Mothership Fishing

By Ryck Lydecker

Brundige Inlet on the north shore of Canada's remote Dundas Island, British Columbia, points northeast toward the unseen border with the United States. Across the passage, low clouds on the horizon should be hanging on the headlands of Alaska's Misty Fjords National Monument. As the 72-foot converted commercial-fishing vessel Ocean Star reaches open water, the captain nudges the throttle up a few hundred revolutions.

"You know, skipper, this operation wouldn't make a very good reality show," I say as he sets our course to round the island's Whitly Point.

The captain smiles and replies, "Oh, you mean not enough arguing and conflict? Well, you haven't seen us between trips, then."

We're on the third day of a four-day, three-night trip in these wilderness waters aboard an eminently seaworthy and very mobile fishing headquarters. At the helm is her converted commercial fisherman owner, Willis Crosby. In 38 years of fishing for market — salmon, herring, halibut, rockfish (you name it, he's caught it, dressed it, iced it, packed it) — Crosby has been up and down all the British Columbia coast. But that's changed; he's turned his restored, even gentrified, wooden working boat to a new line of work. Now Willis Crosby and his family are catering to the sportfishing trade and he's on the last trip of his sixth season operating as Ocean Star Charters.

In the galley below, his wife Gayle is preparing lunch and probably battening down. It could kick up once we round Holiday Island and enter the broad Main Passage at the top of Chatham Sound, where the forecast calls for southeast winds to 20 knots. On the afterdeck, their son Shawn, the chief fishing guide, and mate, Josh Pallister, are breaking out the halibut gear. Shawn's got 15 years of commercial fishing behind him and Josh also grew up in a fishing family. We're "switching over," and that means shifting location after two solid days of the crew keeping the seven guests squarely on coho salmon — and out of the way of humpback whales — in the waters off Dundas. That's the beauty of what I've come to call "mothership fishing" because Ocean Star and her fleet of four aluminum outboard skiffs is a floating lodge that takes you where the fish are. And now that we've all limited on coho salmon, we're off to where the halibut hang out.

So far, Ocean Star Charters is living up to its slogan: Cheena kwan, "lots of fish" in the language of the Haida, the native tribe in this part of British Columbia, and Willis Crosby's heritage. Come to think of it, even without family squabbles and no dialog to bleep out, this kind of fishing could still make great TV. The reality is, this is a smooth-running family operation that falls somewhere between "Deadliest Catch" and National Geographic.

Day One: The Old Man's Hole

We'd left the Prince Rupert Yacht Club dock an hour before noon two days earlier under a soggy sky. Wending a zigzag course through tricky Venn Passage, Ocean Star passed the Tsimshian native village of Metlakatla where our mate Josh had learned to fish when not much taller than the sea boots of his grandfather. By the time we entered Chatham Sound, and set a course toward Dundas Island, we fishing guests were old friends: the father and son team of Ted and Randy Isaacson, with Rick Forster, all from Tennessee; Californian Bob Martin, a longtime friend of Ted; Mike Sommerville with his son Kyle, from Calgary, Alberta; and me.

Steaming north in light rain for four hours brought us to the north side of Dundas, just a few miles from the international border. Once Crosby had tucked Ocean Star well inside long, narrow Brundige Inlet, our leisurely cruising mind-set gave way to serious angler attitude. As the crew loaded the skiffs rafted up at the stern boarding platform and rigged them for coho trolling, guests suited up in the commercial-grade "foulies" and knee boots provided.

Once out among the rock ledges and islets, skirting thick kelp beds off the island's tip, Willis clipped the lines to the downriggers, and we were trolling over "Old Man's Hole." The other boats spread out to work sections off the shoreline at different depths, following the rip lines across the mouth of Goose Bay. VHF chatter showed little excitement until — bingo! — several hook-ups in rapid succession: two fish landed, one shook loose, then nothing. Ten minutes later the starboard rod on our boat, bent nearly double under the straight-down strain of the trolling gear, let go from the cannonball clip. Fish on! I set the hook and after five minutes of fight, reeled in a bright, silver, 14-pound coho salmon.

Back on Ocean Star, Shawn and Josh dressed the fish and marked them with wire ties in a different color for each angler. It seems I'd "limited." Six coho sporting my red tag, all 12 to 15 pounds, their bright bodies accented by the distinctive, metallic-blue dorsal surface that gives them the name "blueback." Afterward we settled in to Gayle's signature first-night "surf-and-turf" dinner — grilled strip steak and fresh Dungeness crab.

