I recently enjoyed a fishing trip in May to Langara Island, a rather remote part of North America. Langara is the northern-most island of the Haida Gwai archipelago that comprises some 150 islands in northwest British Columbia. Formerly called the Queen Charlotte Islands, Haida Gwai, (islands of the People), became the official name of this island group in 2009.
Langara island lies about 580 miles, NNW of Vancouver B.C. The two largest islands are Moresby to the south and Graham to the north. Langara sits at the northwest corner of Graham Island. To the north is the Dixon Entrance, to the east Hecate Strait, and to the West, open sea to Asia. Prince of Wales Island (Alaska) lies 30 miles to the northeast.
The Haida People:
The Haida people were an amazingly hearty and artistic aboriginal band that inhabited these islands for at least 9,000 years. They also occupied many of the neighboring islands and portions of the Alaskan panhandle. For those not familiar with the Haida people, I will present a brief sketch of their cultural history. One of their enduring legacies is their distinctive art form characterized by stylized depictions of the spectacular natural world they inhabited along with many supernatural spirits that dwelt in the primal forests and in the precarious but plentiful seas. Much of their distinctive artistic styles have been preserved and popularized by master Haida artists, foremost of whom was Bill Reid, a native Haida and his students. Another well known Canadian artist, Emily Carr, also portrayed these people and the primal forests that were home to the Haida people.
The rather advanced state of Haida life and culture was likely due to their total mastery of gathering the abundant riches from the sea, streams, and forest, leaving them leisure time for artistic development. For example, they are said to have initiated the totem pole with its natural and mythical figures carved into it with rich and deep meaning. Their mastery of the sea supplied them an abundance of salmon and halibut, both fresh and preserved by smoking. Shellfish were available simply for the picking. Deer and bear were equally plentiful. They were long distance travelers as well, having built ocean-going canoes large enough for up to 60 paddlers, carved from single cedar trees. Referred to as the North American Vikings, they were also known as a warring people who took slaves, raiding as far south as Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, a good 650 miles by sea. There are reports that they ventured as far south as California. Today their descendents still populate the islands whose economy is now based on logging and commercial and sport and fishing.
With the arrival of Europeans, primarily Spanish and English, the Haida supplied them with sea otter and fur seal pelts as long as the animal populations and the Haida themselves survived. Sadly, like most other native peoples of North America, their numbers were drastically diminished by small pox and other European diseases. While other native bands could not subdue these people, the diseases of the white man brought this amazing culture to its knees. Much of their art and culture were lost, but fortunately some is retained in museums in BC and other sites. Many of their artistic skills have been handed down to descendents as noted above.
Although there are no traditional Haida villages today, there are fascinating vestiges and replicas of their longhouses and totem poles. Their traditional village life functionally ceased in the 1830s when their numbers were decimated. Below are some photos from a tour led by a descendent of these people who now maintain and protect this ancient Haida village.
To get to Langara, we took a two hour flight out of Vancouver International Airport on Pacific Coastal Airlines. We flew in a 34 passenger turbo prop to Masset, the second largest town in the islands (pop. 940).
The Masset (Graham Is.) air terminal, although rather primitive by today’s standards, was friendly and efficient and no one lost their luggage! Weather was great for Late May, 10 C (50 F) with sun and some clouds. We were fortunate to have some sun as the annual average rainfall is 77 inches. Inside the terminal local Haida artisans were selling their handiwork of carved obsidian and silver jewelry, cedar paddles, and other artifacts, and their famous ceremonial masks.
Fishing in Langara, Day 1:
At Masset, we boarded a 13 passenger Sikorski S76 helicopter for a short, but spectacular 20 minute ride northwest to Langara Island Lodge. The lodge consists of two floating barges, with guest rooms, a lounge, restaurant, and a freezing and packing facility. We arrived at about 11:30 a.m., just in time to get our bags to our rooms, fit our required gear of boots and float suits, enjoy a great lunch of halibut and chips, find our boat and guide, and be on the water fishing by 1:00. Being late May, it was daylight until 10:00 pm, but fishing stopped by 9:00 so all boats could be accounted for and the restaurant could get ready for the next day as wake-up door raps came at 4:45 and started breakfast at 5:00.
Since we were the first group fishing here this season, no one was quite sure where the fish were hanging out. It was up to the guides’ best guess. My guide, John guessed very well. The first afternoon almost finished my trip. After three hours with no action my partner’s bursitis was flaring up so we took him in to the lodge for a break. I told John that I just wanted some action and I did not care what kind of fish it was. He headed for another area off the north east corner of the island, and within minutes I was tussling a 21.5 lb. Chinook salmon. Fortunately I was able to land him as this does not always happen using barbless hooks with big, strong, and active Chinook salmon. The barbless hooks are used so as to minimize injury to the fish’s mouth and increase its chances of survival in case it gets away or it is voluntarily released.
