Fly Fishing on The Moon

In the Spring and Fall, my favorite thing to do is chase bull trout in the Kootenay River, I usually fish the bigger middle stretches of the river accessing them with the jet sled. The Kootenay is really only fishable in the fall and spring. The water is low and a gorgeous clear aqua blue. By mid-spring, its banks swell with silty grey glacial run-off and it is nearly impossible to fish. 

In the Summer, as the Kootenay River’s waters rise, and a dam in Libby Montana creates the international waterfront playground known as Lake Koocanusa. By mid-winter, this massive and deep lake is transformed back into a typical glacial river. It is also the winter home to a healthy population of what may be the largest bull trout in BC. These fish are migratory and travel up the river and deep into its tributaries to spawn in the fall. They return to the lake, or whats left of it in winter. My thought was that with the water that low all those huge bull trout milling around eating everything in sight waiting for the water to rise to start them on their spawning journey would be easy pickings.

Tom is my usual co-pilot on Kootenay trips and he agreed with my thoughts on finding bullies in Koocanusa. It’s quite stunning to see the transformation caused by the fluctuating water level. The river cuts through what now looks like a lunar landscape. The lake bottom is surrounded by steep, gravel-lined cliffs a hundred feet tall. Vast flat sections made of mud, rocks, gravel, and the occasional tree stump that refuses to let go of the lake bottom. We navigated this seemingly alien terrain in the Tahoe for a good while before finding a suitable placed to launch the boat. A flat rocky beach with a little bit of a steep bank to negotiate to access it.

The new modifications to the jet sled have been working great. With gear all stowed I ripped on the cord and the jet fired up and we peeled around downstream right into a 40km headwind. “Oh, It’s gonna be one of those days” I yelled to Tom above the whine of the engine. He just nodded his head and pulled his hood. a little tighter. Waves kicked up by the wind buffeted the hull and made for an uncomfortable ride. I awkwardly had to counter steer the boat into the wind to stay on course.

We were headed to where the Elk river dumps into the lake. 45 minutes later we arrived and the confluence was just muddy shallow veins cutting through the silty bottom of Koocanusa. I decided to save some wear and tear on the jet’s impeller by not attempting to head up one of these veins. We found a few nice looking runs to fish in the main stem of the river.

Two weeks prior the water was clear but the Kootenay is a sensitive river and when run-off starts it turns quickly. The water wasn’t quite that ugly shade of chocolate milk that epitomizes a blown out river but it was going to be tough water to fish. The wind was nearly impossible and forced us to wait in between casts for even the slightest lull so as not to wind up with a streamer hook stuck in the face. Then, of course, the snow came. That was fun. Then 45 minutes of some of the heaviest rain I’ve ever fished in. Ok, we didn’t actually fish in it. We just had enough time to throw on some down and the rain jackets before being assaulted by a sideways rainstorm. We hunkered down in the boat with our backs to it and hoped to wait it out.

The rain ended and the sun came out for a little before the wind and rain returned for another round. It went like this for a few more rounds and by 6pm we called it quits and were motoring back upstream with a nasty bank of clouds following us closely back up river. Another fishless day. Well, Tom caught a couple of suckerfish but I’m pretty sure he is telling everyone he got skunked too.

It has been a long tough fall to Spring season of fishing. Few fish and some of the nastiest conditions. Everything has been a challenge. It has been tough to find fishable water. It has been tough to access it and it has been tough to fish in. I am so ready for summer to get here and those long warm days of easy fishing.

Getting My Ass Handed to Me on The Columbia River

For years I have heard about and seen pictures of massive rainbows that inhabit the depths of the mighty Columbia. I love big rivers and chasing big fish so the Columbia has definitely been on the list. It’s a 4-hour drive from my place and most of the rivers in the region are closed to fishing till June 15th so I figured now was a good time for a quick fishing trip.

I hooked up the jet boat; packed it with camping gear, food, and beer and hit the road at 6am. The scenery makes driving in BC an experience in its self. For the most part, it is easy. The only trick is keeping your vehicle glued to the road while enjoying it and keeping an eye out for other drivers failing to do the same. It was snowing hard on Kootenay pass but clear and dry at the lower elevations as I rolled into Trail. I had the boat in the water and was heading downstream by 10:30.

The Columbia is absolutely huge. Its powerful jade green waters flow over a bottom made up of round rocks ranging in size from basketballs to school buses. The water is mostly flat but it is a flowing mass of powerful shifting currents, boils, and swirling football field sized eddies. Even at its lowest flows most of the river is at least 20 feet deep. It is obvious that a mistake on this river and you could be in a lot of trouble quick. I was glad for the experience I gained running and fishing the Peace River when I lived up north. The Peace is a massive rive with similar features but the Columbia is a different animal, not only in features but in how it fishes. As I was soon to learn.

