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Going solo

By Peter Boyle

Peter Boyle discovers the fly fishing of Elk, Crowsnest, Castle and Oldman rivers of Alberta, Canada


The Crowsnest River, downstream from Pink Bridge.
The Crowsnest River, downstream from Pink Bridge.
The Oldman River.
The Oldman River.

Turning the pages of any fly fishing magazine recently it had been difficult to avoid the impression that the whole world of fly fishers was jetting off to exotic destinations to catch vast numbers of huge, wild trout. In every issue there was some grinning angler cradling a 10lb brown with a typical accompanying caption: “The first of 250 fish I caught that week”, or some such. Whether it was Alaska, New Zealand, Montana or Patagonia the story was the same. Invariably these were trips where the accommodation was a luxury lodge serving gourmet food with one guide to every two anglers. In the more remote locations the fishing was often accessed by float plane or helicopter.

These accounts always got me daydreaming – until I reached to the bit about cost. When you added it all up you were looking at £2,000 or £3,000 and sometimes more, for a week’s fishing. Apart from the cost, I have never been sure whether I want a guide plonking me down in front of known fish holding spots and then breathing down my neck as he told me how to catch them. So far as I am concerned fishing is by nature a solitary pastime and a big part of it is locating the fish and working out how to catch them for myself.

Then I stumbled upon a couple of articles in this magazine. They were written by Bob Wyatt [November 2003 supplement and December 2003/ January 2004 – Editor] and reading them it dawned on me that maybe there were places that didn’t cost a fortune where you could do your own thing and still have great fishing. For weeks I scoured the literature and the internet concerning that south-west corner of Alberta, Canada that Bob wrote about so evocatively. Phrases such as, “500 miles of wild trout fishing in a radius of 50 miles”, and “rivers with 1,000 to 2,000 fish to the mile”, were enough for me, I just had to go.

The Crowsnest River
In mid-September 2006 I found myself on the banks of the Crowsnest River, with clear blue skies and warm autumn sunshine. Between its source and the Oldman reservoir, the Crowsnest has been described as a perfect fly-fishing river – an exquisite succession of pools, riffles and  glides and the some of the clearest water I have ever seen. Add in the glorious autumn foliage and snow-capped mountains as a backdrop, it seemed a truly magical place.

Having collected my licence from The Crowsnest Angler shop in Bellevue I arrived at the river around noon. At this time of year hatches are restricted to BWOs, some sedges, and midges. If it’s warm there will still be hoppers around. The most reliable of these are tiny BWOs of the Baetis family. The local word was that the BWOs start to come off at around 2pm and it’s not worth bothering with a dry fly before then. I had also read that, because of fishing pressure, by the autumn the Crowsnest could be a difficult river and a good representative BWO pattern size 20 or smaller and a near perfect presentation were required for success. Well I was about to find out.

Wading carefully into midstream to make room for my back-cast, I found a few rising fish close in to the far bank but for the life of me I could not see what they were taking; I guessed that it was something very small in the surface film. I had already tied on a hair wing emerger pattern; Wyatt said it would work, and it did! Over the next couple of hours with tiny BWOs and a few sedges hatching, it was all action and I caught a good number of rainbows around 9in or 10in but nothing bigger. While the rise was on I found that just about any method would catch fish. The small Deer Hair Emerger was good, but hang a nymph under a medium size Sedge and both the Sedge and the nymph would take fish. Spiders fished up and down stream also did the trick.

When the rise petered out, I waded upstream under an iron bridge to find another pod of regularly rising fish and took another four or five fish, again none bigger than ten inches. Over the next couple of days it turned colder with a fierce downstream wind and although I caught a few smallish fish, I found it hard going and not a little dispiriting.

By mid-week it had warmed up again, the wind had dropped and the grass was alive with hoppers. When I looked over one of the many bridges that provide access to the river, I saw first one rainbow of about 2lb and then another, and then another. These were the first sizeable fish I had seen and suddenly the world was a brighter place. While I pulled on my waders, another angler drew up and as it turned out this was the first of several bankside meetings we had during my trip. I enthusiastically pointed out the fish that could be seen from the bridge. “Well that’s a surprise!“ he said somewhat sarcastically, then he grinned and told me he had been fishing the river for nearly 40 years and used to be a guide on the Crowsnest. He went on to point out good fishing spots and what is more he said as soon as the sun hit the water, about 10am at this time of year, the fish would start to show. Sure enough as we continued to chat and compare flies, right on cue  the rise started.