Day Two: Eau De Humpback

0500 — Willis fired up Ocean Star's engine and Randy, Rick, and I, sharing the aft fish hold, now a four-berth cabin, woke instantly. In rapid sequence everyone was up, dressed, suited-up, in the galley for breakfast on the fly, aboard the boats, headed out the inlet at high speed, and fishing by 0600. Off the point, in driving rain, I was in a boat with Shawn and Bob.

Sea boots lined and ready to go fishing Sea-boots are lined up and ready to go fishing.

The VHF reported somewhat slow action, with the odd coho coming aboard one boat or another. Josh, Randy, and Rick were working along a kelp bed 50 yards inshore of us near the mouth of Goose Bay when a feeding humpback whale lazily surfaced to spout just ahead — and upwind — of their boat. Phew! Whale breath wafted over the skiff in an invisible, gagging cloud that took everyone but Josh by surprise.

"That was about the most overpowering stench I've ever smelled," Randy said later. "Don't talk to me about halitosis till you've smelled a humpback whale's breath. Whew!"

After lunch aboard Ocean Star and a soggy but successful afternoon fishing, we regrouped with our skipper and decided to move on to halibut the following afternoon.

The coho crowd chows down aboard Ocean Star The coho crowd chows down aboard Ocean Star.

Day Three: Back To His Roots

Once again, the big diesel alarm clock went off at 0500 and we put in a busy coho morning, again in rain (they don't call it "the Rainforest Coast" for nothing) and after lunch, weighed anchor. Two hours later, as the weather began to clear in defiance of the forecast, we headed to a deep-water shelf for halibut. Once anchored in Hudson Bay Passage, we dropped two-pound "cannonball" weights overboard from stiff, six-foot rods, and hung chunk-cut herring just off the bottom. No luck. The tide was wrong, but the faulty forecast put us here, not Willis's instinct.

After dinner that evening, the Crosby family gathered in the "tackle room" on the afterdeck where a seine-net drum once stood. I'd heard the Ocean Star story when I met Willis and Sea-boots are lined up and ready to go fishing. Gayle in the Crest Hotel lounge the day of my arrival in Prince Rupert. Willis learned the trade from his grandfather, a native Haida who fished around their ancestral homeland, the legendary Queen Charlotte Islands. As a young man, Willis went on to buy his own boat, forging a successful career fishing salmon, herring, halibut, and rock cod around the islands, and eventually all up and down the coast. Shawn fished with his father and eventually got his own boat.

"In 2000, a friend of ours, a well-known artist from Vancouver, asked us to take him to the Queen Charlotte Islands to paint," Crosby explained. "We had a different boat then and it was strictly a commercial fish boat, but this fellow wanted to bring eight other artists along so we quickly scraped up 2x4s and mattresses and built extra bunk beds in the hold. Then Gayle, Shawn, and I took them on a 17-day cruise to the Queen Charlottes."

Trolling along the kelp beds off the Gnarled IslandsTrolling along the kelp beds off the Gnarled Islands.

Both of Willis Crosby's parents were from the islands and he'd spent so much time there growing up and later learned those waters so intimately that he was able to guide the group to Haida village sites, remote hot springs, and ancient settlements that the average tourist might never visit. The group didn't fish, though, and that planted the germ of an idea in Shawn's mind.

"They couldn't get enough of it," he said, "and afterward I said, 'Dad, we should just do this — touring, kayaking, whale watching, whatever. Let's get into leading tours out here,' and the next year we bought Ocean Star." The artists' group came back every summer, but the Crosbys continued to fish commercially while converting the boat to its new but not yet defined career.

"After awhile," Gayle recalled, "it became pretty obvious that even though we could certainly accommodate sightseeing cruises, our real market was going to be sportfishing."

"And then we had to learn how," Shawn jumped in. "We'd commercial fished all our lives but sportfishing was new to us." It took three years to get Ocean Star and her skipper approved to carry passengers, and today the season spans about 20 trips. Not all are exclusively sportfishing, and the Crosbys will tailor extended cruises to the Queen Charlottes and book shorter trips to attractions such as the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary, only accessible by air or by boat.

The captain fillets salmon for dinner as chef Gayle offers encouragement The captain fillets salmon for dinner as chef Gayle offers encouragement.

Day Four: Closing The Circle

Fishing remains at the core of the Crosbys' lives, and the next morning, on the way back to port, with the promised galeforce winds gone elsewhere, the sun began to break through on flat-calm water. On a promising bank in Chatham Sound, Ocean Star dropped the hook a final time and I dropped mine. After half an hour, I felt the tap-tap of the rod tip and watched as my line swam slowly toward the open ocean. I started reeling to let the circle hook do its subtle work and soon had a 13-pound halibut sitting in ice on top of my coho cache. All but one brought home a halibut and Mike Sommerville took a lovely lingcod as a bonus.

