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Historic British Columbia King Salmon Fishing

Long on tradition, this classic destination continues to produce king salmon.

July 7, 2021
Fishermen rowing out at the Tyee Club
Traditional lapstrake rowboats blanket the Tyee Pool against a modern backdrop. Terry W. Sheely

For a bucket-list destination, this internationally famous British Columbia salmon pool at the mouth of the Campbell River on Vancouver Island is strangely quiet. The evening water is flat with slow swirls around skinny rowboats, and transparent enough to see broken littleneck shells on the bottom a dozen feet down.

My rower, Dwayne Mustard, a tyee salmon evangelist, whispers that we’re coming into the “biting tide,” the three hours before high slack. The biting tide is no secret. As the time approaches, boatmen guiding a fleet of look-alike lapstrake rowboats jam the eddy off the mouth of the Campbell River, pushed together by an incoming tide and a singular goal: tyee, the First Nations word for “chief.” In coastal Canada, the title now describes any chinook salmon over 30 pounds.

Tackle on the dock for salmon fishing
The Tyee Pool provides a showcase for time-honored British Columbia tackle and customs. Terry W. Sheely

By the Book

“Fish on, fish on!” Three guys in the boat below us shout the requisite warning in unison, one holding a seriously bent rod, and the boatman rowing madly but properly for open water. The reel clicker chatters, and even that is a prescribed part of this micromanaged tradition: “When playing a fish, make sure your clicker is on so that other rowers will know that you are playing a fish and they can stay out of your way.”

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The hookup boat moves according to a second stilted Tyee Pool rule: “The rower should row in a straight line for a few moments to allow other boats to clear their lines, and then endeavor to maneuver the fish out of the pool into deeper water and away from the other boats as soon as reasonably practical. This can be achieved by rowing at an angle out into Discovery Passage and against the current. If you have tight tension on the fish, it will eventually come with you.” Neighboring boats clear out of the way with barely a word, then close in behind the hookup.

Holding up a nice salmon on the dock
Modern gear, boats and techniques also have a place in this fishery. Terry W. Sheely

Hallowed Grounds

Presidents, assorted kings, princes, dukes and tag-along royalty have traveled huge distances to rule these salmon—but few did. In 1919, author and fisherman Zane Grey turned his back to a hot swordfish bite at Catalina Island and traveled by train, steamship, truck wagon and canoe to tempt these Vancouver Island kings from a cedar dugout. According to his records, Grey caught several 30-pounders and lost a 50-pounder at the gaff.

“Tyees,” he wrote, “will call forth all the excitement, skill and work any angler could ask.” That has not changed.

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The Tyee Pool is public waters, with rules and bag limits managed by the Canadian Department of Fisheries. But since 1924, the Tyee Club has overseen it with strict authority, classic ethics, and a tyee calendar that starts on July 15 and ends September 15. The club provides a weighmaster, who keeps watch on the pool, records catches, enforces the Tyee Club rules—laid out in a 168-page book—and guides the century-old traditions. For $20, he will sell you a registration that entitles your tyee to be recorded forever in the clubhouse and grants the right to ring the club bell—one ring for every 10 pounds.

The fishery has changed in recent years, of course, like all Pacific salmon fisheries. Fewer chinook grow into giants like the 50- and 60-pounders displayed in the Tyee Club yearbook, or captured in yellowing photographs and displayed in nearby fish lodges and local museums. But with this gene pool there is always hope.

You come here to know that you fished here, and to fish the hard way—no motors, no baits, no barbs, no fish finders, no modern reels.

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Painter's Lodge on the river
Painter’s Lodge overlooks the mouth of the Campbell River. Terry W. Sheely

Room to Breathe

Anglers don’t come here to fill the freezer, although there are nearby options and two dozen local charter services for that.

In the next morning’s mist, Natalie and I take a break from the pool and try the other side of Campbell River’s salmon fishing—the catch-and-eat side. We walk past a trio of tippy tyee boats cradled on the dock and step into an electronically enhanced 17-foot center-console. Guide Rob Turko turns on the electronics, fires the 50 horses, and we roar north through the infamous rock and whirlpool at Seymour Narrows. We’ll troll off electric downriggers with Greenlite flashers and Double Glow plastic squid for chinooks, chums, pinks, and maybe an early coho. In a couple of hours, we have almost two limits of prime salmon in the fish box for winter fillets.

This is the modern Campbell River: conventional tackle, action, hard strikes, running salmon and flying nets. This more familiar fishing stands in glaring contrast to the reserved old-school challenge of the Tyee Pool. But if you like to eat salmon—and I do—this conventional option puts salmon in the freezer on a Tyee Pool destination trip.

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Large salmon held up for the camera
There’s always the opportunity to take home fresh salmon steaks. Terry W. Sheely

Never Enough

Back at the dock, Mustard is waiting to tell me that a fresh school of tyees has moved into the pool. Four were caught on the morning row, the largest in the high 40s. We’ll go out at 6 p.m.

Mustard pulls gently on the oars, we slide to the left, and Natalie’s rod bounces—just once, but it’s electrifying. The salmon doesn’t come back. “Might have been a tail slap,” Mustard says, “or a nip.” Below us, a large dorsal fin rolls through the slick.

Incoming pods of king salmon hang in the pool for days, sometimes weeks, collecting into a large school. Some occasionally run upriver then drift back to the pool. The salmon move with the tides, banking to the north on the outflow and piling up in the south on the flood. Rowers watch for rollers and splashers, and stay on top of the school. This evening, we’re plugging the north end of the south bar, and fish until full dark at 9:15. Twice the club bell rings—two 30-pounders for the night’s row. Slow, Mustard says, very slow. We’ll try again tomorrow. A celebratory bonfire glows on the beach, in front of the Tyee Club.

The chilled surge of a late-evening saltwater tide ebbs past our boat, flowing, I’m sure, with countless stories of shattered egos and sport-fishing legacies.

We’re about to pull on the plug and call it a night when two boats over, a rod doubles down and somebody shouts, “Fish on!” The boat pulls for open water and disappears into the night.

Mustard agrees to meet us on the dock for one last tyee row at first light. “There’s often a daylight bite,” he says. A daylight bite will be perfect, I think, but just the challenge of another row is all I need. That and a reason to yell, “Fish on!”

Map of fishing spots in British Columbia
By any method, catching a chinook fresh from the ocean represents a notable feat. Tim Barker

When You Go

From mainland highways, book the BC Provincial vehicle ferry from Vancouver at Tsawwassen and Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. Campbell River is 97 miles north of the ferry landing on Highway 1A/19. Commercial flights to the Vancouver International Airport South Terminal connect with Pacific Coastal Airways to Campbell River. Some hotels and lodges provide shuttles. For travel, food, accommodations and local info from Destination Campbell River, visit campbellriver.travel.

Rules and Regs

Tyee Club, 250-914-4455, tyeeclub.org

Tackle and Info

River Sportsman, 250-286-1017, [email protected], riversportsman.com

Tyee Pool Guides

Painter’s Lodge

Multiple guides, [email protected], resort.com, paintersresort.com

Fishing Booker

fishingbooker.com/charters (Represents 25 Campbell River saltwater charter services)

Coastal Wilderness Adventures

coastwild.com, [email protected]

CR Sport Fishing

crsportfishing.ca, [email protected]

Riptide Fishing Charters

riptidefishingcharters.com, [email protected]

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