By Mike Carey
The clouds hung over the tree-covered hills but broken patches of blue sky gave the promise of a good day to come. The water was a glassy calm as our boat accelerated away from the dock toward our off shore fishing grounds. We were back for another epic adventure to Zeballos, Vancouver Island, and fishing with Adrian O’Connor of Reel Obsession Sport Fishing.
Last year we fished out of Zeballos for the first time. Rob Holman, Aaron Borg and I got to see firsthand the rugged, secluded beauty that is Zeballos. The fishing had been off the charts for us and we caught a bounty of Chinook salmon, halibut, and lingcod, as well as bottom fish. The accommodations at the Reel Obsession lodge are outstanding, as is the food and service. In short, no sooner than we left last year we waited with anticipation for our return this year. And now we were once again on the water and heading out for several days of outstanding sport fishing.
The waters off Vancouver Island offer some of the best sport fishing to be had in North American. Migrating Chinook and Coho salmon are within easy interception from sheltered bays and harbors. Offshore those in the know find underwater shelves that have an abundance of various bottom fish, many of which are trophy size. The Canadian Fisheries Department has worked hard to keep bottom fish stocks from becoming depleted. Rockfish conservation areas have been set up in waters around Vancouver Island to give shelter zones for these fish.
I found this useful information on the Alaska Department of Fish and Game web site:
“Rockfish caught in deep water often sustain injuries — referred to as barotrauma — caused by rapid decompression and expansion of gases in the swim bladder. Fish that are released with inflated swim bladders cannot re-submerge and will die. Because of high release mortality, intentional catch-and-release fishing is greatly discouraged, particularly in depths of 60 feet or greater. Alaska anglers can best prevent wasteful rockfish mortality by avoiding waters where unwanted catches are likely. When rockfish are caught incidentally despite avoidance efforts, proper deep-water release techniques can reduce mortality. A recent ADF&G study found that survival of yelloweye released at depth was far higher (98 percent) than survival of fish released at the surface (22 percent).”
In Canada deep water release devices are not mandatory to be on the boat. Adrian O’Connor, owner of Reel Obsession predicted that mandatory descending devices will soon by the rule in Canada as well as Washington. He explained to me that the deep water release devices used in Canada work much better than the ones in Washington because they use a clamp rather than a hook and the clamp is designed to release at specific depths. Devices like these allow bottom fish to be released back to depth allow the fish to have a much better chance to survive as their air bladders readjust after being pulled up from deep habitat. Meanwhile, charters like Reel Obsession are being good stewards of the resource, voluntarily limiting take of species like ling cod and avoiding fishing over vermillion and other ground fish that might not survive being caught and released from deeper waters.
The generally accepted guidelines for improving survival rates of bottom fish includes not fishing directly off the bottom at depths greater than 60 feet deep. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game web site, fishing for halibut and ling cod with jigs 10-15 off the bottom has no significant impact on catch rates but does avoid by catches of more sensitive and endangered bottom fish.
In the waters off Vancouver a slot limit on halibut means that an angler has a very good chance to go out and catch (and release) an over-sized halibut of 100-200 pounds, while still being able to bring home a couple nice eating slot sized fish 25-60 pounds. Halibut (and ling cod) are an incredibly hardy fish and survive release much better than other, fragile bottom fish like vermillion, yellow eye, and china rockfish. Anglers should also consider releasing ling cod greater than 20 pounds as they are often females, and keep the lesser sized fish which are usually males. A travel limit of 26-30” ling cod will stil give you a lot of tasty meals to enjoy!
We reached our fishing grounds after a pleasant run of about a half hour from Zeballos through the sheltered Esperanza Inlet in Adrian’s comfortable twin engine Trophy. The plan was to troll for ling cod and then focus on Chinook salmon. The gear used for each fishery is pretty much the same thing – flashers and a long 5 foot leader to an anchovy in a helmet off a downrigger. We were fishing in about 170 feet of water, around 10-15 feet off the bottom. At this point you may be asking yourself – if you’re using the same set ups at the same depth how do you “target” one or the other fish? The answer is simple – trolling speed. By trolling as little as a mile per hour faster you’ll avoid the ling cod and instead attract the chinook (and vice versa).
Within a minute of gear down we began getting hookups of lings. Aaron started the day off for us with a nice 28” fat ling cod. We proceeded to take turns catching our limit of lings, two per angler, all in the 24-30” range. The lings put up a nice fight, in part because in Canada the preferred rod and reel to use while trolling is a single action reel with a long ten foot rod. Called “knuckle busters” by locals and guests alike, these reels are the ultimate in leveling the playing field between the angler and the fish. Looking like over-sized fly reels, every turn of the handle is one rotation of the spool. When a fish takes a run you better not have your knuckles in the way of the handles (yes, I learned this the hard way again this year)!
This knuckle buster warning applies triple for Chinook! We had caught our ling limits and now had sped up the troll to focus on Chinook. Same gear, but Adrian added his favorite weapon, the “no bananas” 5” spoon to the second rod. Adrian only runs two rods no matter how many anglers are in the boat. Stacking would just be a hassle and not improve catch rates on these fish.
The starboard rod started shaking with a solid bite, and Rob raced over to grab it – “fish on” he called out. It was a good one, taking an impressive run. Now came the tricky part. With single action reels the angler has no advantage of a 5-1 line retrieval reel. The fish turned and started running back at the boat. Rob frantically began reeling to keep the line from going slack and having the barbless hocks fall out. Just about that time, rod number two started bouncing. I grabbed the rod and popped the release and I was also on to a big Chinook. Double time!
Rob’s fish was beginning to tire and Adrian expertly slid the net under a beautiful 20 pound chinook salmon. Meanwhile I had gotten my knuckles ceremonially “busted” by my feisty fish. I called out to Adrian “ten yards” as the fish came in to the boat. Rob’s salmon was out of the net and Adrian turned his attention to the broad shouldered fish I was battling. After a couple boat-side runs (please don’t come out barbless hooks!) he slid the net around my fish and hoisted it aboard. What a start to our salmon fishing! We had two beautiful shiny bright spring Chinook in the boat, some of the best fighting fish to be found and definitely among the most tasty to eat.
Soon after our fish Aaron was into another fish, the biggest by far of the day. Strong runs and head shakes taxed Aaron’s skills as he fought the fish slowly but surely to the side of the boat. Another twenty plus pounder in the boat!
Fishing like this is not the exception – it’s the norm. Hard to believe a day’s drive from downtown Seattle and you can be in the middle of nowhere catching just about everything! We spent another two days catching (and releasing) a multitude of beautiful fish.
In today’s hectic world the opportunity to truly get away from it all comes few and far between. Places like Zeballos and the seclusion you’ll find are a rare experience I would heartily recommend. Adrian and Angie O’Connor and the crew at Reel Obsession Sport Fishing provide a unique get away from the hustle and bustle of our fast paced world. As I look out over Zeballos Harbor from the lodge I realize how fortunate I am to be able to sit and reflect on the beauty of this wonderful country. Check out Reel Obsession Sport Fishing and give Adrian and Angie O’Connor a call. You won’t regret this trip of a lifetime!