NANAIMO, Canada — "Look down there," our pilot shouted, trying to make himself heard over the roar of the engine. "It's a pod of killer whales heading north."
As he dipped one wing we could see five of the black-and-white whales 1,000 feet below, rounding a point off San Juan Island.
Six of us had taken off at dawn from Seattle's Lake Washington for a weekend of salmon fishing in British Columbia's Inside Passage.
For the aviation buffs among us, getting there was half the fun because many of the fishing resorts along the Inside Passage can be reached only by float plane.
These are the same sturdy, reliable aircraft used by Alaskan and Canadian bush pilots for years. They give you a sense of flying the way it used to be.
Powered by a big (and noisy) radial engine, the planes cruise at a bit more than 100 m.p.h. The route north from Seattle is low and slow, ideal for sightseeing as you pass over tugs towing rafts and freighters steaming along Puget Sound.
After a customs stop at Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, we flew to the resorts around Stuart and Sonora islands.
The half-dozen resorts, plus more than a dozen others clustered around Campbell River, Desolation Sound and on the islands off the northern tip of Vancouver Island, offer a salmon experience that includes accommodations, meals, boat, license, tackle and guide for one price.
Fishing is from small boats with light tackle--a real challenge when you hook one of the 40-pound-plus types for which these waters are famous.
And if you're looking for something a bit more difficult, try qualifying for the Tyee Club at April Point Lodge, where you must land a salmon of more than 30 pounds on light tackle from a wooden boat powered only by oars.
We headed for an area called "The Drain," where the tide rips through at 10 to 13 knots.
Steep forested mountains rose nearly sheer from the water to several thousand feet on either side of the half-mile-wide channel. Our guide kept the boat headed into the current at half-throttle. Water rushed by like a giant river. Huge whirlpools roiled suddenly alongside, then just as suddenly subsided.
An eight-foot waterfall in the middle of the channel was created by a submerged rock. When we would go through this area in the afternoon it would be falling the other way, the tide change is so great. Bald eagles perched in the trees and sea birds wheeled overhead.
These resorts are small, accommodating from half a dozen to about 30 guests, but facilities are modern and comfortable, often including a hot tub or sauna.
At the Sea Lion Rock Lodge we sat down to the belt-bursting repast that proprietress Hazel Stephenson serves to guests on their last night at the lodge.
Cold appetizers began with cod ceviche, raw oysters and giant prawns. Each was served a whole Dungeness crab, poached salmon, baked cod, a bucket of steamer clams and heaping platters of deep-fried oysters and prawns--all of it caught within two hours of reaching the table.
The next morning we flew into Farewell Harbor Resort on the rugged shore of 300-acre Berry Island next to Queen Charlotte Strait.
Dozens of small islands dot these waters. They are so placid in summer that the resort is used as a base for kayaking trips to watch whales.
Several hours of patient trolling paid off with several lovely salmon, including a 37-pound chinook.
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Fishing season in the Vancouver area begins in May and lasts through September. Float plane pilots will carry your fish back in the plane's hollow pontoons. They'll radio ahead to have canners, smokers or shippers meet you on return. Kenmore Air operates the float planes.
Among the fishing resorts:
April Point Lodge--Famous as one of British Columbia's most elegant lodges, April Point is on Quadra Island. Accommodations include rooms, suites and waterfront guest houses. Box 1, Campbell River, B.C. V9W 4Z9, Canada, (604) 285-3329.
Dent Island Lodge--This is a favorite corporate retreat. Heli-fishing, hot tub in the woods. Box 11007, Seattle, Wash. 98111, (206) 628-1722.
Eagle Rock Lodge--Modern, with views of Yucalta Rapids. Stuart Island, B.C. V0P 1V0, Canada, (604) 731-5333.
Sea Lion Rock--Standard rooms in two lodge buildings. Box 425, Campbell River, B.C. V9W 5B8, Canada, (604) 286-1555.
Big Bay Marina--Larger resort features expansive lawns, sweeping views, hiking trails, cabins, lodge rooms. Stuart Island, B.C. V0P 1V0, Canada, (604) 335-2931.
Farewell Harbor Resort--Six new guest rooms overlook the Inside Passage. Hot tub, whale watching, scuba diving. Telegraph Cove, B.C. V0N 3J0, Canada.
North Pacific Springs--This new resort floats on pontoons and is near the best fishing sites. Box 928, Duncan, B.C. V9L 3Y2, Canada, (604) 748-3189.
Average prices for resorts in the Big Bay-Stuart Island area (including round-trip air from Seattle) range from $790 per person for three days, two nights, to $1,065 for four days, three nights.
Rates at northern resorts range from $1,630 for five days and four nights at Farewell Harbor to $1,920 at North Pacific Springs.
For kayaking packages, contact Northern Lights Expeditions, 5220 N.E. 180th, Seattle, Wash. 98155, (206) 362-4506.
Kenmore Air (6321 N.E. 175th, Seattle, Wash. 98155, toll-free (800) 423-5526) can supply more details on the float planes, including flight schedules.
For more information, contact Government of British Columbia Trade & Tourism, 2600 Michelson Drive, Suite 1050, Irvine, Calif. 92715, toll-free (800) 663-6000 or (714) 852-1054.