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Vancouver Island’s Esperanza Inlet

Those who have traveled and fished the fertile aquatic waters of the BC coast have probably given little thought to the rich maritime history that encompasses the region. The fact that the Spanish and British politicked over the BC coastline in the 1790’s is probably the last thing on most people’s mind when they are concentrating on their rod and the spin of their preferred bait.

For the record, Spaniards were the first Europeans to explore the BC coast during several surveying missions from 1774 to 1794. They originally claimed the territory under the Spanish flag and bestowed place names that remain to this day, such as Espinosa, Zeballos and Esperanza just to name a few. Famed British explorer Captain James Cook first sailed his ship, the Resolution, into Nootka Sound on March 30, 1778.

From Cook’s Log dated that day- "A great many canoes filled with the Natives were about the ships all day, and a trade commenced betwixt us and them, which was carried on with the Strictest honisty on boath sides. Their articles were the Skins of various animals, such as Bears, Wolfs, Foxes, Dear, Rackoons, Polecats, Martins and in particular the Sea Beaver, the same as is found on the coast of Kamtchatka."

Being the casual history buff that I am, these are things I think about when sitting in a fishing boat, taking in the grandeur of the coast while waiting for that next big strike. Imagine being completely dependent upon the wind, the tide, the stars and the size of your sack to travel and explore uncharted water half a world away from home. Who among us could survive a journey of such epic proportions without the use of a good GPS, radar, VHF communications, critical weather updates, etc.?

After Spanish interests built a settlement and a fort at Nootka Sound, tensions came to a head when two British trading vessels were seized and taken back to what is now Mexico. British Captain George Vancouver, in his sloop Discovery, arrived in the spring of 1792 to survey Puget Sound with orders to meet the Spanish at Nootka to diplomatically diffuse the situation.

Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra was one of the Spanish explorers present at the time. He had great admiration for Vancouver’s exploits. The love-fest was returned in kind from Captain Vancouver and it is reported they got along famously, wining, dining and saluting each other at every opportunity. By all accounts, nothing really got accomplished at the Nootka meetings. In time, though not directly a result of Vancouver’s efforts, the Spanish abandoned all claims to the BC coast.

All throughout the Pacific Northwest, most of the place names we have today were given and charted by Captain Vancouver and his fellow Spanish explorers. The original name of the big island on charts of the period was “Quadra’s and Vancouver’s Island”. Captain Vancouver himself insisted that Quadra’s name be listed first on the charts.

Latter day Hudson’s Bay cartographers later omitted “Quadra” from their maps, leaving Vancouver as the Islands lone namesake. It has also been suggested the effort was deliberate, to make certain that Britain was seen as the pre-eminent power in the region. Whatever the case, those long ago explorers could not possibly know how popular a sport fishing destination northwest Vancouver Island would become 200 plus years later.

The small village of Zeballos, BC is located at the northernmost end of Esperanza Inlet, just north of Nootka Sound. Named for Lt. Ciriaco Zevallos, a member aboard an early Spanish ship, Zeballos remained relatively obscure until the 1930s, when the village grew exponentially to near 5000 people during a gold rush in the region. After WWII, logging became a predominant industry and later still, both commercial and sport fishing became popular, as well as sight-seeing and eco-tourism. Its 2006 population was a whopping 189 residents.

