Known as the “Salmon Capital of the World,” Campbell River is one of the top fishing locations in North America. Salmon fishing in the waters surrounding the town has been going on for centuries, beginning with the various First Nations tribes that made the area home, and continuing on after European settlers started inhabiting the area. It is now an extremely popular tourist destination for anglers and fishing enthusiasts.
Before the arrival of Europeans, First Nations tribes occupied small villages along the coast of Vancouver Island. Salmon was a large part of their diet and held a spiritual significance them, often being honoured through art and ceremonies.
The first European explorers are believed to have reached the area in the late 1500’s, but permanent settlement did not begin until the 1880’s. This sparked a change in the way salmon was fished. Up until this point it had been solely a food source for the local peoples. But as the popularity of the fish grew commercial and sport fishing industries began to arise and would go on to be one of the backbones of the local economy.
Salmon fishing in Campbell River first gained notoriety 1896 when Sir Richard Musgrave wrote of his fishing expeditions in the Campbell River area in The Field, a British magazine. Led by a First Nations guide in a dugout canoe, Musgrave and his partner, W. H. Gordon, caught nineteen Chinook salmon in one week, along with several Coho and trout. The most impressive catch of his trip weighed a remarkable 70 pounds. It was believed at the time to be the largest salmon caught with a rod and reel.
Word of the fantastic fishing in Campbell River continued to spread over the following years. In 1897 Musgrave returned, this time with a party of six. The anglers stayed in the area for a little under two weeks, with the largest salmon caught weighing 67.5 pounds. Another article published in The Field in 1901 again discussed the fishing in Campbell River. One angler, in only eight days of fishing, reeled in 24 salmon, the largest being 50 pounds. Later that same year another angler wrote of his nineteen days of fishing with the title "Two Tons of Salmon with the Rod". The heaviest salmon caught during his trip was 58 pounds.
The number of fishermen in Campbell River continued to grow throughout the early 1900’s. In the summer of 1924, a few enthusiasts gathered in the Willows Hotel in Campbell River and decided to organize a club to standardize the sport of salmon fishing in British Columbia. A set of by-laws, partially based on those of the Tuna Club of Catalina, was drafted and adopted and The Tyee Club of British Columbia was born.
A “Tyee” was determined by the club to be a salmon weighing over 30 pounds. It was decided that an annual Championship Button would be awarded to the fisherman who landed the largest salmon. This angler would also to be named "Tyee Man". A bronze button would be awarded for a 30 to 40 pound salmon, a silver button for a 40 to 50 pound salmon, a gold button for a 50 to 60 pound salmon, and a diamond button for a salmon over 60 pounds.
An application for a formal charter under the British Columbia Societies Act was made and granted in 1927.
E.P Painter, a boat builder by trade, arrived in Campbell River with his wife in 1922. During that time salmon fishing in the area had become so popular that tent colonies had sprung up at the mouth of the Campbell River. Seeing the need for more permanent accommodation for sport fisherman, Mr. Painter decided to establish Painter’s Lodge.
Originally the Lodge consisted of nothing more than permanent tent structures with wood stoves and outdoor washing facilities. This eventually evolved into a few cabins along with a boat building business. As the demand for accommodation grew so did the lodge, with a main lodge eventually being built in 1940.
With its close proximity to Frenchman’s Pool and the Tyee Pool, Painter’s Lodge quickly became a popular fishing destination among both avid fishermen and celebrities. Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, John Wayne and Susan Hayward are just a few of the stars who have visited Painter’s Lodge over the years. Due to the immense fishing success found at the lodge it soon became the prime destination for serious anglers seeking giant Pacific salmon.
Arguably Campbell River’s most famous citizen, Roderick Haig-Brown was born in England in 1908. He came to Canada in 1926 at the age of 19, initially working as a logger on eastern Vancouver Island before moving to Washington where he met his wife Ann Elmore. The two married in 1934 and relocated to Campbell River in 1936. Roderick and Ann eventually purchased a house on the river, and it was at this time that Haig-Brown embarked on his famous writing career.
An avid fly fisherman, he would produce 25 books and well over 200 articles and speeches, primarily on fishing. His writings were met with critical acclaim and influenced a large number of anglers to visit the area, many of whom visited him at his home on the Campbell River. Over time, Haig-Brown would become one of the most well-known fly fishermen in the world.
In addition to his writing career, Haig-Brown also served as magistrate in the town of Campbell River from 1941-1974. His true passion was fishing though, which led to him being a trustee of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, an advisor to the BC Wildlife Federation, a senior advisor to Trout Unlimited and the Federation of Flyfishers, and a member of the Federal Fisheries Development Council and the International Pacific Salmon Fisheries Commission.
An avid conservationist, Haig-Brown was always concerned about the welfare of the fish in the river and the surrounding areas. He worked hard to come up with solutions to the effects of settlement and industry in Campbell River, and was a pioneering force in preserving the natural resources of the area.
Roderick Haig-Brown passed away in 1976, but his legacy lives on. His home has been preserved and restored to the period in which him and Ann lived in the house. Today it is owned by the City of Campbell River and managed by the Museum at Campbell River.
The Tyee Club is still in existence, and a fleet of row boats fills the legendary Tyee Pool every summer with anglers in search of a monster salmon. The allure of the Tyee, and the promise of membership into the Tyee Club should you catch on of these fish, still compels many fisherman to journey to Campbell River to take on the challenge.
The original Painter’s Lodge burnt down under suspicious circumstances on Christmas Eve in 1985. However, the Oak Bay Marine Group purchased the property in 1987 and rebuilt the lodge. The new Painter’s Lodge was opened in 1988 and has continued to build on the legacy of this legendary fishing resort. The lodge remains a mecca for fishing tourism and attracts thousands of guests each year looking to experience west coast salmon fishing.
Campbell River has a rich and vibrant fishing history, but the book is still being written. Do you want your name added to the list of legendary anglers who have fished these waters? Then take a trip to the “Salmon Capital of the World” and see if you have what it takes to enter the history books. Good luck!