Wednesday, August 14, 2013


The Offspring were giving me some half decent energy when we hit the road at 3pm a couple Thursday ago.  Dealing with downtown, pre-rush hour traffic --ugh.  Kristy works right in the heart of Edmonton, and there was no avoiding it if we wanted to leave that day. 

And I needed it, the energy, not so much for that exact day, but for the next 10 or so days that Kristy and I would be loosely travelling and fishing in a couple spots scattered both in Montana and the Wyoming side of Yellowstone Park.

The first night our original plan was to camp just on the Alberta side of the Canada-US border, but as we got further south, it became clear that if we stopped we’d be both setting up and taking down our tent in the rain (about an inch of the wet stuff was predictedto hit), so we instead winged it and crossed the border at about 8pm after driving 5 hours non-stop, except for coffee, gas, and a couple pee breaks.

“Where do you live?” quizzed a rather chummy American border officer. 

“Edmonton,” we respond.

“Which neighbourhood? Terwilliger? Claireview? Jasper Ave?”

“There it is.  We live just off Jasper.”

“You ever been arrested?”


“Really?  But you live on Jasper…?”

We were pretty sure he was joking, so we just sort of sat there and he let us through without a big production.

Driving through northern Montana is either pleasant and interesting or deathly boring, depending on exactly where you cross the border.  We took a route that skirted Glacier Park, rather than a mind-numbing interstate farther east that is fast and straight, but treeless and dull. 

The going was slower than the posted speed limit to avoid free range cattle that kept scaring the shit out of me when they darted onto the road, and when we passed a couple too many campgrounds (we had no American cash yet, so couldn't pay even if we wanted to) we just kept driving.  I guess Kristy was fighting off sleep, while I was paying close attention to the pickup swerving dangerously close to both sides of the twisted road, carefully looking for a place to pass this guy.

Eventually the driver relented, picking a consistent speed so I could safely pass him on a rare straightaway, and a couple minutes later pulled the fully packed car into a 24-hour “GAS FOOD BEER” store somewhere just before Kalispell, Montana.  While Kristy was happily enjoying a toilet that flushed, I browsed the obligatory fishing section.

Everywhere in Montana sells flies, and, usually, crappy fly tackle.

Montana apparently used to be a place for hard-core and dedicated fly fishers to head to enjoy rivers and streams that were venerable aspects of the sports literature.  Now, despite the fantastic fishing (everyone who fly fishes should go, honestly) it seems to be some kind of regional quirk that smothers every store in the state as a sort of selling point, and everywhere seems to sell shotty African tied flies right beside Mickey Mouse or Snoopy kids rods, seemingly just because they think they are supposed to. 

"This is Montana, and we fly fish."

Okay, fine.  But do us a favour.  Stop it. 

I don’t know.  Maybe I got to Montana too late (2010), or maybe writers’ words and my own interpretation of them just didn’t jive in a realistic way based on my points of reference.  Whatever the reason, I wasn’t overly impressed with the 7 types of crappy “Montana” flies at the gas station.

Meanwhile, Kristy and I had been wondering if we’d be arrested or ticketed for grabbing a couple hours of sleep in the car in a roadside turnout before heading the rest of the way to Montana’s famous Rock Creek the following morning. 

So I asked the 40-something female clerk, who was polite in a straight forward way.

“Why don’t you two just park in the lot beside the gas station?  My trailer is over there too, and no one will hassle you.  Just don’t park to close to the shop next door, so they have space when they open in the morning.”

By this point, it was raining pretty good, and neither of us felt like driving in the rain, on a twisty highway with dull-painted lines.

At just before 5 am I woke up to some foggy windows and renewed energy (no Offspring this time), so I turned the ignition and we hightailed it past Missoula and up the bumpy as hell Rock Creek Road.  Famous for blowing tires and ruining suspensions, we tackled the road in a four-door 2003 Chevy Cavalier.  Slowly.

After doing a creel survey a few days later, I asked the guy how often the road was grated.  It had seemed worse than last time.

“Usually once a year, but this year there is no budget for it.”

A nice Rock Creek cutthroat caught road-side, and in knee deep water. 

