Saturday, July 30, 2016

Fernie Stoke

My friend David is about to start a new chapter in his life.  New town, new house, new baby on the way, new job.  All would soon demand his complete focus.  Time then for an epic fly fishing trip to build lasting memories before entering the salad days of his fishing forays (or at least until he can use bonding with his son and daughter as a worthy justification).

We started kicking around ideas - Colorado, the Driftless, redfish on the flats, but ultimately settled on the Florida Keys and Everglades.  He from Minnesota and me from VA, it was different enough for both of us that it would feel like a new experience.  The lure of the tarpon was STRONG!  We'd get a guided day in Islamorada, and then do a DIY day on the flats in the Keys.  Canoeing into the tangle of mangroves in the Everglades would give us the sense of exploration and adventure that we both crave.  We booked flights, cheapo accommodations (but with AC), hired a recommended guide who said the permit tides would be outstanding (min. 40-shot day), tied dozens of snook and redfish flies, bought leader material from 16 to 80 lb. test, and got a rental car for the daily shuttles from Florida City to Flamingo.  

I remember asking David about Zika, because his wonderful wife Sara was pregnant.  He didn't seem too concerned.  About a month before our departure, David started reading medical journals and then the threat turned real.  Since, at the time, a lot was still uncertain about the effects of Zika, it's persistence in the male's body/bloodstream, etc, we pulled the plug on the Keys/Glades trip out of an abundance of caution.

Now what?!

Plan B started to coalesce around a trip to fish Vancouver Island, but since we were tied to a mid-July timeframe and there was the chance of low, hot flows, or dry creeks, we reluctantly canned that idea (to be revisited!).

My friend Kelly who was advocating for VI, told us about a mythical land where there were five world class streams within an hours drive.  This land of unicorns and gigantic fish centered around Fernie, British Columbia and it's rivers - The Elk, and Bull in BC and the St. Mary's, Old Man, and Crowsnest Rivers in nearby Alberta.  The Bow River in and around Calgary is equally famous, but would be crowded and pressured Kelly said.  So we avoided it.

Being the glutton for the cheap/free flight, I got home from work Friday 7/15, ate a big dinner, and took a nap.  I got up around 10:30pm, threw my gear in the car and drove through the night to the Raleigh/Durham International Airport.  I had not gotten my boarding passes and called Southwest four separate times on the drive south to try to get them emailed to me.  Each time they got my email address wrong.  Each time I spelled it out, they repeated the spelling, and messed it up again during transcription.  The last time I talked to "customer service", the agent said they couldn't even find my name on the flight manifest which really threw me into orbit.  I finally gave up and resolved to straighten up that mess at the check in station.  Like David said:  cheap tickets come at some other cost.  Amen brother!  Quality customer service seemed to be their cutback.

Got to the airport a around 3 am for 5:40 am flight.  I parked in the "economy parking", Lot C, just outside the airport.  It's a massive outdoor parking lot, but the price is right - $50 for a week!  Good thing I got to the airport early.  I got third in line even though the check in station wasn't open yet.  By the time Southwest staff showed up, the line had grown to several hundred people strong!  I whisked through TSA security and chilled until the flight boarded.  I flew from Raleigh NC to Denver, read an excellent Garden and Gun article about Andy Mill, switched planes in Denver and made it to Spokane, Washington by 9:35 am PST.

It seemed like an eternity before David showed up from Wisconsin at 1:30pm.  He texted at touchdown - the adventure had begun and we were both stoked!

We grabbed a cab to the Avis rental place in downtown Spokane saving a bundle on the rental.  We threw our gear in the back and David steered our Ford Edge towards Idaho. 

We made a quick stop to gather some groceries.  Even though we were camping to save money, to keep things simple, we decided to eat out for breakfast and dinner,  Lunch would be a streamside affair so non-refridgerated foods were at the top of the list.  Hello peanut butter and Clif bars!  We scored a plastic spoon each at a local gas and sip.  Note to self:  next time. to cut down on waste, I will bring my trusty snowpeak titanium spork. 

We took I90 to Cour d'Alene, then Route 95 to Sandpoint.  As we pressed north and east we passed this bridge abutment celebration of the Pack River in Idaho.  


No need for signs or cairns, we knew we were headed in the right direction!  We continued on through Bonners Ferry and crossed the border into Canada at Eastport.  On the Crowsnest Highway, Rt 3/95, we stopped at the Ryan Provincial Park to use the restroom.  We had been following the Moyie River for a time and decided to see if the park trails in the parking lot led down to the river.  Within short order, this is what we found.

