The day’s roll-call of anglers, two per craft, form a convoy as they head out to the most productive salmon grounds. When the weather gets more than a little clammy (as shown here), a lodge guide boat leads the way.
“It’s not about the fishing,” says Mick Heath. Then he pauses and circles back around in the conversation. “Well, of course, everything up here is about the fishing. But what I mean is that a trip to Rivers Inlet is about more than that, way more than that.”
Indeed, all angling excursions – whether taken to waters within a tank-of-gas from one’s doorstep or to more far-flung and unfamiliar realms – are inevitably about more than the simple compulsion to bag a fish or two. The act of angling, especially big-game angling, goes to a deeper place than that. It goes somewhere into the dark recesses of our very psychic and instinctual core, if not our (disputed) primeval, reptilian past.
But before Heath can elaborate on the romantic niceties surrounding a trip to Legacy Lodge, a Coho salmon rudely interrupts the discourse. First the stern starboard rod begins convulsing, its tip jabbing spasmodically into the brine. Then one of the portside rods follows suit. And before you know it, all hell is breaking loose on the Double Elle (named after Mick’s two daughters and the initials for the lodge).
Whereas only moments ago we were sedately, almost sleepily, gliding along on polished tourmaline seas amid forest-shrouded isles in a remote corner of south coastal B.C., the scene had now become one of semi-orchestrated chaos and adrenaline-sloshed confusion. Panoramic splendor had given way to the blur of pandemonium, not to mention the spontaneous outburst of cackling and cursing, which from a safe distance across the water no doubt sounded like a pack of jackals converging on a crippled wildebeest.
That’s salmon fishing for you.
Heath admits to being an incurable romantic, a dreamer and, yes, something of an iconoclast. When he wasn’t intensely immersed in entrepreneurial adventures – including a string of gourmet coffee outlets in Phoenix, Arizona – Heath prowled the West Coast in search of salmon. After spending more than 20 years scoping out every saltwater nook and cranny from Oregon to Alaska, Heath found what he was looking for along the intensely rugged, glacially sculpted outlands of coastal British Columbia. He felt an immediate and irresistible attraction to (actually, “love” would not be too strong a word) Rivers Inlet. Here was a place that offered not only unrivalled fishing in protected “inside” waters, but also an unblemished wilderness setting almost totally devoid of development-a place trafficked by eagles, salmon, whales and bears…rather than land sharks from New Jersey.
Just getting there has got to be considered a quaint operation in and of itself, a veritable blast from the past. To get to the secluded loch where the lodge lies anchored and tethered, you must take progressively smaller and smaller aircraft: first a commercial airliner to Vancouver; then a turbo-prop commuter (or ferry) to Port Hardy; and, finally, a vintage Grumman Goose, which, like a big metal bathtub with wings, trudges in for a belly-flop landing in the liquid front-yard of the lodge.
Legacy Lodge consists of four separate buildings, plus an icehouse/fish-processing station, each mounted on its own floating foundation. All of these structures are lashed together to form a cohesive unit, moored in a serene-one could say “elfin”-saltwater alcove, against the lush, emerald-green backdrop of an impenetrable forest. Erecting an upscale resort on dry land is one thing, to do the same upon the temperamental and ever-vacillating sea (no matter how snug the harbor) is quite another. When I asked about the obvious expense and logistical headaches involved in such an enterprise, Heath flashes a grin and confides: “You know how to make a small fortune?” ( Pausing here for the drum-beat.) “Start with a large fortune.”
The heart of Heath’s vision, indeed, the very thinking behind the lodge’s name, stems from a messianic zeal to share in the raw elegance, the pastoral power, of catching salmon in this place and, furthermore, doing it the old-fashioned way: by hook-line-and-herring. As a staunch advocate of mooching, Heath adheres to the utter simplicity and effectiveness of the methods traditionally used in these waters. Upon arrival at the lodge each and every client receives an orientation on the fine art of slaying salmon, plus the proper armament: light, willowy, 10 1/2-foot Lamiglas rods, uncomplicated direct-drive, double-handled Daiwa reels (affectionately referred to as “knuckle busters”) and step-by-step instructions for threading herring onto trailer-rigged hooks (more on this later).
An excursion to the saltwater reaches of Legacy Lodge grants one a portal to the past and an (all-too-brief) engagement with the rural marine way of life. Translation: You bait your own hooks. Land your own salmon. And go away from here with your own sweet, deeply etched memories.
Partly owing to boats designed to comfortably accommodate two anglers, Legacy caters to “couples”, whether man and wife (or significant other), parent and child, or simpatico fishing buddies. Here, mother-and-daughter angling team Tracey and Madison Ellis, demurely display the results of manning their own boat and rounding up their own salmon.
