Sunday, August 1, 2021
Sunday, August 1, 2021
The Stillwater Ninja was on fire. Every time I looked up from my fishfinder’s empty screen he was into one. Kamloops rainbows, all chunky and silver-sided, were grabbing his flies on every cast, and burning up his backing like steelhead.
Fifteen minutes watching a buddy catching is just fine. Even 20 can be entertaining. But after 30 minutes of double headers without so much as a wiggle of my rod tip, I was wishing I’d sprung for the torpedo option on my fancy new boat. I pulled anchors and rowed over.
“Ok, what am I doing wrong?” I said, casting my fly into his boat. He pinched it between a thumb and index finger and peered at it briefly over the edge of a camo Buff, then dropped it back over the side.
“Nothin’,” he said, grabbing for a suddenly bent rod. “You’re just in the wrong spot.” He netted the fish—a small one this time—and I watched it race for the bottom when he released it. I dipped my oars and shamelessly rowed a lazy circle around his boat, hoping to observe something, or maybe get some advice that might turn my day around.
“Try here,” he said. “You’ll see.” He quickly reeled up, pulled in his anchors and rowed off. The Stillwater Ninja, you see, is the very best kind of fishing buddy—the kind who finds all the fish and then lets you catch them.
Minutes later I was making my first cast. While I was readying the second rod, the reel on the first chirped, then purred, and a five-pound rainbow came out of the water 50 feet away.
The rest of the day—and the week that followed—was a bit of a blur, speeding past at a pace to match my frequently spinning fly reels. These are the days fly-fishers dream about, and the reason why the southern interior of British Columbia is Mecca for serious lake anglers. Sure you can find bragging-sized fish elsewhere, but there’s nowhere that matches the density of available lakes within a relatively easy drive from the Pacific Northwest’s major cities.
If the interior city of Kamloops is often seen as the center of British Columbia lake country, the small town of Merritt is the gateway. A few hours drive from Vancouver via the Coqhihalla Highway, Merritt is situated between the Nicola and Coldwater rivers. Take any road out of town and in 30 minutes you can be unloading your boat at a quality lake. Folks in Merritt are friendly and helpful, used to the traveling anglers who often stop there for fuel. The service station snack racks are always jammed with yummies, and the coffee is always fresh enough. Don’t be surprised if the clerk tells you about his coyote problem . . . or the great fishing he had the other day at such-and-such lake. Pay special attention to the “such-and-such” part.
Stillwater fly fishers talk about “the season” as if it were never ending, but for most it means May 1 through the end of June. These are the days of the big, predictable hatches, when skilled anglers can have consecutive 50 fish days without trying all that hard. Year-to-year it can be tough to predict exactly when things will be best, but as long as you understand that not only the calendar, but also elevation contributes to the timing of a season you can usually find good fishing somewhere. Local current knowledge and having a bit more than a passing acquaintance with a few lakes at different elevations will give you options when the lake you’re on is off.
Once summer arrives many anglers call it a year, and the lakes quiet down. A few have renowned summer hatches, and they are worth checking out if you have the time and patience to fish in a crowd. But come September, with kids back in school and most people’s vacation time gutted, the cooling lakes can provide some hot angling on less crowded waters.
Fall has become my favorite time on BC lakes. In the fall, lakes nearly overrun in May tend to be lightly fished and can provide tremendous fishing, though it’s usually for only a few hours each day. These days I fish as far into October as I can, pushing the season until Snow Miser finally chases me off the water.
One of the best lines ever written about British Columbia’s Kamloops lake country appears in Richard Anderson’s under appreciated book Trout the Size of Footballs:
“This area has so many lakes I’m surprised it doesn’t sink.” To say there are a zillion lakes worth exploring is an exaggeration. In the areas surrounding Kamloops and Merritt, there are probably only half a zillion.
So, where to start?
You can find Roche Lake in Roche Lake Provincial Park a short drive from Kamloops. There is a lodge on the lake (rochelake.com), and campsites too, although the camping experience is a lot like camping in one of those big commercial campgrounds you find all over North America. Which isn’t a big deal really—after all, you’re there to fish, right? With a surface area of 162 hectares Roche is a good size lake that can handle a lot of pressure, which is a good thing because it is one of British Columbia’s most popular lakes. Roche produces good catches of 15-to 18-inch rainbows, with the odd five-pounder thrown in to keep you focussed. I’ve caught bigger fish on Roche, but I wouldn’t go there expecting to load up on whoppers. I usually hit Roche in May or early June if I can, and I manage a day or two there most every season. To figure out where to fish look for clusters of boats.