When thinking about all of the wonderful fishing destinations I have had the great fortune to visit, the northwest coast of Vancouver Island remarkably remained absent from my list. That changed after speaking with Adrian O’Connor of Reel Obsession Sportfishing. We agreed that July 27-29 would be a great time to spend a few days at his new lodge in Zeballos and wreak some havoc on the rich salmon and bottom-fish resources in the area!
My good friend and fishing partner Bob Peterson and I decided to drive to Zeballos, as the distance from my home in Everett, WA is only about 350 miles. However, with a border crossing and a two hour ferry ride to Vancouver Island, the actual travel time is pretty much all day. Nevertheless, it is easy traveling as once you are on Vancouver Island you simply head north up Hwy 19 another 94 miles past Campbell River to the Zeballos cut-off, then take an active gravel logging road the last 30 miles or so which ends at the village.
The 2011 season was the grand opening of Adrian’s new lodge and based on our experience, he will be running great fishing trips out of there for a very long time! He purchased a home in the village with a great view of the inlet and completely renovated it. It is within easy walking distance of his private dock and boat, the 26’ Sea-Ray “No Doubt”. He also added a second story addition to the garage that includes several cozy and comfortable rooms, built mostly with reclaimed cedar from the original bridges into town. The smell of the freshly cut cedar was a wonderful scent to take in upon retiring in the evenings.

Once we arrived, we strolled down to the dock, where we met Adrian prepping his boat for the following day’s adventure, which we would be our first of three with this saltwater salmon and halibut guru. We then headed back to the lodge where we found a great steak and prawn three course meal awaiting us. No good fishing adventure should be without after-dinner cocktails and fine cigars, and the view of the docks and inlet from the front deck provided the perfect place to partake in those simple pleasures while discussing the next day’s tactics.

Our first morning on the water found us trolling anchovies about six miles off shore on a sunny summer day. Much of the salmon fishing around Esperanza Inlet and all of the halibut fishing is done on the open ocean, so be prepared for that type of environment when you come here. From the minute our gear hit the water the action was fast and furious, but mostly on small Coho. After three hours or so we were scratching our heads and still searching for our first good Chinook.

If you are a saltwater salmon fisherman, then you know that tide changes have a way of making everything right with the world. As we would soon find out, things were about to really light up! As though somebody literally hit a switch, the Coho suddenly disappeared and the Chinook, or Springs as they are called in BC, started chomping like they had been starving their entire adult lives! That “bite” lasted a solid two hours as we landed one Spring after another, harvesting our limit and releasing enough I lost count. Our largest Spring was right around 25 lbs.

In a scene right out of “Jaws”, we had two salmon eaten by Blue Sharks while reeling them in. We got the fish to the boat, only to see these sharks had a mouthful of our salmon! They literally bit the lower third of the fish clean off. It was remarkable really and made us think twice about putting our hands in the water! We also ran into a large school of Pacific Dolphins out there that did their best to entertain us.

Once the Spring bite finally slowed, we had a bit of time left to try for some halibut at a spot close by that Adrian said had been sporadic but was worth a shot. We sat on anchor there for probably an hour and a half with no luck on the halibut, but we at least managed a nice Lingcod and Yelloweye Rockfish for our efforts. The quiet time gave us a chance to regain some of our strength that got sapped during the previous several hours, as well as chat to a degree we were not able to during the first part of the day due to the constant re-baiting and setting of lines.

Our second day began with overcast skies and a nearly flat ocean, perfect for making the much longer run offshore to Adrian’s favorite Halibut haunt. The exact mileage, depth and location to this spot cannot be disclosed for obvious reasons. While it was a long ways out to it, Adrian assured us this place would produce our targeted species in pretty short order and boy did he call that right! Within minutes of setting the anchor our baits were doing exactly what they were intended to do.

Bob managed the first Halibut of about 30 lbs. or so, while shortly thereafter yours truly was getting his butt kicked by a fat flatty that we figured was somewhere in the neighborhood of 65 or 70 lbs. While not the world’s largest halibut, it was big enough to make me hurt while trying to get it to the surface for a meeting with our harpoon and baseball bat. Having successfully reached our Halibut limit in all of about thirty minutes on anchor, we quickly switched gears and started trolling for Springs at that same offshore location.
Instead of small Coho, we found the Springs to be willing participants right from the get go. The strikes came more sporadically and not in rapid succession as they did the day previous, but come they did. We were also further off shore, where tide changes don’t have the same influence on bite timing as they do closer to the beach. Regardless, we slid four nice Springs into the cooler and released five more, reaching our possession limit in the first two days of our three day trip!