A nice seam, just below a riffle section.  Not wanting to tarry too long, but stoked to fish, we unsheathed the tenkara rods and made a a few casts.  We were both rewarded with small, but stunning wild trout.


It was getting dark, so we hustled back in the car and kept on towards our destination for the evening - the Singing Pines B&B in Cranbrook.  The fishing had delayed us, so we grabbed a quick bite at the local Wendy's where David ordered poutine, a Canadian favorite dish of french fries covered with gravy and melted cheese curds. Hmmm....

Singing Pines was recommended by my Canadian friend Kelly.  We were greeted by the innkeeper, Ivette and, due to the lateness of the hour, she gave us a quick lay of the land, asked what time we wanted breakfast (6:30 am), and left us to our own devises.   David and I flipped for the bed or pullout couch and thankfully I won, so I could relax in comfort after my 24 hour journey.

 We woke up at 6 am, showered, and made our way to the breakfast atrium.  This is why B&Bs are sometimes worth the expense. 

 Eggs to order, Canadian bacon, craft oatmeal, sticky buns, fruit, juices - more food than you could possibly choose from or eat.  We enjoyed a long private conversation with Ivette as we watched the hummingbirds fight for feeder space and paused to watch a doe and her young fawn saunter through the back yard not 50 feet from the back door.  Nice.  Singing Pines - highly recommended!

Finally we had to bid Ivette farewell and get on the road so we could meet our fishing guide in Fernie, BC.

We drove along Rt. 3, the Crowsnest Highway, passed the Bull River (the next day's spot), and stopped to take pictures of Mt. Broadwood.

We hooked a left at Elko, passed through Morrissey (named after the 80's singer?) and made it to Fernie after about an hour.

We were at the Elk River Guide Company fly shop by around 8 am and waited for it to open.  Clients and guides with their flotilla of drift boats began to mill around until the doors opened and there was a mad rush inside.  We perused the shop while we waited our turn to check in and buy our BC licenses and special day permits for the blue ribbon "classified" waters. 

We were assigned Darcy Richardson, one of the shops most experienced guides - SCORE!  We reaffirmed with Darcy that we wanted to target big bull trout but he gave off a tentative vibe telling us we could try, but that bull trout were not a given on any particular day.  He said we'd catch some quality cutthroat trout (but we thought we could do that on our own). 

We were to learn later that, even though when making the reservation we made our preference clear, we were allotted a space on the Elk River, even though the Wigwam River is better known for big bull trout.  It turns out that there are a limited number of fishing reservations on each of the classified waters (Elk, Wigwam, Michel, etc), and the reservations are offered early in the season and are snatched up by the guide services so it's almost impossible to show up and pick up a last minute day on the river.  Plan early!
There are some rivers you can always get access to, the Elk mainstem, Kootnay, and Bull River in BC.  The rivers in Alberta are all open all the time.

Anyway, we loaded up Darcy's truck and drift boat and headed for the town of Sparwood.   

Right after town we took a left on the Elk Valley Highway, past some coal strip mines (a big part of the local economy), and pulled into a private launch in the shadow of the bridge crossing the Elk River.   This map shows the length of our drift from top to bottom.  

The open area at the bottom of the image was the end of the float, at 7297 Crowsnest Highway, Sparwood.  If I recall correctly, there's a small road sign on Route 3 (Crowsnest Highway) that says Olsen Pit Road.  See the driftboat anchored on the gravel bar at the end of the road (from Google Maps).

Once we made it to the put in, the generally sunny Fernie skies had darkened, it got cold, and it looked like rain.  The waters were slightly muddy.  We donned waders and Darcy's strategy switched from dry fly fishing for cutties, back to taking our chances on fishing streamers for bull trout.  Just in case, he rigged a 5 wt. with a 4X leader for dry fly fishing and an 8wt. with 10lb flouro for swinging or floating streamers.

Here's the starting point of the float.

David took the bow, me the stern, and Darcy rigged our streamer rods with a jig hook dressed with a silver body and maribou tail and wing, held at depth with a strike indicator bubble (bobber).  Here's the fly.

Darcy said the jig was meant to imitate the native whitefish that were a big part of the diet of the bull trout.  We drifted that sucker through deep pools hoping for bulls.

It wasn't long before David hooked into his first bull - 20"


Darcy anchored the boat, and he and David got out to land the fish.

