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Seen the Light?

By David Y. Wei with Suzanne Clouthier, 🕔Mon, Mar 21st, 2011


It was our last morning. The skies had clouded over, and a light rain was falling. It felt warmer than the past three days, which had been bright and sunny, but alternately racked with gale-force nor'westers or socked in with bone-chilling fog. After long days on the water, my wife Suzanne asked to sleep in for a change.

I was fishing alone, and desperate for a salmon. A strange combination of events had put a real damper on the salmon fishing around Langara Island. On the morning of our arrival, a pod of 25 killer whales had gone through all the popular fishing spots on the east side of the island, chasing almost all the salmon into deeper water. A big humpback whale then proceeded to scatter most of the feed. Fifteen-foot flood and ebb tides created fast currents, and truly ugly seas when the wind and tide were in opposition. Finally, during our first two days of fishing, 25- to 35-knot nor'westers from a big high-pressure ridge subjected the north and west sides of the island to such stormy conditions that they were off-limits.

The change in weather on our last morning had brought back the feed. At Cohoe, Andrew, and McPherson Points, I could see schools of bait blacking out the screen from surface to bottom on the Lowrance X-25 depthsounder. Waters which had been devoid of activity just the day before were alive.

At Andrew Point, there was only one other boat at 5:30 a.m. I sliced my herring with a blunter angle so the cut plugs would have a bullet roll, then dropped one on the port side to 18 pulls, and the other on the starboard side to 22 pulls. As soon as I put the motor into gear, the starboard rod tip jerked twice, followed by a short screech of line from the Shimano single-action reel. Then nothing.

Twice more this happened. Teeth marks on my baits showed that salmon were grabbing the large baits between the hooks. I reset the trailing hook so it was almost amidships on the body of my cut plug. That should do it, I thought.

A loud splash came from right in front of my boat. Ahead of me I watched as Terry Combs and his mother, Donna McKinnon, whom we had met on the flight up to Sandspit, sprang into action. A large chinook pounded out a long run. As Terry set the hooks, the chinook jumped three more times. It was big - a tyee for sure.
I carefully backed out of their way. Their tyee slowly drew them out into the current and away from the other boats. I turned into the quiet waters where they had hooked their fish, and put the motor into neutral to let the baits sink for a few seconds.
The tip of the port rod lifted momentarily. I kicked the motor into gear, and gave a quick burst of throttle. The rod tip slammed deep into the water. Line jerked from the tightly-dragged reel in fits ands starts.

I jumped up and grabbed the rod. Why wouldn't it come out of the holder? In my excitement, I had forgotten to release the holder's rod security. I calmed my shaking hands and carefully released the rod, then wound the line tight to set the hooks.

The fish flopped out of the water several times, then thrashed about on the surface before making a run toward open water. A number of boats moved politely out of my way as I motored ahead. I steered with my left leg while trying to control the fish's first frantic runs.

Once around the point, the current moved me into the calm waters of Explorer Bay, between Andrew and McPherson Points. My fish stayed just under the boat, and wouldn't budge. I would just have to be patient.

Oak Bay Marine Group's M.V. Marabell is a grand old wooden cruiser. Commissioned on March 7, 1942 as the YM588, she served the U.S. Navy as a coastal minesweeper. After a decorated career during the Second World War, with one U-boat to her credit, she did many years of hydrographic survey work for the Canadian government. Her next owners converted the ship into the floating resort she is today. Oak Bay Marine Group acquired the Marabell in 1984 to serve as the base of its northern operations. From late May until the end of July, the Marabell is anchored beside her sister ship, M.V. Charlotte Princess, in Henslung Cove at the south end of Langara Island in the Queen Charlottes. She then moves south to Hakai Pass to complete her season from early August to mid-September.

