Tofino - Pacific NW Big Sur Fishing Experience

by Mike Carey, October 06, 2017
The vibrant reds and golds of the sunset washed over my eyes while the soothing breaking of the surf on the beach lulled me in to a state of Zen-like bliss. I watched as the surfers braved the frigid waters and attempted to get up on breaking waves and ride in to shore on their boards. All around me people took in the sunset signaling the end of another beautiful day in this slice of Pacific Northwest paradise, the coastline surrounding the eclectic town of Tofino.

Tofino, originally a fur trading town, has grown into a fishing, surfing and resort destination. Long before it was named after a rear admiral in the Spanish Navy, this area was the home of the people of the Nuu-chah-nulth. They've occupied the west coast of Vancouver Island for as long as 10,000 years. Captain James Cook was the first European to explore the area, in 1778. The first logging road opened it to the general public in 1959. It was the establishment of Pacific Rim National Park in 1971 that really put Tofino on the map. And it’s no wonder. One trip to Tofino and the surrounding area will charm you with its beauty and unique shops and culture. And the surfing sub-culture draws in young adults searching for alternative lifestyles and experiences. Tofino truly is the “Big Sur” of the Pacific Northwest.

For the fishing enthusiast, it is much more. Off the shores of Tofino are some of the Pacific Northwest’s best fishing grounds. Offshore reefs are within easy reach of charters and private anglers with larger boats. There they will find a healthy population of ling cod, snapper, halibut, and other bottomfish. The reefs are relatively shallow at 160-200 feet, meaning it is possible to catch these fish without 2-3 pounds of lead to get your offering down to them.

The salmon that pass by and go up into the rivers surrounding Tofino include coho, chinook, sockeye, and pink salmon (in odd years). The offshore migration of chinook and coho to distant waters all pass by the waters of Tofino, making this a prime location to target salmon. In addition, hatcheries on Vancouver Island supply a good return of fish as well.

My wife JoAnn and I arrived in mid-September for three days of fishing and filming a future TV episode for Northwest Fishing Reports. Also along were Northwest Fishing Report’s Aaron Borg and his friend Noah Bettin, guests of Jamies Rainforest Inn and Tofino Fishing. We met up with guides Rob Frawley and Gibson Doney at their well-stocked tackle shop to discuss the fishing situation and what they had in mind for us.

Rob suggested Day One we head southeast to Wya Point, about a 45 minute ocean run to fish for some late season chinook that were still milling around the ocean prior to running up to spawn. He was cautiously optimistic that we would be able to get into some good chinook action. I’m always up for a new place to fish and new sights to see.

We launched at 6:30 to fair skis and calm winds. As we rounded the harbor and headed out into the ocean the waters became somewhat choppy with 4-8 foot swells. The expert boat handling of Rob and Gibson got us to our location comfortably. Way Point is a beautiful rocky shoreline with waves crashing and abundant wildlife of seals, whales, otters, birds and more. Conditions started off clear but slowly a low cloud/fog bank crept in making for a cool fog-shrouded shoreline.

Rob and Gibson ran two downriggers, each with single action “knuckle buster” reels and beautiful custom made 9 foot downrigger rods. Gibson was particularly proud of these rods and with good reason. They use only the best gear on their fleet of four offshore boats. By the way, if you’ve never fished with a single action reel for salmon you’ve got to try it – it’s a kick! It’s just you and the fish and a whole lot of fast reeling to keep up with screaming runs. Rob dropped the flashers and hoochies to 40-70 feet, depending on water depth. We fished just off the rocky shoreline as these chinook migrate close to shore. Within minutes the port rod popped off its clip we had our first “fish on”. Aaron, winner of our “rocks, paper, scissors” contest grabbed the rod and skillfully landed the first chinook of the trip, a fine 14 pound specimen. Considering the lateness of the season we were pleased to see the fish was in chrome bright shape. Rob noted that they had recently seen a fresh run of fish in the area and that this wasn’t unusual to see.

We continued to work the area with a half dozen other boats and while the action wasn’t red hot it was steady enough to keep us alert. In addition to the chinook we were encountering a lot of nice coho salmon. Unfortunately out in the ocean the coho have to be released unless clipped - and according to Rob Canada hatcheries don’t clip their fish. So to protect potential U.S. bound wild fish anything unclipped gets released. We released a lot of coho and some of them were very nice indeed! At the end of the day we counted four beautiful late season chinook ranging from 12 to 20 pounds. Day One was a success!

Later that evening my wife and I wandered among the quaint shops of Tofino and then enjoyed some fine dining at the Wolf in the Fog. We started off with the Bamfield Seaweed salad, delicious homemade bread, and for the main course, what else but baked halibut. How come my halibut never tastes this good? As you might expect, Tofino is blessed with a whole lot of great fine dining and plenty of casual eateries as well.

