Fishing Vancouver Island’s Barkley Sound

Discover a small-boat-angler’s bonanza just north of the U.S. border.
The Broken Islands near Vancouver Island
The Broken Islands, that occupy much of the mouth of sprawling Barkley Sound, are aptly named. AdobeStock

An invitation to join three old friends who live in the Seattle area on a little trip up to Barkley Sound was, for me, a no-brainer. Although it would mean flying up from Florida, I made flight reservations without a second thought for the chance to fish the waters that had given me so many memories decades ago, when I lived in the Puget Sound area.

Brock Gilman, whose 25-foot Shamrock inboard diesel we would tow to the sound, had made reservations (critical in the summer) for the morning British Columbia ferry run from a terminal south of Vancouver. The ferry included a two-hour crossing over the Strait of Georgia to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. But the day before — after we had loaded the boat and Dean Hahler’s big old flatbed Ford truck with gear — a message on Gilman’s phone appeared: Your trip is cancelled. Your ferry is out of service temporarily for repair. You can try again tomorrow.

We had an Airbnb house in Ucluelet, at Barkley, reserved for only four nights. So we checked in at the ferry office that morning and were directed into one of the many lanes at the ferry terminal to wait and hope for a crossing on a stand-by basis. Finally, in the late afternoon, we were put on a ferry.

After a stop in Nanaimo for provisions we headed down BC Highway 4, settling in for a drive of just over two hours, getting us to Ucluelet before dark. Wrong. Road work kept us stopped in a long line, on two different occasions — we sat unmoving for an hour or more each time.

But we made it eventually, unloading and sorting our gear in the rented home, modest and spartan but clean. After a few hours sleep, we launched at Island West Resort into Barkley Sound, a place I had fished in my own boat years ago. Time to make some new memories.

yelloweye rockfish
After a very quick photo, this yelloweye rockfish was released on a descender, as required by law. Doug Olander

While the Pacific wasn’t truly rough, it was gnarly enough to make the long run to any deepwater offshore banks on our first morning a challenge. We were fishing there in the lumpy sea from a small cuddy. So we stayed closer to the wide mouth of the big sound and spent much of the day dropping a variety of jigs to bottom in 50 to 200 feet.

As long as there’s some bottom structure or relief (of which there’s a great deal in the area), action is pretty much guaranteed. That meant none of us had to wait long for hook-sets and bent rods. That was fishing Barkley as I remembered and loved it.

Most of our catch consisted of rockfishes (genus Sebastes), but we never knew which species until we had them at the surface. We caught and in most cases released too many to count, averaging a couple of pounds to five. Among the types of rockfishes brought to the boat: copper, quillback, black, yelloweye (released with a descender), canary, vermilion, china, yellowtail and blue, as well as lovely kelp greenling.

Blue rockfish
Blue rockfish often swarm in mid-depth schools and will strike any jig that falls into their midst. Brock Gilman

Key detail: We had brought with us what too few anglers fishing here ever consider — light spinning and baitcasting tackle with braids of six- to 10-pound test. On such appropriate tackle, these rockfish were a rod-bending blast.

Even more spirited battles occurred when we hooked small lingcod (three to eight pounds). Not bothered by expanding gases in a swim bladder (that they lack), lings can continue to make sudden surges all the way to the boat.

To be sure, we kept some of the rockfish and lings, though far short of limits (three rockfish and three lings per person), since all are about as tasty as white-meat fish can be.

Before heading in, we trolled a bit for salmon but hadn’t really set up properly and met with little success. However, back at the cleaning table at Island West, a guide who was taking care of a boat limit of Chinook was genial enough to tell us try Wya Point in the morning. We took the hint and next morning made the bumpy run around the corner at Amphitrite Point and north in the open Pacific five miles to Wya.

salmon fishing Wya Point
A frequent sight when the bite’s on at a spot like Wya Point. Brock Gilman

We could see he hadn’t exactly revealed a top-secret spot: A dozen or so boats were trolling back and forth through the Wya grounds, some stopped with nets out. We joined the party, setting up two lines — long, limber “mooching rods” — at different depths on a port-corner downrigger, and landed a number of salmon — one coho and the rest Chinook. Most came on a spoon behind a large green prismatic flasher.

