Our Man In Canada
September 22nd, 2003

The Oldman River System

The Southwestern corner of Alberta seems like a small earthly sample of heaven to many of us fly-fishers today, but we are hardly the first to feel that way. For the last century ranching families have given thanks for the bounty provided by endless grasslands waving under warm Chinook winds. And for centuries before that the Blackfoot and Peigan Indians knew the headwaters of the Oldman River to be the home of Na'pi, the Great Spirit and provider.

The trout waters in the Oldman River drainage are among Alberta's best. Virtually all flowing waters in the foothill portion of the drainage carry trout and whitefish and provide good to superb fishing.

The Big Picture

The streams in the Oldman system are generally small - to medium- sized with the exception of the lower Oldman itself, which is a good-sized river. Most are very clear with boulder and gravel stream beds, deep pools and fast pocket water. The gradients are often fairly steep, particularly in the upper reaches.

The upper Oldman and its major norther tributary, the Livingstone River, begin near the Continental Divide southwest of Calgary. Both are very good cutthroat nd bull trout steams, and the Livingstone should get even better with the recent introduction of no-kill regulations. The two rivers flow south before joining and flowing eastward through a narrow slot in the Rockies aptly called the Gap. Downstream of the Gap rainbow trout begin to appear as the river winds eastward through a beautiful piece of ranch country called the Whaleback. The river bends south again, and by the time it approaches and enters the Oldman Reservoir, rainbows have become the dominant fish. The Crowsnest River enters the same reservoir from the south, as does the Castle River a little farther to the east.

The Castle is a fine stream for cutthroats and rainbows, and is made up of a number of equally appealing tributaries, including Lynx Creek and the Carbondale River, both of which are good cutthroat and bull trout streams. The West Castle is noted for its willing cutthroats and the fact that it stays clear when most other streams in the area are muddy from heavy rain. Stretches of the West and South Castle were formerly accessible from rough logging rods, but the spring floods of 1995 took portions of these roads out, and it is unlikely they will be rebuilt, at least not in the near future. This will probably make the fishing even better for those who don't mind hiking in.

Downstream of the reservoir the Oldman River dodges to avoid the south end of the Porcupine Hills and moves out across flatter ground through the Peigan Indian Reserve, past Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump and through the town of Fort Macleod.

The Oldman reservoir was created in the early 1990s with the construction of an irrigation storage dam on the mainstream of the Oldman River a short distance below the confluence of the Oldman, Castle and Crowsnest rivers. The dam turned twenty-eight miles of the rivers into a giant, three-toed reservoir.

With the completion of this dam many trout fishers, including this one, were angered at the loss of huge portions of Alberta's best trout streams. Some consolation was the hope that a good tailwater fishery might develop in the Oldman below the dam. A tailwater fishery is one that develops downstream of a bottom-draw dam. Because the water comes from the bottom of the reservoir, it is consistently cool, and cold-water trout habitat sometimes extends downstream farther than normal. It is too early to be sure, but as of this writing [1996] it appears that this might be happening.

The Oldman is a different river below the dam. The insect life is dense and more reminiscent of that in the Crowsnest then the upper Oldman. Hatches of Pale Morning Duns, Blue-Winged Olives, midges and caddis are heavy and there are plenty of fourteen- to sixteen-inch rainbows and good-sized whitefish there to eat them.

But this is still a good news - bad news story. The good news is that the fishing is improving below the dam. The bad news is that just six miles below the dam, the river enters the Peigan Indian Reserve, where fishing is not permitted.

There are about twenty-five miles of the Oldman River inaccessible within the the Peigan Reserve, and below there the river is somewhat of an unknown quantity. In the early 1990s brown trout were planted in this part of the river to kick start this part of the fishery, and these fish are beginning to turn up in angler's catches. It is hoped that when this fishery matures it will provide good angling downstream as far as Lethbridge. ~ Jim McLennan

Credits: Text from Trout Streams of Alberta by Jim McLennan, published by Johnson Gorman. Photos from www.FlyFishAlberta.com.

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