Fifteen Years Between Bow River Bullets

Sometimes I worry about how some distant hot spot will have changed for the worse by the time I get there. It’s comforting to know that some places are able to maintain their specialness.

The Bow River, downstream of Calgary, Alberta is a bona fide blue ribbon trout stream. It ranks up there with rivers like the Big Horn, Yellowstone, and Madison. I first fished it in 2001. I was in the vicinity on a family camping trip and managed to sneak away to the river after supper one evening. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to wave my rod at such great water.

I have to admit feeling a little bit lost when I arrived at the river. It was the first time I had ever fished a large Western river and it actually looked pretty featureless to me. The prime lies were more hidden than those of the small streams I was used to. Nevertheless, I had done some homework and read what I consider to be the bible of that region: “Alberta’s Trout Highway – Fishing the Forestey Trunk Road.” In this book, author Barry Mitchell devotes many pages to the Bow River. The one message I got was that the Bow River has many great hatches but for “no fuss, no muss” success, tie on a streamer.

So I tied on a conehead Muddler and started wading upstream – and sweating – because I had yet to buy breathable waders and still wore neoprene. Because of some experience with river walleye, a outside bend caught my eye. The water along the outside of the bend flowed very slowly and a bunch of submerged cabbage had taken a good foothold. The cabbage formed a band between knee-deep water and water that was at least waist deep. I focused in on the outer weedline.

I walked along in the knee-deep water and didn’t even cast; I simply swung the Muddler like a pendulum over the weeds to the deeper water beyond.

What ensued was perhaps one of my most memorable evenings ever. The hits didn’t come fast and furious but three times my rod viciously doubled over and the line peeled toward the center of the river, not stopping until the backing knot was well out of the guides. Before that evening, I never had fish uncover my backing.

Twice, I eventually wrestled back brown trout in the 20 inch range. Those two fish still rank as the biggest trout I have ever caught in moving water. The third fish, however, headed toward the middle of the river and then made a sharp turn downstream. It didn’t just expose my backing – it ran off a solid 50 yards or so and porpoised twice. Even at that distance it looked immense – a hulking rainbow in the 24 or 25 inch category. Unfortunately, at that point in time, the hook simply dropped out.

Fresh caught fish in fishing net

Now, let’s fast forward 15 years…

This past summer, I found myself on the bank of the Bow River again. I was attending a music festival in Calgary and stole away early one morning to the exact spot of my previous adventure.

As I drove to the river, my mind swirled with questions… Will it still look the same? Will it be overrun with fishermen? Will the fish be educated beyond catchability?

At the river, one glance answered my first two questions. The Bow still looked like trout river. There was one other fisherman nymphing a ways downstream. As I wriggled into my waders – now breathable, thanks – he even managed to land a decent trout. Aha, my third question was answered.

It was tempting to take the hint and tie on a nymph but I was thinking about the evening I had 15 years ago and picked out a big Crystal Bugger. It got cinched in place and I clambered upstream towards the outside bend with the weed bed.

I didn’t get very far because fifteen years of experience revealed all kinds of things I never saw before – seams, eddies, and boulder gardens. The Crystal Bugger was swimming through some deep rocks at my feet when… Deja vu!

Something tried tearing the rod from me and started ripping out across the river. My backing was well past the guides before I started wrestling it back in. Eventually, a gorgeous rainbow of 19 inches came to hand. And I still hadn’t reached the bend with the weeds…

Fish underwater, on a fly
After covering some more water, I finally came to the bend. In the distance, I could see the weed tops poking through the surface. I couldn’t help myself; I ignored an inviting section of boulder-studded water and carefully positioned myself on the shallow side of the weeds. It was just like 15 years ago. I started the pendulums to the deep side of the weeds and braced.

Unfortunately, fishing has limited respect for nostalgia. Whatever monsters lurked on the deep side of the weeds were not revealing themselves. Oh well, I still had a good-sized trout to console myself with. As far as I was concerned the Bow River was still the same.

If you ever make it to the Bow, there is tons of advice on the web with regards to matching hatches and appropriate gear. But if you ever see me on the river, I won’t be the guy with the size 16 PMD attached to a 5 weight and some gossamer tippet. I’ll be carrying an 8 weight, a Rio Outbound, and a box full of meaty streamers.