By Mike Carey
The BC ferry cut an effortless wake as we traveled from the terminal at Tsawwassen to Duke Point on Vancouver Island. Gray marine overcast slowly gave way to partly sunny skies while we relaxed on the comfortable Canadian ferry for the two-hour crossing. The excitement in our group was tempered by a long drive, but the final stretch of gravel logging road hinted at the amazing experience soon to come.
With the closing of the border due to Covid, Americans lost the opportunity to fish Canadian waters. Fortunately, this year the border between the US and Canada reopened and anglers again can travel north for some of the prime fishing that can be found in Canada. It was with great excitement that we were invited by Adrian and Angie O’Connor of Reel Obsession Sport Fishing to spend a few days at their lodge. Reel Obsession was hosting the second annual Zeballos Salmon Derby, to benefit the Zeballos school system and local salmon enhancement. As it was Father’s Day weekend, having my son Matt along on my fourth trip to Zeballos was very special indeed. Joining Matt and I were NWF members Paul Hamilton and David Lockhert.
Adrian told me the chinook salmon fishery is doing well, with good numbers of fish and no reduced seasons, an exception to what many Pacific Northwest anglers are experiencing. “The fish are running around fifteen to thirty pounds – the days of forty plus fish appear to be a thing of the past.” But with healthy numbers and good prospects on the horizon now is a great time to head over to Vancouver Island, and more specifically, fish the waters offshore of Zeballos.
At six AM Angie’s blast of the airhorn signaled the start of the weekend derby, as fifty anglers raced off for the twenty-five-minute run out to the salmon grounds. It’s a relaxing journey through Esperanza Inlet, flanked on either side by towering hills of forested land. Other than the occasional clear cut it looks much as it did a hundred years ago.
On our boat Adrian went over the gear for our group, half of whom had never used single action reels. Relatively rare in the States, in Canada they are standard gear, and in my opinion, once you use one you won’t want to go back to your level wind reel. The excitement of playing a wild chinook one on one cannot be compared as the angler has no advantage of gear multipliers – one turn of the reel equals one reel retrieve, vs. a level wind that retrieves at a 5-1 ratio (one turn of the reel retrieves 5x the line). It makes a huge difference in the battle and gives the fish a fighting chance. Trust me, when a chinook decides to run on a single action reel you have to be ever aware of knuckle-busting runs!
We were trolling with two downriggers, flashers, herring, and spoon, Adrian’s preferred setup. Depth started shallow and went deeper as the day progressed. Trolling speed – 2.5mph. Location – Fairer and Pit Rocks. This is shallow water trolling – 50 feet deep, up against the rocky kelp covered shoreline. The waves crashed and threw spray into the air, our boat yards from potential disaster. But we had no concerns as Adrian has fished these waters for years and knew each rock and underwater hazard intimately. “Having a plan is essential and keeping safety in mind is number one”, he stated. All the Reel Obsession boats are equipped with the latest gear and motors replaced periodically.
It didn’t take long before the port rod went off and Matthew set the hook to a hard fighting chinook. Single action reel screaming, he did a great job playing the fish back to the boat as Adrian slid the net under a nice 14 pound fish. Matt was grinning ear to ear and on the Derby board! Soon after, David hooked up and battled a cookie cutter fish that gave him several nice runs before surrendering to the net. The action continued steady, but a cadre of “shakers” made Adrian decide it was time to move to a new location. By shakers, we are talking Puget Sound keepers. But 22-23” fish were not what we wanted to limit our day on, so many fish were safely released back to grow bigger for another day.
Moving on to Pit Rock we continued our trolling pattern. Matt quickly hooked up with a hatchery coho. “The coho are showing early this year, that’s a bonus fish for you Matt” Adrian commented as he scooped the fish into the boat.
The action slowed down so Adrian decided it was time to move to a new location farther up the island. Fishing in 120 feet of water Adrian would bounce the downrigger ball off the bottom and bring it up a few feet. It proved to be deadly effective as the port rod exploded with another nice chinook that Paul skillfully played. Chrome bright, the fish put up several nice runs and finally surrendered to the net.
As mentioned, in addition to the derby weekend, it was also Father’s Day weekend. There were several groups of fathers and sons enjoying the beauty of Zeballos and amenities of the Lodge. My son, Matt scored several firsts this weekend, including his first halibut and lingcod. Getting to spend a three-day weekend with him in Zeballos was an incredible father-son experience. Fishing brings families together and father-son trips are something to be cherished. Matt’s first comment when we arrived at the Reel Obsession Lodge was “sign me up for next year”. For a dad, those are words that will stay with me a lifetime!
We limited out the boat with a nice mix of 10-14 pound chinook, nothing that would keep us in the running for the Derby, but really, it didn’t matter. It’s all about the memories and we had a lifetime in our three days stay.
Our final evening was the Derby winner’s presentation. The evening’s festivities took place with a sunny backdrop of the bay and tree-covered hills at the Lodge deck. Taking first place was Jamie Wetheroll with a 22.4 pound chinook. In addition to the three placing anglers the event featured mystery weight and random drawing prizes as well as silent auctions. The event was full of laughter and fun for all involved. Great prizes and a worthy cause – and the participants had an amazing weekend of fishing and shared memories and good food together. Angie, Adrian and the Reel Obsession crew put on a great event. First Place prize was $1000 cash and a 3-day 3 night all-inclusive stay at Reel Obsession Sport Fishing Lodge. In addition to second and third place, there were mystery weight drawings and silent auctions for a lot of cool gear!
The final tallies were 75 anglers who raised over $13,000 for the school and salmon enhancement. An awesome example of a community coming together for a common cause.
Great fishing, amazing location, and excellent food and accommodations at Reel Obsession – we’ll be coming back!