But as we’d soon learn, greater Fernie has no shortage of first-rate trout streams, all set against the dramatic spires of the Canadian Rockies. If the Elk couldn’t be our focus, we’d still have a good chance at success.
The small town of Fernie rests near the southeastern corner of British Columbia, roughly 4½ hours’ drive northeast of Spokane, Wash. (or 11 hours east of Vancouver, B.C.). Coal was found here near the turn of the last century, and mining formed the core of the town’s economy. Several mines are still in operation, though Fernie has also embraced outdoor-recreation-related tourism. In the winter, it’s snow sports that draw visitors, including cat skiing (where a snow-grooming machine carries skiers and snowboarders uphill to fresh powder); in the summer, it’s mountain biking, hiking, rafting and fly-fishing.
“Many of our clients come from the United States,” said Paul Samycia, owner and guide at Elk River Guiding Co. “It’s less crowded here than many of the streams in the American West, the people are friendly, and the exchange rate is generally favorable. The Elk is a relatively undiscovered river, full of native species — westslope cutthroat and bull trout. Floating down through the Canadian Rockies, casting dry flies, catching native fish — that ticks a lot of boxes for anglers.”
Catching trout with a dry fly is one of fly-fishing’s great satisfactions. Battling a fish on a light rod is certainly fun. But the visceral, visual thrill of watching a fish rise up through the water to inhale a bit of feather and fur is incredibly satisfying.
Westslope cutthroat — one of the trout native to the region, identifiable by the dash of red beneath their jaws — have a reputation for being very willing to rise to a dry fly. But when my fellow angler Mark Harrison, guide Brian Lees (from Fernie Wilderness Adventures) and I began fishing below a Canadian Pacific Railway trestle on Michel Creek, it seemed the fish had failed to read the memo. Clear and easy to wade, Michel Creek is renowned for producing some of the region’s biggest cutts, up to 20 inches. But my casts, using a flying ant imitation, went ignored by fish large and small. Harrison, however, fishing subsurface with a nymph, soon hooked up. The 16-inch trout he brought to the net was brilliant to behold — plump, with a body of yellow and reddish orange, specked with fine black spots. “They’re like pumpkins,” Lees enthused.
When the sun hit the water and green drake mayflies began dancing on the surface, a fish lower in the pool began feeding on top. I changed to a green drake pattern, cast near where it had splashed and soon landed my first cutt of the trip.
Cutthroat need very clean and cold water to thrive and have vanished from much of their original range as rivers have degraded. But populations in southeastern British Columbia are an exception. “We have very sustainable cutthroat and bull trout populations thanks to the pristine, intact watersheds in the upper Kootenay region,” said Heather Lamson, a fisheries biologist with the British Columbia Ministry of Forests. “Most of our rivers are free-flowing [without dams] and ground-fed, so water temperatures stay well below the trout’s temperature tolerances. Angling management plans, including catch-and-release regulations on many rivers and limits on the number of anglers, have also contributed to fish densities.”
As the day wore in, we drove from pool to pool in Lees’s pickup, finding fish at every spot we stopped. If the green drake didn’t work, the ant did.
We returned to town with plenty of time to enjoy a twilight cocktail on the veranda of our room at Park Place Lodge, overlooking the mountains. After a filling meal at the Fernie Taphouse (including an obligatory appetizer of poutine — when in Canada!), we retired in preparation for a foray to the Bull River. (Both the Taphouse and the Brickhouse, the other eatery we visited, stay open late to accommodate anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts; in the heart of summer, twilight lingers well past 9 o’clock.)
The Bull sits a bit west of Fernie. Flowing through steep canyons, it has a startling turquoise shade, more reminiscent of the Caribbean than a mountain stream. We’d set aside this day to hunt bull trout, the apex predator in most rivers where they are found. While cutthroat feed mostly on insects, bull trout dine on cutthroat and other fish and can grow to over 30 inches and 15 pounds. “A run of bull trout migrates up from Lake Koocanusa to spawn and feed on kokanee salmon,” said Linden Mazzei, lead summer guide at Fernie Wilderness Adventures. “There are times when you can sight cast to fish. They are aggressive and respond well to large streamers.”
After dropping our rafts down a steep trail, we floated downstream, casting into deep pools and occasionally pulling over to wade and fish a promising run. Bull trout angling is not a dainty business. The heavy flies necessary to reach the bulls near the river’s bottom are difficult to cast, often demanding a flinging motion — “chuck and duck,” in angler’s parlance. (It’s a victory to not plug yourself or your companions in the head!) Few fish were in sight; perhaps the high water had delayed their arrival. But stripping an olive Dolly Llama in a pool above some rapids, Harrison hooked a healthy specimen. After a jolting strike, it fought hard, clinging to the bottom. But Harrison applied consistent pressure, eventually bringing it to hand — a fish estimated at seven or eight pounds.
It should be mentioned that we saw no other boats on the Bull, a sharp contrast with the bumper-car-like conglomeration of drift boats often encountered on celebrated western U.S. trout streams.
Heading back toward Spokane, where we’d first assembled, our foursome stopped near the town of Cranbrook to fish the St. Mary River, which runs cold and clear out of the Purcell Mountains. We cast mostly from the boat, returning to dry flies — much easier to manage than the Dolly Llamas. “A majority of the trout here are ‘cutt-bows,’ a hybridization of rainbows that have migrated up from the Kootenay River and resident westslope cutthroat,” said Gaby Hernandez, a guide with St. Mary Angler. “Some, by their markings, are more rainbow; others, more cutthroat.” All proved extremely willing to take dry flies cast behind rocks or into seams at the edge of riffles.
My angling partner Ken Matsumoto and I each raised at least 40 fish, some gently slurping our offerings, others taking the fly with a splash. Half came to the net. It was the kind of day that most trout anglers dream about.
The kind that will certainly bring me back across the border to Fernie.
Santella is a writer based in Portland, Ore. His website is steelhead-communications.com.
742 Highway 3, Fernie, B.C.
Spacious, clean rooms with verandas overlooking mountains, plus a pub and restaurant on the premises. Double rooms from about $146 per night.
A host of burgers, sandwiches, salads and flatbreads, with a full bar, including local spirits, beers and wines. Kitchen open daily 1 p.m. to 9 p.m.; bar until 11 p.m. Mains from about $14.
A sports bar in Fernie’s Old Town area that features sandwiches, burgers and poutine. Local spirits, beers and wines are also offered. Kitchen open noon to 9 p.m.; bar open Monday to Friday 11 a.m. to midnight and Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to midnight. Mains from about $15.
Fernie Wilderness Adventures
Located inside Park Place Lodge, this outfitter leads guided fly-fishing trips on the Elk, Wigwam, Bull and Flathead rivers and Michel Creek. Trips from about $563 per day for one or two anglers.
401 Cranbrook St., Cranbrook
Guided fly-fishing trips on the St. Mary, Elk, Bull and Skookumchuck rivers. Fees include eight hours of guided fly-fishing, transportation, equipment and lunch; taxes and licenses not included. Guided float/jet trips from about $544 per day for one or two anglers.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.