West Coast Wild: FISH TALES & Humpback Whales

Natalie North takes on the sea

Writer Natalie North reels in a salmon as fishing charter guide Ryan Chamberland of West Isle Fishing Experience keeps an eye on the action.

One recent morning I awoke a feeble landlubber more accustomed to the sound of emails taking flight from my inbox than the chirping of a depth sounder. I would go to bed that night irrevocably transformed. To anyone who knows the sanitized vegetarian I purport to be, listen up: I am fisherwoman, hear me roar!

At 8 a.m. the sun warms the glassy surface of the Sooke basin and melts away the fog. At the end of the dock sits Fish Tank, West Isle Fishing Experience’s 23-foot Hourston glasscraft that I think deserves a less militant moniker. She skips across the ocean with ease – but not so much that you can’t feel the waves splash beneath your feet.

Aboard Fish Tank, we glide past the mouth of Sooke River, where gulls flock for a chance at the salmon now making their way upstream. Whiffin Spit stretches out to our starboard side – wink, sailors – and the shimmering bits of first light soon swell into an all out symphony of sea salt and sunshine.

“Looks like we’re not the only ones,” says Ryan Chamberland, West Isle’s owner and my guide for the day.

Through condensation-covered windows, I see a handful of fishing boats in the distance. It won’t be until we arrive about a kilometre offshore that his comment will take on a new meaning.

The 300 horsepower outboard suddenly kicks in. My hiking boots slide across the deck. I grip the base of the down-rigger to steady myself. When I ask how fast his chariot moves, Chamberland is quick to note both 80 kilometres and the fact that I won’t be going overboard.

Good to know.

Cozy in my vinyl seat, the wind all through my hair and the smell of the ocean in my face, I lean back and watch the fishing rods glint in the sun above my head. As we slow, Chamberland pulls them from their mounts and fastens flashers, spoon lures to each. Weighted with something he calls cannonballs – prerequisites for Fish Tank life, I suppose  –  my captain lowers the lines to four-and-a-half metres and doles out commands:

“When you see the rod start moving, say ‘fish on.’”

I continue to gaze at the coastal birds, fellow charter boats, and the soft wake of trolling speed. The rod jerks wildly. I’m not one to disobey, but I didn’t expect this kind of instant turnaround.

Chamberland unclips the rod and hands it over, along with some key advice: when the fish wants to run, let him, or the reel will hurt your fingers.

Here’s where I need to confess: I’m more concerned about hurting the fish than my fingers. The woman holding the rod has harboured a near lifelong inner conflict about eating seafood, but feels if you eat it, you should be comfortable with knowing where it came from and right now a fresh salmon dinner is on the menu. So the fish and I play a game of give and go.

He runs. I let him. I reel. He runs. The thrill of the chase bubbles up inside me and I find myself laughing, cackling, like a Disney villain. The flasher emerges first, next the shimmery back of my little coho. With ease, Chamberland leans over the side of Fish Tank and sweeps him up in a net. The nine-pound salmon hangs suspended on the line as Chamberland grabs for his fish bonker.

I hear myself squeal a little.

“You’re not vegetarian are you?” he says.

“Nope.”

My response punctuated by the hollow sound of a single blow.

“Wanna pick him up?” Chamberland asks and now I’m on a mission.

I slip two fingers beneath his gills and own what just went down. I love it. We high five and continue on our adventure. Before the adrenaline peters out, I see who else has joined us for the day. Mist bursts from the water ahead and an otherworldly humpback tail rises and falls behind it.

The rod lurches.

“Fish on!”

Chamberland passes me the rod and I reel in another salmon, a coho, this one larger than the last. I’ve got it down now and I think he agrees.

“Women are better at reeling them in – ” he says.

Why, thank you.

“– because they don’t want to break their nails.”

Never mind.

The afterglow of the catch is once again interrupted by the humpbacks, this time closer. The mammoth creatures appear slow and powerful, but vanish in an instant. Our guide plugs the surfy West Coast tunes of Quoia into his stereo and opens up the throttle. Fish Tank thunders toward a cluster of seagulls on Secretary Island. High above the rocks, two eagles watch, unimpressed, as Chamberland attempts to entice them down with a fish head. He concedes. The predators will not be hand fed on this day. And we move on, past Possession Point and a smattering of figures donning hip waders and armed with  fly rods along Billings Spit.

“It’s not about getting your limit in fish,” Chamberland says. “It’s about the experience.”

For those who join him on the boat, who aren’t from the coast, a day on the water is more of an opportunity to see wildlife they otherwise only see in magazines.

“We’re so lucky to be able to do this,” he says.

Though we’re out in the dying days of salmon season, halibut fishing is a year-round endeavour for anyone up to braving the unpredictable fall weather on the West Coast.

Back at my computer, I’m suddenly in the third act of an ‘80s adventure comedy: the time when the protagonist questions if the ride they just experienced was all in their head, until a memento resurfaces and proves its veracity. The aroma of salmon and victory seeps from my treads and I share a grin with the blink of my cursor.

 

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