Have You Driven a Fjord Lately?
One of the unique concepts fostered at Legacy is the policy encouraging self-guided, “full use” boats. To ensure safety, reliability and ease-of-operation, the lodge outfitted itself with a fleet of custom-built Scout 175 (17.5-foot) sport fishing boats, one of the most inherently stable and maneuverable marine craft ever devised. How stable? I watched with morbid curiosity as two more-than-slightly overweight Albertans leaned in tandem, side by corn-fed side, over the gunwale while jockey-ing to land a salmon. The boat didn’t even flinch. And because the Scouts feature center steering consoles, decked out with electronics, and beefy 60 HP four-stroke Yamaha outboards, they’re as quick, responsive and quiet as panthers.
Although it sure wouldn’t hurt to have clocked some time at the helm of a powerboat, little prior experience is necessary. After a day on the water at Rivers Inlet, everyone becomes not only confident manning the tiller, but downright salty. In keeping with the spirit of the operation, Heath remarked that Legacy had contracted for these particular boats (no small investment) precisely so that clients could experience the satisfaction, the freedom really, of “taking out his own boat and poking around.”
Legacy Lodge (877-347-4534, www.legacylodge.com) represents a graceful blend of the old and the new. Though undeniably remote and woodsy, floatplanes promise new-world accessibility. While the accommodations are modern, no small achievement in this rough-hewn setting, the service and amenities amount to pure old-world charm. And while the staff at Legacy nurtures an old-fashioned spirit of independence on the water-you go your own way and fish as hard as you want-as soon as you step foot onto the lodge’s pier you’re treated with a deference normally reserved for the likes of sheikhs, potentates, presidents and Leonardo DiCaprio.
“Wok on the dock” may be described as nothing short of a must-not-miss culinary event.
The fishing itself embodies a potent mix of the old and the new. Legacy, which prides itself as a teaching lodge, equips anglers, both mentally and physically, with everything necessary for mooching-the oldest known method of hook-and-line saltwater fishing in the annals of the sport. Lodge guests are outfitted not only with technologically advanced inshore style boats, but also with the lightest, most responsive angling equipment available today. The herring, of course, are perfectly primordial-a legendary bait.
During the spring, April through May, Legacy Lodge kicks off the year with heli-fishing excursions for wild steelhead in entirely savage rivers draining into B.C.’s coastal outback. The window of opportunity for “traditional” chinook and coho angling in Rivers Inlet occurs from mid-July to mid-September. Then a shorter adjunct season, involving heli-fishing for late-arrival northern coho in secluded backcountry rivers, takes place from late September through most of October.
There’s no way around it: the heli-fishing trips are undeniably pricey. Inordinate measures, namely the necessity of helicopter air-time, entail exorbitant means. On the other hand, Legacy’s traditional inshore salmon fishing packages are, at least by today’s standards, downright reasonable and moderate. If I’m any judge of these things, Legacy Lodge (which first became operational in 2003) is a place-a quietly unique place-bound to be discovered. I predict that it won’t be long, maybe a year or two, before interested parties must resort to arm wrestling each other just to get on the waiting list.
Tea and Texans
At mid-morning, after we had hooked and released gratuitous numbers of salmon, Mick Heath suggested a coffee break. Ironically, given Heath’s background in the designer coffee business, we’re not talking slow-roasted, fresh-ground, Italian-style gourmet java. We’re talking singed boilerplate with overtones of pond sludge and battery acid-in other words, regular old, standard-issue, bulk-brewed, thermos-bruised brown stuff, which masquerades as coffee. But never mind the debatable chemistry and composition of he shipboard coffee, what this was all leading up to was the question of tea…and Texans.
Fellow journalist Tracey Ellis, coordinating editor for B.C. Outdoors SPORTS FISHING, and her daughter Madison, both declined the coffee, but then asked about the possibility of perhaps scoring a spot of tea. “Tea? Tea?” Heath deplored. “We have a rule at Legacy: No tea and no wild Texans allowed.”
Giving us a few moments to turn that concept over in our minds, Heath slurped at his coffee in bemused silence. Then he launched into an assurance that said proclamation should not be construed as political and in no way belied an intent to cast aspersions on the current leader of the free world. And that, yes, he’d only been joking about pansy-ass tea drinkers, too. After a decent interval of quiet rumination – one might say a pregnant pause – I couldn’t resist blurting, “So, what about the Texans?” Still mirthful, but not without the glint of steel in his eye, Heath calmly intoned: “I meant exactly what I said about Texans. The lodge policy is no Texans…Ever.”
