A couple other white boats like ours, all sporting the familiar red and blue "Buck^s Camp" and a Canadian flag on their sides, moved slowly along through the eerie fog. Long fishing poles, their tips nearly invisible in the soupy air, bobbed up and down with an almost hypnotic rhythm. Leaning back against the boat seat, I huddled deeper into the collar of my insulated jacket, sipped my coffee and watched for the sudden dip of a rod that would signal a strike.
My wife Ellen stared just as intently at her own rod. She shivered slightly.
Without moving her gaze from the rod, she shook her head from side to side. "No, not really. Just got a sudden chill."
I knew she^d never admit she was cold.
Another boat, traveling in the opposite direction, carried two Seattle businessmen whom we had met when they had arrived at the lodge the previous day. As they came alongside, the man running the boat offered the perfunctory questions. "How^s it going? Any luck yet?"
Looking up briefly, I nodded "no" and went back to my rod watching.
Ellen obviously felt more obligated to be sociable. "Have you done any good?"
The man frowned. "Nothing."
So it went that first morning at Rivers Inlet, one of the premier places on earth to catch salmon. There were few strikes and no kings caught that day, however.
On an earlier trip, though, the fishing was something just short of spectacular. The days had started about the same -- cool and foggy. Instead of only a few boats from Buck^s trolling back and forth along the "wall," a favorite hangout for big chinook salmon, there had been a mini- armada. Small aluminum boats from several lodges had mixed daringly close to cabin cruisers of 30 feet or more.
Less than a half-hour had passed before someone in the midst of the slow-moving flotilla had yelled "fish on." The other boats quickly heeded the shouted warning and veered off in various directions to avoid a wild tangle of lines. As his partner battled the big king, the boat driver threaded his way through the crowd of onlookers.
Another fisherman in a bright yellow boat spoke to his companion in a loud enough voice where many of us could hear him.
"That^s definitely a tyee."
The night before, John Buck had told us "tyee" was a Siwash Indian word that meant "chief." To a salmon fisherman, a tyee signifies the ultimate quest -- a trophy chinook weighing more than 30 pounds.
The man in the yellow boat had predicted correctly, too. During the lunch break, Buck hung the big salmon on the scale; the pointer stopped at 42 pounds.
In most places a fish that large garners plenty of attention. Not so at Rivers Inlet, though; six of Buck^s 10 guests landed kings over 50 pounds that morning. One was a 62-pounder. Although many lodge owners might jump up and down if their clients had landed nearly 400 pounds of pink-fleshed salmon, Buck sees it too often to get excited. Instead, he merely congratulates them with a perfunctory handshake.
Only a few places in North America consistently yield 50- to 60-pound kings, and British Columbia^s Rivers Inlet is one of them. Located a little over 300 miles northwest of Vancouver, Rivers Inlet juts into the Canadian coastline about 40 miles. At the head of the inlet, glacier-fed rivers flow from the conifer-covered mountains into the saltwater. The salmon come each summer, returning to their birth place to spawn another generation.
Buck^s main lodge, 10 rooms, a hot tub and other structures, float on top of huge fir logs. Until two years ago, he kept the complex anchored to the shore in Kibella Bay, near the head of the inlet, because he guided steelhead fishermen on the rivers in the spring. Now, he keeps the camp in a quiet cove not far from B.C.^s main coastline, making it easier for guests to fish either the inlet or the ocean.
The fishing method consists of slow trolling -- a pace solely dependent on how slow a motor idles and on how hard the wind blows. The tackle Buck supplies his clients consists of a 9 to 12- foot, medium-action, saltwater fly rod and a direct-drive (single action) fly reel. John fondly refers to the latter as "knuckle-busters." Naturally, he warns the inexperienced guests to keep their fingers clear of the rapidly spinning handle when a fish goes on a wild run -- the reason for the very appropriate nickname. A couple of hundred yards of 20 to 30-pound monofilament line, an 8-foot leader, 5-ounce keel sinker and either a lure or a pair of needle-sharp, size 4 hooks complete the rig.
Many guests prefer to bring their own tackle. Although it^s a bit unusual, I like fishing with a 6-foot bass rod, level-wind reel and 12-lb.-test line. So far, I^ve never lost a fish because of the gear, however, and have landed a couple of kings over 50 pounds with this rig.
I took my wife to Buck^s so she could experience the same thrill, but after two days the only thing she experienced was disappointment. Buck figured the timing for the major run of kings was about a week off. So we concentrated on the coho salmon. The silvers had moved into the staging area at the entrance to the inlet.