It was a beaut! Bully!

Darcy's spirits improved and we were ready for an awesome day!  Crude, but effective, we continued to float that jig through deep pools along tree stumps, and in deep pools on either side of the river as Darcy skillfully rowed back and forth and directed our casts.  David landed some stout and pretty cutties as the sun ducked in and out of the cloud cover.

And then it happened.  David hooked into a monster!  Once again, Darcy anchored the boat and got out to land the fish while David applied the heat.  After a long battle this beast came to net.

At 28", a trophy bull trout!

Things were slow in the back of the boat, and in retrospect, I think the first pass through the pools was probably the best shot at the fish.  Like other guide situations, I would recommend taking turns in the bow.  After lunch and the switch, my fortunes took a turn for the better with a mix of cutthroat and a bull trout of my own.

 Even though there were no hatches to speak of, we did take fish on dries.  Darcy knew just where to find cooperative fish.  David and I fished different patterns, he, an extended body, posted, green drake and me a "kraze" - a purple-bodied, posted PMD pattern (like an Adams).  Both drew strikes on a regular basis.  We didn't change dry flies all day.


 I would say the lower half of the float was less productive than the upper half, but we found quality fish throughout.  We pulled out on a long gravel bar at around 5pm and rode back to the shop in Fernie to collect our car.  We quizzed Darcy about other rivers to DIY and he was very helpful with information on the Bull and Fording Rivers.  We had pre-tipped, but it's good to remember that the guide service will charge you in Canadian dollars which, at the time, were only worth $0.77 American so adjust your tip according to the current exchange rate.

We got a bite to eat, which I washed down with a beer and Nuprin cocktail.  Standing up pressing on the leaning posts all day was a strain.  David's brother, Colin, and his father-in-law, Jeff, also happened to be arriving in town that night and were anxious to hit the stream for any potential evening hatch.

A seemingly popular popular access spot is one of the Garrett Ready Mix Ltd sites.  Don't be misled by the sign as it shows the address of their headquarters.  The access road is found at 2335 Crowsnest Highway (according to Google maps).

While this site seems to get a lot of referrals, it's quite limited in its ability to walk and wade.  Fine for a place to relax and look for an evening hatch though.  We suited back up, re-hydrated, and carried a single rod for some dry fly action.

Clearly, the beavers were active along the river!

I think everyone caught fish - enough to wet Colin and Jeff's whistle for the next day's adventure.  After dinner at Boston Pizza, David and I headed to the Mt. Fernie Provincial Park and pitched our Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 tent in site 22.  It was an uber simple affair so no pictures.

The following day, while Jeff and Colin followed in our footsteps with a guided float on the Elk River, David and I got our permits and some extra white streamers at the Elk River Guiding Company and headed back west to the Bull River, loaded up with some intel from our guide, Darcy, for a chance at DIY bull trout and big cutthroats.

We grabbed breakfast at Tim Horton's (a breakfast chain that doesn't let you put your own sugar or cream in the coffee!) and steered the car back toward Cranbrook.  The Bull River is a tributary to the Kootenay River, about halfway between Cranbrook and Fernie.  

We took Wardner Fort Steele Road off Route 3 and stopped to 
 admire the scene before us - the river...

and a massive colony of bank swallows...

Right after passing the Bull River Inn on the left, these horses gave us a perfect sense of place.

We continued just a little further and found public access parking just on the other side of the "summer view" bridge that crossed the Bull River.  We suited up and decided to fish downstream first as Darcy had told us we might find pods of bull trout staging at the mouth of the Bull where it emptied into the Kootenay.   

We rigged similar to the previous day with an 8wt. and a streamer and a 5wt. reserved for dry flies. The first deep hole I drifted through a large cuttie chased the fly, but I pulled it away too fast..  David was getting a lot of interest on the streamer swing (without the bubble hanging the streamer vertically). 

  I switched to match his technique and caught a nice cuttie and then a small bull trout in a run just below the railroad bridge. 

We slowly picked our way downstream and then it was David's turn, coaxing a nice cuttie out of the smallest slough behind a tree stump at a branch in the river.

It was a more buttery silver than the other fish we had caught.  A beautiful fish!

We continued down towards the mouth of the Bull.  While not quite stacked up, in the seam where the rivers joined, on the streamer swing, I caught a native whitefish.  These were supposed to be what the bull trout ate so it was a good sign.

In the adjoining super deep pool, David and I got a pair of bullies!  DIY - nothing better!

