 pounds, with a mix of large coho that keeps Rick hopping, reloading downriggers, sweetening setups, netting, popping hooks, steering the boat.
A green Splatterback squid is the hot lure, and it’s what I’ve got on when the 20-pound king pops the rigger. Good fish, but under the 25-35 we’re looking for. The run of big July kings is late. We come in with a limit of 2 kings each, enough of the bigger cohos to sweeten the bucket. We released more than two dozen salmon. Good start.
Migrating salmon move onto the banks in waves, one after the other moving east and south toward spawning water and hatcheries. Brandon took one look at my 20 and pronounced the migration started, although the bulk of our catch was feeder kings, there was optimism on the dock.
Day 2 starts at 5:30 with Rick asking, “ready to do it again?” The water is laying down, but still showing an occasional snort, and the troll starts fast with two kings for the box, six salmon released and then dies. Dead.
We can’t buy a bite. The bait balls are broken up and scattered like loose leaves across the fish finder. One hour. Two. Then craziness breaks out. Our first and only triple turns the back deck into an over-under-over “get out of the way” circus. Amazingly, we land all three. With a couple of kings still remaining to fill our limit we go for halibut.
Rick is a halibut troller and he replaces the salmon squid with big bullet shaped glow squid and sends the downriggers to bounce along the bottom 200 feet down. We haven’t fished three minutes when I nail the first hallie, a small flatty that goes back. A chromer king comes out of nowhere to inhale Jim’s halibut lure and bring us one fish closer to a boat limit.
The halibut aren’t big but the chickens are hungry for glowing squid and we add white meat to the fish box, and the final king before heading in.
Next trip to Bamfield I intend to time it to try the beach fishery for those big hooknose and passing kings, and I need a refresher course on fishing the inside mouth of Alberni Inlet for those Robertson Creek chinook and coho.
At Bamfield, I find it’s too much fishing, too little time.
Getting here is half the adventure. The community is at the end of a two hour drive up a logging road along the inlet from Port Alberni. Or at the end of a float plane flight.
We flew from South Terminal at Vancou.ver International Airport and landed at the lodge dock where Brandon was waiting with a quad runner to haul our gear to the lodge. The lodge is now offering both fly-in and drive-in packages.
Several water taxi operations shuttle to Bamfield and Washington anglers with seaworthy boats can make the run from Neah Bay across Juan de Fuca Strait—with a recommend stop to fish the Rat’s Nose.
For more fishing or booking information contact: Pacific Gateway Wilderness Lodge, 1-888-493-8933, www.pacificgatewaylodge.com; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
ILWACO FOR ROCKFISH AND GREEN THINGS
Milt And My Four Cheerleaders Take Us On A Bottomfish Trip Into Tomorrow
In his saltwater soaked heart Milt knows that the future of fishing is kids, and right now that future has a two-handed grip on a bent rod pointing straight to a pair of hooks with two black rockfish fighting like their lives depended on it.
“Get ‘em in the boat,” someone shouts. “I’m trying! Give me some help,” the sixth grader pleads, and a seventh grade girl sprints down the railing and cranks the reel handle while the boy holds tight to the rod.
I catch a glimpse of Milt in the bow watching the learn-as-they-go teamwork out of the corner of his eye, a slight smile flickers across his face, then it’s back to business. And his business this minute is helping young Bethany Martin bring in a ling cod that’s 2/3 as long as she is tall. She beams. Milt beams.
Not an iPhone, Galaxy, Bluetooth, tablet or ear bud is in sight and these 6th and 7th grade kids are having a ball. We’re on the 43-foot Katie Marie, out of Ilwaco, on a blue-sky, flat ocean morning jigging for black rockfish and ling cod on the reefs off Cannon Beach and Seaside Oregon. The action is fast, the fish cooperative and the deck a scramble of flying legs, arms and young energy.
The Katie Marie, skippered by Rob Gudgell, is one of seven charter boats in the Pacific Salmon Charters (www.pacificsalmoncharters.com) fleet owned by Milt and Sarah Gudgell. On board are four pre-teens on a comp trip donated by Milt and Sarah as an achievement reward, one of several ‘kid trips’ they provide each year. Why? Because it’s important, Milt tells me, important for kids to appreciate the ocean, to get outside, to learn about fish and fishermen, to taste adventure that’s not on a plasma screen, to smell the sea, feel the spray, challenge a fish and find out that they can tackle it—whatever it is.