It’s clear that Mick Heath enjoys a little controversy now and then, mixed with a constant infusion of good-humored banter and debate. However, when it comes to the health of salmon runs and the destiny of the sport fishery in B.C., Heath is stone-cold serious. Due to stringent management (no targeted net fishery) over the last few years, regional coho populations – once teetering on the very brink of extinction – have staged a remarkable resurgence in Rivers Inlet. Naturally, with this revival has come the renewed threat of exploitation by the commercial fishing industry, the very same culprits responsible for drastically depleting salmon stocks in the first place. Immediately following the collapse of the coho fishery back in the ’90s, both provincial and federal agencies vowed that “never again in our lifetime” would we see the commercial fleet harvesting coho. “Well, guess what?” Heath scoffs. “We must all be dead…because the commercial guys are making noise about getting back in the game. And the politicians are listening.”
In the meantime, rebounding salmon stocks have provided the nutritional slurry necessary to keep the entire food chain in south coastal B.C. lubricated and humming. Every creature has benefited, from the lowliest fungus to the tallest fir, from the deepest-diving Orca to the highest cloud-bumping eagle, from the most in consequential sand mite to the gloriously dreadful and imperious brown bear.
Napalm in the Morning
Even though Rivers Inlet has earned a legitimate reputation as the haunt of distinctly large salmon-coho, particularly, tend to be bigger here than elsewhere because they feed so prodigiously in these headland waters – Legacy has purposefully chosen to downplay, if not ignore, the trophy-fishing mentality. Not that landing an exceptional fish doesn’t warrant celebration; it’s just that hawg hunting, as a primary focus, really isn’t where it’s at. Instead, Legacy prefers to highlight the totality of the island/fjord fishing experience.
The “totality of the experience,” that’s what I’m thinking as we motor through island-studded narrows, inlets and estuarine bays, and into the relatively broad avenue of Darby Channel. After bearing west several miles, we sidle into the curve of a hook-shaped isthmus, which lies between the seemingly endless bulge of the blue Pacific on one side and a jumble of islands, protruding like broken shards of pottery, on the other side. We ease in so close to land that the kettledrum thump of waves pounding into depressions in the rocks reverberate through the boat’s hull. Gulls and pelagic birds whirl and squawk in anticipation. Legions of jelly fish of every size, color and nightmare shape ooze by in the brine, some pulsing and undulating in the current like mutant mucous membranes or huge, unhinged, amorphous lungs.
Roily shrouds of fog and cloud hung in the treetops like tufts of cotton candy. Because of its proximity to open ocean, this is one of the areas where humpbacks approach so close you’re apt to be con-fronted with the great beast’s breath. It’s hard to describe. Think compost-drenched, methane and Limburger, rotten-scum, maggot-gagging hyper-halitosis. Now think whale-sized compost-drenched, methane and Limburger, rotten-scum, maggot-gagging hyper-halitosis. And you begin to get the picture.
Speaking of monumental odors, Heath bent over and pried open the lid to the herring cooler, the same cooler (and contents thereof) that had resided at the back of the boat for the last three days. God’s truth, I’m not making this up. Heath stood ramrod straight, deeply inhaled and then gleefully observed, “Don’t you just love the smell of herring in the morning?”
Buoyed by irredeemably pungent jack-tar humor, Heath just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pay homage to the immortal words of Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now 1979): “You smell that? Do you smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Or moldering herring…
Although the boat-dock staff instructs clients to follow an almost clinically detailed procedure for threading plug-cut herring onto mooching rigs, Heath shrugged it off as another “ritual” of the sport. He maintains that if you’re fishing in the right place, at the right time, at the right speed (achingly slow for kings, much quicker for coho) and at the right depth, you’re going to hook salmon on herring, any herring (fresh, ripe, or v-e-r-y ripe) whether it’s executing a perfect barrel-roll or merely flopping around like a dishrag. “Forget all that stuff about getting the right roll,” says Heath.” If you just get that herring-any crippled looking herring will do-in front of fish, they’ll take it. It’s an easy meal and salmon are opportunists.”
Maybe Heath is right. On the other hand, maybe the frequency in which salmon are hooked at Rivers Inlet is more a testament to the place than to the methodology. Perhaps anglers at Legacy Lodge have been spoiled, not only by the embracing beauty of the place, but by the sheer quantities of rapacious salmon.
All I know is that the chafe of salt water, not to mention the abundant caloric content of the sea-payloads-of-prey and forage-on-the-fin-produces fish of incendiary temperament. Ocean-hooked coho light up like Roman candles.