Our Man In Canada
June 27th, 2005

Alberta's Golden Trout
By Dave Jensen

There are few fish that represent their habitat as well as golden trout. The landscape surrounding the handful of lakes in the high mountains just outside Banff and Waterton National Parks where they live is a fitting stage for them - Alpine meadows alive with brilliant colours of delicate flowers, dramatic cliffs, towering peaks, and the deep blue glow of glacial lakes.

Like these, golden trout are stunningly beautiful. The flanks of the males are shot with crimson and olive gold, which intensifies at spawning time. The females shimmer with a ghostly grey blue diffused with lemon yellow. The mouths and fins of both can be a deep, brilliant pumpkin. Few fly fishers have had the chance to encounter them, for these few, remote Alberta lakes are the only place in Canada where they're found, and access to them is difficult and limited. Moreover, they do not grow particularly big and fishing for them can be finicky and unpredictable. It's not unusual after a long, arduous hike or an expensive helicopter trip to return with a tally of a single 10" fish.

But the golden trout experience is not about trophy trout and bragging rights. Rather it is the moment to moment enjoyment of the crown jewels of trout in a majestic and pristine Rocky Mountain wilderness.

History

Golden trout are native to the Sierra Nevada mountain ranges of California. While their range has been expanded internationally to Canada, Europe, and Africa through stocking, populations have declined in their native range due to over-fishing, habitat change, and hybridization with introduced species. There are several programs and agencies dedicated to golden trout restoration projects in the USA.

Alberta's golden trout are likely the most northerly population in existence. Brian Glynn, biologist for the Juneau region of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, claims that attempts to stock golden trout were made in Alaska 30 years ago, most on the Kenai Peninsula, but none were successful self sustaining. If there is still a population in Alaska, it has not been confirmed recently. According to Steve Rochetta of the BC government, the same can be said for BC, where no golden trout exist.

Alberta's golden trout were obtained through international agreement with the USA in the 1950s and 70s. However, it's unlikely that we will be able to get more, and the few lakes with goldens in Alberta are probably all that we will ever have. Hence, these have become both our brood stock and recreation fishery. As more people pursue golden trout careful management and planning will be required to ensure their long-term viability.

Golden trout were originally stocked in Alberta in 1959 in Barnaby and Rainy Ridge Lakes. In 1977,1100 to 1900 golden trout juveniles of 6cm length were introduced into Michele, Coral, and Lost Guide Lakes. Angling closures were implemented for several years to allow the populations to gain a foothold. Eventually, follow-up studies in 1980 through 1982 showed successful plants had occurred. However, the users of the horse trails past Lost Guide Lake had the lake fished out completely before it was even open to legal fishing, and no golden trout exist there today.

The study, however, found that golden trout were thriving in the other lakes. The average Michele Lake fish caught in the 1982 study was 34cm long with the largest being nearly 41cm. Considering the elevation and northerly setting, these were quite impressive sizes. It wasn't unexpected, mind you, as the first generation of fish in new water bodies grow quickly on unexploited food sources. In fact, the Alberta record golden trout is 4 pounds 6 ounces, taken from Barnaby Ridge Lake 7 years after first being introduced. Growth rates slow after a few years as the fish and forage find a balance, thus limiting trout growth potential. There are other factors limiting the carrying capacity, particularly the short growing season, and the potentially poor spawning and rearing habitat. These factors have stabilized at generally low populations of trout that grow as large as 45cm, though anything larger than 35cm is considered a trophy.

Alpine Ecosystem

Alberta's golden trout lakes are located at 6500 to 8000 feet and also at or well above the treeline. They are also several mountain ranges beyond the foothills and are heavily influenced by the stark, cold rock. Many of them are fed by glacial meltwaters. The slow regression of glaciers through the valleys has left a barren landscape of glacial till, but over the centuries the slow colonization of lichens and mosses has created a fine layer of soil, providing micro habitat for shrubs, herbs, and flowering plants. Where there is sufficient soil and rivulets of meltwater, there are ground junipers. No thicker than a pencil and no higher than your knee, these are the largest plants found at this elevation. There are several animals that use the valleys near the lakes, but most of these are only present during seasonal migrations. Caribou, elk, deer, and bighorn sheep will move through, while resident marmots, pikas, and even deer mice all feed on the low vegetation. These in turn see grizzly bear, wolverine, timber wolves, and perhaps a wayward cougar passing through in search of the prey. Bald and golden eagles soar the cliffs above. Ptarmagin live in the riparian area of Michele and Coral lakes. Occasionally, a 'lost' gull or duck will fly through the valleys.

