As we self isolate, time to tell some stories of trips gone by. Two of my all time favourites came two years apart in the same part of the world. My first trip was in 2014 with a group of friends. Two years later I went back and almost never made it home. What surprises me is that I didn’t include this trip in my new book.
The older I get the more I appreciate my time on the water. I started full time in the industry in 1982 and since that time I have seen my share of this great country of ours. It’s funny but during that time it’s been a rare occasion when I have spent more than one week fishing a certain area of the country. I am one of these types that likes new challenges, new water and moving along! So when the opportunity came up to spend 10 days fly fishing mountain streams, I was a bit apprehensive. Friend Phil Brake convinced me that there would be all of that and a bit more on this journey. So away we went, across the prairies, arriving fifteen hours later at the Castle Falls Campground located on the shores of the Castle River, a glacial feed stream that holds cutthroat trout, whitefish and a few rainbow thrown in for good measure.
Phil had been fishing this part of Alberta since 2001, a semi-annual pilgrimage that went back to his childhood. Growing up in southern California, he learned to fly fish at an early age, hiking the mountains near his home in Fresno. When he invited me along I figured why not revisit this part of the world.
COMPLETE ANGLER TELEVISION
During my days filming The Complete Angler television series, I had shot three different shows in this region. Two of them were with Vic Bergman, the co-owner of the Crowsnest Pass fly fishing shop. Vic is also a top guide in the region and he agreed to be a guest on the show. Our first show was shot on the scenic Crowsnest River down east of the town of Bellevue. Then Vic loaded up his drift boat and headed south of the dam of the Oldman River near Lethbridge. Both trips proved productive and we put together two of my favourite shows in The Complete Angler series.
Booking a camping spot in the back country can be a bit of an accomplishment since you need to do it online. That doesn’t help you if you have no cell service and you were unaware of this little twist before arrival. While we found the person who was responsible for maintenance of the campground, he was unable to take bookings. He did have a cell booster though and we were able to get a spot paid for after much trial and effort. So keep that in mind if you plan on booking a camp spot in remote areas.
With a beautiful site located right beside the river, we were ready to branch out to some different water over the course of the next three day. Len had brought a vehicle along behind the motorhome, which allowed us the mobility we needed to accomplish this.
ON THE WATER
While my stream fly fishing skills were a little rusty, friend Phil had me back in the saddle right away. One of the first things I learned how to do was to tie on a dropper rig, in this case an Emerger fly that floated with a nymph tied off as the dropper. Our first fish was caught right in front of the campground. Phil and I headed downstream while Bruce and Len went upstream towards the falls. As we were to find out later, there were some huge bull trout hanging in the deep pool below these spectacular falls.
PHIL GETS HOT EARLY
Phil quickly caught a couple of small whitefish and a cutthroat while I was shut out. Switching over to a Prince nymph on the dropper rig, I caught my first cutthroat on a small side pool next to the fast water.
That was just the start of some great fishing the next nine days. We fished for another three hours before calling it a day. That evening we enjoyed the campfire as we listened to the water rushing past us just below.
On day two of our trip, we headed over a nearby mountain pass to fish the Carbondale River. Access to this steep sided smaller river was somewhat difficult. We ended up finding an old access bridge and walking down the bank near a busy campground. Phil and I stared fishing a deep pool but I quickly decided to work on taking both still pictures and videos with my new Nikon AW1. This rugged camera is shock proof and waterproof to 49 feet.
Carbondale is a beautiful river, but access can be difficult
In other words, a camera that might be able survive the rough beating that crunched my last DLR. It’s a mid-priced make but still takes very good photos and did survive some drops and submerging in ice cold water. All the photos on this trip were taken with it, so you be the judge. As the day wore on, very few fish were caught, a major disappointment to Phil and the rest of the crew who had high expectations for this river. After four hours with a only a couple small whitefish to show for it we decided to pack it in and head back to the campground for supper.
DAY THREE ON THE CASTLE RIVER
While the Castle River is one of the more popular in the region, it can, like most rivers, be tough to fish. On our third day we headed southwest from Castle Falls on Road 774 past the Castle Mountain ski resort. This is rugged country and four wheel drive is recommended if you are going to access stretches of the river off road. Not only that, but you have to be prepared to do some work to get to different sections of the river. There is fallen timber everywhere, which means you can only access short stretches of the river before you have to go overland.
Fishing a stream – One important thing I learned over the course of 10 days is making sure your fly matches the speed of the water it’s drifting on. Sometimes you have fish a pool almost straight upstream. Sometimes you have to make short casts and sometimes you have to hold your fly in place at the end of the drift. One thing I do know, is that if you present your fly properly you will get bit. The other thing I found out is that you need a decent length of tippet, at least six feet. I discovered by accident that one of the guys on the trip was using a tippet material made in England for carp fishing. Called “Stealth” this multi-coloured monofilament was supple, invisible to fish and strong. I had borrowed some from one of the other guys on the trip and soon everyone was asking for it after I tripled my catch rate one evening after first tying it on. Yes, sometimes it’s the small things that make all the difference.
This section was good to me, as I landed my biggest cutthroat of the trip out of an undercut bank. I saw the fish come out to my Prince nymph and engulf it, one of the coolest sites in the world. I had a hard fought battle on my hands in the relatively heavy current but I did manage to land this beautiful specimen.
