A rugged landscape like none other, carved out by two great rivers.
A place where people have caught fish for millennia.
This is the Kootenay Region
The region known as the Kootenays (or Kootenai) is comprised of the Columbia River watershed area located within Canada. This drainage area encompasses five different mountain ranges; the west side of the Rockies, the Purcell’s, the Selkirks, the east side of the Monashees, all the way northward to the Cariboo’s. Together these are known as the Columbia Mountains, and they provide some breathtaking scenery and world class fly fishing opportunities.
David Thompson once ventured this way, in search of a mighty river known as the Columbia that flowed all to the way to the ocean. However, this untamed land was not as easy to navigate as Thompson might have thought. Thompson originally thought what is now known as the Kootenay River was the Columbia, and paid no mind the the small wandering stream that made its way northward out of Columbia Lake. He ran the length of the Kootenay one summer, and after hundreds of miles of stream found his way into what is now Kootenay Lake. The river, however, continued; the lake drained westward, past the present day town of Nelson. It was shortly after this point where the expedition came to a halt when they came to a series of dangerous, impassable rapids for which there was no portage. Perplexed, he turned around, and paddled the nearly 700 kms back upstream to where his camp was. Little did he know that the real Columbia River was only a few short kms past those rugged rapids at the end of the Kootenay.
Eventually, David Thompson did find the Columbia, which goes north for some 200 kms before swinging south around the Purcells towards its confluence with the Kootenay. During his travels, he relied heavily on the knowledge of the four First nations whose used the land as part of their traditional territories; the Syilx (Okanagan), Secwepemc (Shuswap), the Sinixt (Lakes people), and the Ktunaxa.
And really, that’s where the story of fishing in this region begins. First Nations had been harvesting wild salmon and trout for as long as 14,000 years before David Thompson came in the early 1800’s.
The rivers of the Columbia were rich with Salmon, a resource that was at the center of all four nations cultures. That was up until the grand coulee dam was built in 1933, and the worlds largest run of wild Salmon was ended. Luckily, there is still excellent fishing to be found in streams for native rainbow, cutthroat, and bull trout, along with rocky mountain whitefish and other species.
Generally, the region can be categorized into East Kootenays, which has primarily cutthroat Trout fisheries, and West Kootenays, which are primarily rainbow trout fisheries. Bull Trout and mountain whitefish can be found throughout.
The upper Kootenay river is a cutthroat trout paradise. There is an impassable barrier at Kootenay falls in Montana that has always prevented rainbow trout from the Columbia system from getting upstream. The upper Kootenay flows into the Koocanusa reservoir (named for Kootenay-Canada-USA) and its tributaries contain some of the finest fishing for native Cutthroat Trout in the world. This includes streams like the Elk river, the Bull river and the St. Mary’s river, all of which are very popular destinations. But practically everything has fish and they can be taken willingly on dries. For more tactics for the East Kootenays, head the Elk River and tributaries page!
The West Kootenays contain primarily rainbow trout streams that are tributaries of the Columbia or lower Kootenay. The fishing in this region is touch and go, but can be excellent if you are in the right places. There is some very complex land use going on that has had significant impacts on fish, the most dominant factor being hydroelectric dams. This has caused lots of fragmentation of fish populations and damaged fish habitat. Over fishing was a problem during the first half of this century, and habitat loss continues to erode at fish populations in small streams.
The Columbia is free flowing from Castlegar to the USA border. This section is a very large intimidating piece of water, but it does have very good fishing for nice sized rainbows and can be fished effectively from shore. However, it is better fished using a jet boat. There are several guides in the area that can help bring you this experience. For more on the Columbia visit this previously published blog post.
Other good streams include the Slocan and Salmo rivers, both of which used to have large salmon runs but still hold healthy populations of native rainbow trout and bull trout. These are walk and wade streams that can provide excellent dry fly fishing. Both of these streams have issues with summer water temps and I would recommend avoiding them in August to reduce stress on fish (*Slocan is closed to fishing July 25-Aug 25*).
Small tributaries in this region generally all have small rainbow trout that can be easily caught, however, I personally have not had much success catching large fish out of small streams. (I will continue to bushwhack my way to every honey-hole I can and try to disprove this though.
The history of this region is fascinating. It includes that of the first nations, early explorers, the gold mining and forestry booms, draft dodgers; and through all of it flows pristine rivers full of trout. This post only touches the surface of the fishing options available in the Kootenays- get out there and explore for yourself, the rewards will be worth it!