The topwater bass of the northern Pacific.
[by Seth Norman]
I GREW UP IN THE ARIZONA DESERT, finding fossilized snails where once there was an ocean. I believed tarantulas descended from crabs and scorpions from lobsters; that snakes evolved from eels and blue-belly lizards from tropical fish that replaced their fins with legs when their reefs became caliche arroyos. I wondered if the Sonora remembered its lost sea, and if it was bitter. Because I knew that I should’ve been surrounded by water and forests, stalking shorelines with my Zebco 202.
I made do with irrigation canals and water hazards on golf courses. At age 10, I launched my first topwater plug into a pond beside a fairway. The Jitterbug had nearly reached my boots when a largemouth blew it out of the water and into the rough. An omen. I chose Leaping Bass as my Indian Guide name, and still consider a surface bass strike, especially with a fly rod popper, to be one of angling’s premier moments.
But I never stopped dreaming of a world surrounded by water, and of land sweetened by more generous skies. A place like Haida Gwaii.
An archipelago of 150 islands off the northern coast of British Columbia, once commonly known as the Queen Charlottes, “The Land of the Haida” is temperate rain forest, wet but not too cold, a unique biocultural zone known as the Galapagos of the North. Humans settled here 13,000 years ago, but for millennia the Haida have remained separate enough from other First Nations to retain an isolate language and distinctive culture. After contact, smallpox nearly wiped out the tribe; for generations, the survivors fought to recapture their share of the world. Eventually they won, and are determined to manage their land and waters as though coming generations matter.
The Lodge at Englefield Bay is part of that effort, one of three destinations managed for the Haida Enterprise Corporation by Westcoast Resorts. It has no footprint on land, but floats on a platform moored in a protected channel close to 14 named fishing grounds, some sheltered, others out in the Pacific. Guests fly by chartered plane from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Sandspit, then to the lodge dock on a Sikorsky helicopter.
More than half the 46 guests tend to be returnees, which says something. They arrive expecting excellent meals and service in a spectacular land-and-sea wilderness—remote, ancient, but fresh with every tide. They arrive expecting to troll from 18-foot skiffs for large king salmon, along with cohos, pinks, and chums if they want them. Most will also bounce the bottom for halibut, lingcod, and yellow eye. Limits are strictly enforced, but anglers leave with enough
fillets to lighten a family’s bad cholesterol.
What Englefield’s guests don’t bring—or haven’t, but should—are 6-weight fly rods rigged with floating lines, a handful of poppers, divers, and sinking flies, and the faith that they will find the most maniacal, and virtually unknown, topwater “bass” action in North America.
And I almost missed it. A friend named Peter Ormisher arranged a conversation with Westcoast’s Shawna McKay. Because I rarely fish conventional tackle these days, I was about to decline her invitation, when two possibilities came to mind. I’d flyfished from the bow of a party boat mooching king salmon off San Francisco—the crazy captain’s idea—and had landed seven; then, on two weeklong fly fishing explorations off Southeast Alaska islands I’d taken silvers from the salt. Was this something I could try at Englefield?
“Absolutely,” said Shawna, though as far as she knew no one had ever done so.
Ah. But I had a second scenario, a wild one, an experiment I’d wanted to try for years.
On that second Alaska trip a partner and I caught a species no True Sportsman bothered to fish for and which I’d never forgotten. Not glamorous, not enormous—just flat-out lunatic, a fish that looked like a lightly charred largemouth with oversize fins, fought like a smallmouth, and traveled in schools as vicious as an Oakland street gang. We’d caught a couple pulling ALF streamers deep behind a Zodiac for salmon. Curious, we started casting sinking lines, and every fish we fought to the boat was followed by two or three of its schoolmates attacking the fly. Soon after, we were surrounded by what looked like a slow-motion bonito boil—fish on top, everywhere.
Twice I was certain a fish had slammed my ALF before I’d slapped it down, so I dangled the fly over the side with only its tail fibers touching the surface, and a three-pound thug leaped clear and swallowed it on the way down. I heard cork rings crack. The next fish ripped poor ALF out of the air at six inches above sea level.
Our mother ship captain called them black bass, in the same way an Atlantic salmon purist would say carp. I guess he’d never caught a bass on a golf course, because if any fish ever deserved to be called the Leaper, a black bass is it.
Ever since then, I told Shawna, I’d imagined catching these fish on a light fly rod and poppers.
“So do black bass live in Englefield’s waters?”
“Not by that name,” she said. But there was a species locally called bombers that Shawna thought matched my description. Nobody fished for them—she politely declined to add, Why would they?—but if this was something I wanted to do . . . Of course she also hoped I’d sample Englefield’s calling card, conventional trolling for salmon, and maybe spend a few hours bottom bouncing.
“Of course. I’d be delighted.”
So would my friend Steve Grieser, an angler with similarly eclectic tastes. “You’d make a fine rod bearer,” I told him. “You can call me sir or bwana, so long as you sound sincere.”
I’d never flown in a helicopter. With Steve, and me, and another large fellow jammed onto a narrow bench seat, I’ve rarely been so compressed, but the trip was brief, and thrilling, and we unfolded onto the lodge dock barely dog-eared. We had a few minutes to examine our impressive quarters, listen to a welcome speech followed by instructions, then, donning slickers and boots and collecting thermoses and snacks, we were boarding an open-bowed skiff and shaking our captain’s hand within 40 minutes of touchdown.
Captain Jake was a young guy with excellent manners who fly fishes himself, off-season on the mainland. No, he’d never fly fished around Englefield. No, he didn’t know anyone who had. But whatever we wanted, and whenever. Still, he said, “You know kings are cruising between fifty and ninety feet about now, eh?”
Oh. Two or three times as deep as I’d hoped they’d be. So, maybe today we’ll leave the fly rods in the holders and fish conventional.
Fine by Jake. And I might have been disappointed, at least a little, if the Haida Gwaii proved to be conventional instead of, as poet Ted Hughes wrote, the realm of Savage Gods.