I was excited to spend a few days hucking big flies and dredging the deep waters with my 13′ 7wt spey rod. For this trip, I set it up with an intermediate Skagit head and a t-14 sink tip. The first day I spent a good amount of time exploring the river looking for what I thought would be good runs to fish. At one point I may have violated international law when I noticed an American flag flying on a building about 20k downstream from Trail. I quickly turned the boat and headed back up river before an armed gunboat full of border patrol agents could apprehend me. 

So far the day had produced no fish and shortly after my border crossing I was fishing a run when some dark clouds rolled in and the wind really began to howl. Last time I was in this situation I decided to fish a little bit longer. That made for a terrifying 15k boat ride. This time I quickly packed up and throttled upstream out of there. Too late. Within 10 minutes I was in the shit getting pounded by rain and wind. I had planned on camping on the river but now I had no idea where a good spot would be and the thought of trying to set up camp in weather like this was not too appealing not to mention spending the evening in it. I wussed out and made a harrowing run for the boat ramp. An hour and a half later I walked into the Best Western Plus still in my waders and rain gear leaving a puddle on the floor while I checked into a room. 

Sunday was a nicer day but still yielded no fish. Everyone who fishes gets skunked. It happens. Sometimes it’s like a curse. Everyone else on the river is catching fish but despite everything you just can’t bring a fish to hand. This was not one of those times. As much as it pains me to say it “I blew it.” I won’t say I did everything wrong but I certainly didn’t do enough of the right things. Long story short I spent two days fishing underneath the fish. And when I felt like I needed to change tactics I just kept trying to get deeper. It’s a pretty sound approach as that is where most of the fish are except when their not. It never even crossed my mind to change my presentation and fish higher in the water column. Instead of trying the faster water I just kept looking for the slower runs of which there aren’t really a lot of on the Columbia. I swung weighted flies through the enormous back eddies convinced there were fish at the very bottom. 

I, of course, could have gotten all the intel on fishing the river before I left and when I got it after getting back I was feeling pretty stupid. Not so much because I didn’t ask my sources but because I couldn’t make the adjustment myself on the river and for being so narrowly focused on what I figured was the best approach despite the evidence that it wasn’t working. (Isn’t that the definition of insanity?) I think it’s just human nature to go with what we know. And when it isn’t working to double down on it. (Kinda makes you wonder a little bit about human nature huh?) There is a lot to be said for tenacity but at some point, it’s time to get creative and try something new. You can always go back to what you know. Sometimes you have to have your ass handed to you before accepting new methods, techniques, and gear.

There is a saying, “You learn more when you lose than when you win.” This aptly applies to fishing. We get stuck fishing a certain way because we have had success with it or even just a great day and are now convinced that this approach is the cat’s meow. Spending two days fishless on a river with an estimated 500 fish per mile is my definition of losing.

 

The Flood

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It’s that time of year again. After patiently suffering through the cold dark winter, where fly fishing opportunities are few and far between, the fleeting signs of warming weather are co-dependently latched onto as the frozen landscape begins to transform. I get excited. Time on the water able to feel fingers and toes is almost euphoric. The warming water is clear and soft. Previously ice-bound fish are aggressively feeding. It’s fishing season! And then it happens — The environmental fart known as Run-Off. Pristine ice-free rivers hopelessly morph into raging torrents of chocolate milk. River waters churn with mud and whatever else they can tear from their banks. Trees are snatched from their roots and fired like torpedos downstream crashing into a pile of previous years torpedos. As days become longer and the sun shines warmer the rivers stay angry, violent, and dark. These aquatic avalanches will build and peak in the coming weeks. Anticipation will turn to desperation and before long I will find myself standing in a river the color of a Tim Horton’s Double Double trying to hit a trout in the face with a fly. It’s the act of a hopelessness but something has to give.

It will be over soon. Then it will be a few weeks of studying flows to see which rivers look like they’ve cleared. This year I created a little network to assist in the process. The Facebook Group Northern BC Fly Fishing River Reports will hopefully create a community of northern anglers that can share river information. Summers are short and no one wants to waste a weekend fishing a blown out river. Somebody might have to but at least now they can take one for the team and the rest of us can enjoy some quality time on the water. This is the North. There are no fly shops right on the rivers (no fly shops period) that send out emails with weekly stream reports. Up here it’s DIY so a little collaboration between river junkies will go a long way.

So, here’s the stream report. Rivers are quickly rising and filling with mud. Hunker down or go fish the lakes — if you’re into that sort of thing.