How To Fish The Upper Bow River

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I have been fortunate enough to log many hours fishing the Upper Bow River in the heart of the Alberta Rockies, having lived in Canmore for over 17 years.

There is no doubt in my mind that it is likely one of the most picturesque places to fish in Canada, with the views, abundance of wildlife and just the sheer beauty the astounding Bow Valley has to offer. I was lucky enough to call this river my office for many of those years, as I guided both fly and spin fisherman from around the world over the time I spent there.

The Upper Bow can definitely beat you up at times if you are a fly fishing purist. But if you are willing to cover some water and don’t object to pulling out a spinning rod from time to time, you should be able to catch fish on a fairly consistent basis.

There seems to be the days when no matter how hard you try, those wily browns will just shy away from every fly you chuck their way. Yet, if you cast a little spoon or spinner in that same pool, they will hammer it almost every time. I have had outstanding days with both spin and fly gear over the years, having caught some gorgeous brown trout and a handful of Alberta’s native trout, the majestic bull trout, as they slowly make a comeback into the pristine glacial waters of the Upper Bow River. Now if you are lucky enough to hook into a bull, be prepared for a battle on your hands of the utmost proportions.

If you are a fly fisherman, make sure to have both a floating and sink tip fly line along in your arsenal of gear. Of course, we all prefer to fish dry flies as the excitement is over the top, but remember to think outside the box and be prepared to change it up according to the time of year, type of day and just about everything else that can come into play on a typical outing on the Upper Bow River. If you aren’t willing to change your tactics, this stretch of river can beat you up and send you home with your tail tucked deeply between your legs.

I have had some incredible days fishing big streamers, like a zonker, muddler minnow or a cone-head woolly bugger with a 10-inch, sink tip line. Plan on covering as much water as possible and be prepared to have your arm feel like it may just fall off by the end of the day, but I guarantee it will be worth every limb-aching second when you feel that tug on your line and as that big, explosive brown takes you into your backing in a split second.

Try to fish the deeper pools and drop-offs and alter the speed you strip these bigger flies back to you as sometimes giving it a slow, then a quick, strip will trigger a brown that is following your streamer to strike it instantaneously.

Of course, if you’re hoping to hook into one of the giant bull trout that call the Upper Bow home, your best bet to make that happen is with one of your big streamers, as these tough bullies are usually looking for the full-meal deal!

Both your floating line and 10-inch sink tip will also perform well with your traditional bead-head flies, such as a prince nymph, hares ear or pheasant tail. BH San Juans tend to perform better on the lower stretches of the Bow, but they will work from time to time on the Upper. Don’t forget about the BH stones: they tend to work very well in a brown color.

Using your 10-inch sink tip line, you can get your bead-heads down into the pools faster, improving your chances of hooking into a fish before the swift current carries your fly through the prime waters untouched.

Although many fishermen are unlikely to bother, don’t overlook catching a few Rocky Mountain whitefish on your bead-heads, as they can be a ton of fun with their scrappy demeanour and will, most days, pound almost every bead-head in your fly box.

Nymphing is another technique that works well on the Upper Bow and will put you on both browns and Rockies as well.

Using a strike indicator and a little split shot, you can get your bead-heads down into the pools, but also make sure to spend a little time fishing the riffles and runs as well.

Now, it takes a little practice to cast this conglomeration of fly gear without taking a split shot smack dab in the back of the head. And when it happens, you’ll swear you’ve been shot by a BB gun, as I know firsthand how it feels. But when you are striking out with every other technique up your sleeve, give it a whirl as it will likely produce at least a rocky or two to take the curl out of your leader!

Of course there is nothing more exciting than having a big trout rise to your fly, but remember you will have the best luck with dry flies on these browns with a match-the-hatch basis. Most days, dry fly fishing is sporadic at best, but I would say that the most consistent dries on the Upper Bow will be your caddis, drakes, duns and stone patterns. These fish key in on hatches and your best times will be morning and evenings. But if you have an overcast day, or even a rainy day, get your rain gear on and give ‘er, because it’s days like these that will sometimes turn these brown trout on like you wouldn’t believe and most fishermen will prefer to spend those days catching up on their honey-do lists or laying on the couch watching fishing shows on the tube.

Spinners like a Blue Fox Vibrax, Mepps or Panther Martin, and small spoons such as a Len Thompson or Kamlooper, will be your go to spinning tackle and will perform for you on a regular basis.

The old rule of thumb that has always worked well for me, as far as the gold and silver colours on spinners and spoons go, are use silver on sunny days and gold/copper on cloudy days.

Heavier lures, such as Buzz Bombs/Zingers, work amazing in the slower water, but don’t rule out a tube jig or a small curly tail jig in the deeper pools, as I have had some amazing action on these as well. Try to cast your lures into these pockets of calm water behind structure, or in the shadows of an over-hanging tree. It’s a given that a spinning rod gives you not only more precise casts, but also allows you to cover more water in a shorter period of time, so be sure to use this to your advantage as it will help you to produce trout – especially on those tough, windy days when fly fishing is beating you up.

Browns prefer cover and structure over the open water, so keep your eyes peeled for things like overhanging trees, log jams, beaver huts and undercut banks, where these wily browns can lie in wait while lurking in the shadows. Look for any little bit of structure that will let these wary trout lay in the shadows and expect to have your best days on overcast days, as the bright, sunny days will usually slow down the action, turning them into lethargic logs that lazily hug the safety of the bottom.

One key thing to always remember is to stay as far back as possible from a good spot and cast into it, because these trout have amazing eyesight and will almost always see you before you spot them. Cover the pieces of water in front of you before you wade out into them and just try your hardest to fish each and every pool the most effective way possible.

Consider the brown trout as the absolute wariest of the trout species and the Upper Bow’s crystal clear waters makes them even craftier and harder to catch.

If you are walking the banks, walk very softly. If you are wading, wade as silently as possible. If fishing from a drift boat, try to avoid making any excessive noise in the boat as any loud sounds will be sure to shut down these browns in an instant. Try to get in that mind frame, like you are almost hunting these browns and the sneakier and stealthier you can be, the better chances of success you are going to have.

Now just a heed of caution while fishing in the Bow Valley: there are stretches of the Upper Bow that are not only exceptional grizzly bear country, but also, depending on the time of year, are home to calving cow elk and cougars, so one of the most important pieces of arsenal to carry with you on your fishing adventures should be bear spray. Take this little piece of advice to heart, as I’ve ran into grizzly bears while fishing the Upper Bow on more than one occasion.

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