Langara Fishing Adventures

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201-4440 Cowley Crescent
Richmond, BC
Canada V7B 1B8

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The School of Fish

by Tim Taylor, for Air Canada's Enroute Magazine

Fifteen minutes out of Nimpo Lake, B.C., we’ve found the bush. We’ve clipped out over the trees in our Cessna four-seater loaded with fishing and camera gear, cleared the top of a dense green valley. Up over the shoulder of the Ilgachuz Range, the roadless bush east of Tweedsmuir Provincial Park rolls ahead of us, and dozens of lakes come into view: Tilgatgo, Eliguk, Basalt, names marked only on the largest scale topo maps. Our pilot, Garth, points out Moose Lake, a ribbon of mirrored water nestled in folds of slate green. He aims one wing at the sky, the other at the ground. Robert, my fishing companion and trip photographer, wedges himself against the fuselage, aiming a lens bandaged in gaffing tape at the fishing camp: Moosehead Lodge, a cluster of log structures at the waterline, the only visible speck of human development below.

“This would be the wilderness!” I yell as we drop into a steep descent, which provokes a grin and a gesture at the fast-approaching water. “And those would be the fish!” he yells back.

Moosehead is owned by Vancouver-based Langara Fishing Adventures, but from the 1940s up until recently, the lodge was a retreat for American executives and board members of the Far West Insurance Company. That earlier tenure has culturally stamped the place. It’s old-style in a good way. Dockside, we’re welcomed by Harry and Eileen, long-time lodge hosts coming up on retirement. With his battered hat and permanent sunburn, Harry is the go-to guy on all matters relating to fish and boats. Eileen takes care of everything else, notably the food which is non-stop from the moment we arrive. Smoked trout and fresh cookies are waiting in the main cabin. Tommy Dorsey is playing on the lodge stereo. A fire roars in the stone hearth. Beers are racked in the fridge behind the fully stocked bar, and there are cane rods hanging on the walls under an enormous moose head. Somehow a Bob Hope Christmas Special comes to mind. It’s that kind of place.

Harry arranges fly-out trips to even more remote locations, but we’ve decided to stay put and fish the lake. It’s a pristine spot with rugged fir and spruce forests stretching to the horizon and exquisite morning silence. Our first day out, with the lodge more than a kilometre back around the bend, we fish the shallows with dry flies. Our lines and fly patterns float across the water, a silent enticement to fish feeding on the surface. There isn’t a sound beyond a breath of wind, and the incomparable, meditative calm of fly-fishing descends.

Of course, Moose Lake’s fish are the real draw. This is one of the last pure wild rainbow stocks in all of North America, and they’re down there in the thousands, even if we’re not hitting them. From the reedy swaths on the south shore to the rusty shallows where the forest leans over the lake, we can see them. Not dorsal splashes or rings either, but fish jumping clear out of the water, escalating through the afternoon. At some point, empty-handed on mayfly patterns, we just haul in lines and watch. Trout are breaking the surface everywhere, twisting up at the lowering sky.

Harry sets us straight over chicken Kiev that evening. The mornings are cloudy and dark. Not much insect action. “They might be shaking lice,” he explains. “But they aren’t eating on the surface.”

The next morning, we switch to wet flies and sinking lines, taking our patterns below the surface to where Harry thinks the fish are feeding. I get nothing on a stonefly nymph as the trout start to jump again. I start to wonder what could better prove my perennial noviciate status as an angler than to be skunked in the middle of this aerial ballet of pan-size trout. An hour into this, we try the humble leech, a black feathery pattern that slicks down in the water. We mooch these, making the pattern move through the water with touches on the rod or the motor. And Moose Lake opens like a vault. Hits everywhere. Nice sizes. They don’t fight like shad or even Chinook, but the wild rainbow does not lack for dramatic flair. A photographer’s dream, these Shakespearean fish, surrendering with long runs and anguished leaps, wide-arching belly flops and final assaults on the sky.

The feeding riddle solved, we can catch as many as we want, but we release all but three during our entire stay at Moosehead. Three for the pan on the day Eileen does a cookout: beans, hash browns, trout rolled in cornflakes and browned to a crisp over the fire. I eat mine looking over the log cabins and the lake, thinking that little has changed here since the early Far West Insurance days. Those pictures in the lodge – the cheery, red-nosed guys in their yellow slacks, posing with their catch – could have been taken yesterday. And standing by this rare lake that bristles with wild trout, I, too, could be travelling back to an earlier wilderness.