Also near Kamloops, Peter Hope is one of my favorite lakes. Small enough that you can get from one end to the other in a few minutes with a 9.9 hp outboard, but big enough that you can usually get a little bit of water to yourself, Peter Hope has Pennask and Blackwater rainbows that can grow big, but average out in the 15-to 18-inch range. When the chironomids hatch in May, skilled anglers can have 50 fish days. An overstocking program has now been addressed, but we will have to wait to see if this improves the quality of its fish.
The current fishing at Peter Hope answers an age-old assumption: If something is good then more of it is better, right?
Well, when it comes to stocking British Columbia lakes, this isn’t the case. Way back in The Western Angler Haig-Brown warned of the dangers of overzealous stocking programs. He told of “Lake X”, home to a small population of whoppers that rose to dry flies during the annual sedge hatch. “Fish of six, eight and ten pounds were commonly taken on the dry fly,” he wrote. “In 1939 a fish of 17-1/4 pounds. came up to a dry sedge.” Under the mistaken assumption that dumping in more fish would lead to even more monsters, someone dumped 75,000 fry into the lake. Within a few years those fish, combined with the naturally reproducing ones already present, gobbled up many of the bugs that made the lake famous for its sedge hatches, and the marvelous fishing disappeared.
In 2014 I spent a week in May at Peter Hope, one of BC’s best known fly fishing lakes. Peter Hope has a reputation as a challenging lake, and like Lake X, it occasionally produced trophy fish on dry flies. When I arrived the word on the marl flats was that fishing was good for 14-to16-inch fish, though bigger ones could be seen cruising the shallows. I had a good day fishing the marl shoals for smaller fish, but a friend rowed out beyond the drop off and seemed to be doing as well as me, though I couldn’t see the size of the fish.
The next day I decided to join him in the deeper water and routinely hooked fish between three and four pounds, with several touching five. My best was in the seven-to eight-pound range, a fish that made me forget that most mistakes are made when fish are a few feet from the boat. The Stillwater Ninja joined us for a few days and netted one that measured 28 inches long, a fish of over nine pounds.
On the drive out we wondered what the next year would bring, anticipating a return of the glory days of giants on dry flies. But unknown to us, the lake had been stocked with far too many fish—as many as 30,000 in a year–and eventually this caught up with us. For the next several years we noticed the size and condition of the fish starting to deteriorate. We would still find bigger fish if length was the determining factor, but they were skinny. Anything over 18 inches had a big head and snaky body, the sure sign of overstocking. We returned for five more years, hoping to see a change, but things kept getting worse. Sadly, someone hadn’t read their Haig-Brown, and we were forced to re-learn past lessons. On the drive out last year we decided that 2019 would be our last season on Peter Hope.
Just up the hill on Highway 97C from the town of Merritt, Corbett is a pay for play lake that boasts a beautiful lodge (corbettlake.ca) as well as comfy cabins. There are some big trout in Corbett, and it’s always worth spending some time there if you are after a trophy. I often stay there and use a cabin as basecamp while I explore the local area on days I’m not fishing Corbett.
Tunkwa is located not far from the small community of Logan Lake, a short drive off the Coquihalla about halfway between Merritt and Kamloops. There’s a good campground and a lodge (tunkwalakeresort.com). Tunkwa fishes well in the spring, but it is famed for its summer hatch of larger “bomber” chironomids. Late July through mid-August these bugs come off from mid morning through afternoon and provide fast fishing for your Roche and Peter Hope sized fish, but there are some brutes in here too.
If you do things right on any of these lakes I can promise you chirping and purring reels. And if you can find the Stillwater Ninja, pay close attention to where he’s fishing. That’s where the five-pounders live.
If you could fish one fly, what would it be? In Kamloops country, this would be the chironomid. Trout feed on these bugs, in various life stages, throughout the season. In fact, chironomids can be fished any day of the season with reasonable expectations of success. Now there are as many different chironomid patterns as there are anglers who fish them, but for my money the very best of the bunch is the basic Chromie in sizes 14, 16 and 18. Wrapped with gunmetal or silver tinsel, ribbed with red or black extra-small wire, and topped with a white tungsten bead, this little fly faithfully represents the shimmer and sparkle of the chironomid pupa as it ascends through the water column. Fished just off the bottom under a strike indicator on a floating line, the Chromie works everywhere most of the time.
A 10-foot 5-weight is really the only rod to have on stillwaters. A good one will have enough backbone to lift a heavier fish that’s sulking deep, yet a limber tip that will allow you to set up quickly without snapping your leader. A local company here in BC makes the Dragonfly Kamloops rods, and their 10-foot 5-weight gets my vote as one of the top lake rods around. I always carry three or four of them fully rigged.
As for reels, you don’t really need anything fancy because lake fish won’t burn you up in the same way that, say, a steelhead might. But a crap reel will eventually crap itself, so get the best you can afford. Like the rods you will need more than one, which can get pricey. Dragonfly makes a budget reel which is fine for most lakes. I prefer old Hardys. The St George 3-3/4 is probably the best lake reel ever made. It’s durable and takes a beating if you ever need it to wack a trout on the noggin for dinner.