Biology

Golden trout cannot successfully cohabitate with brown or brook trout, but will cohabitate with cutthroat and rainbows with which they hybridize quite readily.

Spawning occurs in the spring when water temperatures reach about 52F. Spring at 8000 feet is mid July, mind you. Spawning occurs in outlet or inlet streams with a gravel substrate. Consequently, outlet and inflowing streams of Alberta's lakes are permanently closed to angling to protect the redds. Females lay approximately 1200 eggs each year, and fry emergence occurs by late August to early September. Sexual maturity occurs at 3 to 5 years, and typical life expectancy is 6 to 8 years, though older individuals occur.

Access

A golden trout expedition is definitely not an impromptu or casual undertaking. Detailed planning is required coordinating schedules, obtaining accurate maps of trailheads and hiking routes, carefully considering pack weight, or booking helicopter flights.

Hiking and helicopters are the only two options for getting to golden trout lakes. Trails are too steep and disorganized for mountain bikes and horse packing. Coral Lake is a monumental hike that leads up several valleys. It is a steady climb. The Michele Lake hike, which leads up and over a high pass, across an alpine ridge before a long scramble down loose scree, is not for the faint of heart. Both of these hikes take 9 to 14 hours. The southern Alberta lakes hiking routes, once found, are easier, shorter, steady climbs of 2 to 4 hours duration, but are difficult to locate.

The trailhead to Coral Lake is at the Cline River staging area west of Nordegg. The Michele Lake trailhead is found on hwy #93 at Owen Creek in Banff National Park. The locations of Barnaby and Rainy Ridge Lakes trail-heads, however, are difficult to provide details for, as they require road kilometer markings, wading across the West Castle River, or blazing an old bush trail. For detailed information regarding these, your best bet is to contact Vie Bergman of the Crowsnest Angler.

Recently, a helicopter tour company has opened a flight service to Coral and Michele Lakes. For quite reasonable rates, access time has been reduced to 10 to 15 minutes. The scenic flight comes highly recommended. I've made it several dozen times and will never tire of the scenery.

For the travelling fisherman, the golden trout of Michele and Coral Lakes are more a natural destination. Accommodations are available in Nordegg, Saskatchewan River Crossing, or Lake Louise. Most of our guests fly into Calgary, fish the Bow River below Calgary before exploring Banff National Park and the Icefields Highway. Icefield Helicopter Tours' base is located just east of Banff, providing access to these lakes and to the Ram River. Once the heli-fishing is enjoyed, our guests travel east and enjoy the good brown trout fishing on the Red Deer River before returning to Calgary. This fly fishing vacation offers highlights of Alberta's trout fishing and can be enjoyed over 5 to 10 days.

Alpine Weather

The cold produced by the high elevation and glaciers conflicts with warm air masses during summer months, causing thunderstorms to develop on sunny afternoons. There are a few days each sumer without clouds or wind. Expect a rain shower most afternoons and go prepared with three layers of clothing - a light underlayer for warm, sunny conditions, a fleece jacket for when clouds develop, and a rain shell layer to keep you dry. Be prepared for overnight temperatures to drop below freezing anytime of the season.

Cold, low-pressure fronts in August can produce rain or snow which can make the journey to these lakes diffuclt or impossible. However, such conditions can produce exceptional fishing if you are prepared for it. In 1999 we spend an afternoon in 6 inches of snow while seemingly every trout in the lake cruised past and at least inspected our flies.

