What is it that brings you back to the river each time? Perhaps, it is the lingering memory of the last time a fish came up and slurped your fly. Or maybe it is the pestering thought of the big one that got away. Perhaps, it is the thought that next time out will be the day it all comes together, and you catch the biggest fish of your life. For most, its all these things- combined into a feeling that persistently reminds you the river is there, waiting for you, with endless possibilities for excitement.
But then we must choose where we want to go, and we are faced with a dilemma- to go to a spot we know and have fished successfully before, or to go somewhere new, a spot that you’ve considered but never made it too. Both have their merits. If you want a sure thing, a place where you know you can catch fish, usually a spot you’ve been before is the best bet. This is also true if it’s the memory of a fish that got away that’s on your mind. In fact, there are many reasons one may continue to go back to the same spot, over and over- predictability, efficiency, access, increased confidence in your chances. And therefore, I often find myself returning to my favourite rivers, my favourite stretches; often I will drive for hours just to fish one specific pool. And this approach is usually rewarding, and I usually catch fish. In fact, I’m quite certain I have often caught the same fish, in the same pool, several times. But this approach is missing one main ingredient, one that I consider to be the main reason I love fly-fishing so much. And that is the potential you may discover somewhere truly incredible.
And that is why this year, I made it a point to fish new water, and new river systems, as much as possible. I wanted to rekindle that old magic from my youth and find new places that would linger in my memories, discover new honey holes, and experience that magical feeling of discovery all over again. Because for me, that is what feeds my obsession with this sport.
That’s why when me and my brother Mark were planning a recent trip in late July, we started with some very simple parameters. First, to find water neither of us had fished before. Two, to find somewhere we were unlikely to find any other anglers.
We sifted our way through the backroads mapbook and google earth. And eventually settled on an area that gave us plenty of options for discovery. The upper regions of the Kootenay River system seemed to check all the boxes- stunning scenery, remote access with many recreation sites to choose from, and a plethora of remote, cold mountain streams that, in theory, should contain cutthroat trout, bull trout, and whitefish. And the plan was formed.
Some of the larger tributaries of the Kootenay near Canal flats are well known, and even legendary. These include the Bull River, the St. Mary’s River, the Skookumchuk river, and the White River. Go fish them. They are epic. But that wasn’t the point of this trip. We had fished most of those, and wanted to know what the other tributaries were like. We wanted to fish the tributaries no one talked about. The ones where the only information we could find was the one-sentence description in the backroads mapbook. So we went higher up in the system, deeper and deeper into the logging roads, and found some stunning rivers that we had all to ourselves. These rivers will remain unnamed.
And as is often the case when fishing somewhere completely new, we struggled. The water was exceptionally cold, despite the heat wave that had been settled in for most of the month. The rivers were stained with glacial silt, and also larger and faster than we expected, making wading tough. The small tributary of the main river that was nearby produced nothing but a couple tiny fish, despite the beautiful pools. We returned to camp that night knowing that if we were going to catch fish, we would have to work for them.
The next day began early in the morning on a different stream that was exceedingly pretty. We fished some prime looking water, to no avail. We moved to a canyon section, with lovely waterfalls and beautiful pools. Nothing. I was wet wading and the water stung my legs to the point where I couldn’t be in the water more than a minute or two. I took a temperature. 10.5 Celsius. It became pretty clear to us that these streams were much colder than some of their better known relatives lower down the Kootenay system. There were less bugs, lower productivity, and any fish seemed to be few and far between.
But we were patient. Around noon, the sun rose above the canyon walls and illuminated the beautiful pool formed by a waterfall that we were fishing. In front of us was a seam and a pocket of soft, shallow water basking in the sun. We watched it. And sure enough, within minutes of the sun shining, we saw a cutthroat rise. Mark casted to it, and it hit his fly immediately. It was small, but beautiful, with spots and colors like we had never seen on a cutthroat. They were very pale in color, to match the pale grey on the streambed, with very few spots that were quite large. It was clear this was a genetically pure, resident cutthroat trout. And we were re-energized.
We quickly caught two more in short order, all as pretty as the last. We decided the slow morning was due to the cold water, and felt a lot better about out chances now that it was hot and sunny. We returned to the prime water we fished earlier. We caught a couple more small ones, but I was not ready to give up yet. After some spicy wading and finesse casting, I was finally able to land two decent sized cutthroat, around 13″. It felt like a major accomplishment. As I held them, I wondered if they had ever been caught before, and decided it was very, very unlikely.
Despite the mostly small fish and hard work we had to put in to catch them, we ended that day feeling very satisfied and optimistic. We still had one more day and one more river to explore.
The next morning we fished a larger river. We fished it below a canyon and a series of waterfalls, in a section with open migration with the Kootenay. Therefore we expected we could encounter large, migratory bull trout and potentially rainbow trout as well.
We bushwhacked our way down through a cut-block and then scrambled down a steep canyon. When we emerged, we found a epic stretch of trout water waiting for us. Within seconds of watching the water, I saw a rise. We ambled over and mark covered it with a nice cast, and it immediately rewarded him. It was a mid-sized rainbow that put up a good fight. Next it was my turn, I fished a little lower down the swirling eddy, and cast a large grasshopper pattern. I skittered it over the pool with lots of movement, which triggered a cutthroat trout to dart out the depths and smash it. A few moments later, I was holding the nicest cutthroat of the trip, around 15″. As the day progressed, the fishing slowed down, but we were still managing to catch a few more small fish. Mark, getting fed up with little guys, threw on a big meaty streamer.
And that’s when it happened. The soft, deep water we were fishing had not produced any cutthroat or rainbows. But it was TOO nice to not have a fish. I was still in a dry fly craze, and moved along. Mark stayed back to try his luck with the streamer. Within seconds I heard Mark yelling frantically “big one! big one! huge bully!” I rushed back upstream, where Mark was battling a massive bull trout close to 30″. He got him to shore, netted him, and snapped a few quick pics. It was the biggest bull trout of Mark’s life. We admired him in all his glory and raw power, then watched him as he slapped his tail and swam away, settling in behind a nearby rock to recover his energy. It was a beautiful fish, a beautiful moment, in a beautiful place. The entire trip came together in that moment. Everything was worth it. And everything that happened after that was just icing on the cake.
We scrambled out of that canyon, with the many fish from the day still filling us with exuberance, and we felt accomplished. Despite many hours of slow fishing, we thoroughly enjoyed exploring this region, and felt we would have even better luck if we returned. We persevered, and it paid off. We felt like we knew something very few others knew. And in that moment as I exhaustedly hiked out of the canyon, I knew this was what fly-fishing was all about.
I’ve had trips where we’ve caught far more fish, and trips with more big fish. But this trip rivals them all. There is nothing quite like the feeling of seeing the next bend reveal itself for the first time… The unique experience of catching a fish where you never have before. The majesty of being somewhere truly remarkable, somewhere you would never be unless it were for the pursuit of trout. The feeling of discovery.