Western Canada’s Classic Fisheries

fea_classic-fisheriesKeep your line tight and your hooks sharp — here are the four greatest freshwater fisheries in our four Western Provinces.

The rod barely twitched. It could have easily been a perch nibbling on a worm. Then it twitched again. “Pick it up,” said our guide, Randy Beck.

Obliging, Vanessa gently pulled the rod from the holder and held it firmly, tip low and ever so still. It twitched again. “Wait,” Randy coached.

Then the rod began to steadily bend toward the turbid surface of the Fraser River. “Reel down and hit him!” Randy shouted.

Vanessa reeled down on the big level-wind and then drove the rod tip skyward Somewhere in the middle of the journey, however, it came to an abrupt stop. This was no ordinary fish. Vanessa struggled to get the rod tip up and she cranked vigorously on the reel handle but she gained nothing.

“He’s coming up,” Randy exclaimed.

We looked back just in time to see seven feet of fish breech the surface of the water. No matter how many times you see a huge fish with sunlight shining between it and the water surface, you are always in awe. This was no exception. Spray cascaded for several feet as the giant fish hit the water and line peeled off the reel as if the drag was non-existent. The strain in Vanessa’s face told another story, however. The huge fish was now headed for downtown Vancouver and Randy struggled to get the anchor up and the boat started. “We’re going to have to chase it,” he shouted above the engine. “Hang on!”

What followed was an epic 45-minute battle of give and take — with the outcome never a certainty — but Vanessa finally managed to get the giant sturgeon boatside. The Fraser was at a 100-year high and the shoreline was virtually nonexistent. Typically, big sturgeon are taken to the shore for photos and to recover but that wasn’t going to be the case here. Somehow, between Randy and I, we worked the cradle under the sturgeon and with a mighty heave-ho, brought the leviathan aboard. Randy said the fish easily topped the 200-pound mark and my back agreed. While an impressive fish, it was nowhere near the one-thousand-pound monsters this river has produced.

1 The Fraser River, BC

The mighty Fraser River and its abundant white sturgeon are without question at the top of the list when discussing Canada’s classic fisheries and our guide on this particular trip, Randy Beck of Ultimate Sportfishing, is a classic among river guides.

He’s put as many big fish in his boat as anyone on the river — and big to him starts at about seven feet and can got to 11 feet or more. While many of Canada’s classic fisheries suffer from a case of “You Should Have Been Here Last Year,” the Fraser just seems to continue producing big fish. The most popular stretch of the river is near Mission, BC — about an hour’s drive east of Vancouver — but there are fish throughout the lower stretches and each section does seem to have its hot months, with the hottest action coming in the month of October when the river is full of salmon.

During our last trip on the Fraser with Randy, The river was quite literally blown out with flood water and for two days we were the only boat on the river. While conditions were brutal, the fish were still in the river and Randy, while less than optimistic, knew of some hidey-holes that he was sure would produce. Over the course of the two days, we caught and released about two dozen fish that ranged from two feet to seven feet in length, with four of those definitely topping the scales at over 100 pounds. And, this was under some of the toughest conditions ever seen on the river.

While Lady Luck always plays a role in any fishing trip, there is little question that spending a couple days on the Fraser with an experienced guide will definitely get you into fish that pull the scale into triple digits. Fishing the Fraser is a very affordable proposition and it definitely rates a place on every angler’s bucket list.

2 Alberta’s High Mountain Lakes

As we head a little further east into the province of Alberta, there’s little question that the Bow River is on most people’s minds when discussing classic fisheries and for good reason. The Bow is world renown for its huge rainbows and browns that cruise the nutrient-rich reaches below the city of Calgary and thousands of anglers flock to these waters each season to cast a fly in search of one of the Bow’s legendary trout.

And, while I’d highly recommend spending a day or two on the Bow, it’s in the mountains west of Calgary that I’d say the most classic of Alberta’s fisheries exist. Here, snuggled between snow-capped peaks in lush alpine valleys you will find a plethora of high-mountain lakes that are teeming with feisty cutthroat trout. While few lakes contain fish that will rival those found in the Bow, what could be more classic than casting a fly high in the Rockies for one of Alberta’s native trout?

Lakes like Lillian, Rawson, Picklejar, Tombstone, Fortress, Burns, and a host of others all require a bit of effort to reach but once there, the surrounding landscape is so spectacular that it’s easy to overlook the telltale rings of rising cutthroat on the lake. Most of these lakes are only ice-free for a few months of the year so the trout are eager to eat virtually anything that comes their way. Typically these lakes are easily fished from shore but if you really want to experience them, a float tube is the perfect way to do it.

Take a trip that Vanessa and I did last season. After an hour hike, we arrived at the lake just before noon and fish could be seen dimpling the placid surface of the water. That’s the one great thing about cutthroats is that they are always willing to rise to something on the surface and even the most novice fly fisherman can usually catch a few quickly. It didn’t take us long to don our waders and slip into the float tubes.

The surface action had slowed by the time we started fishing, but each time we saw a fish rise, it was usually just a simple matter of casting to it and catching it. I noticed one particular boil only inches from a rocky slide that had all the marking of a bigger fish and I carefully dropped my #14 fly right beside the rocks. It disappeared the second it landed and as I reared back on the rod, I knew it was a good fish. With the two-pound tippet strained to the maximum, I executed a very careful game of tug of war with the big fish, giving slightly when he pulled and stripping rapidly when the line grew slack. A few minutes later, I slid the net under fat cutthroat that just broke the 19-inch mark.