Flies

Elevation and latitude effect forage. Small midges and scuds comprise the majority of food. Inflowing streams offer light hatches of blue-winged olive and other mayflies. Tiny winter black stonefly hatches can be heavy early in the season, especially after a snowstorm. Every sunny day grasshoppers can be heard in the shoreline shrubbery. Caddis flies are a light hatch at best. There are few ants at this elevation. All of these can be encountered on any day of the short season, and anglers should pack their fly boxes accordingly. Because most of the patterns used are small and because the water is so clear, tippets should be kept light - 4x to 8x.

    Tan and/or gray Chernobyl Ant - #10 to 12
    Elk Hair Caddis - #10 to 16
    Black Foam Beetle - #12 to 14
    Black Trude - #14 to 24
    Griffith's Gnat - #18 to 30
    Green Drake - #12
    Blue-winged olive - #20 to 26
    Pheasant Tail Nymph - #12 to 28
    Brassie - #14 to 30
    Snow Cone - #16 to 30
    A variety of midge patterns - #16 to 30
    Olive scud - #12 to 16
    Micro Buggers 0 tan, olive, black - #8 to 12

Techniques

There is an assumption made about alpine trout that a short growing season, low angling pressure, and a low abundance of food typically make for aggressive, 'easy' fish. Golden trout have other ideas, however. My most 'productive' afternoon of angling occurred during a midge hatch. In a period of 5 hours I had over 50 fish take. I managed to land just one. I've had several dozen golden trout adventures and can testify that this is a normal experience. We hear many tales from the helicopter company of unguided trips that leave the lakes without landing a trout.

Most days golden trout will cruise drop-offs, inflowing stream channels, outflows, and rock outcroppings. Their brilliant colours make them easy to spot as they cruise, allowing good-sight casting opportunities. Most presentations will pique their curiosity and they will move to your fly readily. After that, it gets hard. A golden trout will often swim to the fly, brake with its pectoral fins fully erect, cock its head to inspect the fly, and do a u-turn about the fly before swimming off. This frustrates most anglers, especially considering the size #26 flies on 7X tippet used. Patience is required, as only one of every 5 or 6 such looks will actually result in the fly being taken. And many of those few that you do manage to connect with will most likely throw the hook, for golden trout tend to take flies very delicately and will be hooked in only a single layer of skin. Over the years we've paid close attention to the relationship of the number of fish hooked and the number landed. The ratio is about one for every ten.

Mornings and evenings are usually calm, producing stunning reflections of the towering peaks. This is prime time for dry fly fishing, especially when the sun is behind a mountain ridge or cloud, as trout cruise shallower water during low light conditions.

The most entertaining way of fishing them is sight-fishing with a floating line on a 4 wt rod. Paying close attention to the drop-off zones or any transition zones will offer cruising trout to cast to. Casting a dry fly with a bead headed dropper nymph tied 2 to 3 feet below and leading the trout by 6 feet is best. This allows the flies to settle and the fish to move into range. Seldom do these trout move to flies cast close to them, rather, they seem to prefer to move into well led presentations. Patience is needed with the hook set a simple lifting of your hand to chest height rather than your shoulder in order to balance out the delicacy of the take. It's also a good idea to take a 2 weight outfit, as once winds calm, this is one of the few opportunities to truly enjoy the benefits of a light rod.

Small streamers with a sink tip or full sink line can also be effective. Traditional streamer colours of brown, black, and olive produce some of the larger trout. People taking float tubes will have more success with this method. Vary the retrieve motion and speed often. A small streamer with a bead head nymph or chironomid on a trailing dropper 2 feet behind the streamer can be particularly effective.

Chironomid fishing is the most effective technique for goldens. Long leader tachniques are most commonly used, but a non-conventional nymphing rib can also be productive. This involves using a 12 foot leader with the distance from the indicator to the split shot at the end of the leader a 9 feet. Above the shot two dropper flies are tied 5 inches apart on one inch lengths from the leader. Presentation is slow and steady. When a strike occurs the set should be a subtle move of the wrist, in order to avoid pulling the fly out of the fish's mouth or moving the fly out of the fish's sight range. Often, fish will mouth the fly two or three times on a retrieve. ~ Dave Jensen

For more information on fishing the Golden Trout, visit Dave's website, www.goldentroutsafari.com or www.flyfishalberta.com

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