It was getting to be mid-afternoon and we wanted to wade back up to the bridge so we could explore the stream above the bridge.  As we walked, we heard boomers and were not so pleased with what we saw.

 A front was moving in, but not super fast.  We hoped it would pass around us as we made our way back to the bridge. 

We met a nice couple collecting river rocks on the gravel bank and talked story until we decided to press on.  Before we left, they asked us if we had seen the "squirrel monkeys".  We weren't sure what they were talking about and then they explained they were referring to the conservation police.   We were admonished to have all our permits up to date because a roadblock to nab tourists or a streamside visit was inevitable.  We told them we were legal and thanked them for the warning.  

We passed the car, and walked the marked trail through a field and up to a spot known as the "weir", a narrow gap in the mountain where I'm assuming a dam once stood - perhaps to regulate the flow from spring snowmelt floods.  Rain started to fall and we saw lightening so we beat feet back to the safety of the car, keeping our Sage and TFO lightening rods as low and horizontal as possible!

After the rain subsided, we retraced our steps to the weir and up and over the hill to get to the river upstream.  

Here's looking downstream from the weir...

Looking upsteam....

We fished upstream of the weir and David caught a nice cuttie right off the bat on a dry fly.  I got a hit on a stimulator, but missed the fish.  Apparently, we were not alone...


Either another front came in on the heels of the first or it swung back to get us.  The skies got dark, the wind picked up, and the boomers started to serenade us - and we were a 30 minute hike from the safety of car.  Big raindrops started to fall...

We had already had a good day, so we donned raincoats and made the trek back.   As we packed up and headed for home, we got one more nice view of the Bull River with the setting sun.

We stopped for ice cream at a mom & pop place on the way back; I had a very satisfying blueberry shake.  That night we had dinner with Colin and Jeff at the Brickhouse Bar and Grill as we recounted the day.  After dinner, David and I walked main street to work off some of our meal, then headed back to the campsite for a welcome shower and deep sleep.

Downtown Fernie...

Day three, new water.  This time, we were going to head over the province border to Alberta to fish the Old Man River.  We got up at 6 and, after a quick trip to the loo, were on the road at 6:30.  One thing about the Mt. Fernie Provincial Park, the campsite was only $25 American per day and everywhere we went there were fresh flowers - even in the pit toilets.

Now that's class!

David and I had a proper and liesurely breakfast at Mugshots where a bible study meeting was in full effect in the couch corner.  Jeff and Colin were soon to follow.  

They had gotten some reserved permits to walk & wade the Wigwam River and were on a later schedule.  We had an hour's drive to the fly shop in Coleman, Alberta. 

The views were pretty spectacular as we made our way through Crowsnest Pass.

Here's Crowsnest Mountain...

We drove to Coleman and the Crowsnest "Cafe" and Fly Shop to get advice on fishing either the Crowsnest or Old Man Rivers.  We pet the gigantic old dog outside.  David liked the pairing of the breakfest nook and fly shop.

They had some choice advice to share....

Sue, the proprietor, was very knowledgeable about the rivers, their condition, and the access points.  The Crowsnest was muddy and blown out from a few days of rain so she steered us to the upper Old Man River.    Sue's "shop rat" suggested PMDs and green drake flies and we got a few varieties.  Sue showed David on the shop's wall map where to find access above the gap.

Right next to the shop, we took 78th Street, left on 24th Street, right on 77th, right on 27th, bore left on 28th and then connected with Route 40 which quickly turned into a dirt forest road.  The car's navigation system's mantra was a calm but warning "incomplete data area" but we loved it!  Out of cell service reach, as we climbed, the views got better and better.... 

At the intersection with Township Road 105A, near the gap, stay left and continue on Rt. 40 as it follows the course of the upper Old Man River above the gap.  We saw a random dirt trail into the woods in the direction of the river so we took it.  It opened up into a large clearing near the river.  Pull campers were scattered about without any real order or designated spaces.  It seemed you could camp whereever if you were self contained.  For the tent camper, there were no facilities.  You could pump and filter water from the river, but there were NO toilet facilities.  Just a head's up.

We parked next to a fire ring and opened the rear hatch.  Yikes!  Several days of late and hard fishing had left our gear in a mess of "I'll straighten it up later"

We laid out our gear on the prairie, readied the two rods, the streamer swinger and the dry fly rod, packed our peanut butter, and made sure we had a day's worth of water.  We pulled on waders, checked our packs and ventured forth.

