The scream of the reel is electrifying. The rod bends double, the tip almost piercing the swell.
‘You got a strike,’ yells Ryan.
Stumbling across the deck I wrestle the rod from the downrigger. Whatever’s on the end has already hit warp-speed. The reel handle thrashes my knuckles as the blur of line unwinds – this fish is really moving. Planting my feet I settle for the fight, switching the strain to forearms and shoulders. ‘This is a massive goddamn fish,’ I cry into the breeze.
‘Let it run,’ Ryan calls, snatching the engine control into neutral and leaping onto the deck. ‘Let the line run.’
Without doubt this is going to be the biggest salmon ever caught in the Seaforth Channel; right now I feel as if I’m attached to a plummeting bus. The muscles in my arms take the strain as the salmon does its best to snatch me over the transom. Just as I’m beginning to wonder if this could be one of those – I think we need a bigger boat – type of moments, the line goes slack. I yank up the rod and work the reel for all I’m worth. ‘I think I lost him,’ I hiss.
‘No,’ shouts Ryan, clearing the port rod out of the way. ‘He’s coming straight for the boat.’
Holy cow! He’s right. The flasher is riding the surface, racing towards us. A metre ahead of the flasher the surface of the water boils. The beast has turned. It’s homing in on the boat … coming straight for us. I can’t wind the reel fast enough; my wrist aches and my knuckles throb. As a bald eagle circles above, the thought of these orcas pinching my fish crashes through my mind. They’re not having my fish. And then the flasher pings into the air and the rod flicks upward, empty in my hands. I know for sure that this time I really have lost him. I curse as I wind in the rest of the line, placing the rod back in the downrigger. It’s all over.
‘I tell you … that was some creature.’ Panting from the exertion, I spread my hands as far apart as I can. ‘I swear, it must have been this big.’
Not that many years ago the only way of accessing the tiny fishing town of Bella Coola, located up the Burke Channel on British Columbia’s Pacific coast, was by sea. By necessity the settlers who lived up country from Bella Coola, along the Chilcotin Plateau and beside the Anahim Lake, had to be tougher than the hooves on a Yukon moose. Life was hard and often lonely out in this wilderness and pretty much all the stuff they needed had to be packed in on horseback, all the while avoiding the grizzly bears and the packs of wolves, or not, as was occasionally the case. When Isabel Edwards moved here with her husband in September 1932 it was an unfamiliar and scary world to her; she was even frightened of the snow. Twenty-five years later, all alone, she tracked and shot two grizzlies that had been killing her livestock. You could say she adapted pretty well to her surroundings. Many couldn’t stick the solitude and daily challenges, going in search of an easier life in such places as Vancouver Island. Today it seems you’ve still got to know how to take care of yourself if you’re to survive out here: the moment we park outside the Bella Coola store an old boy launches into the story of the cougar he fought one day, just off the main street. ‘Over there in those trees it was,’ he says. ‘He jumped on my back and launched its teeth into my neck. He chewed me up pretty good before I managed to get my hand in his mouth and pull the sucker off. Look at my thumb.’ He holds out his hand for us to inspect. ‘That cougar bit my thumb pretty darn good.’
Managing to avoid the grizzlies and the cougars, we’ve made it to Bella Coola to try our hand at catching a few salmon and halibut in the channels around King Island. This means being collected from the port the following day by Central Coast Adventures. We will spend the next four days based at their lodge on Denny Island, doing our best to catch our quota of salmon from their 23 foot Grady White fishing boats. By late afternoon the rest of our fishing buddies arrive from Red Deer and over dinner we’re already laying wagers as to which of us will land the first fish … the largest fish … the most fish … I never knew fishing could be quite so competitive.
The following day is an early start down at the port. Leaving our vehicles at the hotel we travel by boat for the two and a half hour journey out to Denny Island. Denny Island is not big; you could walk round it in a day, if there was a path, which there isn’t … and always remembering that it is apparently teeming with bears and wolves and cougars. And that’s the great thing about Canada … you are no longer the apex predator. Everywhere you go, in every village or forest, behind every tree or bush, there could lurk a killer vastly quicker and stronger than you are. It really keeps you on your toes. ‘Oh, we had a pack of wolves run down the main street of Bella Bella not so long ago,’ Ryan, our fishing guide, casually remarks. ‘Nice,’ I say, not in the least meaning it. Bella Bella is just across the channel from us, on Campbell Island, and is where Ryan lives.
After a quick lunch in the lodge, with Christine and I in one boat and our rivals in the other, we’re straight on to the Chinook salmon, setting our lines just off Idle Point. Except a pod of orcas thought to number 100 individuals is busily swimming up the channel at the same time. If you think of a shoal of salmon as carpet dust then orcas are the equivalent of the Hoover. These efficient fish killers are beautiful to behold, though not at all useful to have around when you’re trying to catch a salmon. That said I’m hauling in our first ten kilo Chinook after a few minutes of trawling at about 1.5 knots. By the evening the two teams are running head to head on numbers (though I can claim first fish!).
On the boat by six in the morning, the next day we go for the halibut in the Burke Channel. As we reach a stretch of open water the sea state takes a considerable turn for the worse. As if to combat the sudden violent motion of the boat Ryan simply reaches over to the stereo, whacking up the volume on the country music channel we’re listening to and those dulcet tones of the DJ Trace Atkins. Pounding into the waves with our speakers shrieking, I’m reminded of colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, though Kilgore was in search of great waves not great halibut and by lunchtime we’ve hooked a 30 kilo specimen which, from a depth of 450 feet, takes some bringing to the surface. Christine and I spell the task and after a ten minute struggle the brute finally breaks from the waves. We add a couple more in the afternoon and by the evening the two teams are again about evens.
The next day is a salmon day and sees our rivals creep ahead on fish caught, though it’s the last day where Christine and I are bowled a blinder. Convinced some fishy business is afoot, the rival team have peeled off, heading out to the ling cod grounds, where they ramp up the numbers, leaving us to the less productive salmon fishing off St John’s Point. By early afternoon a worsening swell makes life increasingly uncomfortable, forcing us to retreat down the Seaforth Channel, where the orcas have already enjoyed a feast.
It goes without saying that had I landed the one that got away our position as the premier team would be unassailable. But that’s fishing for you. Whatever disappointment we feel at having slipped into second place is amply taken care of by Timo and Tara’s dinner back at the lodge. All too soon we’re back on the boat with our boxes of frozen fish, heading for Bella Coola port. Recovering our vehicles from the hotel car park, on the drive back to William’s lake, as we round a bend on Heckman Pass I say to Christine, ‘Oh look, there’s a cow in front of us.’ This is not the kind of mistake one should make too often: I quickly realise that I’m in fact staring at a huge black bear grazing at the side of the track. Here is a reminder, if any was needed, of what those settlers had to put up with as they led their horses back and forth over these mountains.