Story and Photos by Tom Davis
This is an excerpt taken from the magazine B.C. Outdoors November/December 2014 Edition which reports on a charter taken with Silver Blue
GABRIOLA ISLAND IS LOCATED NEAR THE BUSTLING Vancouver Island city of Nanaimo. Nanaimo has been known as the Hub City for decades because of its central location on the east coast of Vancouver Island midway between Victoria and Campbell River.
The name also has origins based on the regions long history as an economic and transportation center built on a resource-based economy, dating back to 1869 when Robert Dunsmuir began to mine coal near Wellington.
Other industries like forestry, pulp and paper and commercial fishing have all played a significant role in the community’s development. The forest industry is still a significant contributor to the economy but commercial fishing has declined substantially and mining has disappeared.
Today’s Nanaimo boasts a very diverse and modern economic base which includes a strong recreational component. Within that recreational base sport fishing plays an important role. In many respects the Nanaimo saltwater fishery reminds me of my home waters of Victoria. Nanaimo has excellent year-long fishing opportunities and a large resident angler base. However, there are a few differences in the species offish that anglers go after. The Victoria waterfront fishery is based on Chinook salmon, then halibut, followed by fall run coho, Fraser River pinks on the dominant years and sockeye when openings allow for limited sport fisheries.
Nanaimo offers yearlong Chinook fishing, both summer and fail coho opportunities, odd year Fraser River pinks as well as local pen-reared pink salmon and lingcod as the back-up fishery when salmon angling is slow. In fact the northern Gulf Islands and the scores of smaller islets, rocks and underwater structure within minutes of Nanaimo harbor provide exceptional habitats for lingcod and other bottom fish species. Resident and tourist anglers do support a modest full time charter fleet whose numbers increase with part time guides operating in the summer months. What is interesting is that charter boats from Vancouver regularly cross Georgia Strait to fish hot spots like Thrasher Rock.
Nanaimo also has a strong sport fishing support base with chain retailers like Wholesale Sports, and specialty tackle shops like The Harbour Chandler and Gone Fishing along with boat dealership and services businesses. The well-known tackle shops have skilled anglers on staff who are able to provide accurate, up to date information on current fishing conditions. Because of Nanaimo’s location on the island, these shops not only carry proven tackle for local waters but also stock items that anglers need when fishing other well-known West Coast, central and northern Vancouver Island hotspots.
Gabriola Island is the most northerly and one of the more heavily populated Gulf Islands. Its shoreline boasts some of the region’s best fishing waters. Excellent angling can be had from Orlebar Point and Entrance Island to the north, and all long its sweeping shoreline to Whalebone, the waterfall and the Grande. Past the entrance to Silva Bay, anglers work the Flat Tops and Thrasher Rock across to the Green Can.
Although it is not the hub of Nanaimo’s sport fishing activity in a geographic sense, it is a primary destination for Nanaimo fishermen. Other fishing locations north of Gabriola Island include Snake Island, the Fingers and along the shoreline towards Nanoose Bay. BC Ferries, whose terminal is centrally located on the downtown waterfront, provides regular access to the island and the trip only takes about 20 minutes.
Bob Meyer, the owner of Silver Blue Charters, has lived on Gabriola Island for 44 years and has operated his charter service from Silva Bay for nearly three decades. While I was in the sport fishing business I knew of him by reputation only. About ten years ago I phoned him to ask for some angling information in his area, and through many subsequent phone calls since we developed a good relationship although we had never met. When Bob learned that I was getting out of the fishing tackle business he asked me to join him on a fishing trip. Since both of us were old-school herring strip fishermen with close to half a century’s fishing experience each, chasing down chinooks and other salmon species, I jumped at the offer to compare techniques and stories about our fishing pasts. Bob is also one of a handful of full-time Nanaimo charter captains and is considered to be a fishing legend by local anglers because of his knowledge of the area’s hotspots and ability to put his clients into fish. In a recent conversation I had with Dane Christiansen, who manages the tackle department at The Harbour Chandler, he validated Bob’s fishing credentials by referring to the waters around Gabriola Island as “Bobby’s World”.
We planned our trip for August 6th as it coincided with a break in Bob’s very busy charter schedule. At the time we set the date for our trip Bob told me that this year’s spring and early summer fishing off Gabriola had been fantastic with lots of feeder Chinooks from 10 to 20 pounds and a good number of bigger mature fish. They were also experiencing decent action on coho salmon, and pinks from the local net pen projects. However in a more recent call, Bob reported that the action had dropped off significantly. This was very uncharacteristic as the area usually produces good catches of feeders and mature salmon at this time of the year. Average trips with at least a half dozen hook ups had turned into scratch fishing for one or two good hits per trip. Because of Bob’s charter schedule and the looming deadline for this article we decided to take the chance, realizing that fishing can be a fickle adventure and that fishing and catching are not always synonymous activities.
