The streams in the Highwood River and Sheep River basins of Kananaskis County are a bushwhackers paradise, with endless creeks and backcountry to explore. Eager fish, rugged mountains, and un-matched Bull Trout fishing make this a great drainage to explore for any type of angler.
The main stems of the Highwood and Sheep Rivers are no secret. They are some of the most well-known and consistent Trout Rivers near Calgary and are heavily fished on the weekends throughout the entire season. They are very similar Rivers that originate very close to each other and share many of the same characteristics, one being excellent trout fishing in their upper reaches. The Sheep flows into the Highwood below High River before emptying into the main stem of the Bow.
Most days, when the sun is shining and the weather is nice, a Royal Coachmen or Elk Hair Caddis should get you into plenty of fish. If the weather isn’t nice, throw on a stonefly nymph or a streamer. Just be sure to get your nymphs as deep as possible. The fish are there. There is lots of them. This is some fine fishing and very accessible. There is great stretches on both rivers west of Highway 22, all the way to their headwaters. Just find one of the Orange rimmed access signs near the Highway and hike up or down the beautiful canyon until you find a spot where you can get down.
But that’s not usually why we go venturing into these River Basins. These Rivers are fed from the beautiful high country of the Alberta front Ranges by dozens of creeks. There are large imposing canyons, beautiful hidden waterfalls, and an abundance of wildlife.
The creeks that feed the Highwood and Sheep almost all have good fishing for generally smaller rainbows and cutthroat, although these small creeks often surprise you with larger fish. And when you come to that deep, emerald pool, you can count on there being a big, nasty Bull Trout lurking in the depths waiting for its next meal.
These creeks are typically tumbling mountain streams with endless pools, well spaced riffles and runs, and fun to fish pocket water in between. The fish are small and stupid in most cases, however, they can sometimes be quite difficult to catch, because the ultra clear water and tight spaces can make it difficult to cast and not spook the fish, which are holding in water not nearly as deep as in the main stem. But on good days, one should expect to have a good shot at fish at pretty much every nice pool they come across. And that is when fishing is the most fun.
As with most people who fish in this area, I have my favourite spots. In fact, my first ever ‘favourite creek’ (of which I now have 3 or 4), is in this region. Everytime I fish it, as I sit by the beautiful pools that surely must have been created solely for the trout fisherman, I feel as though I have outsmarted everyone else. I have rarely spent a day on this creek and not been completely satisfied, regardless of how many fish I caught or how big they were. People think I’m crazy when I tell them I enjoy hiking for miles to catch a few 8″ fish. And because crazy is just relative to the majority, I think they must be right; because on this creek, I have never had to worry about another fisherman taking my spoils. I see others. But the pools are so endless and the access so limited that it is never a problem. We usually just acknowledge how lucky we are to know what most do not, and wish each other a fine day of fishing.
So, I clearly have a vested interest in keeping mine, and other fishermans secrets safe. But I can assure you, my spot is not as rare as I think, and since I started to explore this area I realized it was just the first one I found out of literally hundreds. Do your homework. Explore. Be willing to spend a day trekking through the wilderness exploring where most people aren’t interested in going. I can assure you that you won’t be disappointed.
Your starting points should be highway 541 for the Highwood and highway 546 for the sheep. highway 40 and FTR 940 will provide you some access to many of the creeks. I recommend looking through the Alberta backroads mapbook to find which streams you can access, and then looking on google earth to get a feel for the stream and the terrain. The further you can get from the primary access point the better your chance of finding trout, particularly large trout, will get.
Be safe if you venture into this backcountry; this is wild country, and I would not recommend going alone if you plan on going too deep. Bring food and water provisions, make lots of noise, and carry bear spray. This is Grizzly country, and it is easy to get absorbed into the River and forget about this very real danger. Rain Jackets and extra layers are essential, as storms can approach quickly and unexpectedly.
There is a reason I keep going back to these streams, despite how busy they have become. The fine trout water is plentiful, and there is only a small amount of people willing to put in the work to enjoy it all. So get out there, find your creek, and bushwhack your way through the brush until you find that stretch of water that will become your next obsession 🙂