Cutthroats have reputations as pushovers. Granted, they may not be the brightest of trout, but I've noticed in areas where they get a lot of pressure, they can get to be pretty tough to catch. Maybe it's just that cutts are generally found in harder to reach, wilder places and with this reduced pressure, cutts are not forced to acquire the skills of their more pursued brethren. I've concluded that the cutt's reputation comes more from innocence than from a lack of mental power. In any case, the bigger they are the harder they become to hook and successfully land. And even if they are suckers for a fly, what's wrong with catching stupid trout in beautiful, remote places!
Living in northern Wyoming, I thought about just driving the 12 hours to Fernie, British Columbia to fulfill my duties as host of Fish XII (Forum for Indiana Studies in Health). Having just gotten back from Kamchatka, Russia the week before, I didn't feel like I would really be going out of the country if I only drove across Montana to southern B. C. But if you fly to Seattle first, then fly on to Calgary, it really makes you feel like you're going somewhere far off and then it doesn't seem so odd when they give you a customs declaration.
For those of you that haven't heard of Canada, it lies north of the U. S. and is even bigger than Montana. Canada has history, nice people and lots of scenery. I guess that's enough background...
I apologize for my flippant tone, but after a few days with FISH (remember this was FISH XII, so we've been doing this trip for awhile) anything takes on a bit of humor mixed with a touch of absurdity. These Midwestern fellows (with a few new additions this year from Texas) have so much fun fishing that it is impossible for me not to carry over this attitude into my trip report. Please bear with me.
FISH has been to the Bahamas, Belize, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and now this year Fernie, British Columbia. To just give you a general idea of the attitude of this group, one partner of the hosting law firm announced he wasn't going to shave or bathe during the trip. Another fell in the river from a cataraft and was thereafter addressed as Mr. Cousteau... I think you get the idea. The 24 members of FISH this year included brain surgeons, cardiologists, lawyers, and hospital administrators. They are a great crew and I have become close friends with many of them over the years. I always look forward to seeing them and getting in a bit of fishing between the other planned events.
We had four nights and three days to explore the fishing in the Fernie area. Even though we were smacked a bit by the weather, this was simply a superb angling adventure. Our primary quarry was the Westslope Cutthroat Trout, but we also caught bull trout up to 32 inches! This translates to something around 16 or 17lbs! We fished primarily on the Elk River, but also fished numerous small tributaries to the Elk. I won't mention the names of some of these tributaries because we intend to return and we don't want them "discovered" in the meantime.
On the Elk, we divided the section above and below Fernie into four beats beginning at Sparwood and ending well downriver. The Elk begins at Elk Lakes in southeastern BC in the East Kootenays, and runs 110 miles SW to Lake Koocanusa. It cuts through a spectacular valley gathering water from numerous tributaries as it goes. There are about 50 miles of navigable water in the vicinity of Fernie. The Elk is a beautiful stream with numerous riffles, steep chutes, undercut banks, long slicks and wide gravel bars. The Elk is easily accessible and yet has an isolated feel. Most importantly, it is stuffed full of Westslope Cutthroats up to 20". These are native indigenous fish... the real deal. They are strong fish with wide shoulders and a fervent sense of survival. They can be surprisingly easy to catch (especially during a hatch) or maddeningly selective. They offer classic dry fly opportunities and the local guides rarely nymph for them. Like on most mountain streams, fishing on the Elk was slow in the morning (making for a civilized start, in our case 9:30 a.m.) and then picks up momentum all through the afternoon. Attractors like hoppers, big parachute Adams, Chernobyl ants, and stonefly shucks (thanks Ned!) are best before noon or when the fishing is being done from the drift boats. If you're out of the boat and wading to either rising fish or a specific foam or eddy line, then smaller mayfly patterns and caddis patterns #14 ñ 18 (more often than not #16) work great.
The Elk legally opens June 15, but really the season begins much later, usually July 1-15, when the runoff subsides. July, August and most of September are great. The bad news is that it's a short season; the good news is this is perhaps the best cutthroat trout fishery in all of the Rockies. It was not unusual to catch numerous 18 ñ 20 inch bright "cuttys" each day. The locals refer to these bright cutts as "pumpkins" and their yellow and orange bands do meld into a pumpkin color when you see a big boy flash at your parachute Adams.
Of the two days I fished on the Elk River, I never caught less than 20 fish each day... but it was not the quantity of fish caught, but the quality of catches that made these days so spectacular. There was the 18" tubby caught two inches off the bank under an overhanging branch... there was the sipper next to the log that stuck his nose into the air, then revealed the inside of his white mouth as he fed on everything but our offerings... there was the big pumpkin in the impossible lie that we had to bounce dry flies off the water and under a branch to reach into his lair. (He eventually took, but we lost him almost immediately when the leader caught on the branch that had created his perfect lie)... and there was Chad's pumpkin that we located with a live hopper then caught with a parachute hopper delivered only a few casts later. Great moments, great fish, a great river!