A hundred yards of backing is more than enough on BC lakes. For floating lines these days I’m liking the Scientific Anglers Titan Long. For my sinkers I go with RIO Fathom and AquaLux Sinking Lines. I tend to use only the fastest full sinkers or the slowest intermediates
Because much of your fishing will be subsurface, lake anglers prefer fluorocarbon leaders. I buy spools of it and tie my own, but I also carry several factory tapered 12-foot leaders in case I need to switch to surface presentations. Four-pound to six-pound tippet usually connects my leader to my fly.
In almost any other aspect of fly fishing, a discussion of gear would end with rods, reels, lines and flies. But in BC’s Kamloops country, careful attention to your selection of watercraft and electronics are at least as important, and maybe more.
On any given day on the more popular lakes you’ll see a variety of floaty things, from your classic v-hulled tippy 12-foot aluminum car toppers to bouncy orange inflatables. I’ve even seen 20-foot steel-hulled Fraser River sturgeon boats. In some places fiberglass bass boats are becoming popular. But for those in the know, there’s one style of boat that beats them all: the flat-bottomed 8-to 12-foot long rowboat, commonly called a “pram”. These boats, constructed of aluminum, fiberglass, or wood, fit easily in the bed of a pickup and can usually be cartopped by a single person. Some can get heavy—100 pounds or more, especially the welded aluminum ones—but it’s tough to beat a 10-foot wide, bottom-riveted aluminum boat. Weighing under 100 pounds, it’s pretty easy to cartop and launch without a lot of help. It’s wide enough to be quite stable, making it easy to stand up and cast (as long as you’re sober), which I often need to do if my fish finder reveals trout working at a distance from my boat.
You can’t really fish a lake without one of these. I still know people who say the only thing they’re good for is learning about the bottom, which makes absolutely no sense to me. These days I never fish anywhere that hasn’t lit up my finder with “marks.” It’s a no-brainer. It helps that I’ve been tutored in the fine art of fish finding by the Stillwater Ninja, who rows around a lot before he drops anchor. Ask him why he stopped? “Because I’m marking lots of fish here,” he’ll say.
All of the major manufacturers make reliable finders you can use on a small lake pram. Currently I use the Helix 5 by Humminbird. If you can afford to, spring for the units that have built in maps and GPS. Fish tend to do similar things in similar places at similar times of the year, and the mapping function helps you return to productive spots. I complement my boat mounted sonar with the Deeper Chirp+ Smart Sonar.
Merritt is a good place to initially call home when you begin to explore Kamloops lake country. Tourism Merritt (tourismmerritt.ca) is where to start looking for places to stay if you aren’t camping.
All of the lakes mentioned in this story are within a day’s easy drive from Vancouver and offer both camping and/or lodging. If you’re camping, weekends of course are going to be busy, so if you are planning to travel from a distance make your plans so that you can arrive midweek, which will give you the best opportunity to find a campsite.
For the most up-to-date information on fish stocking programs on the lakes you want to fish, check out the Freshwater Fisheries Society of BC’s website gofishbc.com. Here you’ll find accurate info about the many lakes open to fishing across the province, as well as articles and links that can make you a better angler.
And don’t be afraid to ask for local knowledge. British Columbia was, of course, home to Haig-Brown, and as a result we tend to take ourselves pretty seriously. But here’s the good news: I’ve found that lake fly fishers aren’t exactly purists. Among the various fly fishing subcultures, lake fishers rival billfish anglers for their pragmatism, which is refreshing. I recall early on when someone I deeply respected showed me how to tie a swivel onto my leader to help sink my chironomid pattern. A swivel? Yessir. And that little orange thing the river nymphers call a strike indicator? On lakes it’s a bobber. BC lake fishing is a lot more about beer cans and ball caps than Balvenie and Barbour. Walk your shiny Hardy reel out to the garage and take the grinding wheel to it along with your pretensions. Over time you’ll get used to being real.
The Deeper Chirp+ castable sonar—aka “The Death Star”—is a handy little device that has revolutionized my stillwater game. In the past, I would row around a likely looking spot, and anchor up when I marked fish on my boat mounted sonar. That’s great as a starting strategy; however, over an hour of fishing the fish tend to move around, and unless they’re passing within the field of your sonar you’ll never know if a blank screen means they’ve completely left the dining room or have just moved to a different part of the table. The Deeper unit extends your usable sonar coverage to the distance of your longest cast. Simply attach it to an old spinning rod, link it to your smart phone, and cast it out there. Check the area around your boat to the length of your longest fishable cast and in a few minutes you’ll know whether you need to move. It’s a highly recommended addition to your lake kit. Check them out at deepersonar.com