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Sonora Resort

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


Our guide, Mike Hicks, had promised us that in Johnstone Strait, we would catch four of the five species of Pacific salmon during our visit. Mike described the strait — between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland — as a fish funnel. Every major run of salmon returning to streams in Bute Inlet, Toba Inlet, and Phillips Arm, as well as to the Fraser and Campbell Rivers, has to pass through where we were fishing.

Our main targets were sockeye and chinook salmon. Although these fish normally swim at different depths, they both like to attack the baits Mike was using, and at the same slow trolling speed. Mike had flashers and anchovy for chinook set at depths of 130 to 140 feet, while he trolled flashers and pink hootchies for sockeye between 80 to 100 feet.

Suzanne managed to get a nice sockeye to hit, though Mike seemed a bit disappointed that it was our only keeper so far. I began to wonder if we should have kept some of the pinks we had released.

The waters off Chatham Point in Johnstone Strait teemed with activity. A pair of high-speed Zodiac whale-watching boats played leapfrog with a small pod of killer whales. Beside us, more than a dozen commercial trollers worked a shoal of fish that our depth sounder showed schooling from 80 feet to the bottom. We could see the white heads of eagles peering out between the branches of trees along the shore. Every now and again, an eagle would launch itself towards the stern of a commercial troller to snatch a snack of offal that the crew were throwing overboard as they cleaned their fish.

A slight twitch on the starboard rod had Mike out of his seat and grabbing the rod. He quickly wound the rod tip deep into the water, snapped the rod up to release the downrigger clip, then continued to wind hard. When he felt the full weight of the fish, he drove the hooks home solidly, then passed the rod to Suzanne.

The fish sizzled out its first run. Mike steered our boat between the chinook and the line of commercial trollers, then ran a parallel course to herd the fish away from trouble.

Suzanne kept the rod high over her head, and let its limber action soak up the salmon´s headshakes and sudden runs. The Farr release flasher allowed the fish to run harder and longer, and more to Suzanne's liking, allowed her to feel every quiver the fish made.

A typical chinook, it never came out of the water. Suzanne put more pressure as the runs became shorter. When the fish was one rod length from the boat, it suddenly rolled over, and with a long reach of the net, Mike had Suzanne´s trophy chinook.

Over 20 years ago, a wilderness salmon fishing charter consisted of loading your own 14-foot aluminium boat aboard a coastal cruiser like the M.V. Edgewater Fortune for a week-long trip to Rivers Inlet. Most fishing lodges were "camps" that provided transportation, rustic cabins, basic meals, boats, tackle, and bait. While these charter operations provided all the basic necessities for a fishing trip, their simple amenities would impress only a true fishing fanatic.

About that time, Mike Gallant had a vision of creating a different kind of fishing resort on his property at Sonora Island, north of Campbell River. He wanted his resort to offer convenient air access, luxurious accommodations, gourmet meals with fine wines, conference facilities, and a variety of entertainment activities and amenities in addition to fully-guided fishing. His aim was to provide the ultimate saltwater fishing experience. Mike Gallant wanted a fishing resort by which all others would be compared.

Mike succeeded spectacularly. Unfortunately, all his hard work creating Sonora Resort caused his health to fail a few years ago. Unable to run the resort on his own, Mike had to sell Sonora. A consortium of 10 new owners took over in March of 2000.

Several of the new owners (including Mike Donald and Wayne Cooper, whom we met during our visit to Sonora) had been frequent visitors to the resort in the past. They want Sonora Resort to keep its reputation as one of North America´s top fishing destinations. Their plans — in keeping with Mike Gallant´s vision of a luxury saltwater fishing resort and conference centre — include renovations, property acquisitions, new facilities, and new activities.

Sonora is located about 125 miles northwest of Vancouver. Flights to the resort leave from the Harbour Air terminal at Vancouver´s South Airport at 3:30 p.m., just about perfect for a busy manager or CEO going to an executive retreat on a Friday afternoon. Our short 50-minute flight aboard one of Harbour Air´s Twin Otters, at an altitude of only a few thousand feet, gave us a breathtaking view of the maritime activity along the many inlets, islands, and passages of the southern B.C. coast.