After a quiet two hours, no one around us was catching anything and it was approaching 7:00, so I said, “let’s go in.” John said, “one more pass.” In two minutes, I had another 20.5 pounder on and landed him as well. This met my daily limit of two Chinook, and half of my possession limit of four for the whole trip. And I had three and a half more days to fish. So, from here on I would be picky about which salmon to keep, and then I could not wait for the halibut and ling cod fishing.
Fish stocks today are plummeting in many parts of the world including North America. Yet, these islands, set in the bountiful gulf of Alaska remain some of the most productive sport and commercial fishing in the World. Fortunately, there are strictly enforced catch and possession limits designed to keep it that way.
Salmon tackle used here for motor mooching consists of cut herring on barbless hooks with a six foot, 25 lb. test leader, an 8 oz. lead weight on a 10 and a half foot, light wt. pole with a single action reel. Typically we relative newbies fish two guests to a boat with a guide who baits the hooks, operates the boat, senses any time there is a fish near your bait, and yells “… hit it now, keep your tip up, let the fish run, reel, reel...” Each boat can fish up to four poles. The old pros however can guide themselves and they do very well.
4:45 a.m. There’s a knock on the door with a shout, “wake up time.” It's cloudy but clearly daylight. Breakfast is anything you want - no menus, just ask and they'll fix it. Plus breakfast sandwiches to go. Also available is a cooler with a variety of sandwiches, veggies, in-house pastries, and soft drinks to tide you over until the 9:00 delivery boat (Rescue 1) brings more snacks to you on the water. On cold rainy days, they thankfully include thermoses of hot soup.
It turned out to be a beautiful day, mostly sunny with only a light breeze. This was one of the nicest days I’ve seen up here in my three trips. Since the flood tide that brings the salmon into the shallower water was not running until early afternoon, we decided to go straight for bottom fish. We rigged one pole with a big jig and a white tail, and a second with a whole herring and jigged them in 160 to 200 feet of water. The action was quick and intense on both poles. Within about 45 minutes I had my daily limit of five rock fish (2 quillback, three yellow eyes) and two nice ling cod (one at 14 pounds and one at 10).
Ling cod are legendary for their very large mouths, voracious appetites, and for their gulping at just about anything that moves. I had seen pictures and heard stories about them attempting to swallow a fish on a line that had been caught and was being brought in. I had never seen such a thing - until now. One of the lings had a death grip on one of the yellow eyes that had taken my bait. The ling apparently followed it all the way up from 160 feet. We netted the two fish with one dip. One bait, two nice fish. That limited the bottom fish for the day so by 7:45 we went salmon fishing again. After a quiet morning at Coho Point with only a couple of strikes, but no fish boated, we went back to the lodge for lunch.
After lunch, we went back to Coho Point, usually a hot spot for salmon. A number of Chinook struck at my bait and while I lost a couple, I eventually landed two. I kept a 21 pounder and released the other as it was only about 12 pounds. Had I kept it, that would have been my total possession limit and I had two and a half more days to find my last one. I was holding out for at least a 20 to 25 pounder and hopefully a 27 pounder. This being the Lodge’s 27th year of operation, they were offering a free return trip to everyone who caught a 27 pound Chinook.
Wildlife around Langara:
Fish are not the only wildlife of significance in these islands. Eagles abound as do, sea lions, whales, otters, and many birds species that we do not often see further south.
Diving birds were plentiful as were the fish they feed on. Unfortunately for us, these Murrelets figured out that where there were boats, there were easy herring for the taking on the end our lines. We could watch these bait robbers dive and shortly thereafter, feel a “strike,” on the pole, but no fish.
Although the Murrelets were a bit of a nuisance, they were nothing compared with the sea lions who were not interested in our bait. They went directly for the captive salmon on the lines. These huge animals are the bane of the salmon fisherman in these parts, and many hooked salmon provide snacks and lunch for our massive "friends." One was so brazen as to grab a salmon that had already been netted. Net and all were jerked out the guide’s hand. The sea lion got the fish but let the net go. It was later retrieved floating empty.
The morning was cloudy with a 15 knot breeze blowing against an ebbing tide that resulted in 3-4 foot wind waves. Then the fabled rains came, but only seriously for an hour or so. I can see how they can get 77 inches a year with such intensity.
I caught two more salmon but they were smaller than I wanted, so I gave one away and released another, still in hopes of a larger one. I got it at about 10:00 as we were pulling our gear up to go back to the lodge to pick up my partner. This last fish was my largest at 22.5 pounds. That did it for me and salmon. Now, I was on to halibut.
In the afternoon we went halibut fishing off shore, about 4 miles NE of the lighthouse in 320 feet of water. We used stiff, six and a half foot rods. One pole was baited with a 2 lb. Jig, and other with a salmon head embedded with three barbed hooks. With this rig, if you catch anything, you know it’ll be big because the little ones can’t get a full salmon head in their mouth, although some will try. We got a 17 lb halibut with the jig, and then a few minutes later, a 52 pounder with the salmon head. Although I was pleased with my 52 pounder, it was dwarfed by the 197lb giant that another guy got that day!
