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Visiting Royalty : Although One of the Rainiest Places on Earth, Queen Charlotte Islands Are a Fishing Paradise

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The fishmaster flings his harpoon, but fails to deliver the death blow.

Only grazed, the big fish goes berserk and high-tails it below.

The fisherman, his knuckles rapped by the uncontrollable spinning of the reel’s crank, sighs heavily.

Still hooked up, he’s back at square one with this monster, face contorted and arms aching, trying as he has for the better part of an hour to keep his rod tip up, though it remains bent in a giant loop, dipping into the sea.

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For the fishmaster, and another fisherman aboard the little boat, there is little to do but take another look around.

The setting is surreal.

The creaking of the boat as it rocks gently over the slow-rolling swells. . . .

The nearby skiffs with their fishermen silhouetted by the sun, which rests on the horizon, using the wispy clouds to paint fiery streaks across the sky. . . .

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There is an occasional flash of silver, meaning another king salmon has reached the end of the line.

It’s 10 o’clock at night, for crying out loud! What kind of place is this?

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These are the Queen Charlotte Islands, located 60 miles off British Columbia just south of the Alaskan Panhandle, pointing in a southerly direction for about 150 miles. More immediately, this is the rugged and remote west coast of Graham Island, the largest and northernmost of the Queen Charlottes, where the sun rises at 4:30 a.m. and doesn’t set until 11 p.m.

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But the Charlottes are not about sunshine as much as they are about wind and rain. One of the stormiest places on earth--the region is often referred to as the Mother of Storms--it is also one of the wettest, with nearly 200 inches of rain falling on the west coast annually.

And because of this, the Charlottes are one of the more beautiful places on earth, with meandering waterways, pure and rich, amid forests of velvet.

But the biggest draw of the Charlottes are the salmon that visit the shores. The Chinooks, or kings, are the first to arrive in the spring. Then Coho show, followed by the sockeye, chum and pink. The kings stay all summer, averaging 15-20 pounds in May and 30-50 pounds in August and September.

“In August, you have the opportunity to catch all five species,” says Dan Sewell, 45, of Sewell’s Marine Group in Vancouver.

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You can also catch halibut so big and strong that you’ll need a harpoon to subdue them and a crane to lift them. Rockfish in all sizes, shapes and colors are so plentiful they are considered pests.

Access to the west coast of Graham Island is limited, which is why Sewell and Derek Rendle bought the Charlotte Explorer a few years back. A former seismic research vessel, the sleek, 190-foot black ship is spending this summer anchored in Nesto Inlet, a narrow finger-shaped bay minutes from some of the best salmon fishing in the world.

The ship has been converted to a floating lodge, complete with maid service, lounges and sun decks, and fitted with everything--including a fleet of 18-foot outboards--necessary to tackle some of the tastiest fish in the sea. The outboards enable the anglers to fish on their own.

Art Ulveland, 38, a hospital administrator from Ponoka, Alberta, has been to the Charlottes four times. Being able to fish without supervision is what attracted him to the Charlotte Explorer.

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“If you want to go halibut fishing, you go halibut fishing,” he says. “They’ve even got the little book organized that tells you where the hot spots are. They tell you where they’re getting the strikes and that’s where they’re at!”

Dave Adams, another fisherman from Alberta, has a different reason for coming.

“I’m just so awed by the wilderness,” he says. “You’re up here with nothing. There’s nobody around or nothing.”

So after shelling out $1,500-$2,000 for trips of varying lengths, fishermen can leave the world as they know it and visit what seems another, almost mystical world. Where bald eagles are perched like sentinels in their tree-top lofts. Where huge black bears and little deer sometimes peer through the forest to see what all the commotion is about.

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Among those aboard the Charlotte Explorer, besides Ulveland, are Nigel Malkin, a dry cleaner from West Vancouver, and his sidekick, Pete Hayes; Art and Scott Whittlesey, father and son from Bellevue, Wash., and Robert and Gary Wales, father and son from Vancouver.

