by Charles Gehr
We’ve all heard the stories that start with “back when I first started fishing here.” Those stories almost inevitably explain why the fishing was better than it is now. I’ve heard enough of these stories to form the general impression that all the known fisheries in North America are less productive than they once were and if you want to find an unspoiled resource you need to fly half-way around the world or, at the very least, somewhere that they don’t speak English. As I made travel plans to do some trout fishing in Canada this year I frankly didn’t believe a lot of what I heard. Tales of two-foot long river-born rainbow trout and unusually large cutthroat that eat dry flies all day, every day left me cynical and using the phrase “Gee, that sounds like the way things used to be.” After a week of trout fishing in British Columbia (with Elk River Guiding Co.) and Alberta (with Eastslope Adventures) I am here to say the stories I had heard were true and the good old days are alive and well.
After landing in Kalispell, Montana I rented a car and drove three and a half hours to meet Cam Jensen in southwest Alberta. Cam runs an operation, called Eastslope Adventures, that guides a number of streams in the Cardston area, approximately 30 miles east of the Rocky Mountains. Rolling, wide-open ranch land stretched as far as I could see as I pulled into the Eastslope Adventures Lodge on the banks of the Waterton River. I had recently heard that Alberta’s record brown trout was caught in the Waterton and immediately inquired about what section of the river the big fish had been caught. Cam pointed to where the river dumps into a reservoir about 150 yards downstream of the lodge and said “right there.” I knew I was in the right place.
Like most of the Rockies, rivers in southwestern Alberta were higher than average for this time of year. Cam let me know during my orientation that they were still floating the rivers in rafts where most years we would spend our days walking and wading. The other guests in the lodge nodded in agreement as Cam explained that, although the dry fly fishing had been off, nymphs drifted under indicators were producing fish and the general health and strength of these fish is such that I wouldn’t mind catching them subsurface if I could just land a few and see how big they are. I told Cam that I wanted to get my gear organized so what sort of tippet would we be using. Cam’s response was that I might hook a few more fish with 3X fluorocarbon tippet but if I wanted to see any of the fish I hooked I had better have 2X. This advice kept me up half the night wondering what lay in store for the next day.
As we arrived at our put-in the next morning Cam explained to us that we’d be fishing while he and his guides got the boats in the water and prepared to float. On my third cast into the water Cam put me in I hooked a rainbow trout that was every bit of 22” and STRONG. Although the fish jumped and took short, sprinting runs I had the definite impression that this animal could have gone anywhere it wanted in the river and was giving me a break. Cam looked down at the water and said, “you’re going to get ‘em a lot bigger and stronger than that!” while I tried unsuccessfully to land my fish.
I spent the next two days trying to land the big, strong rainbows that I was hooking. Although I didn’t/couldn’t land anything over 23” I hooked fish over that size and was nothing but impressed by the fight and strength of the fish I was able to land. And yes, I did hook the big one that Cam was hoping for. It was somewhere in the 26 – 28” range and without exception the single strongest trout I’ve ever tangled with. No, I didn’t land that one either.
After leaving Eastslope Adventures I travelled west into the Canadian Rockies to visit Elk River Guiding Company in Fernie, BC. Fernie is located on the Elk River in a stunning valley in the heart of the mountains with views of snow-capped peaks in all directions. Every time I caught sight of the Elk River I could see productive-looking trout water. Crystal clear water dancing through a well-structured river bottom just begged to be explored with my dry fly.
I fell in love with the town of Fernie my first morning there. It is quite apparent that people are in Fernie because of its’ proximity to outdoor activities. Rafters and kayakers shuttled vehicles and boats around in preparation for a day of adventure while anglers strung rods and repaired leaders in front of the fly shop. Paul, owner of Elk River Guiding Company, pointed me in the direction of a coffee and bagel shop while guides and their clients loaded coolers and boat trailers before heading to the river. Everyone was quick to point out to me that since we’re all there to fish with dry flies there was no need to be out on the water early. Chilly nights where the temperature drops 35 degrees F from the daytime high meant that the river would need a few hours to warm up to a level more conducive to bug hatches. Although my internal steelhead-fishing clock had me up before dawn each day, I quickly relaxed and enjoyed the pace of fishing on “banker’s hours”.
Every time I go fly fishing for cutthroat trout I have to re-learn the timing of the hook set and this trip was no different. No matter that I coached myself to “wait to set” I still managed to miss the first four or five fish that ate my dry fly. This experience is enhanced by the fact that the Elk River generally runs crystal clear so you can see your fish charging the fly well before it eats. Fortunately I had plenty of opportunities to hook and land fish.
Fly selection was fairly straight-forward on the Elk River. When I saw little yellow stoneflies flying around I did well with small stonefly dries. The same held true for mayflies and caddis. At one point while fishing with Paul we encountered an hour-long hatch of green drakes. After going through my box of green drake dries and cripples, we finally found one pattern that didn’t work out of about eight patterns that did work.
Although floating the Elk River in driftboats enables you to fish a lot of water in the course of the day, it’s the side channels that really captivated me and provided my sweetest memories. Aside from being incredibly productive, the side channels and braids provide the intimate “small-stream experience” that many of us miss when throwing dry flies from the front of a drift boat. Wading the side channels really broke up the day nicely and gives visiting anglers a lot of variety in their fishing each day. It’s also a lot of fun to present dry flies to 16” – 19” cutthroat that are actively feeding in two feet of water!
All of my fishing time in Fernie was on the Elk River, but the folks at Elk River Guiding Company have a host of smaller streams in their catalog of guided waters. Three days of fishing in this area is just barely enough to scratch the surface and instill a desire for more exploration. If for no other reason, I need to go back and see how many more green drake patterns I can get those westslope cutthroat to eat!
See my photos from Alberta here
See my photos from Fernie here
Give Charles a call at 800-552-2729 to book your trout fishing trip to Canada next year!
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