There was also no budget to inspect the pump water either, and it was locked up.  I guess sub-adequate environmental budgets aren’t just an Alberta and Canada problem right now.

Setting up camp when you’re going to be spending a few days somewhere is always an interesting proposition.  If you’re just stopping for one or maybe two nights, you can half-ass it.  You know, throw the tent down anywhere that is more or less level, maybe on the downwind side of the fire ring and directly underneath the tree that the squirrel lives in, the same squirrel that's going to through pine cones on the roof of your tent at 5 o’clock every morning.

Kristy with a nice cutthroat

Kristy's first Montana brown

But we’d be staying four nights.  We got a nice site (only 2 were taken when we got there) and set the tent up beside where we’d park the car, on level ground, and far from the tree-bombing squirrels.  Up went a tarp that we sloped neatly to the west, a sort of combination wind-rain-sun blocker that gave the camp a homey feeling; like we weren’t just staying for a night and we could lounge around a bit more in the late afternoons that apparently weren’t fishing well anyway.

Rock Creek is a famous stream.  Maybe more of a smallish river to some, including myself, it is a good stream to all.  With something like 50 miles of fishable water, a healthy dose of brown, rainbow, cutthroat, cuttbow and whitefish from 8-16 inches, not to mention the odd bull trout and occasional torpedo sized fish, there is something for everyone.
An upper-average size rainbow for Rock Creek

Rock Creek has lots of trout, and much of your fishing will be in runs, riffles, and pocket water.  Move slowly and hit each seem and pocket.  You'll be shocked where you find fish.
Pretty much the entire river is easily accessed, with the sections nearer the paved, downstream end of Rock Creek Road being most heavily fished, and the road dispersing pressure over the rest of the creek.  There are some unique and easily identified sections, such as the Dalles, where Buick sized boulders create huge pockets and mini-pools, but for the most part Rock creek is a perfectly familiar and recognizable western trout stream.  If you’ve fished the west, you’ll be comfortable fishing here.

You'll catch pretty even numbers of browns and rainbows, with good numbers of cutthroats some days.
We spent the majority of our days fishing the few miles of creek upstream from camp.  We’d wake up, have a hearty breakfast involving a couple hot cups of coffee, sausage, potatoes, and eggs, then by the time our energy wore off around 2pm, the fishing had pretty much wound down (several other streams in the area were on Hoot Owl restrictions, banning fishing during the heat of the day) and it was time for a break and some lunch.  Later on, we’d head downstream of camp for a couple hours fishing right at dusk. 

The worst part about Rock Creek is the fact that the road goes right along it, so really you can never be certain that around the next bend there won’t be a small herd of fishermen.  The best part about Rock creek is that the road goes right along it, so you can easily access new sections of river types; if one stretch is a bust, you can be back at the truck heading to a new reach in about 5 minutes. 

It really doesn’t matter where you’re fishing.  The entire river has good water, and we spent our most productive hours fishing riffles and runs right beside the road, where steep cliffs and rock slides wouldn’t let it go anyplace else, other than right through the creek. 

The road clearly doesn’t affect the fishing negatively.  It might even help the creek by spreading out the fishermen somewhat evenly along the whole river.  Some streams here in Alberta only have one or two major access points, and for the most part, while the fishing might be good a couple hours up from the bridge or whatever, the first series of runs and pools are often pretty marginal.  Even with few guys fishing, they have nowhere else to start and that close section gets beat down pretty hard. 

And on Rock, the slippery ass rocks (seriously, I’m taking a staff next time, and doubling the number of studs in my boots) keep people from covering 4 miles of river a day, which means that when you find a stretch of good, unoccupied water, you can be assured that no one short of an asshole will jump in right in front of you can spook up all the fish; you simply can’t move that fast.  So, you spend your days moving slowly and fishing all the little pockets and seams with at least as much fervor as the deep runs and pools, and you get a good education on how little water you need to house a sixteen or seventeen-inch brown or cutthroat.