They and most of the 20 others are standing at the stern of the ship. The deck is littered with salmon, halibut and rockfish after the first full day of fishing.

Toby Barrett is fileting fish and plopping luscious red slabs of salmon and white slabs of halibut on a conveyor belt. Mike Mahoney is down the line, vacuum-sealing the fillets as they come off the belt.

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Scott Whittlesey, 10, is trying to hold up his first two fish of the day--king salmon weighing 17 and 30 pounds. With his right hand in the gills of one and the left hand in the gills of the other, he lifts with all his might, but the tails of the fish don’t make it off the deck.

“These fish are too big,” Whittlesey says between breaths, his father watching with a smile.

Malkin, a thin 30-year-old with a British accent, is clutching a beer and watching Barrett turn his 46-pound halibut, two 21-pound salmon and a 14-pound lingcod into freezer meat.

“It was like a bloody supermarket out there,” he says. “Three times we had double hookups, but we’d get them to the boat and say, ‘Naw,’ and let them go. But I got a couple of pounds of fish today, 102 pounds of fish in one day.

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Malkin is particularly proud of the halibut, the biggest he has ever caught.

But Martin Paish, a Sewell’s employee and designated fishmaster on the Charlotte Explorer, says the fish is barely a keeper.

“Last year we had a couple catch a 263-pounder,” Paish says. “It took them two hours to get it up, but it had to be lifted aboard the ship by crane.”

Barrett, still slicing away, interrupts with a story about another group that hooked a halibut that was probably closer to 300 pounds.

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“When it came up to surface they harpooned it once and it sucked the (attached buoy, an inflated ball) back down for about 10 minutes,” Barrett says, waving his knife. “The ball popped back up and they put another (harpoon) through it and it went down and came back up five minutes later. They put a third harpoon ball through it and it went down again--and it never came back up.”

Some of the fishermen, worn out by a long day on the water, have retreated to their berths. Malkin and Hayes are drinking beer.

Rock D’Acquisto, a lure maker from Port Townsend, Wash., and his companion, Chris Meyer, are the last ones in, having caught and released about a dozen king salmon with the lures D’Acquisto makes, keeping a few 25-pounders and two large halibut, one that dwarfs Malkin’s, tipping the scale at 47 and 73 pounds.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” Meyer says, his face reddened by the wind and rain. “These fish sure fight better in the saltwater.”

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How quickly the passengers seem to have forgotten how fortunate they are, that in the days leading up to their arrival the Mother of Storms was busy tossing the Charlotte Explorer around as though it were the S.S. Minnow and making life hell for passengers and crew.

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All of Graham Island had been basically shut down. The passengers--they are normally flown from Vancouver to Sandspit, a small town on the east coast of Morseby Island, then ferried by seaplane the short distance to the ship--had to be ferried aboard a school bus from Sandspit to the east coast of Graham Island and driven in a driving rain for two hours on a logging road to a deserted beach on the west coast.

Light aircraft were grounded because of 87-m.p.h. winds so the Charlotte Explorer had to pick the group up, which was fine with Captain Michael W. Scott because the ship couldn’t hold anchor in the rough seas, anyway.

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“But we were in blinding rain . . . we couldn’t see anything,” Scott said later. “I was just trying not to touch the rocks.”

Crewmen Mahoney and Bill Brown were left behind at the portable dock, with orders to try to keep the skiffs secure. They tried to sleep in the bottoms of the open boats, but the wind and rain that raged over them was too much. They were soggy and cold.

Brown got out of one boat and scrambled to a barrel used to burn trash. The barrel, full of coals, was still smoldering but offered little relief from the cold. Brown added some gasoline and started stirring, creating an explosion that blew him into the water.

Brown made it out OK, but was scared and shivering when the ship returned. Two of the 18-foot skiffs were torn from the docks and blown about 500 yards, coming to rest near the end of the inlet.

