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Sport: Following the Freak Fish

Mary Peachin

Each May, when chinook salmon season begins in British Columbia, fishermen converge on the Lodge at Whale Channel, located in Barnard Harbour about 90 miles south of the remote northern coastal city of Prince Rupert. The lodge floats on a steel barge, which is attached to long cedar logs called “boom sticks” that keep the barge a safe distance from the shore. In mid-July, when the salmon begin heading south to spawn, workers at the lodge unloose the seven galvanized steel cables that attach the barge to the boom sticks—allowing the lodge to follow the fish.

A tugboat tows the 23-room structure down the Inside Passage, past an occasional Alaskan cruise ship, to Milbanke Sound and Louisa Cove, a protected bay of Wurtele Island. There, the building becomes the Lodge at Milbanke Sound. From this staging point, guests make daily fishing excursions into the sound in 18-foot aluminum boats; most of the lodge’s 25 vessels are in use every day of the season. In the sound and in Whale Channel, reports Brad “Ripper” Clarke, who served as the lodge’s head fishing guide until last year, “the salmon are stronger and fight harder than any others I have ever caught.”

Indeed, the fish appear to be genetic anomalies. “The rule of thumb,” says lodge manager Terry Schultz, “is that a salmon will fight you one minute for every pound that the fish weighs. So a 40-pound salmon will fight for 40 minutes. But in 1996, we had a 43-pounder that fought for more than nine hours. We netted that fish 12 miles from where we hooked it.” Salmon in the 30-pound range are the most common, he says, but 50-pounders are not unusual, and one fisherman landed a 69-pounder in 2004.

At both locations, there is more to enjoy than just salmon fishing. Northern British Columbia offers a mesmerizing display of old-growth forests, deserted beaches, and waterfalls, and wildlife is plentiful. “For me,” says Whale Channel’s new head fishing guide, Brent “Brentos” Gill, “a good day is a grand slam: catching a tyee [a salmon weighing more than 30 pounds], spotting a bald eagle, watching orcas, and seeing humpback whales feed.” The region contains another genetic anomaly, found only here: a black bear with white fur. When it emerges from the forest onto a fog-shrouded shore, the animal can resemble a ghost—which is why locals call it a “spirit bear.”

The lodge has it own attractions. You can soak in an open-air hot tub with a view of the ocean, receive a massage, or visit the exercise facility. Or you can repair to the cedar-walled “Liar’s Lounge,” where guests and staff members share accounts—accurate or embellished—of the day’s events. The lodge hosts several fishing tournaments, and each day it offers daily tastings of wines from British Columbia’s Okanagan region.

When the lodge opened in 1996, it was among the first in British Columbia to change locations in the middle of the salmon season, which ends in September. Although the concept has been copied since then, West Coast Resorts, which operates the property, contends that it has been able to locate closest to the best fishing grounds. This claim could be questioned, but guests will not dispute that the salmon near the Lodge at Whale Channel—and the Lodge at Milbanke Sound—are truly ferocious. West Coast also operates lodges in Englefield Bay and Tasu Sound in the Queen Charlotte Islands, and it recently opened the Lodge at Walter’s Cove, a 12-room property on the northwest corner of Vancouver Island. These three, however, all remain in place.  —

West Coast Resorts, 800.810.8933, www.westcoastresorts.com

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