Before making our way down to the stream, David spied a snake and lurched to grab it.  I thought the high altitude or bright sun had gotten to him before he showed me this harmless little garter snake.

We proceeded down to the river and decided to head upstream.  Almost immediately we spotted a guide with his client dragging something along the bottom of a cascade of deep pools.  We sidled past and continued upstream.

The river was hemmed in on one side or the other or both with steep rock walls.  Since there were no hatches or rising fish to speak of, we'd wade one side looking for good streamer water, venture out into the stream, or cross only when we had to.   Big water...big sky!

David had figured out the most successful tactic of the week.  Look for a seam along a deeper section of the stream, cast into the fast water, and swing the streamer into the slower water.  

Often the fish were at the very head of the seam or pool.  David had switched to a black slump buster (a Mossy Creek Fly Shop tie (Shenandoah, VA!) and it was working well.  For the rest to the trip, that fly was a top producer.  It's made simply with a rabbit tail and then wrap the hook shank with crosscut rabbit to the hook eye.  I typically add a conehead and for this trip, because I knew we'd be fishing fast water and deep pools, I wrapped the entire hook shank with lead wire.  Find a picture of the standard pattern here:  Nothin' to it!

David got this bull trout in the upper Old Man River, where we were told there weren't any.  Well well....  Three rivers, bullies in each one, two days DIY, EPIC!

Oh, and the cutties were pretty sweet too!

Isn't the upper Old Man River pretty?

Carried along for any dry fly fishing we'd encounter, I had this special combo - a Sage second blank worked up by my friend and mentor John Haag (who has since passed) and a Bill Ballan reel built and manufactured by a fellow Idle Hour Fly Fishers club member.  Both are mementos from my prior life on Long Island (NY) - the very best it had to offer (besides my wife! - love you honey!)

We stopped for lunch at about 2 pm and shared spoonfuls of super chunk chased with lukewarm water from the pack bladder.  I have to say, I was digging my Osprey Talon 22 as a fishing pack.  The only criticism I would have is that I wish the pockets on the hip belt were either adjustable or fixed up front so they acted like a front-facing hip or fanny pack.  They were positioned to far back and on the side to be easily accessible.  Hey Osprey, I'd be happy to help you develop and/or test a new prototype.  Just sayin'....

Before heading upstream, we took a time release photo for posterity.

We walked a ways further marveling at our beautiful and solitary surroundings.  Hey David, you got the bear spray handy?

We turned around at about 3:30, thinking it would take us a good 2 hours to walk and wade back without too much messin' around.  We hit some familiar pools that had thwarted us on  the first round.  I caught one nice bully in just such a pool. 

While plying the pool for another, all the way across the river, in a back eddy, I spotted not a rise but more of a splash, and then another.  Don't know what that fish was doing, but to seize the opportunity, I launched my streamer into that eddy - one strip and this fat cuttie pounded the fly.

I was feelin' satisfied, but a toll had to be paid for all these beautiful fish we were catching and it was my burden to bear.  On one of the last crossings of the day, within an arms reach of David, I lost my footing and did a roll and somersault in the stream.  It was only through sheer adrenaline and the intense fear of destroying my expensive Nikon camera gear (!) that I regained my footing, handed David my rods and made it to shore.  I quickly unzipped my pack and found only a few droplets on the otherwise unprotected camera!  An Old Man miracle!  Of course, my food was in a waterproof sil sack!  I said a few prayers of thanks, David loaned me his Patagoina R1 pullover to keep the camera dry and I stuffed it into the damp, but otherwise waterproof sack.  The camera would not be left vulnerable, no matter what, for the rest of the trip!  This spot is unofficially named - Kevin's swimmin' hole.

My wading belt kept water out of the waders so I was only wet above the waist.  By the time we made it back to the car, I was dry.  Wear your belt!

We estimated we fished upstream 2-3 miles before turning back, picking over rock ridges, wading in the stream, and crossing the river where steep gorges forced us.  It was rugged and awesome.  We saw a guide and his "walk and wade" client early on, and a couple of spin fishermen on quads at a spot where you could drive to a very deep pool but other than that, we were alone save for each others' company.  I suspect the difficult wading keeps the dandies out.

As we exited the stream, some prairie dog scouts peeped out the alarm as we intruded upon their solace. David got some cool video of two deer wading in the stream.