“If we lose the kids, we lose everything,” he says.
“What I want to do is to show kids there’s more to life than electronic games and computers. If I had my way,” Milt adds, “every new fisherman—young or old—would start on rockfish and lingcod. When we get into ‘em, every rod goes down. Everybody catches fish. They have a great time, they go home with a bunch of great eating, and everybody gets hooked on fishing.”
“Hooked” is right. Bottom fishing, especially for shallow-water black rockfish and lingcod, is a gateway adventure that leads to a life-long ocean addiction, and our young foursome is getting hooked but good.
Our day started at 5:45 on a blue sky morning at the docks in Ilwaco. The infamous Columbia River bar is uncharacteristically mirror flat. Sea lions, seals and cormorants cut vee wakes through the wavering pastel reflections of moored boats, breakwaters and pilings.
Skipper Rob Gudgell noses the Katie Marie away from the wet docks, toward the scarlet red buildings of Jessie’s Fish Company, easing past docked working boats and commercial netters. Outriggers and masts catch the low morning sun. We nose into a pier in front of a blue building where a five-foot sign advertises “Live Anchovies.” A guy hands up a bucket of mixed anchovies, sauries and herring which is dumped on top of a layer of shaved and salted ice.
We’re armed for ugly things.
It’s mid-May and the kids, my friend Scott Tews of Redmond, videographer Stephen Allen, and myself are targeting not salmon nor tuna, but big ocean black rockfish and mean-faced ling cod. Nothing pretentious or complicated about this trip—we’re here to belly up to the railing, bang bottom, catch half-a-dozen dinners, watch the kids grow an appreciation for saltwater and enjoy the camaraderie of stout boat coffee and a perfect fishing day.
A the end of the day, their fish baskets were full of rockfish and lingcod, and youth advocate Milt Gudgell had introduced four more kids to the addiction of ocean fishing. Posing with future dinners are, Joey Fitzgerald, Chloe Martin, Bethany Martin, and Gabby Belles.
Ilwaco is sort of the stepchild of Washington ocean fishing. Smaller and less touristy than Westport in Grays Harbor, the state’s largest ocean port and home to the largest charter fleet. Ilwaco is another hour’s drive beyond Westport south from the Seattle-Tacoma population center, at the end of a dead-end highway, pressed against one of the most notorious river bars in North America.
It’s also a traditional fish town—the perfect atmosphere to discover saltwater.
Signs point to fresh Dungeness crabs and shrimp, docks are crowded with classic ocean boats, a Saturday market, June garlic festival, an overflow of Lewis & Clark expedition history that unrolls at Fort Disappointment State Park, and a neighboring town with 28 miles of ocean-front sand that boasts, “The World’s Longest Beach.”
The small dunes, bent sea grass and miles of surf-rolled sand of Long Beach Peninsula are just outside my second-floor room at Chautauqua Lodge Resort, up the road from Ilwaco Harbor, a little past the Long Beach Bakery and Marsh’s Free Museum—home of Jake the Alligator Man. Never seen a kid who will pass up Jake.
On the boat, Milt nurses a coffee, teases the eager kids and watches his son Rob feather the boat through the harbor clutter. Milt has been fishing these waters for four decades. He and Sarah built Pacific Salmon Charters into the largest charter fleet in town, grew sons into skippers, and added a fish processing plant and gift shop. His seven charter boats, range from 27 to 56 feet, run in-season for chinook and coho salmon, halibut and albacore tuna, crazy-fast catch-and-release river sturgeon and—ocean bottom fish.
Today—two months before prime salmon season, three before tuna--is a bottom fish morning in Ilwaco, and as Milt says, “everybody catches fish—limits are pretty much the rule,” and limits are big: seven rockfish and two lings—18 succulent white-meat fillets.
We skirt a pile of barking sea lions, nod a thank you at the passive Columbia Bar and head south toward a ling cod reef off Cannon Beach, Oregon. Our Washington fishing licenses are good in the ocean off both states.
