Our Man In Canada
January 7th, 2002

The Downtown Fly Fisher
By Bill Charles and Steve Abraham

We could see them from the top of the hill. Dozens of tailing and rolling fish and, for a few minutes, we just stood silent and watched, almost forgetting our plans for the day, but only just. Wading out into the river, we soon found ourselves surrounded by carp, some easily exceeding 20 pounds.

The first swing of a #10 Woolly Bugger brought a sudden strike, but not the expected determined run, and five minutes late, a freshwater drum came to the net. The next dozen casts produced a small sauger. Huge carp would occasionally drift ghost-like through the murky water within 10 feet of where we stood. Something large brushed past my leg. I clipped off the bugger, tied on a Hexagenia dry and cast out toward a group of rolling fish. The fly had drifted five feet when a broad, bronze snout appeared, the fly disappeared and the large arbor reel started to sing my favorite song.

Sitting at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, the city of Winnipeg offered a veritable bouillabaisse of opportunities for the fly fisher. The Red River alone holds more species of fish than any other body of water in Manitoba, and most of these readily take a properly presented fly.

Winnipeg is a city of rivers with over 100kms of navigable waterways within the city limits. The Red is the only river of significant size in North America that flows north from the USA across the border to Canada. It ends its journey in Lake Winnipeg, approximately 35 km north of the city. The other major river is the Assiniboine which flows into Manitoba from Saskatchewan and joins with the Red at The Forks. In addition, two other smaller rivers also join the Red, the Seine just north of The Forks junction and the LaSalle in the south end of the city. In the west, Sturgeon Creek enters the Assiniboine River. In the spring, these smaller waters host literally thousands of carp, which enter from the main rivers to spawn. Sturgeon Creek is also important as a spawning area for walleye.

All these waters are significant to Winnipeg's landscape. They provide natural breaks in the cityscape, green space along their banks, walkways and parks for recreation and of course many fishing opportunities for the people of the city. Although the majority of local anglers practice bait or spin fishing, the popularity of fly fishing is steadily increasing, boosted by the enthusiastic promotion of the Manitoba Fly Fishing Association. The Winnipeg-based MFFA has been a strong advocate of effective resource management and sound conservation practices, both within the city and throughout the province of Manitoba.

The Red and Assiniboine Rivers

When it comes to channel catfish, the Red River is internationally known and for good reason. It is common to see vehicles from all over North America part in and around Lockport during prime "cat" season. More recently, European and Australian anglers have been attracted to the Red River fishery, not because of catfish, but because of carp. Originally brought to North America to be raised as a food fish, escapees quickly established themselves in Manitoba's lakes and rivers.

The Red River fishery generates millions of dollars of tourist activity: fishing activity of a 10-mile stretch of the Red River near Selkirk, Manitoba, adds about $10 - $12 million annually to the local economy. The sections of the Red River at and downstream from Lockport, and the Assiniboine in the vicinity of Headingly and Beaudry Park are of prime interest to fly fishers, as they provide easy wading. However, in order to effectively fish the rivers within the city limits, a boat is required. Because it is a large, slow-moving river, it is often difficult to read. The best approach is to fish along the banks containing some forms of structure. Look for cut banks, current seams, eddies, fallen trees, overhanging vegetation, bridge pilings, and docks.

While good sport is available within the city limits, the greatest concentration of fish can be found at the Lockport dam and downstream from there to Selkirk. The control dam and locks were built in 1910 to help river traffic to and from Lake Winnipeg navigate the St. Andrews Rapids. It is a unique design that used wooden curtains to control water levels and is the largest of this type ever constructed and probably the last survivor in the world. The small community of Lockport has good access to the river, a park with picnic tables, a waterslide park, restaurants and boat launch facilities.

This is the most production section of the Red and, not surprisingly, most Winnipeg anglers are willing to take the short drive to fish here. On the west shoreline below the locks, the water deepens quickly to facilitate boat traffic and is used mainly by bait fishermen. The east shore is ideal for wading fly fishermen. The bottom is gravel and rocks with some deeper areas around submerged humps. There is a rock island near the dam with deeper channels on both sides and a little farther downstream, a normally submerged peninsula extends nearly to the middle of the river where the bottom again drops to the deeper section. A bit farther downstream, the Winnipeg Floodway outlet channel joins the Red with a couple of rock islands, which can be approached from the shore by wading during normal water levels. These areas are easy to wade and provide access to a variety of water flows and depth. Be warned, though, that water levels can change rather dramatically in a short period of time.

While the smaller species (goldeye, mooneye, and sauger) are a lot of fun on light outfits and floating lines, they're far too fragile for carp and catfish. For these you need at least a 7wt. Outfit with a large arbour, disc drag reel big enough to hold plenty of 30 pound test backing. If you intend to fish both cats on the bottom and carp on the surface or in shallow water, you'll need both sinking and floating lines to match.

The name Winnipeg is derived from the Cree word "winnipi," meaning muddy or dirty water, and it certainly is an accurate description. The silt-load carried by the Red and the Assiniboine renders them a colour that would send most fly fishers heading for home. The techniques and flies required to succeed in this environment have been developed with this in mind. In short, make it flashy and available. If you can place the fly at the proper depth, you may very well latch into the largest fish you have ever experienced on the end of a fly rod. Of course, landing it is another matter altogether.

Fort Whyte Nature Centre

Once the site of a commercial quarry, the Fort Whyte Nature Centre now contains over 200 acres of forest, lakes, wetlands and self-guiding trails. The interpretative centre features numerous displays and exhibits including a children's Touch Museum and the Aquarium of the Praries. Residing within the city limits, the centre is a bird watcher's paradise, particularly in the spring when over 200 species take up residence or stop by as they migrate north. From late September to mid-October, thousands of Canada Geese stop at Fort Whyte Centre, as part of their southerly migration. During the day they feed heavily on nearby grain fields, returning at the end of the day to the centre's lakes. The Centre host "Sunset Goose Flights" where you can watch in excess of 20,000 geese returning for the night. It really is quite spectacular. Bring a hat.

Current Issue Canadian Fly Fisher

Of particular interest to the fly fisher are the Centre's five lakes, which contain everything from Northern Pike and Largemouth Bass to Rainbows and Arctic Char. The provincial angling records for Arctic Char and Largemouth Bass were set on Fort Whyte Centre's lakes. It's a great place to try out new equipment and techniques. The centre also operates a complete fishing education course that promotes resource stewardship and angling ethics.

Next time: The fish and the flies!

Credits: This article is from the Canadian Fly Fisher magazine. We appreciate use permission!

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