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Think I’ll Go Out To Alberta

Got three days and pack full of hoppers and stones? Make your way to the Bow River and you may land some extremely photo-worthy fish.

By Dana Sturn

If ever there was a toilet of a trout season, 2020 was it. Instead of packing for my annual lake trips, I hunkered down in my living room packing on the pounds. The few times I did get out, the weather was so bad I ended up sitting in my truck glaring at the windshield while my boat filled up with rain.
              And the river fishing? Well, that was an absolute double-flusher. I missed the Dean due to Covid. And two days on the Thompson only produced a small number of sickly looking rainbows that pulled about as hard as you would if I asked you to pull my finger.
              Worst, I missed the Bow due to Covid, too.

Ever since my 2020 Bow trip got the big flush, I’ve been looking ahead wondering when I can return. The reason? Brown trout. Big ones. The types of fish the Bow is famous for. And though I haven’t caught any real monsters—two feet long is my current personal best—I’ve seen some giants come out of the river. And I wanna get me one.
              Summer 2021 looks like it might be the right time to do it.
              Anticipating some relaxing of Canada’s travel restrictions now that the Covid-19 vaccination plan is rolling along, I checked in with a friend, the author and former Bow River guide Jim McLennan (mclennanflyfishing.com), and asked what all of us might expect on the Bow these days.
              “There is a belief that the fish population has dropped significantly in the time since the big flood of 2013,” he told me. “And people don’t seem to catch as many as in the ‘glory days’ of the 1980s. [But the big fish that made the Bow famous are still around and] They’re as big or bigger than ever.”
              Over the years “The Book” on big Bow River browns is streamer fishing. A few seasons back, when I spoke with some veteran guides about trophy browns, they told me to fish streamers in late June through early July if the river is in shape, or late August and early September.

The Bow is is broad in most places, but narrow side channels offer easy wading and lots of opportunity for the wade angler. However, given a choice, most anglers would prefer to float the river and pound the banks with streamers, looking for Mr. Big. (Jim and Lynda McLennan)

McLennan notes something new. “I always thought the best way to find the biggest fish was fishing streamers just as the river is clearing from runoff. But people seem to catch big guys through the season, including with dry stones and hoppers.”
              Those “dry stones” are Classenia sabulosa, the “night stone” or “short-wing stone” that starts appearing in late June and early July. “The names come from the fact that the whole business—hatching, mating, egg laying—occurs at night, and because the adult males have wings that are only about half developed,” McLennan said.
              Trout—even the big ones—take imitations of the adult stone fished along the shoreline just before sunrise and through the early part of the day.
              A month later you’re still fishing the shoreline, but now it’s Hopper Season. After a hot July, the hoppers really gets going, and even the big browns can be found along grassy banks in very shallow water looking for these terrestrials. One of the biggest Bow River browns I’ve hooked came out of an eight-inch deep dish in a shallow riffle. I hooked it prospecting my way up a bank, after I dropped a Whitlock’s hopper just upstream of a waterlogged tree branch. That branch surprised me by taking the hopper and charging into deep water.

If you’re in a driftboat, pitching hoppers tight to the bank is a sure way to learn just where really big fish sit even in bright sun. On an August afternoon, some of those big dark rocks that you can see in the skinny water will suddenly grow fins and eat. And if they won’t eat your hopper, the Hare’s Ear you’ve attached to a short dropper usually entices them. This “hopper-dropper” setup is a standard on the Bow, and it’s my usual August bank-busting rig.
              Big dries are great of course, but don’t neglect the nymphs. I’ve had some great days rolling nymph rigs through the riffles or splashing them into the deeper troughs ahead of a driftboat. My biggest Bow River brown came to a Brooks Golden Stone just below the Highway 22X Bridge, and I’ve bounced big nymphs off the rocks in that section ever since.

It’s one thing to trophy hunt the Bow if it’s been your home river for over 30 years. And quite another if you’re just looking to get on the water for a few days and catch some nice trout. One of the reasons I love the Bow so much is that it’s a river that meets you anywhere you need to be. The chance at a big brown is always a draw, but the Bow offers great fishing for rainbows and browns almost anytime of the season.
              Springtime on the Bow is pretty, but fishing can be a hit-or-miss affair. A good blue winged olive hatch in April sometimes gets ignored by the trout, and a small window in mid-May can lead to some decent Mother’s Day caddis fishing. But unpredictable water and weather conditions can plague the spring angler, making an April or May trip a dice roll for the weekend getaway angler. Late May through June the river is high with runoff.
              Once things settle down, we really get into the heart of what makes the Bow such a great river. July is all about PMDs and caddis. One of my favorite floats is “Police to McKinnon’s.” Here, a mid-morning sneak along a grassy bank puts you a careful cast away from risers that can go over 20 inches. Then in the evening near the end of the drift you might find some caddis about.
              Better yet, if you rent a car, you can always drop in to one of the in-city access points to see if you can hook a big brown near dark. For me this is one of the classic Bow River experiences—peering upstream in the fading light looking for shapes in the surface, and casting just above them with a #16 Stealth Caddis. Don’t lift until the shape submerges. Then keep your fingers away from your reel handle and hang on.

Speaking of Mr. Big, the Bow still kicks out browns like this one. That gives anglers from Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and Spokane good reason to board a flight hit the river this summer and fall. (Jim and Lynda McLennan)

August is my favorite month on the Bow. And if I had to pick one week to be there, it would be the first week of August. Along with hoppers, August also brings the Trico hatch. If you hit it right, you can puddle cast tiny Trico spinner patterns to rising fish in the morning, then sling a hopper-dropper rig through the day, and maybe catch the last of the caddis hatches in the evening before the idea of a bourbon and steak prevails.
              So I think I’ll go out to Alberta for a quick trip this year. And Calgary is where I want to be for a weekend or mid-week getaway on the water. The Gateway to the Bow, Calgary is easily accessed by air from Vancouver, Seattle, Spokane and Portland. An early morning flight can have me wadering up before noon.
              Heck, during hot summer days, who needs waders? If I’m fishing with a guide I’m not particular about my tackle choices, so I could just show up at Calgary Arrivals with a fancy fishing pack loaded with wading boots, a sun hoody or two, and midnight layer, and a light rain jacket. Good to go.
              If you head out that way your guide will be well-equipped with quality tackle. But if you prefer your own graphite and tin, bring along a 5-weight for dries, a 6/7 for nymphs and streamers, and a reel for each that sings a sweet song. A 5 wt floater and a 6/7 Type-3 sink-tip covers you for anything the Bow splashes your way.

Dana Sturn

Dana Sturn

Dana Sturn is a steelhead devotee and the founder of Spey Pages. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, and can be found each year (minus 2020 of course) swinging up chinook and steel on the Dean River, among other places. Follow him at @danawsturn