Our Man In Canada
January 6th, 2003

Salmon Valhalla in Belize

Rory E. Glennie

When you mention Belize to fly anglers they don wide smiles and conjure up visions of warm tropical breezes, unrelenting sunshine, white sandy beaches, and wading shallow salt-water flats while casting to Permit and Bonefish. When you mention Belize. . . Inlet, on Canada's West Coast, all you get are blank stares. But the chrome-bright, wild coho salmon this northern Belize are pursued by many fly fisher with as much fervor as their exotic counterparts are pursued in the tropical Belize. True, the sticky mud-flats of Belize Inlet are a far cry from the white, sandy beaches of Central America, and the breezes there are more likely to raise goose bumps than a thirst. But the coho conjure challenge and excitement equal to anything the tropics have to offer.

The Belize and Seymour Inlets complex.

Situated within B.C.'s South-Central coast-roughly, that bit of mainland real estate directly beyond the northern tip of Vancouver Island-are many fjord-like waters. Belize and Seymour Inlets are two of these, which come together as one and spill into the Pacific through the treacherous Nakwakto Rapids-reputedly the fastest surging piece of tidal water on the coast with currents of thirty kilometres per hour.

Many of the famous inlets along B.C.'s South coast, such as Bute, Toba, Knight, have become crowded, busy havens for the yachting set attracted by the easy sailing. Nakwakto, however, is a bit too formidable for most casual day-trippers, and very few anglers venture there. Consequently, the fish stocks in this area are much less heavily harvested than places which are more easily accessed. But beyond the treacherous rapids at the mouth, both of these long narrow inlets are tucked-in tight to the mountains beyond the frontal assault of ocean weather, making them relatively storm proof. Poking around the various bays and estuaries, searching the shoreline for stops of interest ("gunkholing" as some call it) is a pleasant way of finding fish.

Cruising to Belize.

The challenge of besting Nakwakto Rapids is not for the faint of heart, nor for the inexperienced sailor. Interpreting and understanding the tide and current charts for the area are key to successfully and safely running the rapids. The best way to get through that piece of troubled water is to go with an experienced boat operator.

There are several coastal eco-tour operations who shoot the rapids, but only a small handful of fishing guides who do it. The town of Port Hardy on northern Vancouver Island is the base for most of these guides. That's where I found Captain Lloyd Heskin, owner/operator of Nature's Best Wilderness Tours. Lloyd has the only service offering specialized fly-fishing adventure cruises into the remote Belize-Seymour complex.

Nature's Best utilizes a fifty-foot, steel-hulled vessel--the MV Lasqueti Star-to cruise the inlets. This boat is fully outfitted to live aboard in comfort and style-complete with a large galley (with a chef), laundry facilities, two full bathrooms, and four private staterooms. Lloyd runs the adventures in the "mothership and skiff" concept: the big boat is for traveling long distances and is the base of operations for short haul exploratory fishing trips to nearby waters in sturdy outboard powered aluminum skiffs. Should the weather turn sour or the fishing not pan-out as hoped, you just motor back to the mothership to dry off or to make a run to more productive waters.

Ron Defoy with prime coho

Remote inlet fishing for wild fish

Last year, I made two trips with Lloyd on his Lasqueti Star, one in the spring, the other in the fall. I was one of four writer-flyfishers aboard (the others were Bob Scammell, Jack Simpson, and Bob Jones). The spring trip, in mid-May, was an exploratory excursion for researching the potential of catching sea-run cutthroat trout.

These enigmatic little fish offer some fine early season salt-water fly-rodding when you can find them. As a retired commercial fisherman, Lloyd already knew a lot about salmon and where to find them, but was still learning about the habits of cutthroats in the salt. Nevertheless, it didn't take him long to find them. All we had to do was catch.

Along with the cutthroats we also found some nice "bluebacks," a colloquial name for sub-adult feeding coho salmon. This mixed bag of twelve-to-fourteen inch cutts and coho to about sixteen inches kept us nicely entertained. As this was an exploratory trip, we did a lot of cruising around to various back-bays and estuaries in hope of learning more about what this area had to offer. On a real fly-fishing adventure we would have spent as much time as we liked in places where the action was hot.

Current issue

The second trip in early October for silver-bright coho was a mainline fishing fix. I was a shipmate of another hard-core fly-fisher, Ron deFoy, whose mission was to pound the fishing hard and help shoot some video of the action. This trip paid-off big time. We found several places where we saw migrating coho jumping and rolling as they milled about in shallow bays. It was simply a matter of anchoring the mothership then launching a skiff and quietly motoring over to the action.

Coho weren't the only fish available. Chum salmon were also in abundance. Unlike most streams on Vancouver Island, where they make their runs after the coho, on the central coast streams chums make their runs first. This means that the chum offer an earlier fishery, starting as early as the beginning of September. Chum are large powerful salmon, which have only recently gained mainstream respectability as a fly rod target.

While we didn't pursue them on these trips, steelhead are known to run into several of the streams in the Belize-Seymour complex. In keeping with other mainland coast streams, the most likely timing for these runs would be early spring, probably March and April. Lloyd is entertaining the idea of taking folks on steelhead trips and is researching the necessary requirements to offer such adventures.

Tackle and technique.

As fly fishers have been targeting salmon in the salt for some time now, the tackle and techniques required for successfully catching them is well-established. Fly rods range from nine to ten feet, balanced with a seven to ten-weight line. The reel (preferably large arbour) should have a good drag and capacity for a couple hundred yards of backing. For sea-run cutthroats and early season bluebacks a lighter outfit, say in a five or six-weight designation is more appropriate for these smaller fish.

As most of the target areas are shallow bays and estuaries, sink-tip and intermediate sinking lines are the general rule, although there places where you can get away with a full floater for fishing dry flies for cutthroat. I've found that the best all-round line for both coho and cutthoats is a clear sinker, reserving the sink-tip for the deeper drop-offs at river mouths.

Author's fly box
The fly patterns used elsewhere for salt-water salmon and cutthroats which have been proved effective elsewhere also work in Belize Inlet. Most popular baitfish and attractor patterns should work, but we found the following produced particularly well for us: Muddler Minnows, Pearl Mickeys, Coronation Bucktails, and Lefty's Deceivers. The most effective colour was chartreuse over white polar bear hair, and all should be tied with Clouser style, heavy-metal dumbell eyes.

The allure of wilderness adventure.

There is much to be said these harried days for having a bit of wilderness to enjoy. The Belize-Seymour complex offers a portal to remote hillsides and river valleys where grizzly bears, mountain goats and bald eagles roam freely; where salmon run in untold numbers; and where the air is crystal clear with just a hint of salty tang. This central coast area overlaps what has come to be known as the Great Bear Rainforest. That name alone conjures visions of wild, dank, untamed places.

The experience of traveling and exploring these waters by live-aboard boat far overshadows the alternative, the expensive hit-and-run interloper concept of dropping in by helicopter. Fly fishers easily become absorbed in the surroundings, spending both their days and nights in communion with the wilderness. Fly-casting to wild fish in wild surroundings is a powerful restorative tonic. Now that there is a fly fishing outfitter servicing these wild places, taking that medicine just became a little more pleasant. ~ REG

We thank the Canadian Fly Fisher for re-print permission!

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