I regretted the lack of fresh or high-quality frozen herring in town. With salmon numerous just off the rocks, I would have preferred drift- or motor-mooching with light tackle and long leaders separating a two-ounce kidney sinker from a large plug-cut herring for productive and topnotch sport.

chinook salmon
A Chinook of typical size taken on a spoon gives Brock Gilman reason to smile. Doug Olander

The next morning we headed out to a deep bank, dropping jigs from 300 to 350 feet. But the prized flatfish eluded us for the most part, though we landed a couple of prepubescent size, aka “chicken halibut.”

I tried a small jig on a very light rig, dropping it only a fraction of the way to bottom, hoping for any roving coho salmon. I was pleasantly surprised when one struck, taking off with speed I’d expect from a coho. The fish fought near the surface but unlike a salmon, never jumped, and I soon saw why: a surprise catch in these northern waters — a large jack mackerel (a type of big scad). I proceeded to hook another, and probably could have hooked many more had I wanted to target them.

A bit later, another surprise. Hardly rare, but not really a common catch these days, a Pacific cod of five pounds that couldn’t resist a Mustad jig with its realistic, dangly white plastic legs.

lingcod caught on metal jig
Ultralight spinning gear, such as this little Abu Zenon, proved just the ticket for small lings like this as well as all rockfish species (and even salmon). Brock Gilman

While we didn’t score any of the huge (30- to 50-pound) lingcod that definitely thrive in these waters, we landed a number of good fish. I caught most of my day’s limit in one drop, when a small lingcod nailed a metal jig. I could tell at once that the fish wasn’t much to brag about. Until it was. That is, having caught dozens of lings over the years, I could feel the moment when it suddenly became a whole lot heavier. I kept up the steady pressure — it wasn’t particularly deep at that place — until, sure enough, my small lingcod came into view. The little guy was resting crosswise in the toothy jaws of a larger ling. Seeing the struggling smaller fish, the large ling figured on an easy meal.

“Get it up here, quick!” said Jeff Poirer, with gaff in hand. When the lings were boatside, he adroitly placed the gaff in the bigger fish and pulled both in. Even then, the captured fish refused to release its dinner.

two ling cods and a vermilion rockfish
Sometimes two lines catch three fish. The larger lingcod latched onto the smaller ling on the way up and, to its ultimate regret, refused to let go. Dean Hahler

It’s a scenario not unusual but always exciting in Northwest waters. Most often it involves a hooked rockfish or greenling. And yes, I have heard more than one report of fish on fish on fish, where a fair-sized ling grabbed a rockfish as an angler was reeling up, only to have a huge ling eat the smaller ling. If that sounds farfetched, you’re probably unfamiliar with the mouths on these beasts.

Ultimately, without spending a fortune in travel cost or time, we managed to get away from everything and spend a few days fishing a stretch of wild, timeless Pacific Coast waters teeming with fish.

Barkley Sound Fishing Trip Facts

Vermilion rockfish
Vermilion rockfish like this one make a great target for light-tackle enthusiast Jeff Poirer. Doug Olander

Check rates and schedules and availability for reservations before you plan a trip. Two small communities serve Barkley Sound: Ucluelet on the north side and Bamfield on the south. Both offer a number of resorts, many with moorage. There are also campgrounds and many rental homes. All tend to book up months in advance of the peak summer season. The farther ahead you can nail down a place to stay, the better off you’ll be. There is good fishing fall and spring for many species and weather can be accommodating. Rates will be less and availability greater. For those not arriving by boat or trailering one, an online search for “fishing charter Barkley Sound” will reveal a number of skippers who target salmon and halibut as well as lingcod and rockfish.

Freshwater-fishing enthusiasts can find world-class steelhead and trout fishing in British Columbia rivers. Resorts such as Northern Lights Lodge offer wide packages of river and lake fishing.