Our Man In Canada
October 12th, 1998
Saving The Ram?
By Dave Jensen

Dear friends,

I come to you as one person, one angler, who is trying to save the imminent plight of a hidden treasure in the foothills of Alberta, Canada.

The downside of giving your favorite trout water world-wide publicity is losing that secret charm, the one we have all sought for years or held under our breath for decades. Hence you may appreciate my personal conundrum. As a fly fishing guide in west central Alberta, Canada and former Forestry Official, I now find myself having to announce my favorite "charm" to as many people as possible... to save it.

The South Ram River flows out of the Rocky Mountains in Banff National Park west of Rocky Mountain House, Alberta and into the rugged foothills. Here, the river etches its way into the landscape, cutting a canyon some 1500 feet nearly straight up. The river crashes over several sets of waterfalls and through some of the deepest prime Westslope Cutthroat Trout holding water anywhere. It is so vastly unique and set apart from any other it truly is without comparison from a fishing experience perspective. In the 40 kilometers of canyon, visitors are treated to a superb Cutthroat Trout fishery, herds of Big Horn Sheep, and world class scenery.

One of the South Ram Falls Five years ago, there was but one true road access point to the South Ram River: at the Forest Service campground on the Forestry Trunk Road. The fishing at this point was fine, with the average day landing about fourty fish to 20 inches very regularly. Further downstream where Lynx Creek flows in, the pools were esteemed by everyone who endure the wilderness to fish them.

This section regularly produced about fourty fish per day with several over 20 inches to 24. And those who endured a trek further down into the lower canyon found themselves casting below waterfalls in pools 20 feet deep that unbelievably hold Cutthroat Trout to at least 26 inches. Even more unbelievable is that I have found myself mesmerized as I landed in excess of two hundred trout in a day. Truly the way the West of North America was at the turn of the century! Perhaps the greatest tale is my wife's first ever day holding a fly rod, not only was her third fish ever 19 inches, but she then landed fourty Cutthroats on her third day! (missing eighty of course!) These numbers are fast becoming "the way it was" in this river on certain sections.

The popularity that "The Movie" brought to fly fishing was remarkable, felt right across North America, with Alberta no different. Fishing license sales skyrocketed and seemingly everyone in this province migrated to the East Slopes trout waters. At about this same time in this area, a major forest company was allocated the rights to harvest our virgin forests. What an impact this was to have... quickly!

The company built a major haul road across the South Ram at Lynx Creek confluence. Access!

Access at the same time that fishing was at an all time high in popularity in Alberta; a deadly combination with the all too eager, all too fragile Cutthroat Trout. Last summer was only the second season of this new access and finding a 15 inch Cutthroat within two miles up or downstream was a chore. And not a pleasant one. With the increasing popularity of the sport, we also noticed far more anglers on the river at the Forest Service campground and a subsequent decline in the fishery. It was because of this that this season I decided to keep track of the number of fish caught and the length of each fish caught on the South Ram by myself or our clients.

The results are staggering. We guided seven days near the Forest Service campground and found catch rates at 13.8 fish per angler day with the average size near 12-13 inches, the largest being 21 . At Lynx Creek, we guided twenty-two days and landed an average of 7.0 fish per angler day, the average length near 12 inches and the largest just over 18 inches! This section, in two short years after access was created, has gone from a relatively easy fourty fish to 24 inches per day to seven fish per day to 18 inches.

As staggering as these numbers are in the upper canyon, the news in terms of numbers is still exceedingly good for the lower canyon. That is, as of today. A line can literally be drawn on a map where the impact of access stops: at a series of drops known as "small falls". This section of canyon & river is outstanding, and this year we averaged seventy-nine fish per angler day with Cutthroats to 25 inches landed. On my annual trek down this section, I peaked out at one hundred and seventy-two fish which is actually down from last year likely due to the impact of El Nino in this area with no snow cover last winter until January. Our top day guiding was with three people, who landed two hundred eightyfour fish in one day! This section is currently a four hour hike or a beautiful thirty-minute helicopter ride looking out over the Rocky Mountains.

