Vancouver Island is a boater’s paradox: It beckons with one hand, threatens with the other.
What boater wouldn’t love 2,100 miles of shoreline, cleaved by fjords and dotted with hundreds of islands set against lush evergreen forests and shadowed by misty peaks? Here you can explore, fish and overnight amid breathtaking scenery, landmarks and bays bearing magical names of the first North Americans — the Ahousat, Kyuquot, Nootka, Quatsino, Ucluelet, Salish and others.
We rendezvous with the Northwest Grady-White Club during their 16-day, 700-mile circumnavigation of Vancouver Island.
From the serpentine straits on the eastern shore to the mighty Pacific Ocean on the rocky, kelp-draped west coast, these waters teem with salmon, orcas, otters and humpback whales, while auklets, bald eagles, kingfishers and puffins fill the skies. Indigenous bands still pay spiritual reverence to wild creatures with emblematic totems carved from whale teeth and native woods.
Yet this 290-mile-long island possesses a foreboding side, one that can spring up quickly. Even in summer, sudden storms spawn cold winds, heavy downpours and lightning. Menacing seas and fierce tidal currents frustrate progress. Thick fog threatens safe navigation while treacherous reefs lurk just below the surface.
To experience both the wonderful and wicked faces of this massive isle, nearly the size of Ireland, and learn more about the best boats for its waters, we caught up last July with members of the Northwest Grady-White Club at Walters Cove Resort tucked inside Kyuquot (pronounced “kai-you-cut”) Sound on the remote northwest coast.
Members of the club had arrived the day before. As we pulled in from Seattle, Washington, via floatplane, we found the docks at the resort filled with their Grady-White Express 330s and Gulfstream 232s.
The serene harbor and comfortable accommodations at the resort represented one among eight ports of call on an ambitious 16-day, 700-mile circumnavigation of Canada’s Vancouver Island — one that had brought the group of seven boats up from Seattle, along the inside of the island, and around Cape Scott at the northern tip. In three days, they would resume their cruise, destined to culminate in the beautiful city of Victoria at the southern tip.
In the meantime, we got to know members of the club. While these intrepid boaters certainly enjoyed the spectacular scenery and camaraderie born of braving the elements as a group, it was fish more than anything else that brought them to these waters.
“It’s all about the fishing,” says J’Anna Post, the spirited organizer of the club’s expedition, dubbed “Round the Rock.” Post and her husband, Larry, own a Grady-White Express 330, Sakana, having upgraded after owning two previous Grady models — a Seafarer 228 and then an Islander 270.
“This is such a great adventure because it allows us to go out on the open ocean, do a lot of fishing, spend time with each other and just have a great time,” Post says.
Yet fun was hardly the word to describe the group’s passage around Cape Scott a few days earlier. Things turned dangerous when the club was caught in a violent summer squall packing powerful winds, torrential rain and lightning strikes. “Waves built to 20 feet as we rounded the cape,” says Erwin Dow, who joined the cruise with his wife, Nancy, aboard their Express 330, Seeker. It was dicey.
Visibility was reduced to near zero, and the monstrous waves challenged the navigation and seamanship skills of each skipper on the cruise, but the group emerged unscathed, albeit a bit shaky. Dow has owned a pair of Grady Marlin 300s as well as cabin models from other brands, but he believes the Express 330 is a perfect boat for this kind of adventure.
The Grady-White Express 330 mixes a high level of comfort with maximum fishability.
“At 33½ feet in length, the Express 330 is big enough to bear the weather and span large seas. Plus, the SeaV2 hull rides well be it down- or up-sea,” he points out. With a pair of Yamaha F350 outboards, it is also powerful and fast.
“This is a boat we can sleep in, cook in, eat in and even shower in,” Dow says. “It’s also nimble and easy to handle with just the two of us aboard,” he explains.
OK, let’s be honest though: When it comes to serious fishing, you really need a center console boat, right? Not so, according to club member Rob Powers, who also owns a Grady-White Express 330, Island Time. Powers was on the cruise with his son, Blake, and friend David Earp.
Powers takes his fishing very seriously and believes that a cabin boat like the 330 serves as the ideal platform for pursuing king and silver salmon. During our visit, we joined Powers and his crew for a day of fishing on the Pacific Ocean.
We soon came to appreciate the shelter and comfort afforded by the hardtop, windshield, and enclosure for the helm deck, particularly on the chilly morning run in rough seas under gray skies and occasional rain on the way out of the 50-fathom curve about 13 miles west of Kyuquot Island.
“No one here could imagine fishing on a center console,” Powers says. “You just can’t keep warm and dry in an open boat.” You’re not at your best as an angler if you’re cold, wet and uncomfortable, he points out.
To make fishing easy, the 330 offers a huge aft cockpit measuring 100 inches wide by 69 inches long, which lends itself especially well to the techniques used for salmon in the Pacific Northwest.
We employed electric downriggers in each corner of the cockpit to slowly troll lures as deep as 200 feet. Fishing lines are attached to clips on the downrigger cables, which release when a fish strikes, allowing you to play the fish unencumbered by the 10-pound downrigger weight.
