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More strings to the Bow

By Toby Coe

Big fish, big skies, big flows, big flies

Lodge owner Stuart Wheeler  (right) and guide George.
Lodge owner Stuart Wheeler (right) and guide George.
Stuart Wheeler into a fish as George prepares the net.
Stuart Wheeler into a fish as George prepares the net.

Whilst there are hundreds, if not thousands of streams and rivers around the world that are lauded as being ‘world-class’, few have the genuine potential to humble you and change your perspective on fly fishing. One such stream (and one which we in the UK hear relatively little about) is the Bow River in Alberta, Canada. Once described by Lefty Kreh as “the best dry-fly fishing in the world”, it is a river of big fish, big skies, big flows and big flies. 

Originating in the Rocky Mountains, the Bow River flows east, through Banff National Park and on past the city of Calgary, before joining the Saskatchewan River and eventually emptying into Hudson Bay further east. The river was stocked with rainbows in 1902, followed by an accidental stocking of Loch Leven browns in 1925, when a consignment of fish headed elsewhere by truck was delayed and the driver released the fish into the river, rather than have them die. Since then, the browns and rainbows have pushed out the cutthroat and bull trout in the lower reaches, although there are still populations of both species higher up in the river’s headwaters. The end result is a healthy population of brown and rainbow trout in the reaches of the Bow around Calgary of exceptionally high density – estimates suggest there may be as many as 2,500 fish per mile of river.  

Fishing the Bow is done in a manner relatively unfamiliar to the UK, with the exception of some of the salmon fishing on the big Scottish rivers. You and your guide launch out into the river in a drift boat and spend the day working your way downstream through scenery so picture-perfect it almost seems unreal. The fishing itself varies hugely and depends principally on the time of year and amount of water in the river. When the river is high and coloured, either from heavy rain or following the annual snow-melt in June, the most productive method is often casting large streamer patterns close to the bank before swinging them down and across any likely looking lies. However, once the summer kicks in and the river clears, dry-fly fishing starts in earnest. Continuous hatches all summer long keep the fish looking up for food and no wonder when some of the insects on the water (such as the one-inch plus long stoneflies) are the entomological equivalent of a Big Mac. 

On a recent trip to the Bow, my arrival coincided with unusually high water levels for the time of year, but weather I would associate more with the Mediterranean than the prairies of Canada. This created ideal conditions for streamer fishing. If at this point you are switching off at the sound of this, then don’t. This is streamer fishing for trout “NFL-style”, as my guide called it. Pitching a streamer the size of your thumb right up tight to the bank or across a likely looking crease or piece of structure felt more like fishing for saltwater quarry than trout.

Chrome missile
Takes were juddering slams in which everything would suddenly go solid, momentarily followed by a chrome or bronze missile exploding through the water surface. On one particular little backwater we drifted down, a fly swung deep across a pool was stopped mid-swing by an unseen force, which materialised as a very large, very irate brown trout. Alas, my feeble attempt at a strike was met by a contemptuous head-shake which blew the tippet to pieces. No matter, three casts later and 20ft downstream a carbon-copy take from a carbon-copy fish gave me a second chance that I handled much more carefully. A few minutes later the biggest brown trout I’d ever seen lay in the bottom of the landing net. At around 2ft long and 7lb in weight it was a spectacular fish, but nothing out of the ordinary on the Bow. 

Some of the most productive fishing we had was along the crease lines between slow and fast water that are a veritable fish magnet, regardless of species or geographical location. A fly flicked upstream and allowed to swing down and across a crease got clobbered time and time again by feisty wild rainbows, for which the Bow is justifiably famous. 

The whole of the time we were fishing a steady, if light, stream of caddis and small mayflies was hatching and could be occasionally seen drifting downstream, largely ignored but for the odd splashy rise from an over-enthusiastic youngster. Then, on the last evening, virtually on the last bank before the take-out point, a dark snout broke the surface just behind a rock that was throwing a soft pillow of calm into the otherwise unbroken slide of water travelling down the bank. 

Quietly pulling in downstream, our guide gently pushed us back up within casting distance. Standing on the prow, I was able to watch as several fish pushed soft humps into the water surface as they gently sipped down small Mayflies. The first couple of casts were short of the mark, but then an almost imperceptible rise over my fly, followed by a hard strike and I was suddenly eyeball to eyeball with a foot and-a-half of fighting fit rainbow as it hurled itself around the river with abandon. We caught a further four rainbows out of that glide, only stopping because it was getting too difficult to see the fly in the gathering gloom. 

Reflecting back, I experienced by far and away some of the best trout fishing I have ever had. And what is more, I was told several times that the fishing was only “OK”.  Not ‘good’, or ‘excellent’, but “OK”.  I can only imagine what it must be like when it falls into those higher classes. One thing is for sure; I’m certainly going back to find out.


• Toby Coe stayed and fished through North Bow Lodge (www.northbowlodge.com). UK booking agents are Fly Odyssey. Tel. 01621 743711 (www.flyodyssey.co.uk). Set in 800 acres of prairie farmland, literally on the banks of the river, it is perfectly situated to access the fishing. The lodge works with an excellent group of guides.
• The Bow River is very much a summer fishery and fishes best from late June into September. Because of the potential range of fishing conditions you may encounter, it is wise to bring several set-ups, including a relatively heavy 6-7weight for throwing big streamers and nymphs and a 5-weight for dry-fly fishing.

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