A Terrifying Day of Salmon Fishing

by Mary L. Peachin

The "red alert" broadcast email warned anglers, "it's going to be brutal, dress warmly, don't wear runners." Vancouver's weather forecast called for 100% chance of heavy rainfall and high wind. That would translate to a 100 millimeters of drenching rain. The deluge accompanied by 90 kilometer winds would produce horizontal precipitation.

Vancouver Chinook Classic Derby, an annual catch and release salmon tournament shouted out the forecast proclaiming a finality, "The show must go on."

A stormy day in Vancouver harbor. Photo by  Todd Martin .

A stormy day in Vancouver harbor. Photo by Todd Martin.

Thirty three boats from British Columbia carrying approximately 100 anglers moored their boats at Richmond's host Pacific Gateway Hotel and Marina on the Fraser River. 

After gathering at five in the morning for a “fisherman’s breakfast” anxious anglers boarded their respective boats to motor along the Fraser River to Vancouver’s harbour: gale force winds, rock and rolling choppy seas, and full moon strong currents. Our chartered 26’ Grady White was powered by two 150 HP Yamaha engine. We were one of the bigger boats.

Fishing boat with freighter in Vancouver harbor. Photo by  Todd Martin .

Fishing boat with freighter in Vancouver harbor. Photo by Todd Martin.

Along with our leader, Captain Mike, my three fishing buddies included two local businessmen, and photographer Todd Martin. The first “Pin popper screamer,” a Chinook large enough to wrench the baited line out of the downrigger, occurred five minutes after lines were permitted in the water. Being gentlemen, I didn’t hesitate when they said, “Ladies first.” I saw the line pop out of the downrigger, the spool going wild. I knew that this fish might be a contender. As someone yelled, “Reel, reel, reel,” I knew not to “horse” the fish and risk breaking the line. If the Chinook wasn’t large enough to win, it was certainly strong.

Bringing the Chinook to the boat, Captain Mike concluded that it looked like a high “teener”. Probably not a winning size, it would be a waste of time to call the weigh boat. Derbies are usually won by Chinook weighing thirty (called a tyee) or more pounds. In stormy conditions, it could take the “weigh” boat a half hour to arrive. During that wait time, the fish had to be held in the water and kept ALIVE. Focused more on the task at hand, I didn't protest not calling the weigh boat. Mike was probably correct except he didn't consider the weather/water conditions we would endure for the next 18 hours.

Downriggers with cannon balls lowered sardine-baited barbless hooks to various depths. Only a sizable Chinook can snap the line out of the downrigger clip as the whirring reel spools fast and loud. In order to be in prize contention, a “weigh” boat is called and volunteers measure the length and girth to determine the fish weight by formula. In these conditions, just getting the lines in the water was a challenge. 

Catching coho in Vancouver harbor. Photo by  Todd Martin . 

Catching coho in Vancouver harbor. Photo by Todd Martin

Fishing was slow, currents tangled lines. Four trolling lines were reduced to two. There was a miscommunication about food and water available on the boat. We were at the mercy of our growling stomachs for twelve hours. The food boat scheduled to bring out goodies to anglers couldn’t handle the rough sea conditions. 

We were fortunate to have a cover and a head, although it took us awhile to learn that the flusher was barely operative. One of our fishers, who did not have a cast iron stomach, was saved by a Gravol seasick pill. With only two seats, one occupied by the Captain, one angler wrapped his legs around me to hold me steady in the bow. He was so cold, his legs were shaking. Seasick, the thought of his barfing on my back dwelt in my mind.  It was a very tough day of play with no entries to claim victory.

As conditions worsened, Vancouver's more distant areas were closed for fishing. When asked about the location of life jackets, Mike assured us that they were in the hatch. Not so comforting when cold water hypothermia can kill in minutes.  We felt minimal relief seeing the Coast Guard hovering nearby. Some boats lost equipment, others simply returned to the Marina. Remaining boats fished English Bay, Vancouver Harbor, Georgia Strait, T10, the yellow bell buoy, and the North arm of the Fraser.

Lines up! Returning to the Pacific Gateway late in the afternoon, all was dark. The worse summer storm in a decade, maybe the worse summer storm ever, had battered the Lower Mainland toppling drought-stricken trees into houses, cars, power lines. It would be several days before residents between metro-Vancouver and Seattle, Washington had power fully restored. The winning fish the first day was a mere 23 pounds. More regrets that I hadn’t insisted on calling the weigh boat. The $25,000 prize would not be mine.

The angling fiasco continued on the next day. Logs, used for pulp, tied in the Fraser River floated over their barriers creating “dead head” hazards for boaters. It was a slalom course to the harbour.

The second day was shorter, but rougher. Between strong currents and chop were bone jarring, arm bruising troughs. Calls to the weigh boat were minimal. Then, a frantic call was heard ten minutes before the Derby ended at 1 PM. David Wei fishing on a Pacific Angler boat landed a 23 pound Chinook. With a pin popping screamer, he snatched the title with minutes to spare.


The Vancouver Chinook Classic, a catch and release derby, represents the largest cash prize fishing event in Vancouver, and more importantly raises money for local charities. To learn more, visit http://www.labourdaychinookclassic.com/index.html



Mary L. Peachin is an adventure travel writer, photographer and book author of Scuba Caribbean, Sharks: The Sleek and the Savage. Her current project is a book on Sport Fishing in British Columbia. Read her adventures at http://www.peachin.com

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