Leaving my new found friend, I waded downstream and at the end of a long smooth glide I found feeding rainbows making great swirls close into a high cliff. It was clear that these were not small fish, the only problem was the fast water between me and the shoal. I positioned myself so I would be casting upstream and across to the fish. After several abortive attempts I managed a drag-free drift  and saw a fish rise in the clear water to take the fly. My first reaction was that I would never land it, it was so strong and when it got into the faster water all I could do was to hang on and hope. Finally, I got it to the net; a beautifully proportioned rainbow of about 3lb. When I inspected the Deer Hair Emerger, the hook was partially straightened. After a while the fish began to rise again and although I managed another brace of two-pounders, most of the time I could see the fish rise to the fly only to turn away at the last moment.

When I was no longer getting takes I changed to a nymph suspended under a Hair-winged Sedge with a split-shot about 9in from the fly. Wherever I fish when there’s nothing hatching, this now seems to be a standard tactic and I do find it very effective. Incidentally, the only disadvantage I find with this method is casting into a stiff breeze when narrow casting loops will often result in a bird’s nest. To offset this I open up the casting loop as much as possible by moving the rod tip in a wide arc, high on the forward stroke and low on the back cast. It is almost a lobbing action and with a little practice, it is surprising how little casting distance is sacrificed. It’s not very elegant but it avoids most of the tangles. With the nymph tripping along near the bottom, I fished up the smooth flat in about four feet of water and caught my first ever mountain whitefish. The whitefish is not a fish that is greatly prized by fly fishers in North America but nevertheless it is an interesting addition to the catch and at 1.5-2lb they fight well enough.

I returned to fish this stretch of river several times during my stay and never caught a fish of much less than a pound and a half. It was here that I caught the best fish of my trip; a rainbow of around 4lb. It took an Olive Nymph as soon as it hit the water and tore off upstream leaping like a salmon, taking yards of line. By now I was getting used to the power of these fish and without any weed or obstructions I had learnt I could be patient in playing them. Even with barbless hooks, which are mandatory in Alberta, I lost very few fish. Clearly this was a very prolific stretch of river, however things did not always turn out to be all that easy. Towards the end of my second week, a couple of nights of sharp frosts and the return of strong downstream winds put paid to the already sparse hatches and things got decidedly difficult. True I continued to catch fish – and good fish too – but it was through sheer perseverance rather than anything else.

The Oldman River
At the weekend I drove up the Forestry Trunk Road to the Oldman River below its confluence with the Livingstone. Here the river hurries through alpine meadows and pine forest where massive, sheer-sided mountains rise straight up from the river’s edge. Unlike the Crowsnest area, this felt very remote and had a wild grandeur about it. I walked alongside the river peering into its infinitely clear green depths without seeing a sign of a fish. In many parts, the flow was so strong the idea of a drag-free presentation in all but the shortest of drifts, seemed impossible. Without any great optimism I cast a size 10 Stimulator across ten yards  of deep, fast flowing water to an  area of calm behind a huge mid stream boulder.

As the line bowed in the current, I waited for the fly to be whipped away. Then as I watched I saw a fish soar from the depths to engulf the fly. My timing of the strike was pure instinct, immediately my rod was nearly doubled as the fish surged into the fast water. Not for the first time during my trip, I was amazed at the strength of the fish and I was sure I was going to get broken. I could make no impression on it from where I was so I scrambled downstream and got level with the fish and exerting maximum side-strain, I eventually drew it over the net.

This was my first ever cutthroat from my first cast on the Oldman; only about 2.5lb as it turned out, but such a powerful, beautiful fish. I caught other nice fish from the Oldman, but none so special as that first cutthroat. For as long as I go fishing I shall remember seeing that fish rising out of the depths to take the fly.