A couple of other boats are banging the reef when we arrive. Six-foot, six-inch rods are handed out, loaded with 24-ounces of lead on a spreader bar, sweetened with bait fish and backed up with a plastic worm.
Scott Tews breaks the ice with a keeper ling, has a big one pop off at boat side, releases two small ones and finishes his ling limit with a perfect eater. I’m snake bit. My excuse is I’m shooting photos and not paying attention, but the reality is I can’t buy a fish. Worse, instead of using the good boat gear, I brought my personal tackle, a medium-action spinning rod that transforms any bottom fish fight into a wrestling match. The reel immediately freezes. Milt weaves some sort of charter-skipper magic over the frozen gears and poof it’s fixed. A few minutes later I hook a nice ling cod, hit him twice, crank and snap the rod above the ferrule.
Every other rod in our boat, that isn’t out of commission, is bent with a pulsating fish and I’m holding three pieces of a two-piece rod. Not my day. When my replacement boat rod goes down it feels like a ling well hooked and I’m determined. The kids, however, aren’t taking any chances. They leave their rods in the rail holders and rally to the cause (me), form a cheerleading quartet behind me and chant in unison—“You Can Do It, You Can Do It, Yessssss You Can. You Can Do It, You Can Do It—Catch THAT Fish.”
An eater green thing hits the deck. I laugh, and the cheer squad scatters back to their rods—their work done. Whatever kills the snake!
The kids burst into spontaneous giggles, struggle, crank and gasp when they look inside a ling’s mouth at rows of needle sharp fangs. When the bite turned on it got hot and stayed hot until the boat limited on lings. Joey Fitzgerald catches several lings; Bethany Martin grins and grinds a ling up from the bottom that’s two-thirds as long as she is tall. Gabby Belles lands her first ling and proudly poses with her mother, and Chloe Martin ignores it all. She’s all business fighting a nice ling and when it’s over happily poses with Milt for a photo.
When the last ling hits the fish box, Rob picks anchor and points the boat toward Tillamook Lighthouse, north of Seaside. The deactivated lighthouse rises from an acre of salt-blasted basalt rock a mile offshore from Tillamook Head. Rollers slap the base, explode and wash across dozens of resting sea lions.
Between the land and the lighthouse Rob parks the Katie Marie on a kelp bed that marks an underwater reef that must be bulging with schools of big black rockfish. Rob and the deckhand replace the ling cod spreader bars with two-hook ganglions baited with anchovies and sauries and just that fast we’re into fish. Some rods bend to the waterline straining with two black rockfish at a time. Someone catches a wolf eel, four feet of purple splotched, writhing teeth. It’s gingerly released.
Black rockfish are school predators, aggressive, quick to strike, hard fighters and they eat oh so sweet.
The kids love action, all fishermen do, and black rockfish schooled from the surface to the bottom provide plenty.
Drop to the bottom, reel up until we feel a strike, set the hook, pause and try to get a second fish on the second hook. The deckhand is scrambling, the kids are laughing, Milt’s instructing, and fish are gobbling every bait that hits the water. Several times in the clear seawater I see opportunistic rockfish follow a writhing cousin to the surface, darting in trying to steal the hook.
Bottom-fishing started at Ilwaco in April and runs until the end of September. Milt and the other charters target multiple reefs, flats and rockfish pinnacles on the northern Oregon and southern Washington coasts. There’s no shortage of fish or good fishing spots.
By 2 p.m. we’re fished out, limited and heading back over the bar, past Sand Island nosing into the marina docks. I lean on the railing and watch the world, the afternoon sun warm on my shoulders. Nine fat fish are on ice, with my name on them, another 36 for the kids.
On the left are crumbling cliffs and shattered trees that mark Cape Disappointment, the historic end of Lewis and Clark’s epic expedition with the Corps of Discovery.
The fish box is full, there’s tired laughter in the cabin, not an electronic game in sight, the Columbia Bar still flat and the May weather perfect.
If Meriweather Lewis and William Clark had fished for lings and rockfish with Milt and Rob, Chloe, Bethany, Gabby and Joey on the Katie Marie I’m confident Cape Disappointment would now have a different name.
Thanks to Milt another four kids have a new fish passion.
Pacific Salmon Charters, Ilwaco
Chautauqua Lodge, Long Beach