Many salmon fishermen use lures, but none entice silvers as effectively as a plump, shiny herring. Some anglers use the frozen bait whole. Others "plug-cut" it by slicing off the head at a 45 degree angle, both from top to bottom and side to side. The angled cut imparts a seductive, turning motion to the bait when it^s trolled at the proper speed. When pulled too fast, though, the herring spins excessively, and the salmon normally ignore it.
Trolling at the ideal speed can mean the difference between a boat ride and an exciting battle with a frisky salmon. On the first day we fished, a stiff breeze and the incoming tide made maintaining a proper trolling rate almost impossible. Even with the motor in neutral, the boat moved too fast when going with the tide. To cope, we used two sea anchors. These funnel shaped gadgets, made of heavy canvas, cause extra drag, effectively cutting the boat^s speed.
"Pull" is another peculiar term used regularly at Rivers Inlet. On my first trip to Bucks, I had asked John how deep I should fish the bait.
"We^ve been catching most of the fish somewhere between 16 and 20 pulls," he nonchalantly replied.
My confused look no doubt prompted him to explain further.
"A pull is about 2 1/2 feet. So 16 to 20 pulls amounts to 40 to 50 feet, depending on the length of your arm. Just grab the line near the reel, pull it out to arm^s length and count each one. When the fish are hanging out at a certain depth, the pull makes it simple to get back there after you change bait or catch a fish. It^s just like letting a downrigger go to the same depth every time."
After chasing silvers that first day, I began wondering if taking Ellen along had been a mistake. She landed four fish, including a 15-pounder; I caught none. The next few days nearly mirrored the first, but I occasionally did catch a fish. For sheer numbers, though, John^s ladyfriend, Kay Halliday, trounced us all. She caught the most and biggest fish, at least until the last day.
Only hours before our flight back to Vancouver Island, we decided to try for the kings one last time in the inlet. We trolled for an hour before my rod tip dipped toward the surface. I grabbed it, set the hook and felt the surge of a big chinook. Ten minutes later, the line went slack. I started swearing at myself, knowing the light line was the cause. Instead, it had been the 30-lb.-test leader that had broken a foot above the hooks and at least two feet below the knot where it attached to my 12-lb. line. I shook my head and tied on a new leader and hooks.
A few minutes later, the rod arched again. I set the hook. From the fish^s reaction, I felt this was a bigger fish than the one I had lost. The loosely set drag did little to slow the salmon^s first powerful run. I shoved the motor into gear and had Ellen steer the boat. The line still peeled off against the reel. After a half-mile run, the salmon finally stopped and headed for the bottom,
The short rod provided little leverage. Pumping it steadily but carefully, I^d gain line, only to have the chinook surge anew and take it, and sometimes more, back. My arm that held the rod began to ache. To rest it, I switched often, shaking one arm at my side and gripping the rod above the reel with the other.
More than an hour passed before the salmon splashed wildly on the surface. Ellen grabbed the net and waited as I brought the weary fish closer. She put the long-handled net in the water, waited for the mesh to sink, then tried to slide it under the thrashing king. The fish rolled, missed the net completely and, somewhat rejuvenated, headed off on a mini-run. I lost my temper a bit, settled down and again brought the king close. As it floated over the net, I dropped my rod on the bottom of the boat, grabbed the metal hoop and raised it high around the thrashing salmon. There was no escaping this time. Once I got my breath, I hoisted the heavyweight over the side. The leader had busted again; it didn^t matter then.
As we were heading back, a white, twin-engine float plane landed near the lodge. It was the air-taxi service from Port Hardy, bringing in a load of new guests and taking out the departing ones.
Buck was happy to see me pumping my fist in the air as I neared the dock. He knew it meant I had finally nailed a big king. Although both of us knew they existed, this one proved it.
LODGING: Buck^s Camp, Dept. CS, Box 86344, North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada V7L4K6; telephone (604)859-9779. A 4-day/3 night stay costs $1799 (U.S.), and a 5-day, 4-night package is $1999.
Packages include lodging, excellent food, tackle, bait, unlimited fishing on your own 17^ fiberglass runabout with 40 hp. engine and the round trip airfare from Vancouver, BC to the lodge.
HOW TO GET THERE: Canadian Airlines International (CAI) and others have daily flights into Vancouver, BC from major Canadian and U.S. Cities, and Air BC flies from Vancouver to Port Hardy. CAI will arrange all connecting flights from anywhere in North America.
BEST TIME: The Chinook salmon season kicks off in mid-June and continues into September. The better fishing for kings is from mid-July through August. Silver salmon start arriving from mid-July, with the most action from mid-August into September.