After taking a few photos and releasing the brightly-coloured cutthroat, I stared deep into the clear water and was shocked at the number of big fish swimming around us, feeding just sub-surface. I slipped my fly box from my vest and selected a translucent scud pattern. While a poor imitation of the caddis emergers, it’s a fly that has always done well for me in high mountain lakes and when I hooked a fat 14-incher on the very first cast, I knew this day would be no different. Vanessa changed to a smaller caddis imitation dry fly and while she was hooking a few smaller fish, the big ones still eluded her.

I suggested we head across to a small bay and try a spot where a glacier-fed creek entered the lake. Vanessa just left her fly dragging in the water as she kicked her way across when suddenly, a huge trout grabbed the fly and started to peel line. Despite a few tense moments, Vanessa managed to get the big fish in and I slipped the net under it for her. At just over 19 inches, it turned out to be her biggest of the day. While she was somewhat shocked at the turn of events, it appeared to me that the dry fly had become waterlogged while dragging and as it moved along just under the surface, it was a great imitation of an emerging caddis fly. I suggested that she not worry about drying it out and actually fish it like a wet fly.

Over the course of the next few hours, the fish really turned on, both to Vanessa’s new-found wet fly and to my ever-so-productive scud. We landed several more between 16 and 19 inches and of course we caught numerous smaller specimens. Unfortunately, the sun slipping behind the mountains to the west signalled the end of our day but neither of us could resist the temptation to drag our flies back to where we had stashed our gear. The 10-minute trip turned into an hour as we both caught and released several more fish. It was nearly dark when we finally reached the truck. It had been a full day — heck, it was a classic day!

3 Tobin Lake, SK

Picking a single classic fishery in Saskatchewan is a monumental task as there are just so many quality fisheries but in my opinion, the one that everyone should experience once is Tobin Lake — or more correctly the 12-mile stretch of the Saskatchewan River between the Francois-Finlay Dam and Tobin Lake proper. As the cool nights of September begin to turn green leaves to gold, another type of gold makes its way into the river to gorge themselves before winter covers the lake with an icy shroud of white. Despite heavy angling pressure and generous limits, Tobin Lake continues to pump out huge walleye.

The Saskatchewan record for walleye has been broken numerous times in the past few decades with fish from Tobin, with the current record being a whopping 18.30 pounds. I personally witnessed the previous 18.06 pound record landed during pre-fish for the Vanity Cup a number of years ago, although the largest fish that’s graced my boat is 13.6 pounds. If you are looking for a 10-pound-plus walleye, I’m not certain there is a better stretch of water in North America to fulfill your dream.

The hub for this fall fishing bonanza is Twin Marine, located in the Town of Nipawin. It sits about midway on the river and offers all of the amenities, including boat launch and rentals. Current flow in the river varies wildly and is controlled by the upstream dam but one thing you can count on is that when the water starts to flow: the walleye will put on the feed bag. Count on current flow to increase during the day as power demands increase on the dam. While slow-drifting with a live-bait rig tipped with a leech is the go-to presentation during slow water periods, it’s time to start pulling big crankbaits as the current picks up. Still one of my favourite memories is a day I spent fishing down by “White Rock.” The fishing had been tough all day but in the late afternoon the current began to pick up, making fishing the live-bait rigs all but impossible. We slipped on a couple big Shad Raps and started trolling the channel edge. In a little over an hour, we had caught and released a 13-, 11- and 10.5-pounders, plus an handful of other fat walleye under 10 pounds. While it was a good day, it was not anything out of the ordinary for this virtual trophy factory. If you’ve never fished Tobin, you definitely owe it to yourself to do so and as an added bonus, the people of Nipawin are as friendly and helpful as those you’ll find anywhere.

4 Red River, MB

Mention the province of Manitoba and big channel catfish are typically the first thing that comes to most anglers’ minds. I was lucky enough to grow up on the banks of the Red River and I’ve spent hundreds of days in search of these whiskery giants. While catfish are widespread in Canada, there is nowhere else where they exist in such high numbers of big fish. The current Manitoba record for channel catfish is an unimaginable 46.5 inches. While Manitoba no longer records weights of record fish, there’s little doubt that this giant tipped the scales at 45 or more pounds. Certainly fish in the mid 30-pound range are fairly common and any angler spending a couple days on the river with an experienced guide can pretty well be assured of hooking several fish in the 20-pound range.

The stretch of the Red River from the dam at Lockport to the mouth of Lake Winnipeg is where the majority of big catfish call home and where you find the majority of anglers as well. Fishing is prime from June through August. The Red runs wide and deep and it can be an intimidating prospect at first glance. The big cats seem to prefer the deep holes where they can get out of the main current but are still close to feed. On one August outing a few year ago, however, Bob Kirkpatrick and I got into some big cats in only a couple feet of water, using slip bobbers of all things. It was without question the most exciting day I’ve had on the Red.

The big cats were up on a rock shelf gorging themselves on goldeye and hooking them was easy but after that, it was anyone’s guess what would happen next. Catfish typically like to head deep and use the current to their advantage but in the shallow water, the big cats took line sizzling runs and we even had a few come right out of the water. I’ve never been able to duplicate the shallow-water success we enjoyed that day but in speaking with a few of the river guides, it’s not uncommon. No angler’s bucket list would be complete without a checkmark beside channel catfish on the Red River.

We are definitely blessed here in Western Canada with a large number of incredible fisheries but there are a few that are quite simply classics and should be enjoyed by all — at least once.

Are You Looking For Articles About More Fishing Hot Spots?

Join Us On Facebook!

Do You Like What You’re Reading? Subscribe To Western Sportsman Print Edition Today!

This entry was posted in Fishing, General, Pike/Walleye, Trout/Char and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.