I’d happily stay back in time, but there is another leg in our journey. Two days later, we fly 500 kilometres west to Langara Island at the very tip of the Queen Charlottes. This is remote country of a very different kind with slick black rocks, forbidding rain forest and a punishing, unpredictable sea full of humpback whales, sea lions and, most importantly, the salmon Canadians call Chinook and Americans call simply King: a nine- to 23-kilogram fish, which feeds on herring on the way to spawning grounds in B.C.’s coastal rivers..

Langara Island itself is steep sided and thickly forested. There are two lodges on the high shore, but more float on barges tucked into Henslung Cove at the relatively sheltered south end. Langara Fishing Lodge is undoubtedly the finest of these floating facilities, with two linked barges forming a marina and housing an excellent restaurant run by chef Jean Peeters, a bar and cabins for 65 guests. It’s like a well-appointed, very busy hotel that has dropped from the sky into a remote corner of Canada.

Robert and I arrive on what Langara dock staff call Groundhog Day, when those finishing a five-day tour are rotated out for another set of guests. Fresh from the tranquility of trout fishing, we are slightly stunned by the intensity of the Chinook hunt. Helicopters thud in over the trees. Van Morrison blasts from the dock shack as the young staffers fire up the outboards. Beaver float planes roar down Parry Passage, loaded with supplies and new guides who rush from the planes to prep for the guests doing orientation in the floating lounge. A guide everyone calls Opera-man has come all the way from Toronto today, setting aside professional singing for another tour on the water. “Every time I’d have a bad day down east,” he tells me, chopping frozen bait herring, “I’d think, ‘I could be fishing at Langara!’”.

Bob Hope comes up again, coincidentally. Turns out he has actually been to the Langara Fishing Lodge and loved the excitement of the scene, where the action centres on the weigh scales at the top of the jetty. Here, from first light, when we all scramble from our sacks and into our Mustang survival suits, to the last orange tendrils of sunset, fishermen gather to weigh catch, to kibitz and to compare results on the suspended white board.

Sadly, we’re getting skunked again, but not on coho salmon, a smaller species that is plentiful in these waters. In the trout fishing spirit of things, we catch and release seven of these in the first day and half of fishing. But no big ones. The Chinook are simply not going for our herring, which in a feeding fishery like this one means we’re fishing the wrong spots. We’ve tried Cohoe and Andrews Points, even scooted across the passage to Bruin Bay. No King. Forty-eight hours after we arrive – sticking to our plan to release coho and keep only Chinook – we become the subject of in-lodge murmuring for the conspicuously blank spots next to our names at the weigh scale leader board.

Bill Gibson, lodge boss at Langara, takes a personal interest. Bill is a fisherman who is so experienced, so good, that he no longer fishes the Chinook with fresh bait. No sport in it. Instead, he ties his own artificial herring patterns and works these off a heavy gauge ocean fly rod. This is Everest without oxygen. This is bow-killed grizzly. A degree of authenticity not available to everybody. But Bill wants us to get Chinook, so he lines us up with Jan Oord, one of Langara’s most experienced guides. Jan, a man impressively economical with words, eyeballs us and announces, “We’re going to put some blood in this boat.”

The trick, we learn, is finding the bait ball, where the density of the herring school is highest. Fishing the perimeter of the ball, your cut plug herring should loop through the water like it’s wounded, attracting Chinook in the area. With Jan at the helm, we hit King in less than an hour. We know it from the first strike, from the first bend in the rod, because a Chinook on the line bolts for depth and rides the bottom roughly like you’ve hooked into an old Buick. With an angry fish fighting every rotation of the reel, you then have to keep them tensioned, let them run when the mood takes them and wait until they tire out. A weakling might give up in 10 minutes, a more energetic fish in 30. And even though I lose a tricky one that doubles back on the surface and snaps the leader, and Robert loses a big one to a tonne and a half of sea lion that takes his fish off the line two metres from the boat, Jan still puts us over enough bait to hit our catch limits in about four hours.

We fly back into Vancouver a few days later toting enormous boxes of frozen fish, 36 kilograms of Chinook salmon between us. We’ve come down over the Silverthrone Glacier, frozen shelves cracking over granite peaks, flowing velvet white down into the valley flumes. And this has given way again to lakes. In the Garibaldi Highlands, I can make out turquoise water and apple green clear-cuts; streams tendrilling down toward the city and logging roads working their way up the slopes, the tail ends of the vein and artery system of wilderness and development. The serenity of Moose Lake is still close. So, too, is the adrenal rush of Langara. And I imagine that we are leaving behind a wilderness with two sides. Small fish, big fish. Fly versus bait. Silent lake water or unforgiving ocean. The yin-yang of B.C.’s angling soul, to remember as the city leaps up around us.

This article is reprinted with permission and originally appeared in the Air Canada magazine Enroute.

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