On the way from the prairie through the treeline to the main road, on one of the spiderweb of tire tracks, we passed a pit and artificial mound which made for a back country half-pipe for dirt bikes and quads.  The outdoor rules seem to be different than we're used to in the heavily regulated US.  Not good, not bad, just different.....  

Since we had daylight and an adventurous spirit, we decided to drive through the gap.  It was super windy as the mountains funneled everything through that small slit in the mountains.  Because it was windy, David had his hat in his hand as we approached the precipice of the gorge.  That's what finally drew the "squirrel monkeys" out of hiding.  All of a sudden a big truck came to a dusty, skidding halt on the dirt road and asked what we were doing.  We said we were just taking pictures when he saw David - hat-in-hand.  He said he thought it was a paper plate that the campers nailed up everywhere to let their buddies know where they were camping.  That's litterin' and that's pollution! he said.  Yes sir we said.  David though I had found "my people".  As quickly as he appeared, our officer was on his way in a twister of Alberta dust.

We continued through the gap and along the banks of the "lower" Old Man River.  The geology and landscape had changed markedly to rolling grassy hills.  It reminded me very much of the difference between the west and east sides of Glacier National Park (which was only a few hours south).

We followed Township Road 101A to the bridge where it intersects Cowboy Trail (Rt. 22) and the road crosses the lower Old Man River.  Even though we had read about the lower Old Man, this section looked steep on both banks and hard to fish by wading.  We'd need another day to explore this area properly.

While taking pictures, we did try to make friends with the locals, but they were wary.  I'm sure we were putting off a very strong and unearthly"scent"!

We circled back on Rt. 22 to Rt. 3 - some fabulous vistas on the way.

On our way back to Coleman, we passed the Frank Slide where the side of a mountain let go and buried a town.  We sped through there.

Even though we were told there were no bull trout in the upper Old Man, we were 3 of 3 on bull trout (2 days DIY) with only a quick dunk as sacrifice.  Not bad for a day's adventure.

We met Colin and Jeff at Novado's mexican restaurant in Fernie.  They told us of gigantic bull trout, one 28", on the Wigwam and each had 30+ fish days. OK, maybe we'll try that tomorrow!

We got up early the next day so we could get the jump on the eager beavers at the guiding service and acquire the scarce reserved permits for the Wigwam River.  We were told it was already too late to get an early start on the big bulls in the Wigwam so we angled for a spot on the river for our next and last day.  After a lot of hemming and hawing and back and forth between the Kootenay Fly Shop and Elk River Guiding Company, suffice it to say that it wasn't convenient or maximally profitable for them to let us fish the Wigwam.  Finally, we broke off the drama and headed to the Upper Elk River and the Fording River tributary.  After pestering Frank in the Elk River Guiding Company shop for a place to find some rising fish taking dries, he finally drew us this map.  Got it?

OK, OK, we like a challenge.  The directions were way misleading -  on purpose? - to test our mettle?  Yeah, we found where the Fording dumps into the Elk River - fabled to have its own bevy of bull trout.

We had found the bridge on the map and had scoped the small section of the fording downstream.  We decided to fish the Elk first by parking down below.  We suited up as a couple of guides on a rowing and exploring busman's holiday slipped their drifters in the water headed in the opposite direction. 

The intersection of the Elk and Fording Rivers....

Just a short distance upstream, using the techniques that David pioneered, I caught a beautiful cuttie in the seam.  Gorgeous fish!

We moved upstream, but the river was more uniform - either shallow with no structure, or deep all the way across with steep banks and nowhere to cross or easily access the banks.  The trail high up on the bluff was stunning though.

We picked a few fish here and there.

Eventually we turned around so that we could get back to the Fording and give it a try.  On the way back, around 3 pm, finally like we had been told, David started to spot bugs with some regularity.  It was a full-on stonefly hatch!  They were everywhere - in the sky, in the grass, in the bushes and trees, and finally (!) on the water.

We were too busy catching rising cutties to stop and take pictures, but David got some great video that will be on his Vimeo site -  I was catching my fish on a Britten Jay's Golden Stone fly.  I think David was using a green drake.  We had steady action for about an hour of mayhem.  Fernie dry fly heaven?  Check!

Feelin' satisfied from an hour and a half of dry fly action, we moved up into the Fording River.  Since the hatch had died off, we went back to streamer fishing with the black slumpbuster.  In one pool, I had a bunch of whacks, but failed to set the hook and I wondered if these were smaller fish or tail biters.  I did cut the rabbit tail back a little, but to no avail.  