My biggest cutthroat of the trip on the Upper Castle, home to some large fish!
Friend Phil Brake was also able to wade over and get some shots before releasing this fish. On almost all sections of the rivers in this region, its catch and release fishing only, which has allowed the fishery to thrive. On the way out of the stream that evening we were crossing over a bridge by the ski resort when we saw a huge cutthroat rising to take mayflies off the surface. This was the first visible signs of a hatch and we went to take many more fish this trip on dry flies.
The next day we try and access the south Castle River but are stopped by some washed out sections of the access road. Instead we stay relatively close to home and fish the forks of the south and west Castle. Some beautiful pools make this short section attractive but Phil hooks the only rainbow of the trip on a big brown Wooly Bugger fished in a straight section of the river.
The only rainbow of the trip
Meantime in the pool below I land two cutthroat back to back before we call it a day. That’s because it’s moving day, when we head up north through the Crowsnest. First though we have to stop and visit the two great fly shops that our on our way. At the Crowsnest Angler, friend Vic Bergman has a day off, so we head up to visit Susan Douglas-Murray at the Crowsnest Café & Fly Shop in Coleman. Here we get the latest information on the rivers and streams we are about to fish and Susan hand picks the flies we need. These would hold us in good stead and dramatically increase our success ratio the rest of the way.
PART TWO: ADVENTURE IN SOUTHERN ALBERTA
From Coleman we head north on Highway # 40 to the Racehorse Creek campground which is to be our home for the next five days. This beautiful campground is centrally located to where we want to fish. From here we have access to a multitude of different small rivers, creeks and larger rivers including the Oldman.
After setting up camp we decide to head out to the stream that the campground was named after, Racehorse Creek. This little stream, while small in stature provide us with some great evening angling over the next two days. On the second evening out by myself, I landed four nice cutthroat in two different pools, all on a Pale Morning Dun fly, commonly called among fly fishers, a PMD. Meantime Gerald Konrad, had the same fly on with similar results. Gerald and his partner Ron Enns have now been with us two days.
While we spent the evening fishing Racehorse Creek the next three days are spent fishing the Livingstone River during the day. There are many side roads that lead to the riverside, but this destination is very popular among fly fisherman. The first two days we don’t have too much trouble finding a stretch of river to fish, but come Friday things are crowded.
On our first day on the Livingstone, Len Penner has a great day, landing nearly 20 fish. Lime Sally was the fly of the day. Phil and I catch some fish but don’t have near that kind of success. Next day we made sure to have on a variety of dry flies and things turn for the better.
THURSDAY- HITTING THE JACKPOT
Our best day on the Livingstone in a middle section of the river. Phil lands nine fish out of one pool and sees a big bull trout. He catches most of them on black ant that he tied the night before! I manage to land a number of nice fish as well, and see some huge cutthroats, who all refused my big stonefly presentation.
Most of the fish I caught on my little yellow and white mayfly dry fly. After a great day of fishing we head into Bellevue to pick up more dry flies and have dinner. We also tune into the Bomber/Edmonton game (that didn’t turn out so well.)
We head further north on this day to fish the upper Livingstone. Nobody in the group has tried this stretch of river before. Phil and I share the same water, catching a few nice cutthroats. Unfortunately, we could only find one small stretch of river that did not other anglers on it. After looking over a number of different sections we decide to pack in early and get ready for a new river on Saturday.
OLDMAN RIVER-LAST DAY
On our last full day, we decide to head down the foothills to the Oldman River, on a section near Highway 22. Since there was six of us fishing, we decided to break up and head to different sections. Len and decided to head downstream. After trekking across a couple of fields I found small little pool that looked like it might have potential.
FIND THE HOT SPOT
Fish were rising a long cast across the pool to a back eddy along the far shore. Starting with some short casts to see if there any fish closer, there was! I caught two cutthroats right away using a Terranasty along with a Prince Nymph dropper. After catching the closer fish, I waded into the river a bit deeper so I can get my fly to other shoreline. Sure enough, on the second drift another fish takes the big dry fly.
LEN HELPS OUT
Len comes back to my pool to see what all the commotion is about and takes a couple pictures of me with my fish. He then heads upstream about a thousand yards and lands a big fat cutthroat. After a couple of hours we both head up to our rendezvous point. It’s a huge deep pool with multiple structures. Two of our group are working the other side of the pool and Len and I stay out of their way. With an hour to go I notice some fish starting to rise to a hatch. Quickly tying on a dry, I catch two beautiful trout on a Royal Coachman on what was the best fish catching day of the trip for me.
There is much to do in this part of the world and you don’t have to be a fly fisher to enjoy the breathtaking scenery and crystal clear streams. Many people just camp wherever they want, usually in a meadow beside any of the rivers I have just mentioned. Some bring their horses, some their ATV’s but most all have a fairly large fifth wheel parked in groups of three or more. We did see wildlife including elk and quite a few deer. Luckily we didn’t bump into any bears on our stream adventurers, but that’s always a possibility. One thing to keep in mind though, if you do plan to fish, is to contact one of the fly shops I mentioned to plan your trip. Most of the streams and rivers don’t clear up until late June which makes the fishing that much better. Fall is also an excellent time to come, with fewer people and hungry fish!
I had so much fun on this trip, we planed another trip for two years later. That story coming up in a bit.