The Bow River is a world renowned trout stream that flows from the continental divide, through the foothills and the city of Calgary, before carving its way through the vast prairies of southern Alberta.
The water is big and slightly intimidating.
And its fish even more so.
This is the Bow River.
The Bow River and myself have a touchy relationship. Its easy to sit here and type about what should or shouldn’t work on the Bow; about the monstrous steelhead-strain rainbows that will take you deep into your backing and give you the fight of a lifetime; or those sneaky, wary, edge dwelling browns that can sometimes be downright scary in size. Those things you can find elsewhere, on social media, or guides that have the Bow River formula figured out to a science. It’s all well and known that this is a river that has unmatched trout fishing. Which is what makes it maddening when I still come back from the river empty handed so often.
Most the time, I feel like I’m fighting a loosing battle before I even cast. I just know that my decimated fly box, my battered ungainly leaders that I cant afford to buy more of, and my fly line and reel that hasn’t been cleaned regularly and maintained like a fine sports car don’t give me a great shot at catching these seasoned trout. The places I want to fish seem to far way. The water is fast and its hard to get a good drift. I went years of fishing like this on the Bow (which runs behind my house) and never caught a single fish; before one day, in the most random and unassuming of spots, my strike indicator dipped below the surface and I felt the tug of a large rainbow on the end of my line. It was a beautiful 16″ rainbow which was the biggest fish I had ever caught to that point in my life. And so began my resolve to figure this river out.
Since then, I have caught plenty more of these big beautiful fish, although not as many as I’d like to admit. I definitely haven’t figured it out. If anything, the Bow River has made me humble; and until you are that, you wont catch many fish in this river. But I do urge you to go and try; the rewards will be worth it.
There are a few key things that will help you catch fish on the Bow. First, good presentation is the most crucial; long leaders, straight lines, and drag free drifts will give you the best chance. Secondly, nymphs are the most consistent method to catch fish; if in doubt, fish a bead head prince, a stonefly, some sort of mayfly pattern, or a san juan worm (thin red worm), and make sure you get them deep. They are consistent producers and will usually give you the best chance of catching fish, even if fish are rising. Lastly, fish the water that you wouldn’t expect trout. Often times the flat unassuming sections and subtle banks will produce far better then the big, beautiful pools. 20″ fish can be taken in a foot of water sometimes and all parts of this river have fish.
There are many good spots to access the Bow near Canmore, and Calgary. South of Calgary there are several highways that cross the river and boat launches that will give you access. The Bow below Calgary is where you will find the large Rainbows that this river is famous for.
The Bow is subject to spring run-, off, and is usually murky and un-fishable until early to mid June. A good rule of thumb this time of year is to fish below the surface unless you see rising fish. Fish the large, deep wintering pools, and use split-shot to get your Fly down the the bottom. Fish deep and cover the water slowly, and you should have good success.
Summer on the Bow means the arrival of hatching bugs and good dry-fly fishing, and the arrival of the hordes of inner-city anglers and drift boats. There is a good hatch of golden stoneflies beginning in June, that continues into early July, followed shortly after by good hatches of PMD’s and Caddisflies. It is usually a good call to bring several imitations and stages (emergers and dry-flies) of these hatches and different colors to try when the pattern that seems to match the naturals don’t seem to be working. A very popular set-up on the Bow at this time of year is the ‘Hopper-Dropper,’ where a small nymph like a pheasant tail or a hares-ear is fished beneath a Hopper or a large stimulator. The high floating hopper can be used as a strike indicator for the nymph below, and multiple levels of water can be covered effectively.
The Fall on the Bow River is possibly the best time to fish this river. The colors and trees are beautiful, the air is crisp, and the fish are trying to get fat before a long winter. The water is crystal clear and easily wadable, and you usually have the river to yourself. There are generally less bugs, but you can still find hatches of mayflies, a few caddis, and one type of very large Fall Caddis that will hatch. This bug is best fished with a large size 4-6 orange stimulator. Nymphing is the ticket this time of year, and small nymphs like pheasant tail, Copper-johns, prince nymphs and hares-ears are very effective. A tandem nymph set-up is common this time of year, with a smaller nymph trailing 8-12″ behind a larger nymph.
Bow River Tributaries
The Tributaries of the Bow River are primarily freestone rivers originating in the front ranges of the Rocky Mountains. Healthy Rainbow Trout populations can be found in most of the major tribs, while Cutthroat Trout become more prevalent the further upstream one ventures. These are some amazing, rugged rivers with plenty of good access points. There are Native Bull Trout populations in these Rivers, and the streamer fishing for Big Bulls in the highcountry is some of the best in the world. The Cutthroat and Rainbows do not grow as large as in the Bow River, but large fish in the 16″-20″ range can still be caught. These fish however are much easier to catch and are usually very receptive to high floating dry flies like Royal Coachmen, Caddis Fly, or a Stimulator patterns. These are great waters to learn to fish on, and the scenery is as beautiful as it gets. The best fishing can be found in the Sheep and Highwood Rivers. Other Rivers that offer good fishing include the Elbow River, Jumpingpound Creek, and the Ghost River, and small creeks near banff will offer fun fishing for small cutties and brook trout and the odd big bull.
Our Bushwhackers Bounty
For more information on the Bow River system, we recommend the book Blue Ribbon Bow By Jim Mclennan. It is loaded with everything you could ever want to know about the Bow. Have fun out there!