Kristy and I managed to get the Rock Creek Grand Slam (whites, browns, rainbows, cutts, and cuttbows) each day, getting good numbers usually, and while there are apparently some bulls around, the fact that you can’t legally target them sort of puts a damper on my desire to add them to the grand slam list…

Like is standard with Rock Creek, most of our fish were 10-14 inches, a relatively equal mix of those fish I mentioned above (never caught a bull trout) with some sections giving up more browns, or rainbows, or cutthroats, or whatever.  We caught a bunch of white-dogs during mornings when we used dropper nymphs (something like a Frenchie PTN worked very well), but we typically nipped those off mid-morning when the dropper tag seemed to just get in the way of getting good hook sets on the dries, which by the way tended to be Chubby Chernobyls, or #10-12 Elk Hair Caddises that looked like the spruce moths that were flying around during certain parts of the day. 

The fishing was so good that we didn’t even mind sleeping on the rocks for 4 nights when we discovered a series of leaks in our new (only used two times previously) air mattress. 

After several good days, we moved on to Yellowstone, stopping in Gardiner to pick up a new mattress.  The loose plan was to sight see the geysers and other famous areas for a day and to fish some streams I’ve been planning to fish since I was 12 or 13 years old.  As it turned out, I only fished one of the creeks I'd initially wanted to (for a few days, rather than run around trying to figure out new water every day), but it was super enjoyable, and to knock off the suspense now, yes, I did catch my first native Yellowstone cutthroat.  And also my second, third, and so on.  I'd caught some in Alberta where they'd been planted into barren lakes decades ago, but there is something special about true native fish.  

 Kristy caught several trout each day herself, and was a trooper when the wind was blowing, when the tourists and fishermen were driving us crazy, and when the static electricity in the air was giving her shocks through her rod over an hour after the last thunder rolled through the valley. 

We got the hell off the water fast on that last one. 

Yellowstone fishing was something I’m glad I did.  On my last trip to Montana, three years ago, things didn’t really pan out.  Rock Creek was good, the Madison worked out for the first afternoon, but then we were plagued by misfortune that included 40 mph winds, sleet, and entirely too much for the next 4 days until we just bailed back to Alberta where we had sunny September skies and good fishing. 

So in Yellowstone we drove along the Lamar Valley that follows the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek.  It was Soda Butte that I’ve read about for years (also Slough, but we never did take the plunge on that one.  I needed some reason to go back, you know?).  My heart sank when I saw it.

Casting on beautiful Soda Butte Creek
For years I read about great fishing and scenery and all that in Yellowstone.  But when I saw the number of fishermen at each pullout, each 200 metres after the last, it worried me.  Some guys looked to know what was going on, using good technique and etiquette, but so many looked like people who drag the gear out of the closet once a year and swing dry flies through pools for a couple hours on fashionable rivers. 

Don’t get me wrong, fishermen all need to start somewhere, but back home, if someone hacks their way through a cutthroat river, you may as well sleep ‘til the next day then try again, because the trout will all be shaking shittless on the bottom of the deepest holes.

Well, when we fished we managed to somehow, miraculously, avoid the nut show.  By fishing farther up the valley, or above the Ice Box Canyon, the number of people tended to shrink a bit.  From what I understand, this also corresponds with the average size of the trout, but I’ll trade off a bit of fish size in favour of more room, especially when we consider that the average size is really only varying by an inch or two.  And the top end size is purported to be about the same. 

Kristy with an average size cutthroat during a morning fish.
So by getting up early (on Soda Butte this worked, as it is known as an afternoon fishery) we caught fish before anyone else was bothering, and by hitting water a bit further across the meadow we managed to fish in relative solitude.  Sure, it wasn’t as good as the afternoon fishing, but there was no one out, and I wasn’t getting any cutthroats by sitting around getting high on coffee.  The one exception to the great solitude was during a morning rainstorm, when a group of four guys thought it would be a good idea to hop in right in front of us and then proceeded to spread out.

Soda Butte creek in the meadow section.
So we called it for a couple hours, then when I went back in late afternoon, I managed to get a dark, golden bodied 16” cutthroat that I’d hooked but lost the previous morning, as well as a few other healthy Yellowstones from twelve to fifteen inches.

I couldn’t help but think of Alberta at this point.  Here within a couple miles of me are dozens of fishermen in Yellowstone, most fishing the same creek as me.  A catch and release cutthroat trout stream; a small one populated with large, scrutinizing (sort of) trout.  Shallow, slow, clear, and loads of fishermen, many of whom are rookies.