With our meat lockers now full of both red and white meat, the pressure was off and our last day fishing Esperanza would be one of pure sport, simple catch and release until we could take no more. Little did we know at the time just how epic that final day would become and how the incredible memories of it would prove to last us a lifetime. There are days in everyone’s lives we only wish could be like Bill Murray’s Ground Hog Day, to be lived again and again. Day three with Adrian at Esperanza was one of those days.

After a good night’s sleep, some coffee and a bit of breakfast, Bob and I were excited knowing we were going to fish one of the more famous landmarks in all of BC fishing. Ferrer Point, (pronounced Ferry-er by the locals) marks the southern entrance to Esperanza Inlet and is widely regarded as one of the best places on Vancouver Island to intercept late summer Springs. 2011 regulations required releasing larger Springs after July 15 on inshore fisheries to protect local stocks, hence the offshore fishing for retention purposes.

As we approached the point shortly after daylight, the rugged, rocky shoreline and large kelp beds in close held the promise of good things to come. We had been fishing anchovies up until now, but here Adrian switched to solo cut-plugged herring on a very slow troll. Mine was the first bait to get spinning and I could almost hear Bob cringing as we both knew it was going to get crushed before his herring even got wet. Bingo, fish on!

I could bore you with the incredible numbers of Springs we caught and released that morning, but I’ll just say this. Between 7:00am and 1:30pm, we went through two dozen herring and three dozen anchovies, every last piece of which got choked on by an over-eager salmon. You do the math. While we did hook a number of Coho on the day, the vast majority of fish were Springs in the 18-23 lb. range.

These fish were inspired fighters too. Many times we thought we had tied into a large slab only to realize that the fish that darn near spooled us was in reality another cookie-cutter special. The jumbo Chinook the area is known for were running a bit later than usual and were not yet in our vicinity during my visit. That said, the overall non-stop action on average-sized fish made entirely up for it! Salmon fishing like that can’t be found everywhere and my arms ached for days afterwards.

Over the course of our trip, Bob and I realized a number of things. Among them are as follows. 1) Vancouver Island’s Esperanza Inlet holds fish, lots and lots of fish. 2) Adrian O’Connor is one of the hardest working, most pleasurable and knowledgeable fishing guides we have ever had the pleasure to share a boat with. 3) If Esperanza is not on your bucket list of places to fish for salmon and halibut, you need to amend your list!

Adrian runs Reel Obsession Sportfishing year around out of Victoria, BC. For four months every summer, from June through September, he turns his attention to Esperanza Inlet and the natural bounty the area consistently provides. He has been fishing there regularly for the past eleven years and incorporates the help of other local guides who have been fishing the area even longer. He is very personable and will do anything and everything he can to make your visit an enjoyable and memorable one.

What truly makes the area unique is that it is located right on the salmon highway. Fish from many major river systems such as the Fraser, Skagit, Chehalis, Columbia and countless others pass right by here on their return journeys from their long migrations. Adrian is the first to admit that many of the fish caught off Vancouver Island are of U.S. origin. That is just plain and simply the way it is, always has been and always will be.

His new place in Zeballos will serve him and his lucky clientele very well over the coming years. While not a large place, it is very comfortable and fits in nicely with the quiet village atmosphere in Zeballos. The lodge can sleep fourteen guests and the rooms are quite comfy. Breakfast is served Continental style, with coffee, juices, pastries and cereals plenty to get your day started off right. He has a chef on staff serving gourmet-style dinners and lunches are made each day and brought aboard for your day’s fishing adventure.

You can visit Adrian’s website or call him at 888-855-7335 and see for yourself what you can expect in making the trip to Esperanza. Bob and I can’t thank him enough for all of his hard work filling our freezers and making our trip a memory that will last us well beyond our years! This may have been my first fishing trip to northwestern Vancouver Island, but it darn sure won’t be my last!

by KRIS OLSEN
OUTDOORS WRITER
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