By Mike Carey
The scream of the reel as the broad shouldered king salmon took another run was music to my ears. The single action reel handles spun dangerously around as I got my hand out of the way just in time. They don’t call them knuckle busters for nothing and I had learned that painful lesson earlier in the day. That said, it was a lesson gladly accepted because it meant the fishing action was hot – and indeed it was. Our boat’s fish hold was steadily filling up with the bounty of the ocean in this remote location off Zeballos, on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.
Ever since I moved to the Pacific Northwest and started going to Sportsman’s Shows, I had the dream of someday fishing a true “destination” fishing location. Wandering up and down the booths, looking at pictures of giant halibut, ling cod, and Chinook salmon, it just got me thinking how much I wanted to try something like this out. All the maps of far away, exotic places to fish – I wanted to go! But I had other priorities and needs, not the least of which was raising my two boys. They are grown now and moved out of the house, and with a wife encouraging my dreams, my opportunity final came.
We were on the road north to the border crossing as my friends Aaron Borg, Rob Holman and myself began our journey to Zeballos, B.C. Aaron and Rob had driven over the evening before from Spokane and then stayed at my home. We talked excitedly of the trip and fishing to come. None of us had been out of the country on a fishing adventure quite like this. We had been invited by Northwest Fishing Reports sponsor Adrian O’Connor to come up for a few days and enjoy the fishing and stay at his fishing lodge, Reel Adventures Sportfishing. What can I say? My jaw dropped when Rob had told me we would be traveling to this fishing Mecca in B.C.
Zeballos is a small, remote town located at the end of Zeballos Inlet on the west side of north Vancouver Island, a little more than half way along the large island. In days past it had been a vibrant town of a couple thousand. A gold rush between 1938 and 1942 produced a boom town, which quickly faded post World War II when the price of gold collapsed.
The town turned to forestry and fish processing. It’s the tourist and sport anglers that come now to visit now, at least, those in the know.
Our crossing at the border was uneventful. Although, I must admit to being taken aback when we told the border officer our destination was Zeballos, and his response was “Are you making that up?” No officer, and please don’t pull us over and empty our vehicle! But he smiled and waved us on. Next stop, was the ferry crossing at Tsawwassen, due south of Richmond (nearby Vancouver). It’s a two hour crossing from Vancouver to Nainmo. The B.C. ferry system is pretty impressive. Large, comfortable ferries, reservations systems (recommended) and good food on board made the crossing a breeze. Not to mention the beautiful scenery and ever closer Vancouver Island in the distance growing our anticipation with every kilometer travelled (hey, we’re in Canada now, eh?).
I had looked at the map of Vancouver Island many times, and in my mind I imagined winding, narrow, gravel, two lane roads, taking forever to reach our final destination. Imagine my surprise when we unloaded in Nanimo and promptly got on a smooth, four lane freeway. The road to Campbell River was smooth sailing and the miles, er, kilometers flew by. We gassed up Aaron’s truck and had to do some quick and dirty conversions – let’s see, there are about 4 liters per gallon of gas… but the exchange rate is 22% in our favor… so the cost of gas here is – more. But not that much more, so relax, you won’t go broke filling up your vehicle.
From Campbell River the road did reduce to a two lane road, but it was still a nice road to drive and we made good time. Wooded hills stretched out in all directions and signs of civilization were few and far between. Towns composed of a half dozen buildings became the norm.
Finally, there it was, the turn off for Zeballos! Now things began getting interesting. Our paved road became a gravel logging road. Hills gave way to snowcapped mountains as we first climbed, and then descended through the Haihte Costal Range of the Vancouver Island Ranges, a mountain range that extends along the length of Vancouver Island. Creeks and small rivers worked deep and narrow canyons into the hillsides. The landscape is likely very little changed from a hundred years ago. There are clear cuts here and there, but nothing like what one sees in Washington. Finally, the descent smoothed out, and a few small, worn houses began to appear. Then more, and final we had arrive, destination, Zeballos. We had a scenic nine and a half hour trip from Seattle by car, two hours of which was a ferry ride. Very do-able and not near as strenuous as I had imagined it would be.
Once we arrived, we met Adrian and his staff, and other guests. This was a Northwest Fishing Reports “Get-Together” of sorts as Adrian had given a special discount to our members and had filled up the lodge with them. We enjoyed meeting fellow NWFR members and sharing stories of fishing past and to come. To cap things off, everyone graciously held up dinner for us. We sat down and Chef Jason promptly appeared to introduce our first dish.
What can I say about Chef Jason? A smile seems to be a permanent part of his personality. Always open to conversation and playing the most cool, eclectic music in the background, he truly made coming to dinner an experience in its own right. Not to mention, Jason has his cooking chops down! Our meals were five star affairs every day. From a quick morning breakfast before fishing, to abundant lunch packs, to afternoon snacks, to appetizers and main courses that had us eating ever last bite off my plate, we ate like kings!
We had the luxury of fishing three days with owner/operator Adrian O’Connor. Adrian has fished these waters for a lifetime and knows the best off-shore reefs and underwater humps to fish, not to mention the migratory habits of the Chinook salmon as they flood into this region every year. With four boats in his fleet we learned that hot bites are shared and his boats get on the fish right away.
