Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
HAIDA GWAII, British Columbia—The Haida are a matriarchal society, so it seems fitting that Jessica Eussen and the other women who journey to fish these waters would outperform the men. In one of those momentous, tell-it-to-your-grandkids, I-can’t-believe-what-I-just-pulled-off highlights of life, Jessica, a tiny 18-year-old from Vancouver, Washington, reeled in a 43-pound Chinook salmon while on a fishing trip with her father.
The thing was about half the size of her and coaxed a smile just as wide.
“I’ll never forget it,” she said a few minutes after being congratulated by other anglers in awe of the feat as well as the dockhands at the Queen Charlotte Lodge, which has built a reputation as a world-class fishing destination during its nearly two decades of operation.
It attracts avid sports fishermen who come to chase the tyee, or “chief”, a Chinook salmon that weighs at least 30 pounds. But the lodge has succeeded in guiding novices to trophy catches too, as Jessica’s tyee last month proved, and that’s helped it become a choice spot for families and couples.
Jessica’s father, Remy, chose fishing as the activity to spend time with his daughter before she leaves for university because “there are no electronics. It’s quiet, you can really bond.”
With your family and the lodge’s guides. They will bait the rod, load the downrigger and drive you 30 minutes or more to the prime fishing grounds, helping you hook that coveted tyee.
“My sons know the technical aspects of fishing as well as anyone here,” said Douglas Phibbs, who recently moved from Cabbagetown to Niagara-on-the-Lake and was in B.C. with his two sons and wife, “but the guides know the secret spots. The best places to find the fish.”
This part of the world has seen thousands of generations of salmon stream down the Pacific while about as many generations of humans wait for their arrival on the coast of the Haida Gwaii group of islands. The archipelago was known as the Queen Charlotte Islands up until June, when a name change corrected what the Haida First Nations people believed was a wrong. While many tourists visit the region for the expansive beauty and nature watching on the more than 100 islands, it’s fishing that’s big business for the lodges. Deep-sea fishing is rugged work that involves a great deal of mechanical know-how, strength, foolish competitiveness and adventuresome risk-taking. Guy stuff, or so you might think. The women, though, go along for days that sometimes last 12 hours and come back with plenty of big fish.
“Women will listen to the guides,” says Duane Foerter, marketing manager for the Queen Charlotte Lodge. “A lot of men come here and they think they’re experts at fishing, so there’s a bit of ego that gets in the way when they’re listening to instructions, which often may come from someone much younger than them. But the women don’t have any pretenses about it. They say, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here, so show me what to do and I’ll listen.’ They follow their guide’s instructions and they succeed.”
Burmah Martin, an Oregon woman with 18 grandchildren, hauled in three tyees during her four-night stay. Andrea Dietel, a first-time salmon angler from Kansas City, Missouri, brought up a mammoth 48-pound Chinook and two more catches greater than 30 pounds, impressing her husband.
“She not only caught bigger fish than me, she also hooked twice as many as me,” Chris Dietel said, pointing out that some fish do get away.
Ann Bradsma of Idaho finally joined her husband on a trip to Haida Gwaii and was shocked when she brought up a 34-pound salmon on her second day out.
“My husband used to come up here for years to another lodge, but it closed and he came last year to this one and said, you should come, there’s stuff for you to do here too,” said Bradsma, who caught her fish without a guide from the lodge but with the help of her husband, Hill.
The lodge, which is featured in a World Fishing Network reality-TV program, has more than 70 full-time staff during the season, catering to about 80 guests at a time. Guests arrive for three-night weekend stays or four-night stays from Monday to Thursday. Packages range from about $3,000 to close to $6,000 and include three meals a day and snacks, use of a boat and fishing gear, packaging for each guest’s fish, and round-trip airfare from Vancouver.
A spa and fitness centre are among the amenities, and activities include hiking, kayaking and a visit to Kung, a former Haida village once home to 350 people before it was abandoned early in the 20th century. But it’s fishing that people come to the lodge to enjoy and they do so with the ferocity of kids at Disneyland, waking early in the morning to beat the rush. While there’s no regimented program at the Queen Charlotte Lodge — a refreshing difference from other adventure-type programs that keep tourists on a tight schedule — almost all of the guests hit the water near dawn.
Lodge owner Paul Clough makes it a point to wish them luck, meeting them on the dock before they head out of Naden Harbour. They do so as early as 5:30 a.m., leaving in small, sturdy aluminum boats that reach the fishing grounds in about 30 minutes.
“We’ll have clients who have saved all their lives for a trip here and they’ll be next to a CEO of a company who’s been up here three times in a season, but the people who come here have one thing in common: They’re passionate about fishing,” said Clough, “and we celebrate that.”
Mark Messier and Bobby Hull are among the hockey stars who’ve stayed at the lodge, and Cuba Gooding Jr. among the celebrities.
“The Queen Charlotte Lodge has to be among the one or two best lodges in the world,” said Jim Wild, a long-time fisherman from Calgary who was making his second visit to the lodge and first since 1995. “I’ve been to more than 20 lodges in the western part of British Columbia and what they do here is beyond all the others.”
To help the fishermen on the water, the lodge has a floating lunchboat, the MV Driftwood, which also has tiny guest cabins for the most hardcore anglers who want to fish for 16 hours a day. There’s also an emergency patrol boat driven by the lodge’s “fishmaster”, who responds to radio calls from guests who need help, additional bait or guidance on the water. Foerter also takes pictures of the guests as they bring up the fish, which is a good marketing tool as well as a way to promote the lodge’s Catch & Release program. If a picture documents the reeling in of a tyee, then it’s more likely a guest will release the fish.
“A seasoned fisherman knows the difference between a freezer fish and a trophy fish,” Wild said.
A 20-pound salmon tastes better than a 40-pounder, he and Foerter noted, but the 40-pounder will breed bigger fish, which will benefit the gene pool and the sport-fishing industry.
The teenaged girl visiting the lodge got the message about Catch & Release. After taking 25 minutes to haul in her big fish, Jessica Eussen told her guide he could let it go. “I have a memory I’ll never forget,” she said.
Just the facts
GETTING THERE: The Queen Charlotte Lodge provides round-trip charter airplane and helicopter service from Vancouver and Haida Gwaii. The season runs from May into September and rates vary.
MORE BRITISH COLUMBIA TRAVEL TIPS
Is Nicli Antica the best pizza in Canada?