Bodega Y Quadra had commanded the Spanish schooner Sonora when he explored the west coast of North America in 1775. In 1903, the Geographic Board of Canada named a string of three major islands stretching north of Campbell River — Quadra, Maurelle, and Sonora — in honour of the explorer, his ship, and another of his commanders.Sonora Resort is a harmonious cluster of striking cedar-and-glass buildings situated on the east side of Sonora Island.

The resort occupies three acres of sloping waterfront property bordering the dramatic tidal passage between Stuart and Sonora Islands known as Yaculta Rapids.

Guests are accommodated in six luxurious wings, each with a varied number of clean and comfortable suites. A number of guest rooms, like the one we occupied, have their own private two-person Jacuzzi tub as well as a built-in sauna. Before going to supper on our first day, we toured several of the unoccupied units.

Each wing is decorated according to a different theme. The "Presidential wing" is a replica of the Summit suite that Prime Minister Mulroney commissioned for U.S. President Bill Clinton´s meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in Vancouver in 1993. The suite includes the actual desk that Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin used when they signed their historic peace accord. The suite, which accommodates up to three guests in two bedrooms, is decorated in an efficient business style featuring chrome and glass. It is totally self-sufficient, with its own fully-equipped kitchen, and its very own indoor eight-person hot tub.

Both Suzanne and I liked the "Haida wing" the best. It is situated at the highest point on the property, and offers a fine view of the mountains on the B.C. mainland. As we toured the suite, Suzanne gasped when she realized that all the upholstery on the furniture, the bed covers, and even the curtains were exquisitely sewn, patterned quilts. This decor lent the Haida wing a particularly relaxing air. We enjoyed a soak in its outdoor hot tub and absorbed a 270 ° view of the property, surrounding islands, and mountains to the east.

Our own unit was in the "B.C. wing". Our suite was decorated with prints and paintings by well-known B.C. native artists like Susan Point. Our living room was built on pilings right on the edge of the Yaculta Rapids. From the living room´s bay window, we could look out on tugs and barges, fishing vessels, and cruisers traveling along what looks just like a wide, fast-flowing river ... but one that changes directions four times a day! Right outside the door to our suite, we could enjoy the resort´s outdoor swimming pool, then sunbathe around its wide decks or walk a few steps to the large indoor fitness centre.

The living rooms of all the units have well-stocked wet bars. Guests can also enjoy drinks and snacks in a deckside pub, or meet at the main bar in the games room adjoining the resort´s huge dining room.

Just outside the main dining room, the Teppanyaki Bar is an open-sided pavilion overlooking the Yaculta Rapids, with benches lining the perimeter of several big gas-fired grills. Guests are invited to gather there before dinner. We enjoyed watching the young staff perform pyrotechnics on the grills. Fireballs erupted as oil and basalmic vinegar marinade was brushed on chicken wings, prawns, scallops, spicy Italian sausage, and sweet peppers.

We all stuffed ourselves with endless platters of delectable grilled tidbits, and cleansed our palates with wine or mixed drinks from the two main bars. Just as we all thought that this was supper, the chef brought out trays of New York steaks and Caesar salads. The chef grilled the steaks to perfection, then topped them with caramelized onions and mushrooms, and served them with garlic-mashed potatoes and asparagus. There almost wasn´t any hope of making room for the rich Tiramisu dessert, but we all cheerfully did.

On subsequent nights, we had knocked our socks off with entrées like grilled filet of sockeye salmon, fork-tender breast of chicken in a herb sauce, and breaded halibut steak — crisp on the outside, yet still moist and flaky.

After supper, most of the guests retired to the games room. It contains a fully-stocked bar, a foozball table, two shuffle boards, a pinball machine, pool tables, and a gift shop. Suzanne and I made use of the CD juke box to do a little dancing on the room´s broad hardwood floor.

The games room and the deckside pub can be used for conference presentations. The resort also has a magnificent 120-seat longhouse for meetings, with an immense bronze eagle gracing its roof. Conference facilities include state-of-the-art multi-media technology, screens, and stages.