During the winter of 1999-2000, Oak Bay Marine Group - acting on an initiative from the crew - started a program to refurbish the interior and exterior of the ship while it was in drydock. Chief Steward Dwayne Mustard lovingly stripped, sanded, and revarnished all the wood trim in the dining room and lounge. Low-wattage bulbs in brilliantly polished brass lamps allow a warm glow to reflect from the very depths of the wood. Dwayne showed his new skipper, Captain Bob Harrison, and me photos that he took of the work that he and others had done on the ship. All the exterior painted surfaces were stripped to bare wood and repainted. Staff also stripped the paint from the cedar transom, and applied a natural-coloured stain and varnish to bring back the classic look of cruisers of the 1920s and 1930s. Mechanics rebuilt the two diesel motors, which along with a good scraping of marine growth off the hull and propellers, made our captain extremely happy with the Marabell's speed and fuel economy.

The crew also removed all the gray-green patina from the brass fittings, and polished them to their original golden brilliance. Suzanne and I found evidence of all this hard work in the wheelhouse, where the shiny surfaces reflected enough light from my small camera flash to perfectly illuminate the entire space.

The Marabell has 17 cabins (mostly doubles, plus a few singles) which can accommodate 26 guests. Our group of 18 gave a guest-to-staff ratio of almost one-to-one. There was no shortage of the efficient service that always impresses us at any of OBMG's fishing resorts.

One cannot possibly go hungry aboard the Marabell. Continental breakfast is available from 4:00 a.m. for early birds. Hot breakfasts start at 5:00 a.m. Night baker Alberto Barahanna is happy to prepare eggs any style with bacon, ham or sausage accompanied by pancakes, French toast, or hash browns. I couldn't resist nibbling on Alberto's freshly baked croissants and Danish while waiting to be served.

At noon, there is a hot lunch buffet with delicious soups, quiche (known aboard as scrambled egg pie - for REAL men), stir-fry, and salad. A plate of luscious chocolate cake and a bowl of fresh fruit are available for dessert. Every guest is supplied with a box lunch to take out fishing as well, really a survival kit filled with chocolate bars, baking, fruit, and sandwiches.

Paul Carlstrom, Executive Chef for all of OBMG's northern resorts, was aboard the Marabell for our trip. Each night, when he emerged from the galley to tell us the supper menu, our group would break into applause. Dwayne Mustard served starters like king crab in garlic butter, apple vinaigrette-dressed smoked oyster salad, or rich tomato bisque. Stunning main courses like a crunchy sesame-coated breast of chicken, topped with grilled scallops, would be a hit in any five-star restaurant. For dessert, Suzanne was thrilled with the sinful chocolate mousse cake, and I enjoyed every spoonful of the rich and creamy Tiramisu.

The waters off Langara Island are very exposed, and can be extremely dangerous. When fishmaster Ian Speirs gave us a comprehensive orientation the first afternoon, he included strict orders about areas closed to boating due to dangerous conditions. Each morning, before any angler was allowed to go out, Ian would circumnavigate Langara Island to check on the water and weather conditions, then radio in a report to say which areas were open to fishing. Thanks to Ian's care, Suzanne and I felt reassured that we wouldn't head into any boating situations we wouldn't be able to handle.

Marabell uses 17-foot Boston Whalers as their fishing platforms. These boats are stable, maneuverable, and quick. The new engines idled without a miss, were extremely smoke-free, and were perfectly mated to their propellers so they would troll dead slow - ideal for power mooching.

Suzanne and I tried for salmon to no avail the first afternoon of our stay, and most of the next day. We should have followed James Baker and his partner Lynn Williams. On a previous trip with Marabell, James earned the nickname "Mr. Halibut." He and Lynn had no intention of going for salmon - only bottom fish, and specifically halibut.

It didn't take long for James to live up to his reputation. We agreed to meet after lunch at Bruin Bay on Graham Island, just across Parry Passage from our anchorage. While Suzanne and I dawdled over lunch, James headed out by himself. Before we could even get our cruiser suits on, James was on the radio saying he was on his way back, slowly.

Twenty minutes later, he came into view towing a big hog-tied halibut back to the wharf. He had managed to hook, land, harpoon, and hog-tie a 92-pound halibut all by himself. And this was only the beginning for him.

