British Columbia's Haida Gwaii archipelago is often called the Galápagos of the north. "Nowhere is marine life more concentrated in the Northwest than at Langara Island," says Mike Randall of Langara Island Lodge. "Bald eagles are as common as seagulls here." Langara, the northernmost in the chain, is one of the few pieces of land that giant schools of herring – and everything that eats them – encounter as they swarm through the open ocean. As we approach fast and low in a helicopter – the only way to reach the remote lodge – our pilot tells us to look out for a breaching humpback whale or a pod of orcas. But we've come for the salmon – Chinook, coho, sockeye – bigger than our thighs, we're told, and plentiful enough to bring home a year's worth of lox.
Shortly after breakfast every day, we are being tossed around in the rough channel in a 24-foot aluminum boat. With a deft flick of the wrist, our guide cuts the guts out of a headless baitfish. "It'll spin as we go through the water and look like a wounded fish," he says. Salmon will rush through a school of herring and then swim back to pick off the injured ones. Sure enough, as soon as we drop our lines in the water, a school of Chinook passes underneath and the rods are bent double. "Let him run!" the guide yells. But let him run too long in these waters and you run the risk of being pick-pocketed by an enterprising sea lion, or even an orca. It's a physical 20-minute dance, letting the fish take out line to tire itself out and then reeling it in closer in increments until it's finally on deck.
Our first fish is a beautiful specimen, weighing more than 35 pounds. But bigger fish are often released to keep the gene pool healthy with strong mating stock, so we throw it overboard. No matter – plenty of sub-30-pounders follow. Our guide bonks them, nicks their gills, and tags them so we know whose catch is whose. Back at the lodge, Langara staff prep the fish for freezing and eating. Every day is another chance to stock the cooler you'll be shipping home at the end, probably with more than 100 pounds of fish, divided up however you like: sides, steaks, smoked, or made into lox. "At Langara, you'll see an eagle swoop in and take some fish back to its nest to feed its family," says Randall. "You're basically doing the same thing."
More information: Fly to Vancouver, B.C.; flights to Langara Island are arranged by Langara Island Lodge. Langara Island Lodge's four-day trip costs $4,995, including transport from Vancouver, meals, and fish prep and shipping. The boat and guide are an additional $600. Ask your guides about meeting the Haida watchmen, the last remnants of the native coastal community and the area's self-appointed stewards.