My instructions were to be on the six am Gabriola ferry. It order to get there I was awake by three am and out of the house within an hour, loaded with a selection of tackle that Bob recommended for fishing his waters. Having spent the last fifteen years chasing after big summer Chinooks Juan de Fuca style, which means using large, slower rolling anchovies rigged with very long leaders behind Hot Spot flashers, it took awhile to get my head around Bob’s recommended tactics and presentations. His principal weapons are setups that I would normally use for more aggressive feeding fish, but given that passing fish and feeders make up a large proportion of the catch in his home waters, his gear choices made a lot of sense. Besides, I had only fished Gabriola once before and Bob had a lifetime of knowledge, so I was in no position to second guess him. Green Tiny Teasers with tiny strip on a four and a half to five foot leader and small to medium sized Cop Car, Irish Cream, Bob Marley and Kitchen Sink spoons share top billing, while green splatter back hoochies and small jigs make up the balance of his lure arsenal. Green, chartreuse, UV, plaid and highly reflective full sized holographic flashers complete the terminal tackle presentation. Bob trolls slightly faster than most and hooks up with most of his fish between 100 and 200 feet down on the riggers. Basically Nanaimo is a year round deep water fishery with anglers thinking nothing of going beyond 200 feet to find fish.
When I arrived at the ferry terminal I met Jim Goehringer, a life-long Nanaimo resident and avid fisherman. Jim and Bob are good friends and fishing partners and he was coming along to complete our crew for the day. Bob met us at the other side and within a half hour we were on his 26 foot Sea Ray heading towards Thrasher Rock which was our destination for the morning. This was the only area that had been producing some fish for his charters over the last few days, and while the fishing was still scratchy, he felt there had been some improvement over the previous week.
The plan was simple. Bob would stay on the wheel to keep us exactly on the right tack while Jim and I ran the gear. We were going to work the waters between the “hook” at the southeast. end of Thrasher Rock and the “green can” closer to the Valdes Island shoreline. According to Bob this was an old commercial trolling tack that over the years had produced plenty of quality catches for his clients. It can be fished along the shallow contour, at mid depths and over deep water and salmon may be in any or all parts of the water column. Bob recommended that we only start with the lures that had been working for him in recent days. So out came the Tiny strip in green Tiny Teasers rigged on five-foot leaders behind glow green Hot Spot Flashers. Under our host’s instructions I ran the starboard rigger and set the gear at 120 feet, while Jim set his bait slightly deeper at 135 feet off the port side rigger. The only difference between the two presentations was that I had cut some thicker and slightly longer Tiny Strip the night before. I also rigged the lure with a small treble hook to set into the bait with a swiveled trailing 1/0 Siwash single hook. Jim’s rig used a standard Tiny Teaser with one single hook trailing at or near the tail. The idea behind the thicker strip and the trailing single hook is to provide a bit more control to the bait action, very much like anchovy anglers do to change the action and/or bait speed when using bait heads with whole anchovy or herring baits. It is a strip fishing technique that we developed in Sidney and used with great success at other areas on the coast where small herring or needlefish were the prime forage for salmon.
We were fishing the last of the ebb tide and with gear in the water by 7:15 AM we had about an hour until the low water slack. It did not take long for our first fish to slam the strip rigged with the tandem hook set up. It was a decent sized fish that produced some good runs followed by a few exciting moments near the boat before Jim slid the net under it. Bob quickly turned the boat and ran back to the same spot while Jim and I re rigged and set the gear at the same depths. On the second pass we released a couple of small Chinooks and a few coho grilse but nothing bigger. Half way through the third pass and almost exactly on the turn of the tide the same combination fired again. I had just checked the strip and modified the action to produce a slower/tighter roll, dropped it to 120 feet and set the rod in the holder. Before I could turn away the rod snapped free and the tip jerked downwards twice before going slack. A good hit but the fish clearly missed the hooks.
On every pass the sounder lit up with stacks of bait and at times we saw feed boiling on the surface and were able to identify it as the progeny of this year’s herring spawn. This provided ample support for Bob’s decision to go with setups that matched the forage as closely as possible (both standard and tiny sized herring strip is now being cut in Victoria, BC and are available at selected Vancouver Island tackle dealers). These two solid strikes in a fairly short time period and under what had recently been slow fishing conditions proved that paying attention to details, in this case knowing the type and size of the feed in the area and checking the action of your baits regularly, does pay off.