Access to the lower canyon has changed over the course of the past few months. The logging company cut through the heart of the river to the edge of the canyon above two sets of waterfalls home to the largest fish on the stream. Fortunately, the canyon drops straight down here at its deepest point, some 1500 feet straight down and this will deter nearly everyone at this point. However, the company plans to continue in the next few years in this section, and more access is likely.

Upstream and Downstream

Further downstream near the forks with the world famous North Ram River (home in its own right to 25- inch Cutthroat solely due to sixteen years of catch & release), lies a new oil well site and road within a kilometer of the river which is allowing considerable access to the lower river. Access is coming in the next few years. History repeats.

History in this neck of the woods... is scary.

The provincial government this year reduced trout limits to two from five and increased the minimum size limit to 13 inches. It was done in reaction to a worsening situation on several East Slopes watersheds. The question remains: is it enough to keep the South Ram a river of big fish in big numbers? Is it enough to allow harvest of two fish at a size that is at most of what this fragile ecosystem is capable of producing? Is two fish going to ensure the long term viability of this river as an unofficial "trophy" style Cutthroat Trout river when a few short years ago Fish & Wildlife counted in excess of two hundred fly fishermen on the close by North Ram one day on a long weekend? What happens if even only of these people keep their limit? Can the river still produce 26-inch fish then? Admittedly, the pure charm and terrain of the South Ram is it will never be a crowded river, but previous access certainly shows impact on the fishery.

Sourth Ram Cutthroat

Where in the world can anyone go to catch 26-inch Cutthroat Trout to two hundred fish in a day in such majestic scenery? Does it exist? Certainly not in Montana, the hub of fly fishing in North America. There, according to F&W and M.E.I.C. the Westslope Cutthroat today occupies only 19% of its historic range and is "abundant" in only 2% of that historic range and "viable" in only but 8%. Add that to F&W's estimate that 90% of remaining "populations in the Upper Missouri River drainage have a high probability of becoming extinct in one hundred years" and that the novel "A River Runs Through It" was based on the Westslope Cutthroat yet at the time of filming the movie there were none to be found so they had to substitute Rainbow Trout in its place. You begin to realize how precious a fishery the South Ram really is. And it should truly be managed as such.

As such, I approached Fly Anglers On Line with a plea for help in my personal bid to have the South Ram River designated as a catch and release fishery based on the maintaining of trophy Cutthroats with very high catch rates. The total section of river in the canyon needs to be designated catch and release so that the impacted sections can recover to their historic levels and the remaining section not yet impacted remains at the level of fishery it is. History can be rectified, and it need not repeat itself in this hidden, secret gem of central Alberta, Canada.

As such, I am requesting all who read this article and agree with its content and intent to write a short letter in support of designating the river as catch and release and either mail it to Dave Jensen, c/o The Ram River Outdoorsman at PO Box 511 Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, Canada. T0M 1T0. Or E-mail it to me. Or, please visit our website and go to the petition that is hosted there, print a copy and have yourself and people you know sign it.

I am requesting these no later than November 15, 1998.

The reality is that even though you may never get to fish the South Ram River in west-central Alberta, Canada, you can help to preserve it by having your voice heard. As one voice, I will not be listened to in terms of the fisheries management. However, with many letters of support and signatures on the petition from a broad cross-section of anglers, things will change.

Thank you,

Dave Jensen
Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, Canada

Our Man In Canada Archives

Bio on Our Man In Canada

Clive Schaupmeyer is an outdoor writer and photographer. He is the author of The Essential Guide to Fly-Fishing, a 288-page book for novice and intermediate fly anglers. His photo of a boy fishing was judged the best outdoor picture of 1996 published by a member of the Outdoor Writers of Canada. He fly-fishes for trout in Alberta's foothill and mountain streams and for pike near his home in Brooks, Alberta. For information on where to find, or how to get a copy of Clive's book, Click here!

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