Out of the 24 anglers on this trip, generally the better anglers loved the Elk and did quite well. The less experienced struggled at times, especially with the wind. When floating bigger rivers, casting ability is generally the most important skill. This is because fly fishing from a drift boat is not at all like a "walk and wade" trip on a smaller stream. You're shifting positions and switching casting directions in the boat constantly. You're keeping at least one leg braced at all times so you don't fall overboard. The boat is moving and bobbing in the current. The wind often changes its direction and intensity. These changes can play havoc with casting. Your cast must safely negotiate snags and logjams. You have to be adept at all manner of casting when in a drift boat... chop casts, side casts, reach casts... you need the whole arsenal. It's also necessary to mend line quickly and frequently in the fast moving current to obtain drag-free drifts.
For the guys in our group who were less experienced or for those who struggled with the complexities of casting from a drift boat, there were always the tributaries to fall back on. These tributaries offered smaller, easier to read water yet produced great numbers of fish with no sacrifice in size. This is one of the strengths of this area... the ability to satisfy both experts and beginning alike. We fished primarily Michel Creek (pronounced Michelle) and a tributary we'll just call "Grizzly" Creek. Michel Creek was beautiful with aquamarine pools separated by long shallow riffles. Almost every afternoon produced a substantial hatch on the Michel bringing cutts up to 18 inches to the surface, often to our dry flies. The Michelophiles in our group filtered back in at night elated and sated. They were a happy bunch that sipped libations on the deck of our lovely lodge.
On "Grizzly Creek" the cutts went to 20" and offered great dry fly action. These cutts were lighter in color than on the Elk, but still beautiful creatures that fought like hot little rainbows. But the blow-your-hair-back-I-gotta-come-back-soon moments were provided by the big bull trout that languished on the bottoms of the pools. These bruisers seemed absurdly out of place on these small streams. Running from 5 to 18lbs... and 20 to 35 inches, these landlocked char were in full spawning regalia. Colored like psychedelic brook trout, the moody males sported big kype jaws and a prizefighter's attitude. We often saw them chasing the cutts we had caught on dries. These bull trout were not long-lived fighters, but the first few minutes were great. Anytime you catch a 30" fish, it's a good thing. One FISH participant requested that his ashes be spread on "Grizzly" Creek... high praise indeed eh!... (as they say in Canada eh!). Another FISH member caught 10 big bulls in 3 hours, the biggest being 31". He was a tired but happy guy that night having fulfilled a lifelong ambition of catching a big bull trout!
I don't know how to describe how really good this fishery is, but to say, I've fished most of the great cutthroat drainages: the South Fork of the Snake, the Lamar, Slough Creek, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Teton Creek etc. etc., but this is the finest overall. There are areas with perhaps bigger fish, but no areas that provide as much action and as many catchable fish in this 18 to 20" size range. In my opinion, the Elk and its tributaries are the best.
On our second day, old friends and law partners, Terry Heath and Rex Killian, along with Rex's son Chad joined me on the upper Elk on the stretch below Sparwood. Terry and I fished in the morning with mediocre luck. Then we switched at lunch and put the two old friends Terry and Rex in one boat and Chad and me in the other. Chad and I had a spectacular, hilarious afternoon involving big fish, screw-ups, some serious fishing and some unusual events. It was a superb day in all respects.
At one point, Chad took a beautiful pumpkin from underneath a huge pine tree less than a foot from the bank. The fish had been sporadically rising. Chad had done a nice job on this 18 inch male. We were seeing more and more naturals and as we retooled after netting Chad's cutt, we heard a splashy rise. We all turned to look and saw the rings expanding and moving downstream. We spread some floatant on Chad's fly and heard another loud rise, then another. We thought this was a very aggressive rise. We postulated that this must be a big fish rising to the massive tan October caddis that were fluttering about. We were all getting excited when we heard three more splashes in quick succession and saw three big tan objects about the size of a half dollar floating downstream. We were confused momentarily until we glanced up to see a small gray squirrel clip another pinecone into the river. It landed exactly where Chad's pumpkin had been caught not three minutes before. If our squirrel had started any earlier, Chad would never have caught his fish. We laughed, knowing that as the squirrel nipped one cone after cone, he wouldn't find one of these cones later. They would all be miles downstream. This was natural selection at its best, for with no cones to eat this winter, this squirrel won't be passing on any genes that carry on the "over-the-water harvest of pinecones" DNA. We were watching an evolutionary deadend and a funny one at that. We tried to counsel the squirrel, but to no avail. He kept right on clipping cones into the Elk. Fish long enough and you'll sure see some strange stuff!
A note on our guides, with such a short season, these Fernie guides don't have a chance to become too burned out or jaded. Our 12 guides all held second jobs during the winter or had second careers. They were excellent top to bottom. Not only were they technically proficient, but also they were affable, entertaining and very interested in fulfilling our agenda . . . not theirs! Thanks guys, you did a magnificent job!
The FISH trip ended too soon. In fact, next year we may add a day and fish four days instead of three. If there is any trout fishery that would make you want to stay longer, the rivers and streams in the Fernie area are it. If you're interested in more info on the Fernie, B. C. area give us a call... we'll fill you in on all the details.