Bombers on the Haida Gwaii

(photo courtesy of Amanda Siebert, Westcoast Resorts)

Steep-timbered cliffs confined the channel where the lodge floats, and the water was flat and barely dimpled by rain. We rounded an island into an inlet bordered by mountains. In the distance lay an opening to the Pacific. Closer by, a trio of lodge skiffs trolled off a point.

Jake brought the boat up on plane as the sky opened and the sun shattered the world into a mosaic of blues and grays framed by umber cliffs where waves foamed against stone and mountains towered in violent angularity, impossibly forested by towering firs and spruce rising from every cleft and crevasse, summer snow glistening on peaks massed with clouds.

“Not bad,” Steve said into my ear.

The sky closed behind a wall of rain. The outboard snarled, swells slapped the hull, and spray hissed against our jackets, but there was a strange sense of silence as I became, for the moment, a desert boy again, deafened by majesty. So much water. So much life. And with it a soupçon of fear. Octopus five yards across. Stellar sea lions with skulls identical in shape and size to grizzlies. Orcas that feed on those sea lions, along with seals, sea otters, and humpback whales—not to mention the salmon we were after.

Easy to get lost in all that. And better not to, when it’s time to fish.

Jake began marking masses of confetti-colored pixels on the fishfinder. “I think we’ll start here.”

He sliced the heads off herrings, cutting at angles calculated to create spin, then impaled them on paired hooks tied to leaders clipped to downriggers. After lead balls the size of grapefruit dropped our baits to a predetermined depth, Jake explained that our jobs was to hold the long trolling rods, and when a fish hit, to strike back with a sweep strong enough to trip the leader clip and loose the ball weight. Then, we would fight.

HaidaGwaii2

Englebridge Bay Lodge Instructor Matt Dahl, pressuring a berserker heading down (photo courtesy of Amanda Siebert, Westcoast Resorts)

I proved there’s a trick to striking fish by missing two. Steve hit one and broke it off. By the time our baits were down again, we were both strung as tight as our lines.

The next fish stayed on, though. Its first run jammed the rod butt into my belly. A blur of monofilament raced off the reel spool.

Tuna may be faster, but hooking a big chinook feels like snagging a javelin in flight. Some spear the surface immediately, then again over and over, twisting in midair. Others fight deep forever, then rush up so quickly, the belly of your line is still a dozen feet down when the fish explodes from the water.

You have to remember to breathe.

Big kings in these waters run to 45 pounds, sometimes pushing 60. Anything over 30 is called a tyee. Catch one, and you’ve joined a club. But an eight-pound silver is a kick on this tackle, and so were the smaller pinks we released. Our 12- to 20-pound kings left grins in our beards. After three hours we settled for two-fish limits of double-digit chinooks and a coho—a haul anglers might need days to catch south of the border. By then we’d been joined by other lodge boats, a small armada waltzing loops defined by a point, kelp beds, and a cliff rising into mist.

And then it was time to plumb the depths.

Jake motored out to where the sonar shows the seabed 250 feet down. He handed us rods thick as thumbs armed with coffee-grinder reels, 80-pound-test lines terminating at 16-ounce sinkers and 6/0 circle hooks. Jake rammed six-inch strips of salmon belly past the hook barbs, tasty baits, and tough.

Depending on your point of view, bottom fishing’s either a sport or an upper body workout with benefits. On one hand, I’m always eager to see what rises from the dark: lingcod with mouths like a lion and yellow eyes like a giant goldfish gone Goth; halibut large enough to cover an old Cadillac’s hood, looking like they should be hunted with packs of dogs. On the other hand is the one I reel with. I don’t know how many revolutions are needed to crank up a fish from 250 feet down, but after three dozen drops, I missed fishing for small-stream brook trout.

But, benefits: In two hours, Steve and I had more pounds of fish in the box than we’d kept in years. And by lodge standards, as we found out at evening weigh-in, we’d done well, giving “those fly fishing guys” modest credibility.

Dinner was first class and friendly, with half a dozen family groups and pals who’d been here before. Our entrées were excellent, our wineglasses were always filled, and between courses a tablemate channeled Jonathan Winters.

The second morning we set out to explore possibility two. We were halfway to yesterday’s fishing grounds when Jake pointed to a kelp bed extending into a channel. “Bombers!” he shouted over the wind.

I’d done some homework. Bombers, aka black bass, black rockfish, black rock cod, black snapper (or red, when skinned for market). By any name, Sebastes melanops is a quick-growing, long-lived species with an unusually high reproductive rate and remarkably low levels of natural mortality. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, these traits, regulations, and a preference for “rougher terra” have kept their population “healthy and abundant,” unlike other species of Pacific rockfish. How deep they live is still a mystery. NOAA puts their range at 83 to 200 fathoms, but a more reassuring report from Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife says 0 to 40 fathoms.

A spread like that makes all the difference for fly fishing, so I was thinking fathoms as we motored closer. What if Englefield’s bombers, like its kings, are beyond reach? The kelp bed suggested otherwise. If they’re here.

“They will be,” said Jake.

We started out throwing Clouser Minnows on sinking-tip lines. Nothing touched our first casts. I let my second sink, then stripped twice, and the line tore off at an angle. I set hard, and a fish pulled back harder. My 6-weight dived like a dowsing rod, and my drag chattered.

So did Steve’s. We both grunted “Got one!”

“They’re here, eh?” Jake said.

And things only got better from there.

We never found a concentrated school, but
we found bombers lurking at the shelf edge and between kelp rows. Then we switched to poppers, fishing pockets among the fronds, classic structure-fishing for largemouths. The biggest fish were deeper, but the best were those that went airborne, jumping completely out of the water to crash down on our flies.

HaidaGwaii1

Capt. Jake Henderson with a fat bomber. (photo by Seth Norman)

We’d no idea why this species does that, but it was obvious why they’re called bombers. We laughed about that, and laughed a lot more when landing fish—three pounds, four, a bruiser pushing six. We coerced Jake into the game, and while we were playing triples, the boat went into party mode—giggling fits, bellows of “Did you see that?”

We experimented with flies. A Tullis Wiggler became my favorite, but Steve laid down the trump. “This fish,” he growled around a pipe stem, rod bowed to the waterline. “Wait until you see what it took.” It was a deer-hair mouse tied on a 2/0 hook.

We kept five, at Jake’s insistence. Two pulled the dock scale down to eight pounds. (Think eight-pound smallmouth, 6-weight, popper.) Though not much bigger than halibut bait, our bombers drew the attention of a half-dozen anglers on the dock. That many more asked questions during dinner, then later at the bar. Many had considered bringing a fly rod, but just couldn’t think of a reason.

Next time.

We repeated our bomber missions over the next few days. We also caught salmon on flies, and while fishing alone one day, our boat drifted through a full circle of double rainbows, a light show we’re still not quite sure was real. But those are other stories.

On the flight out, the copter pilot invited me to sit in the cockpit, and we flew over the kind of land- and seascapes I’d dreamed about as a boy. I wondered if the Sonora had looked like this, long ago. And I decided at Haida Gwaii, a desert son—now Old Leaping Bass—had found his namesake. 


Seth Norman has written the “Master of Meander” column at California Fly Fisher for 22 years, reviews books for Fly Rod & Reel, and is finishing his third collection of essays and short stories. He received a Robert Travers Fly-Fishing Writing Award, a Lifetime Achievement in Writing Award from the International Federation of Fly Fishers, and a Pulitzer Prize nomination for investigative reporting on police corruption in Oakland, California.

For more info on Westcoast Resorts, visit their Travel Directory page by clicking HERE.