Fishing For Athabasca Rainbow Trout

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Small headwater streams are home to Alberta’s very own native population, the Athabasca rainbow trout. They often share creek and stream space with Arctic grayling, mountain whitefish and bull trout.

Athabascans, as they are often called, can be found in larger systems, too. I’ve personally seen or caught them in the Smoky River, the Athabasca River and the Kakwa River. But the Athabasca trout I’ve come to know and love are residents of small streams and wild places.

There is no question they are a challenge to find, making it a great reward on a fishing trip. Beyond rarity, they are strikingly colourful and the best populations are often found in the remote reaches of headwater streams. Not very often can you venture to an easily assessable location and have great success. This fish requires patience and knowledge to truly have good success.

As a general rule, it seems the further upstream I travel and the skinnier the stream I fish, the more often I find Athabasca rainbows. One of the most well known has to be Sundance Creek right outside of Edson. Regardless of stream, if I’m catching Arctic grayling, I’m encouraged – grayling and Athabasca rainbows are often neighbours.

Although they may be particularly difficult to locate, once found, an Athabasca rainbow is not a hard fish to catch. In fact, I’d put them more squarely on the easy side, which is fine by me. I’m a spin fisherman and I’ve caught them using a wide variety of different techniques.

The most straight forward method of all is tossing a small No. 1 Panther Martin spinner, dressed with feathers on the treble, into likely pools, riffles and other assorted cover. It’s not that I lean on a spinner as my primary means of catching ‘bows, but rather it’s that I use spinners to locate fish when I’m covering new water. A rainbow will react to a spinner in a small stream situation. This reaction is something I can easily see, especially with the aid of polarized glasses, confirming to me that fish are there.

Spinners, with their thump and flash, will usually elicit a reaction strike or a follow by resident rainbows. That means I can run and gun, hitting all the promising water quickly and when fish are located, the game changes – I immediately switch things up and go to my tried-and-true method: drift a bead head nymph into them. Rare is the day that a rainbow doesn’t respond and for the most part, the nymphing is straight forward. Choose a No. 12 bead head prince nymph and, if the pool is easily manageable, I’ll simply flick the fly in on a short length of line, guiding it about the pool with using the tip of my fishing rod. I’ll watch the line for any jumps or unusual twitches where it enters the water and lift at every hesitation. This method has caught me more rainbows than I could count.

When the pools are a little larger and deeper than what I can effectively fish with my spinning rod by simply flicking a nymph off the rod tip, I break out a dime-sized bobber. I float the nymph through the pool, a few feet under the bobber. This method is especially effective and covers most other fishing situations.

Choosing to catch a rainbow off a dry fly is not really necessary, but it is often more fun and of course considered the pure fly fishing technique.

At times, a rainbow will give itself away by rising, and this fish can be targeted using a No. 12 to No. 16 mayfly. While having success with a dry fly is hugely rewarding, it can be difficult in the wind or when you have a lot of bushes close to the shoreline. If the water is tough to cast the fly line, go back to the bobber and nymph and cast past where the fish is rising by a few metres. Drift the nymph back through the water and get ready to set the hook.

No matter how remote the stream, the fishing is typically poor at or near access sites. The key is to work your way either up or down the stream with your spinner. Go about 500 metres, or about an hour, before you give up on the stream. Be sure to work all the pools as you go.

A good example of this was a remote little trickle my fishing partner, Jess, and I discovered south of Edson. We required GPS, a lot of faith and a stomach for wild goose chases throughout the maze of backcountry oil and gas roads. When we arrived to a spot near a cutline, on some place that looked a whole lot like the middle of nowhere, we figured we’d gone as far as we could with the truck. From there we jumped out, donned our wading gear and set off with compass and GPS down a cutline.

The two different sets of cougar tracks reminded us that we were far off the beaten track, and the lack of footprints further confirmed that. Eventually we found our stream a kilometre or so down the cutline. It was a wonderful little stream, about 10 to 15 feet wide where pools followed riffles over a cobble bottom. Things looked great.

The water looked fishy enough, but all the pools and other fishy spots in and around the access point were fishless. This was a bit surprising, only because our location was really out of the way. Not to give up on a good stream, we looked upstream and started running and gunning with our little spinners.

It took a good 45 minutes and many pools before Jess was the first to see a flash in behind her spinner. “Rainbow!” she said, and in short order a beautiful Athabasca rainbow was dancing all over the pool. And it had buddies. We made the switch to nymphs and had one of the best fishing days of our summer, catching a 50/50 mix of rainbows and grayling. After that first pool, quite literally every other pool we fished was full of either rainbows or grayling.

It was rare to catch both species in the same pool, but every third or fourth pool would have a pod of Athabasca rainbows in it and finding them was great fun. As a small stream fisher, these are the type of days I live for and having discovered this little gem was one of the greatest finds of the summer. Perhaps just as importantly, it was our persistence to fish off the beaten path that allowed us to find them at all. Had we tossed our spinners only near the access point, our impression of this stream and its fishery would have been very different.

Athabascans, when I can find them, provide excellent angling and I have observed a few tendencies when it comes to these fishes. The first one is that they are not too social when it comes to other species. In small stream situations, more often than not, if I find rainbows there will be no other fish in the pool. There could a pod of fish, but that pod will most assuredly be entirely made up of rainbows.

I have also found that these rainbows have a real affinity for wood and undercut banks. They love them and, if ever I were looking to find a large Athabascan, this is the place I’d find them. Large Athabascans are, for the most part, solitary fish. It could be that they don’t like company, or due to the simple fact that there just isn’t that many of them. Most of the big Athabascans I’ve caught or have seen caught have come from deeper, slower areas where they’re hiding out under wood or under an overhanging bank. Don’t expect many rainbows in these sections, but it does seem to be the go-to place for larger ones.

On one great summer day, I watched Jess catch an amazing Athabasca rainbow trout that was pushing close to 16 inches. Catch a rainbow over a foot long from a small stream and you can be assured that this is one of the bigger rainbows there.

I give my utmost respect to the Athabasca rainbow – when it comes to rainbow trout, this ‘bow is the only native rainbow in Alberta. They’ve been here since the last ice age some 10,000 years ago and many of them still call the headwater streams home.

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