While waiting for a bite, crew members retreated to seating on the helm deck. But we didn’t get to sit very long. No sooner had Powers finished setting the lines than a king salmon struck a lure trolled from the starboard quarter. As he grabbed the rod to play the fish, it became apparent that we didn’t really need the full walk-around capabilities of a center console, as all the action took place in the aft cockpit.
To prevent the downrigger cables and fishing lines from tangling, the boat stays in gear — slow ahead — while anglers battle salmon from the aft cockpit. This keeps the fish astern and, in the case of multiple hookups, the big cockpit gives anglers plenty of elbowroom while battling fish.
Powers eased the fish to an awaiting long-handled net manned by his son, and soon a 25-pound king salmon lay on the deck, its impressive chromelike flanks shimmering as rays of the morning sun broke briefly through the clouds.
There’s safety in numbers, as the saying goes. And that’s a big advantage of cruising remote waters with a group such as the Northwest Grady-White Club. Should one member of the club encounter trouble, others are there to lend assistance — help that can range from something as mundane as lending a quart of oil to something as dramatic as a rescue at sea.
It also helps in finding fish, as club members freely share information about where and how they are catching salmon. As soon as Powers iced his first king salmon of the day, he put out a call on the VHF radio, letting other captains in the group know which area we were fishing, the depth that he had set for the downrigger, and the type of lure he used to fool the fish.
Responses crackled back over the VHF with congratulations and questions about the lure color and size of the fish. Within 30 minutes, all the club members were fishing within eye shot of Powers’ boat, and most caught salmon that day.
We also had a chance to fish with the Posts and Walters Cove Resort fishing guide Evans Smith aboard Sakana during our visit to the Kyuquot area. During a lull in the salmon action, we switched to bottomfishing and caught a variety of colorful species such as yelloweye and canary rockfish, plus lingcod and arrowtooth flounder.
As we jigged for fish, I took the opportunity to ask Smith, a member of the Kyuquot/Chekleset (pronounced “check-lay-set”) First Nation, what it was like to grow up in such a remote region. He said his childhood was filled with outdoor adventures, but one in particular gained much notoriety in this area.
“My uncle was a spiritual man among my people,” Smith says. “When I was 11 years old, he told me that to gain the spirit of an eagle, I must touch one.” A few days later, Smith decided to climb to a bald eagle’s nest atop a 100-foot-tall tree, where he got inside the nest and was able to touch an eaglet, then he climbed back down.
“I don’t think my uncle believed I would do it, but I did,” Smith says. The story has morphed to legend over the years, so much so that Smith is sometimes referred to as the boy who was born in an eagle’s nest. Perhaps from a spiritual perspective that’s true.
The remarkable bond between the Kyuquot/Chekleset and nature was brought to life one afternoon when band member and fishing guide Shawn Hanson calmly asked if we would like to meet his pet eagle. Are you kidding? Sure!
With that, a pair of Express 330s filled with club members and the Boating staff motored out to a secluded cove. As the two boats drifted quietly together, Hanson whistled to the pine trees on a distant hillside and then placed a small piece of salmon on one of the Yamaha F350 outboards.
Within seconds, a dark silhouette emerged from the dense forest and glided into view, its immense wingspan and swift closing speed leaving onlookers momentarily stunned. As if hanging in midair, Hanson’s pet eagle plucked the morsel from atop the outboard and then retreated to its lair. Whew! That was awesome!
Yes, Vancouver Island is a boater’s paradise — a place where waters rich with life meet a land of breathtaking natural beauty, a place where indigenous people befriend and revere other animals, a place where you can enjoy some of the best fishing in the world.
Yet this can also be a harsh place, a place that gives no quarter to foolhardy boaters who come here ill-prepared. Don’t try it in an open boat. When things turn nasty, you will long for shelter. This is the domain of the cabin boat.
Walters Cove Resort
There are only two ways to get to Walters Cove Resort — by air or sea. Grady-White staffers Shelley Tubaugh and Gwen Edwards, along with Boating photographer Bill Doster and yours truly, arrived via DeHavilland Beaver floatplane after a two-hour flight from Seattle. We cleared Canadian Customs in Nanaimo and then flew over the mountainous spine of the 62-mile-wide island. Arriving aboard a second plane were Terry McCartney and his wife, Anne, whose boat dealership, Jacobsen Marine in Edmonds, Washington, strongly supports the Northwest Grady-White Club.
Overlooking a quiet harbor in Kyuquot Sound, the resort caters to anglers with its own fleet of Grady-White Gulfstream 232s. Staff are friendly and helpful, and guest rooms are quaint, clean and comfortable. The inviting main lodge offers a true Northwest experience and gives guests a chance to mingle inside or on the balcony overlooking the picturesque sound. Meals are outstanding, and this is the only place in Kyuquot that is allowed to serve alcohol. The resort also provides box lunches and cold beverages to anglers as they leave for a day on the water. To learn more, visit walterscoveresort.com.