Later in the afternoon, we went back to coho point where the wind had picked up and blew about 15-20 knots against the tide current making 3-4 foot wind waves. Standing up in the boat was hazardous. My partner was unable to stand in this rolling water but still had room on his limit for two more Chinooks. He got them right away. The guide would hook the fish and hand him the pole and he played them in while sitting. He is an old pro at this fishing and a little bursitis could not keep him from getting his limit of salmon. Both were about 20 lbs. - bright, and colorful Chinooks. So, that limited the boat for Chinook.
Having limited on Chinook and since the Coho were not running yet, we still had a full day and a morning left. We decided to try to pick up a couple more halibut and maybe a ling cod by anchoring off shore again.
However, there was a bit of a dilemma. The restaurant at the lodge roasts a whole pig on a spit for lunch on the last full day of the trip. The draw of going for a really big halibut was stronger than holding out for a roast pork sandwich. I’d enjoy the halibut all winter long, but the pig, no matter how delicious, would only last a few minutes. And if we were lucky and got a big fish early, we might get both.
We set an anchor at a depth of 230 feet, about three miles off the northwest corner of the island. We rigged two poles, both with a squid-like hoochie jig, with three hooks woven into a big salmon head taken from the cleaning deck. After only ten minutes of soaking the bait on the bottom, we had a big strike. Once the hooks were set, it was clear by the pull that it was a good sized halibut. I started to work her (the big ones are female) up from the 230 foot depths. I’d gain a little and then she would take it all back and then some. After a few minutes of playing this big one, we heard the other pole screaming - another big one. As John fought the second one, it became clear that we, just the guide and me, would not be able to land two big halibut at the same time as both were going to have to be harpooned when we got them close to the boat. We had a choice: cut one of the lines and let it go, or call another boat and hand off the second pole. We handed the second pole off to a nearby boat and in about 40 minutes there were two happy and tired guests. The halibut that we gave away weighted in at 82 pounds – quite a nice gift. But mine came in at 90 lbs. We chose well and everyone won.
It took me about 30 minutes to reel her up from 320 feet to where we could see her. Then we worked it alongside the boat where the guide harpooned it in the head region. The harpoon had a line attached to a 2 foot diameter buoy and I still had her on the pole. The harpoon really made her angry - she took off like she was still fresh on a run, but with the buoy she could not dive well. After about five minutes of fighting both the bouy and the rod, we horsed the big “butt” along side again and bled her. Then with two gaff hooks, we dragged her aboard. Whew! In anticipation of hooking such a beast, I had been doing upper body strength work at the gym in the weeks leading up to this trip. And I am glad that I did.
This had all taken place before 10:00 am, and with my limit of salmon, Halibut, and rock fish, plus 2 ling cod, I felt that with 280 pounds of fish, I had taken enough for the trip. On the way back to the lodge we stopped to watch a couple of humpback whales feed and cavort around some kelp beds, diving under us with little apparent concern with our presence. So as not to disturb them, we shut off our engines, drifted and watched them. Also shown is a photo of a mother and new calf from an Orca (Killer Whale) pod.
After catching a great Halibut and a little whale watching, we still made it back by noon for the big "bacon barbecue". This is a full pig on a spit over a barbecue pit. The cook keeps slicing pork for sandwiches until the pig is gone. If you did not want pork, they also had halibut to barbeque for your sandwich. The pork sandwich and a couple of glasses of wine set me up for an afternoon nap since I was through fishing, for myself at least.
The pork sandwich picnic table was the perfect place to hear all of the other fisher's war stories from this and previous trips as many were old timers who had fished these waters for years. Interestingly, the fish stories were not about the one that got away. Around here they can talk about the ones they actually caught!
So ended my 2011 trip to Haida Gwai with its proverbial horn of plenty. I felt that I got my share of fish and then some, magnificent scenery, interesting history, and a sense of the glorious nature that abounds in the north pacific. Although this was my third trip to Langara, it was my most enjoyable, even though I caught more fish on previous trips. Previously, I had gone later in the summer when Coho (silvers) were running and we were allowed a limit of four of them as well. Although the price tag is a bit steep, you do get your money’s worth in scenery, history, and arguably the best salmon fishing in the world. Almost as a bonus, you also get a freezer full of fish direct from the Gulf of Alaska. Your catch is cleaned, cut up, vacuum packed, and flash frozen immediately after being brought in. This procedure keeps the fish fresh for a year or more. Since the big halibut would have been quartered, and I did not need four, 20 pound hunks of halibut, I had it sent to a cannery to be cut up into more manageable sized one pound packages.
As I amortize the cost of the trip relative to the price of fresh Alaska salmon and halibut in the market, I feel that I “made” money on the trip, although my wife thinks I’m just rationalizing. Nonetheless, I’m saving my cash for next year so I can make even more money.