In Alberta, you’d easily cover 3 to 6 km of this sort of creek in a single session, catching some fish and spooking the rest in the process of moving up the creek.  It's just how it usually happens, and I usually do it too -fish a dry-dropper and catch a bunch and cover some stream.  But here in Yellowstone you move slowly.  You’ll fish a small run, riffle, pool or whatever with a small terrestrial or something, then see what happens.  Usually you'll get a couple fish from an obvious piece of good water, miss another couple and maybe spot another few.  Because there is most likely another guy or two a couple hundred yards (or less) upstream, moving on right away is counterproductive; you’ll run out of unoccupied stream pretty damn quickly. 

So you have two options.  One, you switch flies.  Try and get a couple of those trout that you’d missed or lost, or those ones you saw rise but wouldn’t budge for a small ant pattern.  Or maybe you add a small dropper nymph.  I wouldn’t spend an hour on a small pool, but I’d certainly try at least a couple patterns before moving on, repeating the process at each new hole, and then even fishing that first hole again on my way back to the car.  The other option is to fish say 75 or a hundred yards with a pattern, then go back to where you started and try something else through that same 75 yards.  This isn’t effective if there are too many people, because someone will be in you’re spot before you hit the next corner, but it is a good method if you don’t even see a fish in your first run or pool.

It all seems to make sense.  There are more fishermen in Yellowstone, so while you’ll see other guys in the valley and on the stream, you can still stay out of sight and feel like you’re in the wilderness.  And by fishing more slowly and thoughtfully, more relaxed even.  And because I know I’m not in a race to the next stretch, I would end up having at least as good fishing as I do in Alberta fishing on cutthroat streams.  I often didn’t feel  pressured, like if I took the time to change flies a couple times, someone wouldn’t jump past me, ruining my fishing for the rest of the day unless I jump past him in return. 

A few weeks back I was fishing with my best friends and brother on a sort of stag fishing trip for me.  My brother Trevor and I got down and set up camp by 11am on the Friday, and headed up the creek.  We did well for the first couple hours, but then the catching dried up.  I turned a corner and saw a couple guys upstream.  So we figured they’d just fished this water and had either spooked the trout or given them sore lips. 

After a brief chat with them so that we were all on the same page, Trevor and I headed up the trail for nearly a half hour to give these guys at least 2-3 hours of water before even getting to where we started.  So we hit the water again, and work hard for a single trout.  Then as we turn the first corner we see another guy in a red t-shirt about a hundred yards upstream.  We fished for another couple hours, catching a few more trout, mostly from obscure pockets or shallowish runs, then hiked back to camp to wait for the other guys.

After a sufficient number of Old Milwaukees, Trev and I got to talking about fishing etiquette in Alberta on some of our more popular rivers and streams.  To generalize, the good rivers that flow through public land are pressured.  Damn near all of them, and don’t let people tell you that fishing in Alberta is all wilderness.  If you can get a truck, ATV, trailer, motohome, RV, dirt bike, helicopter, or any type of motorized machine to within a couple hundred yards of it, there will be a lot of people.  And each of these guys fishes at breakneck speeds, moving upstream, pounding each hole and wading through, leaving a poorer than necessary experience for those following. 

Ironically, it's our National and Provincial Park waters that get less pressure than standard forest reserve streams, thought the fishing in many cases is better and more wild.

And keep in mind that roads tend to follow creeks, not just cross them, and that, if what I read is true, Alberta has more roads per square mile than anywhere else on earth.  We have great fishing and lots of solitude too, it’s just not all wilderness and a friendly small-town atmosphere like some people have us believe.

Anyway, we were discussing that perhaps in certain areas it is time to start fishing more slowly, changing flies often, reworking water you’ve already covered.  Fish all the little riffles with some effort instead of just wading though and tossing around a couple Hail Mary casts.  Hell, I got my biggest Yellowstone cutt, about eighteen-inches, in an ankle deep riffle.  We spooked it crossing the river earlier in the day (a mistake I didn’t make again) but went back after fishing another couple runs.  He took on my first cast over his tiny depression. 

