Fishing Fortress Lake, BC

Mountainous peaks, surrounding the pure, blue waters of Fortress Lake in Hamber Provincial Park, offer world-class fishing for huge brook trout. The remoteness of the lake will ensure it’ll last for quite some time, and there are many options to fish the lake – for all types and budgets.

The North American continental divide follows the highest peaks of the Rocky Mountains from north to south. Bordering Jasper National Park, in Alberta, is Hamber Provincial Park, home to Fortress Lake, in British Columbia. This gem of a getaway wedged itself into position thousands of years ago right among the mountainous peaks of the divide.

Transplanted from the Nipigon system in northwestern Ontario, coaster brook trout were introduced in the 1930s and have naturally reproduced in this fertile lake thanks to the abundance of forage. Fortress Lake is very remote and assessable only by floatplane or a gruelling 24-kilometre hike or pedal bike ride. The lake is frozen from November until the last week of May, yet ice fishing isn’t practical, or advisable, given the location and amounts of snowfall. Excellent brook trout fishing, of all types, occurs throughout the open water season. Different options for arriving, staying and fishing Fortress Lake are available for all fitness levels, budgets and schedules. Fortress Lake Retreat, which can be found at www.flyfishalberta.com/fortresslake, is the only commercial operator allowed in Hamber Provincial Park. It’s truly a majestic place to fish for Eastern trophy brook trout.

There are three options available for travelling to Fortress Lake: the first one is to book a fly-in package with Fortress Lake Retreat; the second is to hike the 24-kilometre trail and the third is to mountain bike that same trail.

Flying consists of a short, 50-minute flight departing from Hinton, three hours west of Edmonton, over some of the most spectacular scenery in Jasper National Park. You’ll arrive mid-day, rested and ready to fish that afternoon and evening. As with most fly-in trips, customers have to adhere to weight limits.

Flying is expensive, so a more economical option to fish for BC’s biggest brook trout is to either bike or hike the trail. The trail is long and dull and follows an old fire road from Sunwapta Falls on Highway 93, gaining moderate elevation consistently. Jack pine after jack pine is about all the trail consists of, with a few scenic creek crossings and vistas thrown in the mix. Step after step for 10 hours is the entry fee for those wanting to fish Fortress Lake by foot. The hike is especially long for those carrying heavy packs with an abundance of fishing tackle to try, which is usually the case with anglers going into new waters. At about the halfway point, you’ll find the first of two river crossings, the Athabasca River. The Chuba River can be found about seven kilometres later. Luckily, a swing bridge has been built to keep you high, dry and safe from the cold torrent waters of the Athabasca. It’s bouncy and fun and prevents packhorses from crossing. Unfortunately, the same luxury isn’t available for the glacier-fed Chuba River and water levels can fluctuate drastically, depending on weather. This river can be very challenging to cross, especially with a heavy pack, so be careful. It’s always best to travel in groups of two or more in the backcountry, for safety reasons. After fording, it’s just a few remaining kilometres to the east end of Fortress Lake.

Despite the long hike, there are advantages to travelling this way – you’ll be able to fish some prime bull and rainbow trout waters along the way. The first 14 kilometres parallel the winding Athabasca River and with a little exploring, anglers can find many tributaries and a few spring-fed ponds that are home to hefty, hungry bull trout. Catching a bull trout here, where special regulations and license are in effect, can really spice up the trek into Fortress Lake.

There are two primitive, backcountry campsites along the trail before the river crossings – one called Big Bend, near the six kilometre point, and the other just before the Athabasca River crossing at the 14 kilometre point. When I trekked in, we stayed at the second campsite as it split the long hike over two days and we successfully caught some beautiful bull trout along the Athabasca River.

There are only two campsites near the east end of the lake: East End and Fortress Creek. Washout Creek was recently closed. East End has half-a-dozen gravel pads for tents and picnic tables. Outhouses and bear poles are also available, along with cut and split firewood. Fortress Creek is further along the north side of the lake, so most people choose to stay at East End and day trip from there. No matter which campground you use, always pack out what you pack in and leave no trace.

British Columbia Provincial Parks are divided into 3 classes: A, B and C. Hamber Provincial Park is class A, meaning the strictest rules and regulations, including not permitting extractive industrial uses, have been set to ensure it is preserved for years to come. This classification will ensure the future fishing will be as good as it is now – fantastic!