David found a rising fish at the tail end of a run and got looks and a take, but missed the fish.  We were both getting takes and misses. 
Late in the day, on a lark, he switched to a rusty orange streamer and he started getting good hits in all the pools that had shunned him on the way upstream.  He landed this nice cuttie.

Since these fish probably get a fair amount of pressure (next to the road), we mused that perhaps the color was one they hadn't seen before or that often.  Not sure though.  

Another good day was in the books and we finally had some dry fly action - enough to scratch that itch.  Hallelujah!   That night we celebrated at the Curry Bowl restaurant in Fernie.  It's a small place, nice inside, and it has a patio in the back and a tiny front porch (facing the road).  Highly recommended.

The next day...  We never got a call from any of the shops about fishing the Wigwam.  Tired of their scheming and collusion and trickery, we decided to head back to the open arms of Alberta where there seemed to be far fewer shenanigans.  We hoped to fish the Crowsnest River to add one more new river to the list.  David was jazzed about eating at a fly shop so we grabbed a venti at the Fernie Starbucks and charged back to the Crowsnest Cafe & Fly Shop for breakfast and a river report.  (It is kind of a nice pairing!).

My breakfast burrito was good, and I hydrated with water because the daytime temps were supposed to be in the 90s.  

This time Sue told us the Crowsnest would not be fishing well sinc ethe stream level had dropped and, although clearer, the stream would get too hot in the afternoon to fish well.  Damn!  She said we could try immediately east of town before noon if we wanted to but she didn't sound too hopeful.  

We stopped at the Crowsnest Angler  & Fly Shop in Bellevue to see what they had to say and they also said not to fish the Crowsnest so we decided, since we had a great time on the upper Old Man River, we would go to the same access point and fish downstream instead of up.  

We came in from Rt. 22 this time.  In David's zeal for adventure, we overshot the access point by seven dirt-road miles and ended up on the Livingstone River.  There were anglers all over every stretch of that river it seemed.  No thankyou.

We remembered David had dropped a pin on his phone map so we backtracked and found our previous access spot - called "Dry Camp Oldman River" on Google Maps.  We geared up for one last epic day and got on the stream about noon.

Interestingly, the river downstream seemed very different - wider, slower, and with less structure.  The wading was easy but there seemed to be fewer deep pools or fast water seams.

Pay attention to the rocks!

I was getting frustrated because I was getting a lot of nibbles, but no real strong strikes.  I switched streamers, shortened tails, but nothing worked.  I started to fear the skunk.  I had been working this deep run - had to be fish in there!  When David joined me, he started to spot bugs in the air and then a rise.  It was 3 pm.  Same time as the hatch the previous day on the upper Elk - hence known as the "magic hour".  I was throwing a PMD but David struck first with a green drake.  I switched to the extended body green drake that David had had success with on on the Elk.

I was tracking this one rising fish at the head of the run.  After only a few casts, I got this fabulous take and the fish was on!

We both caught fish in this run.  I can't wait to see David's video of one of the takes.  Like the day before, it was great and intense fishing for about an hour, and then it was over.

It was getting late in the afternoon and we had a whole lot of travel ahead of us, so we moseyed back towards the car hitting a few pools on the way back.

On the way back, I spotted this felted buck and doe crossing the stream - so much more nimbly than I!  I had about a dozen swipes but no hookups in that water.

Rather than wade through a lot of dead water, we bushwhacked to the road and suffered the dust storm thrown up by speeders on the dirt road.  We found the car, unloaded the back, organized and repacked our bags, changed clothes (what's left clean/doesn't smell too offensive?), and prepped for the overnight drive to the airport in Spokane.

David steered the car west and we stopped in Fernie for a good meal before the coming ordeal.  We ate at the Northern Bar and I tried to get them to turn on the Tour de France for some race updates in the Alps.  No deal.  All the sports channels had Blue Jays coverage - no cycling :(  For sports, perhaps Canada is more like the US than Europe.  Got my mandatory order of poutine before leaving the country.  Good - like potatoes and gravy really. 

If you want to skip to the end now, the rest of the tale is full of misery.  

We had decided to get a full day of fishing in and then, instead of getting a hotel room for a couple hours of sleep before heading to the airport, we decided to just drive back to the car rental place, use the key drop, and then just take a taxi to the airport for early check in.  No "wasted" money on a hotel/motel and no sleeping until the plane. We're game!?