A tiny back eddy and a careful presentation = result.

It was an amazing sight to watch this cutthroat come and gently suck back my sulphur dry.

But in Alberta fishing slowly won’t always work.  Some brown trout creeks we have only hold a couple hundred trout per kilometre.  If you don’t cover water, you won’t get much action, especially because they do get fished some, but because they flow through mostly private property, not nearly as much pressure as streams in the southern forest reserves.  Our cutthroat trout and rainbow rivers tend to have a lot of fish per mile, or at least more than most of our brown trout creeks.  And this is small water, so you could cover everything if you take your time and are careful. 

To illustrate this point, take Day 3 of my stag trip, when the four of us fished a tiny cutthroat creek (about 10 or less feet across on average).  Trevor and Tim used dry flies (different ones), I had a couple nymphs and was high-stick nymphing, and Andy was fishing a small streamer.  We'd let the big dry go through, then a small mayfly, then either Andy or I or both would run through with sunken stuff. 

Sometimes a trout would look at a dry, but only take the nymph.  Sometimes we wouldn’t see a fish on the dry, then get three nice cutts on the Clouser, and once Andy had a nice cutthroat chase his Clouser three or four times before he hung up, then I went in there with my nymphs and caught him after only about 4 casts.  We’d used all the tactics that would likely work on that creek, and each hole or run got fished with more than just a single method for 5 minutes.  We saw a lot of fish using a second, third, or even fourth tactic that we would have simply spooked had we tried one single fly then kept on walking.

By the end of the day when we bush whacked back to the road (after about 7 hours of straight fishing) we only walked 1km of road, or maybe 2 km of creek, to get back to the camp.  In 7 hours on that creek, if I was just fishing an elk hair caddis and maybe a dropper, I’d have caught the same number of fish but I’d typically cover 4 road kilometres, or maybe 8 stream km.

I took my time and reworked the water.  I was rewarded. ** Notice the Soda Butte in the background.**
How many people could have had a fun day in those 6 extra kilometres I’d have fished and scared up?  Did taking up more river make my day more fun?  If people fished in pairs, that could have been 6 more fun days for people, at about 2km per pair, not to mention the stream they’d cleared up in turn, by not fishing 6km each further upstream. 

While I don’t think this slow type of fishing can work everywhere, I think that Alberta does have some road-followed streams and areas with enough trout and enough fishermen and enough access that this might be what we need to progress to.  You’ll catch the same number of trout, give or take a couple, but more people will fit into our finite wild areas without having a frustrating experience caused by people racing from one hole to the next, or cutting in front of other groups, with little regard for their impact on others' experiences.

We already fish like this on places like the Bow or Crowsnest, and I really think this could become accepted practice on streams like the Oldman and Livingstone, and their tributaries, too. 

We have enough water for everyone in Alberta, we just need to be willing to share it. 

A big head came up in the shallow riffle, and the game was on.

5x tippet and a good fish --I had to chase it downstream a little ways to keep it out of some root balls.

A happy angler.

Fish the water well.  Good fish live in subtle places.

Once I became accustomed to the fishing culture of Yellowstone I managed to enjoy myself a lot more.  Kristy too.  We caught enough fish that we knew we had them wired; we could have raced around and caught a lot more trout, but what would that prove?  We also got enough refusals and false rises that we could fish for specific trout that didn’t like what we were doing at first.  We spent our last night in Yellowstone fishing right near the camp, just across the meadow.  Kristy was getting lots of false rises to her #16 cream caddis she’d been using successfully for pretty well 3 straight days.  I switched her up to a #16 Sulphur Harrop Hairwing Dun to match the bugs hatching at the time that were either Ephemeralla or Epeorus, depending on if you think it matters. 

The nose-pokes stopped, and she caught a few trout from the next couple holes while I used a small terrestrial to rework the water and raise a couple more trout in what was left of the evening light. 

We refished those first few holes, and we didn’t crowd the guy downstream of us.  The fish we had unsuccessfully hooked the first time through were feeding again. 

There was plenty of water for everyone.

Nick Sliwkanich

No comments:

Post a Comment