When my fishing partner and I arrived on day two of our trek, with our 65-pound backpacks, we couldn’t wait to reel in a big, fat brook trout to cook over the open fire. It didn’t take long, a couple casts and BANG! The rod was nearly ripped out of my hands as the fish twisted, turned and shook all the way into shore. The pressure was off for supper, now we could just sit back, relax and enjoy the mountain setting sunset while cooking a salmon-coloured brook trout over coals. It’s hard to stay relaxed for long when the fish are biting though.

Fortress Lake brook trout are so well fed that catching them can be challenging some days, while other days it’s marvellous fishing. Cruising in schools around the 20-plus kilometres of shoreline, they act very territorial. Aggressive-moving plugs, active streamers or lures worked well for the first few fish out of the school, but then slowly died off. Constantly switching lures and flies, and techniques, seemed to always trigger strikes on the same school of fish. Fortress is that type of lake where nothing works all the time, so we tried all methods of fishing and many different lures and flies. It wasn’t uncommon to see a large school of 30 fish, however only manage to hook a few from the bunch before the others would wise up and look for something different. We learned this the first day fishing the east end shorelines, which allowed us to catch more fish during our final few days camped there.

The biggest downfall for the do-it-yourself angler is that you’re confined to the east end and the fishing isn’t always spectacular. Time of year is especially critical for catching fish at the east end. The very best time is early June, as the fish are near the shorelines after ice out, but with seasonal water temperatures changing, they slowly move deeper. I had great success bouncing a buck-tail jig along the bottom to trigger strikes. Without waders, the fly fisherman would have a tough time with back casting space as the trees come quite close to the water’s edge. Packable belly boats give the angler some freedom and allow him or her to fish further away from shore, but be aware that strong winds usually come down the lake from the west end, resulting in large waves in the east end. Fortress is a huge lake, some 11 kilometres long and usually about one-and-a-half kilometres wide, making it capable of producing large, white capping waves not suitable at all for belly boating. Hidden bays at the east end are few and far between so expect to see other do-it-yourself anglers there fishing for big brook trout during windy days.

One morning, I awoke to thrashing, slashing sounds of rising trout in all directions. I geared up and kick out in my belly boat. I landed many nice brook trout that morning, but was amazed at how the fishing went from hot to cold instantly and then back again. With gin-clear water, I could see schools of fish just beneath me and off to one side within casting distance, but it wasn’t long before they were either spooked by other fished being hooked or lost interest in what I was offering them. However, by keeping track of their movements, I was able to get close enough to cast a different offering into the school and presto, fish on again!

June is excellent everywhere on the lake and many serious fly fisherman flock there during mid-June for the peak of chironomid fishing. Chironomid fishing goes into July, when the water can get cloudy from run-off, however, streamers and spin fishing are still effective. As late summer turns into fall, the lake becomes crystal clear once again and sight fishing gets all that much better. Dry fly fishing picks up during the summer evenings and the brook trout begin to show their fantastic fall spawning colours – dark fish with pepper spots of blue and pink.

If you plan on fishing the Wood River, draining Fortress Lake, then booking with Fortress Lake Retreat is your only realistic option and you must go before Sept. 1. The use of their aluminium powerboats will allow you to easily access the far west side of the lake and beach the boat in order get out and wade the river.

The only species of fish in Fortress Lake are brook trout and small fish are seldom caught because they are so well fed. The fish typically weigh at least three pounds in their third year, giving them large bodies and the appearance of small heads. You can expect the majority of fish caught will be between three and six pounds. Larger fish are always a possibility and the lake record is just less than 12 pounds.

The flight to Fortress Lake, the Retreat, the lake and the campgrounds are quite scenic, unlike the hike to get there. The peace and tranquillity of being on top of the continental divide is mesmerizing. The rugged rocks, piled high all around, box you into your own playpen paradise. With miles of shoreline and the use of motorized boats for retreat guests, it doesn’t take much to find your own piece of heaven to fish for the day. It’s still the best backcountry fishing trip I’ve ever been on.

The difference between staying at the retreat or in your backcountry tent will be quite different experiences. First off, think of Fortress Lake as a mountaintop ocean, powerboats are definitely going to be an asset to learning these vast waters. Secondly, the guides of Fortress Lake Retreat have an immeasurable amount of knowledge for you, to help you catch those big brook trout. Finally, don’t forget that you will be atop the continental divide; expecting bad weather should be on your radar. Having a boat to get to safety, along with a permanent shelter, always makes things a little nicer while you’re in BC’s brook trout heaven.

That being said, the choice of experiences is ultimately yours.

If you’re after big trophy brook trout fishing, look no further than Fortress Lake, BC. Now that you know the place, it’s simply a matter of deciding on the details of how and when to go.

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