Ryck Lydecker displays the coho he's caughtRyck Lydecker displays the coho he's caught.

By afternoon, we put into Port Edward, a few miles south of Prince Rupert, where Ocean Star would lay up for winter. The Crosbys invited us to toast a successful season with them as a pickup truck rolled out on the wharf to take me and my prizes back to Rupert. And look who's driving, Shawn's wife Dallas and — what's this? — two grandchildren; they climbed all over Willis and Gayle. The circle seemed complete. 

A Cruisers' Guide To Prince Rupert

Totem poleBy the time Inside Passage cruisers arrive in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, they'll have seen hundreds of miles of densely forested, spectacular shoreline. Prince Rupert is both the northern terminus of the Inside Passage route for BC Ferries and the last port-of-call south on the Alaska Marine Highway. This corner of the province is the traditional territory of the Tsimshian people, the predominant native tribe to inhabit the area; roughly half the city's 13,000 residents are First Nations people. The blending of cultures in Prince Rupert is well worth experiencing, all the more so as the city celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2010.

Here visiting boaters will discover a surprising array of amenities and attractions to revitalize their journey and perhaps even keep them in port longer. And while cruisers Jeff and Gayle Gegenheimer didn't stick around Prince Rupert by choice, they have no regrets about their extended stay in August 2009. "We spent an unplanned week in Prince Rupert and the city proved to be a great cruising destination," Jeff reports. "We had a wonderful week visiting local sights." The Gegenheimers' cruise aboard a 31-foot chartered trawler, a Camano Troll named Island Spirit, began in Anacortes, Washington. After 700 miles of cruising up the Georgia Strait, crossing Queen Charlotte Sound and exploring various passages behind the islands of Hecate Strait, they arrived at the Prince Rupert Rowing and Yacht Club and continued their cruise the following day.

"We were headed to Ketchikan to meet the boat's owners and fly home so that they could cruise back to Anacortes," explains Gayle. "But when we tried to cross the Dixon Entrance north of Prince Rupert, the weather reports were so far off the mark that we turned back." After that, the couple shifted into a daily routine of checking weather updates followed by pleasant hours playing tourist. Part of the city's appeal, they discovered, are Prince Rupert's firstrate restaurants. "The best anywhere," according to Mark Newbery, commodore of the yacht club, a British expatriate who's worked and traveled in many parts of the world and now would live nowhere else. "Prince Rupert has everything cruisers might need and great transportation links. And the fishing, well, there's no place better," he adds, showing pictures of the 28-foot custom aluminum cruiser.

On their last night in "Rupert," over dinner at the Cow Bay Café, a Parisian chef-owned restaurant hard-by the yacht club, the cruisers agreed with Newbery. "We wouldn't have chosen to spend a week here but the city has so much to offer from a visiting boater perspective," says Gayle. "There are jewels here, such as the Museum of Northern British Columbia, and killer restaurants." Her culinary kudos go to Cow Bay Café, Breakers Pub, the Japanese sushi restaurant OPA, and Dolly's Fish Market, which also sells fresh catch and packs sport-caught fish to travel — all within an easy walk of the yacht club. A short cab ride to the city center offers a supermarket and farther still an Internet café (Java dot Cup) and two laundromats.

The Gegenheimers, who hail from Evergreen, Colorado, got to be well-known among Rupertites whose daily greeting was some variation of, "Weather's still bad, eh?" The museum where the Gegenheimers spent many weatherwaiting hours provides a "must-see" tour through the region's ancient cultures, early exploration and settlement periods, all presented in a stunning native longhouse-style building of massivecedar post-and-beam construction facing the harbor. The nearby Carving Shed is a place where some of the region's best artists and carvers create their distinctive artworks, and to the west along the harborfront the Kwinitsa Railway Station Museum adds the history of the Grand Trunk Railway that reached here in 1914. On the bluff above is Chances Casino.

And speaking of luck, says Gayle Gegenheimer, "One thing that I found fascinating was the sportfishing activity. We'd watch the local people take their boats out for the afternoon and come back with tubs of beautiful fish — salmon, halibut, and crabs." The city is home to a fleet of day-trip charter fishing boats.

Prince Rupert is also a hub for side trips such as out to the Queen Charlotte Islands, ancestral and present-day home of the Haida people. Northeast of Prince Rupert is the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary, the only refuge of its kind in North America and home to more than 50 oftenspotted grizzlies (viewing is best from May through July).

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