travel / travel magazine / sep09


Bright lights, big fishy

Bright lights, big fishy
Wilderness, schmilderness. Cast for trophy trout without leaving town.
By Jake MacDonald with photography by Todd Korol

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IIT’S A BLUSTERY DAYBREAK in October, with rain squalls blowing in off the Rockies, and I’m standing knee-deep in the rushing green torrent of the Bow River. As I unlimber my fly rod, a group of geese swing overhead, honking sonorously, and a fat beaver cruises along the shore, hauling a branch of fresh-cut aspen for its winter feed pile. A few minutes ago my fishing guide, Curtis Lawrence, spotted a nice trout rising to the surface. Now I’m out here throwing one of his hand-tied grasshopper imitations to see if the fish is interested in a spot of breakfast.

I last touched a fly rod a couple of months ago and it’s good to be casting again, to feel the delicate spring of the rod and to watch the line loop out and settle on the water. On my first cast, as the fly drifts downstream, a gaping mouth suddenly emerges from beneath. It’s like a scene from Jaws — written from a grasshopper’s point of view — and with excessive enthusiasm I lift the rod, succeeding only in jerking the fly out of the trout’s maw. Lawrence is lowering the boat into the water and he laughs as I slop back to shore. And it is funny, after all — it’s a weekday morning, we’re in the middle of a big city surrounded by freeway concrete and speeding cars, and we’re going trout fishing.


THE BOW RIVER DRAINS OFF the glaciers of the Rocky Mountains and tumbles down through the foothills into Calgary. The river is cold enough to provide good growing conditions for trout, even if they did get here by chance. In 1925, a provincial fisheries truck carrying a load of trout fingerlings broke down as it was crossing the Carrot Creek Bridge near Canmore, about an hour west of Calgary. The truck driver, faced with the prospect of 45,000 young fish dying before he could get the vehicle fixed, dumped the fingerlings into the creek. The trout made their way downstream and thrived, and now the Bow River is one of the top trout hotspots in North America.

The trout are not only dense (about 1,500 per kilometre) but exceptionally large and strong. In most rivers, a 50-centimetre trout is a lifetime trophy, but on the Bow anglers can catch fish that large every day. The river’s reputation has stimulated a growing industry of tackle retailers and fishing guides. Lawrence is one of about 50 guides who work on the river full-time. His clients come from all over the world, but they’re not necessarily hard-core anglers. “Many of them come here on business trips and decide to try a little trout fishing on the side,” he says. “I supply all the equipment and teach them the basics of fly casting. Even if they’ve never touched a fly rod I can usually get them catching fish on their first outing.”

Lawrence lives in Canmore and when he has clients in Calgary, he gets up at five in the morning to prepare lunch, tie flies and get ready for the day’s work. Last night I stayed at the Fairmont Palliser, Calgary’s grand old railway hotel, and this morning as I was partaking of my breakfast Lawrence was driving down out of the mountains to pick me up. On the phone he had told me, “You’ll recognize me because I’ll be the only vehicle towing a boat.” Sure enough, the trim, fit-looking 40-year-old was easy to spot. We loaded my suitcase into his truck and headed off into rush-hour traffic. After a short drive, we pulled off at a bridge on the Glenmore Trail and backed the boat toward the river. I had forgotten to buy a license, so I cut across the freeway and went into a shopping mall, getting not so much as a glance from the other shoppers as I squeaked along in my neoprene chest waders.

After getting my license and unsuccessfully stalking that first trout, I climb into the boat and we set off. Like all the guides on the river, Lawrence uses oars, and the current is strong enough that he has to put his back into it. As we go rocking down the river, the morning sun emerges from the squall clouds and gilds the towers of downtown Calgary and the distant Rockies. Lawrence tells me he grew up in southern Ontario and gravitated west to pursue his love of skiing and fishing. He has been guiding full-time for 10 years and seems to know his business. We have barely drifted away from the shore when he points out a large boulder protruding from the river. “Do you see the current dividing as it goes around the boulder? Cast upstream and let your fly ride that seam of current as it goes around the rock.”

The boat is moving quickly and I have only a few seconds to execute the cast. I get lucky and the grasshopper fly drops in the right spot and goes swirling down toward the boulder. I get even luckier when a metallic torpedo shoots out from behind the boulder and grabs it. Feeling the tension of the rod, the rainbow trout leaps with astounding agility, once, twice and three times, each leap ridiculously high and terminating with a moment in which the fish hangs in the air for a half-millisecond, surrounded by spray and as weightless as a Platonic ideal.

When you’re hooked up to a big fish in hard current among boulders and dead trees, the main challenge is to multi-task at a rate that averts disaster. After more jumps, the trout charges the boat, an alarming move, but the hook stays put and a few moments later the rainbow slides into Lawrence’s landing net. It’s a beautiful creature, with an olive-green back, chromiumbright skin and a strip of rosy pink along its flanks. Lawrence immerses the trout in the current, where it rests in his hands briefly, gulping water, then wriggles free and departs. I shake his hand in gratitude. We’re relieved of the embarrassment of getting skunked and we’re still in sight of the boat launch.


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