The Big One
Sunday, August 13, 2006
Even the biggest fool knows you don't count the fish in the cooler till you've caught them. That's worse luck than whistling at sea, stepping on board with your left foot or, God forbid, allowing a woman on a boat.
I'm a woman, I was planning on going aboard solo, and I was counting fish as I calculated the cost of a value-package fly-in fishing trip to the wilds of British Columbia. "Unbelievable prices," read the newspaper ad. The ball-capped man in the ad strained to hold up his mammoth salmon, 50 pounds easy. Its tail looked as wide as its head. I felt the stirring of fish lust within me.
The B.C. package included two fishing trips, two nights' accommodations aboard a floating hotel and three days in Ucluelet, a remote village tucked inside a long skinny bay on the west side of Vancouver Island. It would cost me $259, including round-trip airfare from the mainland city of Vancouver. This was an early-season red-tag bargain, the high-seas equivalent of a Kmart Blue Light Special.
The woman on the end of the 1-800 line said boats were limiting out on halibut. The "flatties" run big. I've snagged 60-pounders in Alaska. They can run 100 pounds and up. I worked the numbers.
Halibut was $14.95 a pound at the fish market. If I caught -- modest estimate -- three 30-pounders, I'd have 90 pounds of fish. Hemingway, in "The Old Man and the Sea," figured a big fish dresses out at about two-thirds of its weight. So, minus the heads and tails, guts and bones, I could end up with about $900 worth of fish.
Add one of those 50-pound chinook hogs -- $12.50 a pound -- and I'd be fish-rich. Plus, I'd finally be back out on the seas with a line in the water.
I've been a fishing nut since I was a kid throwing mini-marshmallows and corn kernels to perch during visits to Arkansas, where cousins, second cousins, third cousins and uncles twice-removed dined on fried catch and made glow-in-the-dark war paint out of squished fireflies on summer nights. I've thrown spoons at Colorado trout, flatfish at Columbia River salmon, showy flies at Louisiana redfish.
My favorite kind of fishing is the meditative kind, walking a river bank in waders, alone, morning mist rising up off a river where salmon hump through riffles looking for home and, perhaps, the distraction of my gussied-up gold spinner with day-glo beads. I cast -- and cast off. I empty out.
A day of this renders me calm and happy, salmon or no salmon.
But that's fishing, not catching. I was after meat, not peace, as I booked my package. In short order, the advertised $259 was up to $348, with taxes, airport fees, a fuel surcharge, fees for a fishing license, cancellation insurance and an add-on for being a single in a double room on a boat that goes nowhere.
The Princess and the Fish
The Canadian Princess is a 228-foot, permanently moored floating hotel anchored in Ucluelet Harbor. The ship, built in 1932, was used for decades as a hydrographic survey vessel. It still has the old-salt charm, with heavy brass portholes, comfied-up bunks in 28 staterooms, even a claw-foot tub in one of the communal bathrooms. It also has that familiar old-salt scent, a mix of oil and rust, mold and tidal swamp that lets you know when a boat has a history.
Fancier accommodations sit just across the ship's gangplank -- shoreside units with private bathrooms, phones and cable TV. I wasn't willing to fork over the extra bucks. I wasn't going to sign up for the add-on meals, either -- a buffet breakfast and boxed lunch, running about $10.50 each. Instead, I smooshed some chunky peanut butter into a mini-pickle jar, threw in some bagels, a little dark chocolate and granola bars, and added them to the pack with my Xtratuf rubber boots, polar fleece and lucky Tank Girl T-shirt.