We said goodbye to Fernie, got some gas and gave the mud-caked car a "window washer fluid" car wash (futile and hilarious if it weren't so stupid) and drove a little more than an hour to Cranbrook to get a large Tom Horton's cup of joe.  I still can't get over that they won't let you add your own cream and sugar.  I hate that!  

Davide pulled up some John Oliver parodies on his cell phone, patched it into the car's bluetooth speaker system, and we listened to them and some Garrison Keillor stories from Lake Wobegon as we charged into the ink-dark Canadian night.

We basically retraced our track to Spokane.  I don't remember what time we crossed the border, but it was easy and uneventful.  I know we were both getting sleepy, but we crossed into Idaho and kept on.  David was getting tired, and I don't blame him since he did all the driving throughout the trip, so I took over for a short spell.  We stopped just short of the Spokane Avis to fill up the gas tank and get something to drink.  After dark, this part of town is sketchy.  We got to Avis, cleaned out the car and did some final packing at around 3:30 am.  David called a cab company and they said it would be an hour before pickup.  We had the time, so we accepted and, terrified about going comatose, set our phone alarms for a 45 minute nap.  An hour turned to 75 minutes and then an hour and a half.  No calls were returned so we started calling other taxi services but could get no love.  David got one that said we wouldn't be picked up for another hour and they blew off the airport's 2 hour pre-takeoff arrival time.  Hmmmm.  Without options, we accepted.  My flight wasn't until 9:30am so I was fine, but I worried about David.  I called 3 or 4 more cab companies and got one that said they would meet us in 5 minutes.  We bit.  

The cab showed up almost immediately, we threw our gear in the minivan, and we were off for the the 30 minute ride to the airport.  We tipped the driver and David got in a long line to check in.  I was way early for my flight so breezed through check in.  David shifted to the automated check in and we both made it through TSA security without much fanfare.  We got some breakfast, called our spouses, but since we were in different wings of the airport, said our good-byes and split up.

My tale of woe continues... Now up for 24 hours I found that my flight had been delayed for an hour.  I was unaware that for the past two days, Southwest Airlines' computers had failed and they were in the process of a massive rearrangement of flight crew, planes, and other assets.  My one hour delay was nothing compared to some folks that had sheltered in place since the day before.

Got on the flight from Spokane to Chicago.  Luckily I had purchased earlybird check in ($15), boarded in the A-group, and got a window seat.   After buckling my seatbelt, I don't remember a thing until touchdown.  Had a two hour layover in Chicago which also got delayed an hour and a half.  David texted that he was home with his family.  Curses!  I got on the plane to Raleigh-Durham, lights out again, touched down, and got a shuttle bus back to the "economy' parking lot C where my trusty Outback awaited.  Got gas and a XL coffee at the Sheetz and then pulled up the directions for home on the phone and I was off at around 10 pm.  

Traffic was light and the driving was easy.  I siiiiiiipped the coffee to extend the caffeine bump.   Made it soon enough to Emporia, got some late night food realizing I hadn't eaten anything since lunch in Chicago.  Bolstered by thoughts of home, I wasn't drowsy.  Made it home before 3 am - a 44 hour journey.  I'm getting too old for that shit!

We had an epic, awesome trip - no doubt.  But there were a lot of things we didn't do and are prime for a return visit.

  • We didn't fish the upper upper Old Man River - lots left to explore! 

  • We barely touched the 70 miles of the Bull River.
  •  We didn't camp out streamside or backpack into more remote backcountry sites. 
  • We didn't get to fish the Crowsnest or the Michel, or the many other small tributaries of the Elk.

  • We didn't get to fish the Wigwam for big bull trout.
  • didn't fill our tank on dry fly fishing (August?) 

... So many reasons to return, but so many other places in the world to experience.  Perhaps planning a trip to the Everglades for a third time will be the charm.  There's Louisiana for plentiful big red drum.  There's Vancouver Island (coming soon Kelly, I promise!).  

So many places, but Fernie and the surrounding area will be forever etched in my brain - as much for David's incredible company as the streams, the big-sky landscapes, and the fish.  

If you go, don't fall victim to the guide/shop two step.  Plan early and get your restricted water permits in advance for your guided days (start inquiring in February!).  Plan some unscripted days to explore; there's so much!  Bring two, four-piece rods (5wt. for dries and 7 or 8wt. for streamers) with light reels and carry them both everywhere.  Bring lots of streamers, especially in black, and throw in a few that are orange.  Forget about waiving to people in Alberta; they are nice, but won't wave back!  Have fun!


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