But as we would soon learn, greater Fernie has no shortage of premier trout streams, all lined up against the dramatic spiers of the Canadian Rockies. If momentum could not be our goal, we would still have a good chance of success.
The small town of Fernie sits near the southeast corner of British Columbia, about a 4.5-hour drive northeast of Spokane, Wash. (or 11 hours east of Vancouver, BC). Coal was found here at the beginning of the last century and mining formed the heart of the city‘s economy. Several mines are still in operation, although Fernie has also embraced tourism related to outdoor recreation. In winter it’s snow sports that attract visitors, including cat skiing (where a snow groomer transports skiers and snowboarders to fresh powder); summer is mountain biking, hiking, rafting and fly fishing.
“Many of our clients come from the United States,” said Paul Samycia, owner and guide at Elk River Guiding Co. “There are fewer people here than most creeks in the American West, the people are friendly and the exchange rate is generally favorable. The Elk is a relatively unknown river, full of native species – the westslope cutthroat and bull trout. Floating through the Canadian Rockies, casting dry flies, catching native fish – it ticks a lot of boxes for anglers.
Dry fly fishing for trout is one of the great satisfactions of fly fishing. Fighting a fish on a light rod is certainly fun. But the visceral, visual thrill of watching a fish rise through the water to inhale a bit of feathers and fur is incredibly satisfying.
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The westslope cutthroat – one of the region’s native trout, identifiable by the hint of red under its jaw – has a reputation for being very willing to become a dry fly. But when my fellow angler Mark Harrison, guide Brian Lees (of Fernie Wilderness Adventures) and started fishing under a Canadian Pacific Railway trestle on Michel Creek, it looked like the fish hadn’t read the memo. Clear and easy to wade through, Michel Creek is renowned for producing some of the biggest cuts in the region, up to 20 inches. But my throws, using a flying ant imitation, were ignored by fish big and small. Harrison, however, fishing below the surface with a nymph, quickly got hooked. The 16-inch trout he brought to the net was bright to behold – plump, with a yellow and reddish-orange body speckled with fine black spots. “They’re like pumpkins,” enthused Lees.
As the sun hit the water and the mayfly green drakes began dancing on the surface, a fish lower in the pool began feeding above. I switched to a green drake model, tossed close to where it had splashed and quickly landed my first cup of the trip.
The cutthroat needs very clean, cold water to thrive, and has disappeared from much of its original range as rivers have deteriorated. But populations in southeastern British Columbia are an exception. “We have very sustainable cutthroat and bull trout populations thanks to the pristine, undisturbed watersheds of the Upper Kootenay,” said Heather Lamson, fisheries biologist with the British Columbia Ministry of Forests. . “Most of our rivers flow freely [without dams] and ground-fed, so water temperatures stay well below trout temperature tolerances. Angling management plans, including catch-and-release regulations on many rivers and limits on the number of anglers, have also contributed to fish density.
As the day progressed, we rode from pool to pool in Lees’ pickup, finding fish at every spot we stopped. If the green drake didn’t work, the ant worked.
We returned to town with plenty of time to enjoy a sunset cocktail on the veranda of our room at Park Place Lodge, overlooking the mountains. After a hearty meal at Fernie’s Taphouse (including a compulsory starter of poutine — when in Canada!), we withdrew in preparation for an incursion into the Bull River. (The Taphouse and the Brickhouse, the other restaurant we visited, stay open late to accommodate fishermen and other outdoor enthusiasts; in the heart of summer, twilight lingers well past 9 a.m.)
The Bull is a little west of Fernie. Flowing through steep canyons, it has a startling turquoise hue, more reminiscent of the Caribbean than a mountain stream. We had set aside this day to hunt bull trout, the apex predator of most rivers where they are found. While cutthroat feeds primarily on insects, bull trout feed on cutthroat and other fish and can grow to over 30 inches and 15 pounds. “A series of bull trout migrate from Lake Koocanusa to spawn and feed on kokanee salmon,” said Linden Mazzei, head summer guide at Fernie Wilderness Adventures. “There are times when you can fish on sight. They are aggressive and react well to heavy streamers.
After dropping our rafts down a steep path, we floated downstream, tossing into deep pools and stopping occasionally to wade and fish a promising trail. Fishing for bull trout is no small feat. The heavy flies needed to reach the bulls near the bottom of the river are difficult to cast, often requiring a casting motion – “chuck and duck”, in angler parlance. (It’s a victory not to block your head or that of your companions!) Few fish were in sight; perhaps the high tide had delayed their arrival. But while skinning an olive Dolly Llama in a pool above some rapids, Harrison snagged a healthy specimen. After a jerky strike, he fought hard, clinging to the bottom. But Harrison applied steady pressure, eventually bringing it within reach – a fish estimated at seven or eight pounds.
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It’s worth mentioning that we didn’t see any other boats on the Bull, a stark contrast to the conglomeration of bumper car-shaped drift boats often seen on the famous trout streams of the western United States.
On the way back to Spokane, where we had first gathered, our foursome stopped near the town of Cranbrook to fish in the St. Mary’s River, which flows cold and clear from the Purcell Mountains. We mostly cast from the boat, reverting to dry flies – much easier to manage than Dolly Llamas. “The majority of trout here are cutt-bows, a hybridization of rainbows that migrated from the Kootenay River and resident Westslope cutthroats,” said Gaby Hernandez, a St. Mary’s guide. Angler. “Some, by their markings, are more rainbow; others, more ruthless. All proved extremely willing to take dry flies cast behind rocks or in seams at the edge of rapids.
My angling partner Ken Matsumoto and I have bred at least 40 fish, some gently sucking up our offerings, others taking the fly with a splash. Half came to the net. It was the kind of day that most trout anglers dream of.
The kind that will definitely take me back across the border to Fernie.
Santella is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. His website is steelhead-communications.com.
742 Highway 3, Fernie, BC
Spacious, clean rooms with verandas overlooking the mountains, plus an on-site pub and restaurant. Double rooms from around $146 a night.
A multitude of burgers, sandwiches, salads and flatbreads, with a full bar including local spirits, beers and wines. Kitchen open every day from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m.; bar until 11 p.m. Dishes from around $14.
A sports bar in the Old Town neighborhood of Fernie that offers sandwiches, burgers and poutine. Local spirits, beers and wines are also offered. Kitchen open from noon to 9 p.m.; bar open Monday to Friday from 11 a.m. to midnight and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to midnight. Mains from around $15.
Fernie Wilderness Adventures
Located inside the Park Place Lodge, this outfitter runs guided fly fishing trips on the Elk, Wigwam, Bull and Flathead and Michel Creek rivers. Trips start at around $563 per day for one or two anglers.
401 Cranbrook Street, Cranbrook
Guided fly fishing trips on the St. Mary, Elk, Bull and Skookumchuck rivers. Fees include eight hours of guided fly fishing, transportation, equipment, and lunch; taxes and permits not included. Guided float/jet trips start at around $544 per day for one or two anglers.
Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advice can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDCs travel health notice webpage.