The Castle River
The South and West Castle Rivers converge about ten miles to the south of the Crowsnest Pass near Beaver Mines. The surrounding country is fairly flat and mostly pine forested; it does not have the grandeur of the upper Oldman but it still felt remote. I parked the vehicle in a roadside clearing and in warm sunshine walked down to the junction of the two rivers. Immediately below the confluence, two or three feet of glassy water slid over great slabs of limestone into a long, deep pool.

As I watched a few light coloured sedges fluttered off the water and every now and then there was a splashy rise at the head of the pool. The water here was too deep to wade for more than a yard or two from the edge and the rising fish were still a good long cast away across swirling currents. Even with my best executed cast, a few feet of drag-free travel over the rising fish was about the best I could manage. Nevertheless this was good enough and after I had missed a couple, I hooked a good cutthroat of about 11⁄2lb on Deer Hair Caddis. I continued to miss four out of five takes and after taking a couple more fish, although the rise persisted, the takes just petered out.  

I pressed on up the west arm of the river, covering all the fishy looking water I could reach, but I never had another offer nor did I see any other fish. This kind of fishing involves repeatedly getting in and out of the water often climbing steep banks and walking and wading over ankle twisting boulders and can be especially tiring when it’s warm. Its not only fatiguing, but the proportion of the time spent in actually fishing is quite low. So towards the end of the afternoon I was hot, weary  and thirsty and the call of the Chinese restaurant I had discovered in Bellevue was getting stronger by the minute. As I trudged back to the 4x4 I peered over one of the unlovely concrete bridges that are typical of the area, to see those now familiar quick, splashy rises. Forgetting my weariness, I scrambled down to the shingle beach below the bridge and took another half dozen cut-throats on a dark Adams before again, the takes fizzled out.

Looking back
How would I sum up the trip? Like a lot of wild trout fishing it was mostly about finding the fish. Having found the fish, the rest was usually not that difficult. I would have liked to have seen more rising fish but in this part of the world, by the second half of September the main hatches are over. However, there are compensations: at this time of year there are fewer anglers about, and the autumn foliage is simply spectacular.

Would I have done better with a guide? Almost certainly yes, because it would have cut down the time I spent finding the fish. Even without a guide there was always a fair bit of local advice available; Vic Bergman at The Crowsnest Angler was especially helpful as were several of the local fly fishers I met. I discovered however that, like the rest of life, only half of what you get told is true; the trick is to know which half! Going it alone may mean I caught less fish but whatever success or failure I may have had was just down to me – and the fish. I’m sometimes told I shouldn’t fish alone and in the wilder places, occasionally I did find the solitude quite edgy. However, I believe this only served to elevate the whole experience onto a higher plane. There is little doubt that fishing for wild trout in such magnificent surroundings is a very special experience. So my thanks to Bob Wyatt and FF&FT.

Oh, and if you’re wondering, the basic cost of the two-week trip including flights, car hire and 3 star motel was around £1,250.

Finally the acid test; would I go back again? Like a shot!

Factfile


Bears!
It’s difficult to forget this whole area is bear country – after all, they can kill you! I had read all of the advice on being ‘bear aware’ and to begin with I was very tentative. I had a whistle which I blew when going through the woods; the idea being not to surprise a bear who might be very grumpy if you suddenly leap out from behind a tree.

Nevertheless, the Crowsnest River feels a friendly, comfortable place. You are never that far away from one of the old mining towns that are strung along the Crowsnest Pass and in a typical day you probably come across another half dozen anglers or so. The prospect of being confronted by a slavering 400lb beast seemed unlikely. So after a day or two I stopped looking over my shoulder every few minutes and lost myself in the fishing. That is until I started to notice signs of bears; chewed logs, overturned anthills and, most telling of all, great paw prints in the mud alongside tracks and by the river’s edge.

After this I always kept a weather eye open, especially up on the Castle and upper Oldman rivers which flow through very wild and remote country. I took comfort in the fact that I was told there had been only two bad incidents in the area over the last 14 or 15 years, one in which the victim died and the other which was a near fatality. I tried to convince myself that compared to driving round the M25 to get to Gatwick, these were pretty good odds. In fact, I never did see a bear.

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