The action died over the next half hour so Bob decided to move out into deeper water. Both Jim and I checked our gear before dropping the lures to new depth settings. I went to 160 feet while Jim lowered his strip to 180 feet. Jim had just picked out a new piece of strip that was perfectly cut. It had every scale in place and flashed a perfect mix of chrome, green and dark blue colours prompting both of us to simultaneously say “that ought to get one”. Within minutes his rod was off the rigger and we were into what appeared to be a really good fish. Jim passed the rod to Bob so the skipper could have some fun. One of the ironies of running a charter fishing business is that the skippers rarely get to play any fish. It was easy to see from the big grin on his face that he was thoroughly enjoying being the guest for a few minutes rather than the man in charge.
Using one of his favorite Shimano Tekota level wind reels on an Ugly Stik “Tiger” rod he had the fish to the boat in about ten minutes. This is the type of setup he prefers for his customers because it is easier for novice anglers to use than the more popular single action reels that resident BC saltwater anglers prefer. Although it turned out to be a twin to the first fish, it put up a much better fight.
This was the last Chinook on the morning bite. We tried to trigger some action by mixing anchovies and spoons into a rotation with the Tiny strip on my side of the boat while keeping Jim’s side loaded with the productive combination. Note to all anglers: When fishing Chinooks you can make changes on one or two rods if they are not producing, but never pull the gear that’s been recently getting fish for you. That set up will act as your range finder should another bite come on. If you are constantly diving into the tackle box you may miss multiple fish and never know it. If nothing is working then by all means experiment. Coho can be the exception because over the course of a few hours they can turn off a hot lure and switch to something else without warning. So if the hot rig stops producing coho and other boats around you are taking fish try changing depth or speed, pick another lure or switch colours.
Tide changes trigger the bite because this is when everything in the food chain, including surface feeders like diving birds, gulls and cormorants become active. Our morning experience at Thrasher Rock was a classic tide change bite with two hits and one fish landed prior to the low water slack and our second fish coming aboard about half an hour after the change. Then we experienced a very precipitous drop in activity. In many areas of the coast anglers head for home when the bite shuts down but Nanaimo fishermen have another option to extend their time on the water. It is fishing for lingcod or “linging” as Bob calls it. This was real treat for me because I haven’t intentionally gone after ling cod since I moved my boat from Sidney out to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. And fresh lingcod cooked in the frying pan with lots of butter, some spices and a bit of salt is one of my favorite foods. So we quickly put the trolling rods away, pulled out his level wind reels and moved onto the shallow water shelf that surrounds Thrasher Rock.
On the previous day Bob had put his clients into a limit of good sized lings in a matter of minutes. Once the boat came to a stop, Jim and I quickly rigged some eight to nine-inch whole herring on tandem single hooks with about an eight ounce weight and dropped them 50 feet to the bottom. Surprisingly nothing happened. After about 20 minutes we had only mustered up one strike so we picked up and moved to the humps outside the Rock where we settled over a 70 foot pinnacle. About a minute after my bait hit the bottom I was into a powerful ling cod that was determined not to come to the surface. Since Jim was fishing right beside me he pulled his herring to the surface to avoid a tangle only to have a prime ling chase his bait the top and grab it just below the surface. Once we found the right spot we had two fish in the box in minutes.
Bob likes large herring for lings, but smaller natural baits also work as do colourful jigs fished on their own or tipped with pieces of herring. In the early 1950’s, a few years before my father started his fishing lure business, he fished ling cod commercially using a rod and reel. While doing this he developed a special technique. Instead of throwing away the skins from rockfish that he took while fishing for lings he cut these skins into good sized strips and trolled them slowly over the ling cod reefs. I was too young to go out in the boat with him so I never saw him do this but he often told me that is was an extremely effective presentation. Our two cod weighed about 10 and 15 pounds which just the ideal size for multiple meals of lingcod. It seems that the reef structure around Nanaimo and Gabriola Island is perfect lingcod habitat and the stocks appear to be strong and healthy. As a result, lingcod offer a great option for anglers on a slow salmon day or, as in our case, an enjoyable way to finish what was already a successful morning’s fishing at Gabriola Island, one of the sport fishing gems in Georgia Strait.
For information about Silver Blue Charters contact Bob Meyer at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 250-247-8807.*
Reprinted from Sport Fishing – BC Outdoors Magazine – www.bcoutdoorsmagazine.com