The waters leading away from Zeballos, Esperanza Inlet, are breathing-taking in its scenery. First explored by the Spanish in 1774, and then Captain James Cook in 1778, it is the traditional territory of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation, who inhabited these lands for thousands of years. The inlet was formed by glaciers during the last ice age, and now attracts anglers, kayakers, divers, and hikers to the wilderness area. Wildlife is everywhere to be seen, including otters, sea lions, bear, cougar, and bald eagles. As we departed the inlet for open waters we scanned the horizon for killer whales (Orca), migrating gray whales, seals, and porpoises. To Adrian’s surprise, however, we instead got to see a pilot whale leisurely swimming along, its large tail fully revealed as it sunned itself.
Once on the open ocean we tolerated the swells and moderate chop until a short time later we reached our anchoring locations. Even though it’s about a thirty mile run to this spot, because most of it is in sheltered waters it’s an easy trip. Adrian quickly set us up on anchor in two hundred feet of water. The plan was to start with halibut, and then after getting our limits troll for salmon.
I believe the term is “easy limits”, and that’s just what we experienced. Within minutes of lowering our bait (salmon bellies), Aaron had the first fish, a giant dogfish. Not what we wanted, but no worries, because in the next hour we pulled up our limits of halibut ranging from 15 to 60 pounds, perfect eating size! Bigger fish can and will be caught. Adrian reported just the previous week customers having caught one hundred pound-plus sized halibut. They, however, have to go back, as there is a slot limit on these tasty fish. Personally, I was perfectly happy getting my “big” and not having to haul up a hundred pounds of muscular fish only to let it back down. Maybe another time fish…
Adrian pulled anchor and set up gear from trolling Chinook. In Canada the preferred gear is a single action “knuckle buster” reel with a ten foot rod. “These are traditional rod set ups in Canada, you won’t find too many anglers using level winds for salmon”, Adrian explained. Over the course of the next three days I grew to love this set up – the sporting nature of catching a salmon is greatly enhanced with this gear. With no gear advantage you have to be fast on the retrieve when the fish runs at the boat, and be always ready to remove your hands when they run (or you will have your knuckles “busted”).
Just like the halibut, we managed to catch our daily limits without too much difficulty. The hot gear was a large flasher with either a 5” spoon or a whole anchovy fished “off the deck”. The bite that deep is kind of subdued, but once off and running these kings put up great fights, running at the boat, taking out line, but ultimately joining our halibut for dinner. The big king of the trip fell to Rob, 25 pounds of delicious springer.
“And now for something completely different”. That’s what came to my mind when Adrian informed us Wednesday he was going to take us to some locations to troll for ling cod and bottomfish. “This should be interesting” I thought. He explained “we’ll be fishing a large underwater reef that has a rocky bottom surrounding a sandy bottom. This rocky bottom is habit to smaller fish and octopus, and it draws in the larger fish. It can produce well for ling cod”.
Before we went trolling for bottomfish, we trolled some near-shore, shallow water locations for chinook salmon. What spectacular scenery! The waves crashing into the rocky shoreline and reefs made for some amazing pictures. Not to mention, a huge sea lion standing watch over his domain and eagles flying overhead. Our port rod exploded in short order and I grabbed the rod. This was a nice king! Multiple strong runs gave me a great challenge on the knuckle buster reel and 10 foot rod - I love this set up! The fish eventually weakened and I was able to slide him into the awaiting net. Wow, what a beautiful fish to start the day!
The salmon bite was slow so it was time to head to our next spot and troll up some lings. We used flashers and bait, using downriggers to get the gear down to the bottom, a few feet off the deck in 120 feet of water. Trolling speed was fairly slow, we were going fast enough to keep the flashers wobbling back and forth, but not rotating.
I’d never trolled for ling cod, nor had Aaron or Rob. It didn’t take too long before we were able to recognize the sometimes light tap tap of a bottomfish. Of course, the lings had a more forceful tap tap. And on release from the downrigger clip it was pretty obvious when we had a ling. We worked this productive location for a couple hours, and caught a lot of fish. A limit for each of us, in fact. But it wasn’t ling cod we were mainly catching. Nope, instead, time after time huge, brightly colored yellow eyes and vermillion came to Adrian’s sharp gaff. As we hit our limit for vermillion, we could have kept fishing this area for lings, however, rather than stress and kill bottomfish that likely would not recover being caught from 120 feet deep, he decided to move us to another, smaller reef location.
It was a good location change! Within seconds of lowering our first rig the rod doubled over. Aaron grabbed the rod and battled in a beautiful 20 pound ling in to the boat. Shortly after, Rob and I got nice lings. Another pass yielded some smaller lings and with that we were done for the day.
Back at the lodge, Chef Jason had prepared another five star meal. We visited with the other Northwest Fishing Reports guests who reported good fishing and bountiful catches. Just another day in paradise!
Traveling to Zeballos from the Seattle area is not nearly the ordeal I had in my mind prior to the trip. The drive is easy and Canada couldn’t be a nicer place to visit. People are so friendly and polite, and we were welcomed everywhere we stopped. As to the fishing, I’d rate it a slam dunk “10”. And not that I like to think in these terms when I fish, but the amount of fish we brought back at the prices you’d pay in the grocery store amounted to easily a couple thousand dollars’ worth of fresh fish, far superior to anything you’d find in a store. Plus, it’s all processed, vacuum sealed, and flash-frozen at the lodge. My family and friends will be eating like kings for the next year, until we get a chance to do it again!
To book a trip with Reel Obsession Sportfishing give them a call at 1-888-855-7335 or check them out on Facebook, or their web site.
Editors Note - this article was published in NWFR in 2015