Fernie, BC: No Drift Boat = No Problem (BC stands for beautiful cutthroats)

About eight years ago, I fished the Elk River around Fernie, British Columbia and I really blew it. Just as it is today, the river was stuffed with upward-gazing cutthroat trout. Despite that, I totally ignored the dry fly recommendations plastered all over the fly shop blackboards. Because visibly rising fish were few and far between, I tied on nymphs and streamers. I caught fish but definitely short-changed myself in the excitement department. Since then I’ve read a lot about cutthroats and have been itching to take full advantage of their surface feeding tendencies. Whether actively rising or not!

Fly fishers on a raft on a river in British Columbia

So when my partner Deb and I visited Fernie this past August, I made sure I did every thing right… I dropped into the local fly shop and soaked up advice like a sponge. The Elk was low and clear and smoke from distant forest fires often masked the surrounding mountains. Its tributaries were actually closed due to abnormally elevated water temperatures. Nevertheless, the clerk was brimming with enthusiasm. “Fishing is great,” he bubbled. “The cutties are a little particular and looking for something smaller.” He ignored the bins full of Chernobyl Ants and Tarantulas, instead cobbling together a half dozen B52 ants in size 14. And a few number 16 beetles and parachute Adams if the fish were being really snooty. Since I’m used to fly shop clerks handing me the latest micro stealth midge emerger in a size 28 for snooty fish, I was feeling REALLY good about this fly selection.

I asked about a good spot for walking and wading. The reply was especially encouraging: “Pretty much anywhere you can see water and pull your car off the road!” In case we wanted get away from the road, we also got directions to a couple access points that required a short hike. Awesome! Now I was really ready for the Elk River.

River in British Columbia

The Elk River may be the most fisherman friendly trout stream in existence. It runs through a broad, forested valley in the mountains of British Columbia. A paved highway parallels much of its length and a lack of posted land almost guarantees great access. Despite this, sharing your run with another wading angler or a drift boat is relatively rare. Having a glacial lake for its headwaters, the Elk also has cold water throughout the summer. Local wisdom dictates a leisurely breakfast and a mid-morning start because otherwise the water is just too cold for the bugs – and trout – to get active.

For waders, the Elk’s sheer size can make it a bit daunting. Its great looking riffles and lack of gnarly whitewater make it just the kind of river that most people love to fish from a drift boat. Even though we were on foot, I never got the feeling of being at a disadvantage. We spent three days on the river, trying a couple different sections each day. To a certain extent, we tried to emulate the mobility of a drift boat – moving steadily as we fished. On the other hand, we strained the water much more thoroughly than the drift boat.

The trout seemed to love glides and eddies below major riffles and also the water along steep, forested banks. If any of these spots had a moderate current and enough depth to almost hide the boulders on the bottom, it was golden! Whereas someone in a driftboat might make one cast to a likely spot, we generally held our position and delivered two or three casts – the first close to shore and successive ones further and further out. Then we would move upstream – or downstream – and repeat. Many of the steep, forested banks had fishy-looking logs in the water alongside them; we could poke our rods out over the river and systematically dapple our fly along their entire length. Boat-based anglers would be hard-pressed to keep their fly in the “zone” for so long.

The trout were all over ant offerings. You could often see the fish rise from the bottom and hone in on the fly. Setting the hook when the fly was in the trout’s mouth was a monumental test of self-control that was failed on several occasions. Hooking a trout near a submerged log alongside a steep bank was invariably interesting. If the trout wasn’t darting and diving underneath the log, it was heading out into the swift water in the middle of the river. Given the energy and size of the typical fish – chunky thirteen and fourteen inchers – neither option was particularly stress-free. Although many fish gained their freedom prematurely, my biggest – a sixteen incher – came from this type of scenario.

Netting fish alongside a steep bank was an adventure in itself. We were often three or four feet above the water and a miniature dirt cliff separated us from the riverbed. A rather unglamorous sit-on-the-ground-and-slide-into-the-river soon evolved as the standard operating procedure. Getting back up was at least twice as unglamorous since it involved two people – even with a few conveniently placed tree roots as hand holds.

Cutthroat trout in British Columbia

My most memorable experience on the Elk came where I had hiked – by myself, this time – to a place on the river about a half mile from the highway. The river made a sharp bend and a log jam had piled up. The water slowed and deepened as it passed by the logs, which protruded quite far into the river. I stood on a log close to shore and looked out to where the wood met the deep water. There was a single log that was barely submerged, perhaps a half inch under the water. And there were a half dozen trout holding beside it and just downstream!

However, another log – a foot in diameter – lay half-submerged between myself and the trout. Given the fact that I was balanced on a log about two feet above the water, I pondered the sanity of making the cast. To be honest, I didn’t think about it very long. I couldn’t stand the thought of NOT sight fishing to a pod of eager cutthroats. The fly floated actually landed on the thin layer of water above the submerged log and floated its entire length. Almost…

A fish started tracking it and launched itself onto the half inch of water that covered the log. Its back was actually half out of the water as it engulfed the fly. Thus began an epic tug-of-war. No putting this fish on the reel. It darted left and right and as soon as its head was up, I tried surfing it over the log. Nope. Not that time. It buried its head in the water and stalemated me on the far side of the log. I tried surfing it over again… And again… On the fourth time I finally succeeded.

Since I was so high above the water, and the width of my perch was severely limited, netting this particular fish was a precarious operation – maybe even hazardous. It took a lot of concentration and probably a couple of yoga poses before I finally managed it. Twenty seconds after that, the fish was back in the water. It was only thirteen inches but I was mentally exhausted.

Nevertheless, I had to try again. My next two casts got eaten but I couldn’t hook up. The third one connected. Luckily for me, this fish was a tad smaller. The surf-over-the-log-and-yoga-stretch-netting went much smoother. I also realized that perhaps my luck was running out. Before I fell in while trying to untangle a hooked fish from the logs, I quit.

The Elk River also has some big bull trout and I had brought along an 8 weight and some large streamers to target them. But that rod never managed to come out of its tube. The cutties kept us walking and wading for three days solid. Oh well, that gives me a reason to go back. Next time, I will probably even book a drift boat trip…

Fly fisher in British Columbia

The St. Mary’s River and the Wigwam River are a couple other waters that I’ve fished in British Columbia. The fishing on both is very similar to the Elk.

The Wigwam is accessed via some logging roads not far from Fernie. It is a medium- sized stream – too small for drift boats – and its clear water makes the colorful rocks on its bottom downright dazzling. Caution! The beautiful, clear water flows very swiftly and it is challenging to wade!

The St. Mary’s River is very close to the town of Kimberly. Although rafts ply this fairly large river, it has the feel of much smaller water. The good-looking water is quite obvious and people used to the riffle-pool structure of smaller streams will feel very comfortable here.