The resort offers many other activities for its guests. Guests can use full-size tennis courts, or go hiking. Sonora can arrange whale-watching and nature cruises, or use its helipad to bring in a helicopter for a sightseeing flight. The new owners plan to offer activities like kayaking, tours to Desolation Sound, and more spring heli-fishing for cutthroat trout, Dolly Varden char and steelhead at pristine mainland lakes and streams.

Sonora´s main activity, of course, is salmon fishing. Several guests limited out while we were there. All the fishing is fully-guided, as the waters of Yaculta Rapids can be unexpectedly treacherous at times.

At one time, most of the resort´s fishing took place just across the rapids at Whirlpool Point, off Stuart Island. We experienced the excitement of motor-mooching live herring for chinook there years ago, with the stern of our boat just a few rod-lengths away from the boiling maelstroms that give this spot its name. Today, while the resort has guides who are expert enough to handle these heart-stopping waters, most of the fishing is done under more benign conditions at nearby Denham Bay, Hall Point, or Thurston Bay.

Sonora´s guides also go further afield to Johnstone Strait, where guests can catch more species of salmon, and see truly grand wilderness scenery along with the possibility of sighting killer whales, dolphins, and black bears.

We first travelled to Phillips Arm, where the Gilliard Pass salmon enhancement project gets its brood stock for a hatchery located just behind Sonora Resort. Sonora is one of the hatchery´s main supporters because many of the trophy chinook that Greg Barlow, one of the resort´s guides, stops

most of hisguiding each August to devote his time to the hatchery.

We had heard that pinks were in good numbers across the channel in Shoal Bay. Mike told us how there had been a bad fire there only a week before we arrived that had burned down Shoal Bay Lodge, one of the oldest in the region. We cast little red fluorescent Zzingers at theschools of pinks milling about a small stream at the head of the bay,and had a ball playing these scrappers on light spinning gear. While most of the fish managed to "long release," Suzanne and I brought in a couple of fish that we kept for the staff, who wanted fixings for a barbecue later in the week.

Mike wanted to show us Johnstone Strait, and the beautiful waters around East Thurlow Island. Twin 115-hp Yamaha four-strokes pushed Mike´s 26-foot Raider along Codero Channel into Johnstone Strait. We had never realized — just a short trip north of Campbell River — how few boats or signs of habitation there would be. We fished around Ripple Point for a few hours before running down the Strait to Chatham Point, where Suzanne caught her two keepers.

On our last day, fish seemed to just elude us, but there was plenty of activity all around. We watched with pleasure as Mike Cyr guided Wayne Cooper and his partner, Christine Seitz, into several big chinook. We then saw guide Grant Barlow get a couple of fish for his guests, Donovan Watts and Martin Burger. Debbie Martin guided her guest, New Yorker James Wilkins, into a beautiful 24-pounder.

Mike Hicks has taught all his guides to fish with anchovy and flashers. While trolling anchovy off the west coast of Vancouver Island is old hat, anglers are not using this bait as much in the waters around Campbell River. On our second night at Sonora Resort, we had seen how effective this bait can be. Young Mike Klaui, fishing alone at Denham Bay on his 17th birthday, had landed two trophy chinook of 27 pounds and a massive 40-pound tyee. During the next two days, guests landed over 20 chinook weighing between 18 and 28 pounds. All the chinook were caught on slow-trolled anchovy at depths between 120 and 140 feet.

In addition to her own trophy chinook, Suzanne caught a magical experience at Sonora: an unbelievable night of star-gazing. The resort´s remote location provided exceptionally dark skies to observe the annual August 12th peak of the Perseid meteor shower. Suzanne saw many meteors, some bright enough to leave sparkling trails ... against a sky aglow with a magnificent display of northern lights! She has seen aurora borealis only a couple of times before in her life, and was enchanted by the incredible display.Vast curtains, pillars, whorls, and eddies of pale green light shimmered and flickered across the entire sky while Perseid meteors flashed past.

And finally, we had just celebrated our 20th anniversary at one of the most luxurious resorts in the world.

o visit the Sonora Resort website, click here.

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