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The winds continued the next day, so fierce that huge walls of water and mist--called spindrifts--blew across the narrow bay. The passengers tried between squalls to fish, but only managed to get out a few times, catching a few salmon.

The storm didn’t let up until it was time for the group to leave. It was flown by helicopter to the same beach from which it had been picked up. The new group, having taken the same yellow bus instead of the seaplanes and fearing the worst, was there to greet them.

“An absolute nightmare,” says one of the men, his face red and unshaven, his hair a mess. “When I get home I’m going to write a book about this. . . . I’m not kidding. It was an absolute disaster .”

In groups of four, the new group was ferried through the mist to the Charlotte Explorer. A steady rain was pelting the ship. The Mother of Storms was having her say.

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It is a new day on the ship. Life has become as routine here as it is back home. But then there is no stress associated with rigging a herring for bait or casting a lure. Or having your knuckles rapped by the cranks of these darned free-wheeling salmon reels.

Trolling around Hippa Rocks across from Hippa Island, or exploring the coast of the island itself, has become a way of life. It’s warm and sunny one minute, cold and rainy the next. But the rain isn’t a problem--they give you thick rubber suits and boots. And if the wind is bothersome, shelter is usually close by.

By 7 a.m., dozens of salmon, from 15-35 pounds, have already been landed. A large one is giving Gary Smith a run for his money, leaping out of the water while trying to shake the hook. But the fisherman from Arlington, Wash., maintains a tight line and soon has his fish to the boat.

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Scott Whittlesey has the hang of things and no longer needs his father’s assistance. He spots a school of fish on the meter, drops one of D’Acquisto’s lures, hooks a fish and fights it solo for 20 minutes. His father nets the plump salmon and young Whittlesey high-fives and hugs his father.

D’Acquisto and Meyer, having proved to be the most experienced anglers of the group, are off on their own, having a field day with salmon and halibut.

Others are exploring the island, its sheltered coves are so pristine it is as if the explorer is also the discoverer. Gliding silently over a glassy sea that mirrors the steep peaks and craggy outcroppings, one can easily see amber strands of kelp rising from the ocean floor, nearly as lush as the green forests of firs and spruce on land.

Some are fishing slightly beyond the wreck of the Clarkesdale Victory, a freighter that was broken in half when it ran aground during a storm in the winter of 1947, killing more than 30 sailors. Nearly half of the masted ship is still intact, a ghostly reminder of the severity of Queen Charlotte winters.

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It’s getting late and many of the fishermen have returned to the ship, exhausted. But one can’t return. He remains hooked up to a big fish that more than an hour ago got a glimpse of what the world above the waterline is all about.

But if the pressure is getting to the fish, it also appears to be getting to the fisherman. He is breathing heavily, arms quivering.

Finally the fish begins to rise, as it did before. The fishmaster grabs the harpoon and checks the tip to make sure the pointed barb is loose. The big fish now seems to have lost its will to fight. It comes into view--a big, brown hulk--and is soon back at the surface.

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The fishmaster flings his spear, striking the fish behind the head--a perfect shot. The fish dives, breaking the fishing line and taking the pink inflated ball over the rail.

The ball pops back up immediately, floating but not moving. The fish, it seems, has escaped for good. The fisherman can’t believe it. A hand reaches down to grab the ball and begins to pull the rope to which it is attached. But the rope is ripped from the hand and the ball is sucked back down and out of sight.

More than 10 minutes pass with no sign of the ball. The sun is finally setting and the sky is pink. Finally, the ball surfaces, again at the bow. A hand reaches to grab it, but this time there is no fight. A huge halibut is pulled to the surface and gaffed by the fishmaster.

The fish is safe on the boat, the fisherman is more relieved than anything. The fishmaster fires up the engine and heads back to the ship. There’s still a small crowd on the deck. The fishermen watch as the fish tips the scale at 84 pounds.

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“That one’s a keeper,” Paish says.


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