For those into local crafts and other fine goods you’ll be charmed by all that Tofino has to offer. From arts and crafts to surf hangouts and some pretty decent tackle shops there’s something for everyone. Best of all is that laid back “Big Sur in the Pacific Northwest” vibe that JoAnn and I immediately fell in love with. Rounding out this perfect day JoAnn and I walked our dogs on the beach and watched that amazing sunset. Then it was off to bed for Day Two.

I arrived at the dock and Rob and Gibson had everything ready to go. “Today the ocean conditions are perfect” Rob said. “The tides are mild, the winds and swell have gone down considerably from yesterday, and we are going to show you some of the excellent lingcod and bottom fishing we can offer our guests”. Sad to say, that did not include halibut as it had shut down last week. No worries though, because as Gibson explained, we were in for a special treat. “We’ll be jigging for the ling cod today guys. It’s around a hundred fifty feet deep where we fish and the lings just kill these jigs”. He then showed us some eight ounce jigs with large swim tails from Lighthouse Lures. Their Megabite Jigs line come in realistic colors and have tough as nail tails.

I was excited to try out them out but also nervous because in my experience jigs and rocky bottoms equal a lot of lost gear. But Gibson assured me that we’d have very few hang ups due to the way the jig was designed, and he was right. To me, there is no better way to catch a ling cod than to have it slam into a jig. Just you and one of the hardest fighting fish to be found in our salt waters.

The run out to the fishing grounds took about 45 minutes. Along the way we took in the scenery which included seals and a whale. When we arrived at our spot Aaron, Noah, and I got down to business, lowering our offerings down to the waiting fish below. At first we had no bites and a tinge of doubt crept in to my brain. Maybe the fishing isn’t has hot as we were told? And then it started. Noah’s rod slammed down and he was into a fish. Moments later Aaron hooked up with a nice fish. I reeled up to watch and just like that our first two lings were in the boat. Well, not “just like that” because Aaron had hooked into a big one. The fish took several drag burning runs that gave him a nice workout. Eventually we got to see his fish – and what a fish it was! Easily in the 15-20 pound range and one of the nicest lings I have seen in some time. That motivated me to stop watching and start fishing! Soon enough my rod doubled over and I had a cookie cutter to Aaron’s fish. No need to wonder if its hype – the lings offshore of Tofino are plentiful and big. We continued fishing until we had our limits (two per angler) and for a bonus I caught a nice eight pound snapper (yellow eye rockfish). We were in a state of numb amazement at the size and quality of the fish we had just caught.

With ling limits in the boat Rob and Gibson decided rather than continue to fish for other bottom fish and risk injuring catch and release lings we would run back to Tofino and do some near shore coho fishing. Our arms having received a good workout, the three anglers agreed this was a good plan. I appreciated the conservation concern Rob and Gibson displayed by not risking catch and release of lings to get other bottom fish. The fishery is strong but only with responsible management like this will it stay that way.

Unlike yesterday’s offshore chinook fishing, the inshore coho fishing allows for clipped fish. After a comfortable run back that included some whale watching of grey and killer whales, we returned to the inshore waters and started trolling for coho. In addition to the two downrigger rods Gibson ran out a fly on a fly rod, skipping it along the surface in the boat’s wake. We trolled around 2.5 to 3.5 mph in 30-70 feet of water. Once again the action started right away, this time with Noah grabbing a bouncing rod and the fight was on! This coho, like most of the coho we caught, was big, feisty, and full of fight. Noah handled her well and avoided the dreaded “knuckle busting” reel. Rob slid the net under this beautiful 14 pound coho and it was “go time” for our coho fishing.

We took turns catching shiny coho and ended with limits of beautiful coho, including one that hit the trolled fly as part of a double. Aaron got the honor of bringing in this fish, which on a fly rod was quite the battle. We also released a beautiful twenty pound king that was closed in these waters.

A quick side trip to view some black bear that Rob spotted along the shoreline and we were back to the dock with a boat load full of ling cod and coho. With all the fish we had caught from our trip it’s essential that they be properly handled and processed. Rob and Gibson did their part by bleeding and icing the fish as soon as we caught them. Back at the dock the processing duties were handled by Trilogy Fish Company of Tofino. I must say, it is well worth the expense to have your fish professionally processed. Each fish was butchered into the perfect eating size packages and then flash frozen and vacu-sealed for maximum freshness. The packages were first rate, including a label on each one with fish type and date. I highly recommend spending the extra money to have this done for your fish. Trilogy also offers custom smoking, marinating, and shipping services.

Our trip to Tofino was an easy day’s drive and ferry ride from the greater Seattle area. Fishing with Tofino Fishing couldn't have been better. The equipment is first rate, the boats comfortable and safe. Rob, Gibson, and the other guides are friendly, experienced and knowledgeable. They got us on the fish every day. And the fish - well, the pictures say it all!

JoAnn and I discovered a new “go to” destination that we agree we will want to visit again. There is so much to do and see and we only scratched the surface. If you have a chance, do visit the Pacific Northwest’s “Big Sur”. You too will discover a wonderful getaway and fantastic fishing destination!

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