Our Man In Canada
January 22nd, 2001

Dry Flies and the Elk River

By David Brown

As the furthest east river in B.C., the Elk River begins at Elk Lakes and charts its 110 mile course southwest as it makes its way to Lake Koocanuasa. During its voyage it cuts its way through some of the most spectacular terrain in the Rockies, gathering fertile tributaries as it goes. The river passes under mountains with names like Ghostrider, Three Sisters and Hosmer, Fernie and its valley are home to moose, deer, elk, Rocky Mountain sheep, goats, cougars and bears. It's easy to see why this valley was the favorite hunting ground for the Kootenay Indians.

The Elk River is a river of varied character, in its beginning it is a meandering meadow stream, and in its end it is a raging torrent that slices its way through a hodo rimmed canyon. Lke the river, the valley's character and vegetation also change as it descends down through the Rocky Mountain trench. Forests along the middle river could easily be mistaken for a Pacific Coastal rain forest, complete with huge cedar trees. Out in the "South Country" at rivers end reminds me of the countryside along Montana's Missouri river, less the rattlesnakes. White settlers came to the valley in the late 19th century mainly to mine the rich seams of coal that are still being mined today. Towns that line the valley owe their existence to the mines which are the Elk Valley's largest employer. The railway line that parallels the river has some of the longest rains in North America, their 100 plus hopper cars laden with coal are destined for worldwide consumption via the port of Vancouver.

Along with the spectacular scenery, over the years what has drawn myself to the Elk River has been the excellent cutthroat trout fishing the river has to offer.

The Elk River Season and Hatches

The season on the Elk River legally begins June 15th and ends April 1st. Opening day can find the river high with runoff. Generally it is fishable by early July. This is a great time of year to be on the River, as it is Golden Stone fly time. These big bugs really get the fish looking up and nymph fishing can be spectacular. This is a great time to break out your big dry fly attractor patterns such as Stimulators or Turk's Tarantulas, don't be afraid to give the fly a little action as the cutthroats tend to key in on insects that appear to be getting away from them. Any stone fly nymph pattern works well on the Elk River, over the years my favorite has been the Charlie Books Montana Stone. A close second would be Anderson's Rubber Leg Stone. Patterns should be #6 - #10 for both dries and nymphs. This great hatch will last for most of July and sometimes into early August. The early season also sees caddis flies appearing on the scene. They last all summer and into the fall ending with the bruiser of the caddis family, the October caddis. Imitations such as the Elk Hair Caddis [EHC] or small Stimulators work well for the adult, for pupae I recommend Dave Lambroughton's Flash Back caddis. All caddis patterns should range in size from 8 for the October caddis down to 16 for the smaller sedges. Mayfly hatches add to the early season feeding frenxy, Green Drakes appear first, Royal Wulffs or H+L variants usually do the deed but if the fish get selective extended body patterns do the trick. A good nymph pattern for this bug is a Flashback Bead Head Pheasant Tail or a Gold Ribbed Hare's Ear nymph.

As the river drops in late July watch for P.M.D's and yellow and lime Sallies. Ausable Wulffs and the Parachute Adams are my favorite imitatiions for the P.M.D.s. For the small stone flies use yellow and lime Trudes or small Stimulators.

Midges are also an important food source for Elk River cutthroats. These little bugs hatch all season long and can provide some challenging small dry fly fishing. #18 - #20 Parachute Adams or Griffin Gnats are the flies of choice for this hatch, watch likely looking dry fly spots in the early morning or evening.

August on the Elk River sees the arrival of the terrestrials, namely hoppers and flying ants. Both of these land based bugs end up being trout food upon their arrival to the water. Searching the water with a favorite hopper pattern results in aggressive takes while the arrival of flying ants means sipping rises. Ant patterns should be in smaller sizes and hopper patterns should be carried in a good variety. Late summer sees the end of the P.M.D.'s and the arrival of three new players that will last into the fall.

October caddis make their appearance in late August. This large insect draws fish up out of the holes as they skitter across the surface laying eggs. The best imitation for this sedge is an Orange or Royal Stimulator. Joining the October caddis is the infamous Blue Winged Olive and when conditions are right these two can create a feeding frenzy. Break out the small Parachute Adams or Comparaduns for this one!

Angling in the Shadow of the Rockies

The Elk River also gets a hatch of Red Quills, this handsome mayfly can be imitate by a Parachute Adams or an Ausable Wulff in sizes 14-16. Like all trout streams, fishing to rising fish usually means locating feeding fish in low light or on overcast days. The Elk River is no exception. The main difference with the Elk is that it's not as fertile as many other rivers, therefore hatches can be sparse at times. The good news is that cutthroats by nature will eat anything that floats by. While on the river with author John Gierach, we caught a cutthroat that had what looked like a lure of some sort was stuck in it's mouth. On closer examination we realized it was a mouse! Although trout feeding on mice is quite common, keep in mind this fish was only ten inches long.

When fishing the Elk or any river for that matter, it helps to know what hatches are in progress. On the Elk for example, if it is October caddis time, but you are not seeing any on the water you would not be wrong fishing an imitation such as a Stimulator to likely holding water from the boat or while wading. ~ David Brown

Concluded next time!

About David Brown:

Growing up in Hamilton Ontariom David was introduced to the sport of fly fishing at 15 years old. During those early years David cut his teeth on smallmouth bass, native brook trout and Great Lake Steelhead. He moved to Calgary Alberta in 1987 where he resides in the off-guiding season. He began guiding on the Elk several years ago and established the first guide service in the Fernie B.C. area. You can reach him in Calgary at 403-285-1621 - during fishing season in Fernie at 250-423-9231.

Credits: From Angling in the Shadows of the Rockies by Jeff Mironuck. We thank Frank Amato Publications, Inc. for use permission!

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