There were only a few smiling faces at supper that night; our group had caught only one salmon. Ian promised calmer winds the next day, and thought that perhaps the north end of Langara would be open. I asked Suzanne if she wanted to see the Langara Light, the most remote lighthouse in B.C. Low slack would be at eight a.m., so we could sleep in a bit, and we could do some sightseeing on the way.

The weather report was dead-on. When we arrived at Langara Rocks, we were greeted by a gentle ocean swell. We spent 20 minutes watching and taking photos of a sea lion colony on the outermost of these islets. Massive bulls roared as we approached. Heads popped up all around our boat as the current carried us to within boatlengths of the nearest furry sunbathers. We never got to see the killer whales that had slowed the fishing, but this was a great substitute.

Slack tide was looming, so we headed another mile further west to see the Langara Lighthouse. It perches dramatically atop a high bluff, surrounded by red-and-white out-buildings and the homes of the lightkeepers.

The deep waters off the Langara Lighthouse are among the best for bottom fishing anywhere in B.C. I replaced the big Penn reel on our halibut rod with my own light South Bend line-counter levelwind reel, loaded with 125 yards of 30-pound test Berkley high visibility Fireline, and backed with another 100 yards of 30-pound test monofilament.

A one-pound weight carried my large whole herring bait straight to the bottom at 270 feet. Suzanne, who doesn't like using heavy gear in deep water, let me do all the work while she enjoyed a snooze in the warm morning sun. Motoring to keep my line straight up and down, I let the weight bounce on the bottom a few times before winding in several turns. A savage strike pulled the Berkley halibut rod down sharply. I set the hooks, then got down to the business of pumping a mass of meanness off the bottom.

After 10 minutes of see-saw battle I woke Suzanne to show her a trophy 28-pound ling cod just below the boat. I gave Suzanne the rod while I went to get the gaff and club. There was still enough fight in this fish to let Suzanne have a taste of the head-down line-peeling battle that I had enjoyed.

After landing another 19-pound ling on the next pass, I moved into deeper water to see if I could find a halibut. The big tidal current had begun, and we were moving at a good clip. It was difficult to keep motoring to keep the bait near the bottom.

A strike and run peeled the last 25 yards of Fireline off my reel, and another 50 yards of backing. I motored in the direction of the fish, but the current prevented me from gaining any line for several long minutes. Suddenly I could feel the distinct undulating motion of a big halibut pulsating up the line.

I pumped and wound furiously every chance I had. I set the drag very near the breaking point of the line, but still my hallie rumbled away at will. Suzanne just smiled and told me to enjoy the fight, "that's why you're up here!"

Twenty minutes later, we could see the halibut in the clear water below the boat. Using the current to its advantage, it had fought bigger than it was. Suzanne did an expert job of netting my prize 48-pound halibut, which for our safety, we left in the mesh for the trip back to Marabell.

While I was feeling pretty smug at my success, I couldn't match James. He managed to round up a 20- and a 45-pound halibut for Lynn, and another "Master Fisherman" 100-pounder for himself .

I wished Suzanne were with me during the final hours of fishing. She really enjoys playing salmon. I drifted through a patch of seaweed as my salmon made another of its short but powerful runs. On each run I could see more flash off the salmon's belly. It was finally tiring, and soon came to my waiting net.

I stayed to watch Drew Lydiard land a fine 25-pound chinook for his father George. It seemed like a great number of boats had fish on while I played mine. Thankfully, the salmon had returned. The 10 guests who arrived the day after us would have some excellent salmon fishing.

I was happy. I had landed a fine trophy chinook in the last hour of fishing. At the "awards" lunch, I was stunned to learn that it was the largest chinook of our small group, and my prize was a coveted "Peetz" fishing-reel clock. Suzanne, and others in our group who hadn't caught salmon, received a frozen farmed salmon on our return - part of Oak Bay Marine Group's policy for its northern lodges that "every angler will get a salmon!" It was a delightful end to a first-class adventure.

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