While I hope there’s still a few more opportunities to wet a line this season, the signs are all around me that the door on Jasper’s fishing season is about to click shut.
Pursuit of happiness
People say they have no regrets, but I regret those missed mornings where I could have got on the water had I planned the paper a little better or drank a little less wine after work. By the same turn, I realize how fortunate I was to have had those long silences where it was just me, the mountains and the anticipation of a trout’s tug. As I look back on the season that was—it’s been almost six months since I dusted off my fly box, unpacked my waders and straightened the loops in my leaders—I recognize that of all the moments which would qualify as fly fishing to an outside observer, those which actually involved a fish were relatively few. From April to October, these are some of the spots I covered during my summer on the fly.
The sinking ice floes on the Athabasca River is a sign for Jasper fisherfolk to purchase their annual license and as winter relaxes its grip, time is of the essence; spring run off will soon turn the AthaB chocolate brown. It took three years of early-season frustration to finally break the skunk, but on April 20 I finally caught my first bull trout on a fly rod. Using a pattern tied by hometown trout slayer David Thomas, and swinging the fly deep into a familiar green hole, I felt what I’d spent six months dreaming about: the tightening of the line and the beginning of a battle. Several heart-pounding minutes later, after releasing the fish and retreating to the bank, I sat on the round, black rocks and tried to replay the moment in my head.
Traditionally, the first place I find myself when the first of the lakes open in mid May, like many local fish freaks, is in the shadow of Pyramid Mountain. This year I lucked into a 19-inch laker but the amount of time spent bobbing around starting at my rod tip compared to the time spent fighting a fish was, even for me, depressingly lopsided. As such, like I do every year when I get the Pyramid Lake blues, in late May I headed for kinder waters. Even though the hike into the Valley of the Five Lakes with my float tube garners an equal quantity of perspiration and perplexed stares, it also produces reliable action. I spent several days with a variety of friends finning around the teal tarns, anticipating the tenacious take of a beautiful brook trout. Looks can be deceiving, however. Gorgeous as these fish are, they’ve got attitude. Not acrobatic like a rainbow, and less log-like than a bull, when they battle, Valley brookies tend to shake their heads like a dog caught in a fence. More times than I care to admit, my fly, along with my self-confidence, was spit from the char’s mouth less than five metres from the net. As would happen many more times this season—but perhaps a few times less than last year—I looked heavenward and wondered if I’d learned anything about fishing at all.
The juggernaut of Jasper lakes and the waters which can alternately be the most generous and the most miserly, are those of Maligne. During a mid-summer long weekend, hundreds of gear chuckers will troll for trout with little to show for their efforts save a sunburn, however, in early June, when the midges are hatching and the cold, oxygenated water is still at the top of the thermocline, it’s mostly local boats vying for the hot spots. Twenty-four-foot flat back canoes, or “freighters,” pushed by an electric motor and hundreds of pounds of deep cycle batteries, are the vessels of choice for those who want to target the rainbow and brook trout with maximum efficiency and minimum effort. Those who can’t borrow or bribe their way aboard one of these sturdy frigates opt to row or paddle a less-tricked-out trawler, but the missed strikes and malignant winds inevitably leave these anglers scheming for a better setup. Knowing how to effectively fish Maligne Lake is a life-long study in itself, of course, and debates over flies or flatfish, dark or light colours and how fast or how slow to troll rage over the fire pit at Fisherman’s Bay. I felt fortunate to share the Maligne Lake fishing experience with five friends over the course of two rainy days in June. Right out of the gate, to the delight of 40 or so tourists onboard the SS Mary Schaffer, my partner and I were playing a pair of rollicking rainbows. While the action eventually let up, the weather never did. Even though veteran Maligne anglers regularly come home with 30-fish days, we were grateful to have eight to the boat and two to the frypan.
July is when all the other lakes open to fishing, and also when the bugs and the backpackers are in full blitz. For that reason I usually hang up the waders for a few weeks. If I do get on the water with my rod, it’s usually a harebrained scheme that involves a lot of line tangles and not many fish, such as my stand-up paddleboard experiments on Pyramid Lake. Come August 1, however, the Maligne River opens, and its rushing, turbulent flows afford a special challenge to the fly angler. This year, as I was rigging up on opening day, whistling to myself and relishing the opportunity to drift a mayfly imitation next to the big boulders at Rosemary’s Rock, I was suddenly overtaken by a keen father and son pair, who climbed out of their truck with waders cinched and rods ready to cast. Soon, another family showed up and made a bee-line for the river. I got back in my car. Forty minutes later, after nearly breaking my rod tip off on half a dozen trees and letting out warbled “hey-os” at the sight of still-steaming bear sign, I’d worked my way to a more solitary stretch. As I landed the first of a dozen small trout, I asked myself if there was any place I’d rather be.
The right Medicine
There is one spot, in fact. And a few weeks later—earlier than most years, on account of a sped-up summer—I was occupying it. Mist dragged over the Colin Range behind me and a great black wall of recently-burnt timber lay out in front of me. I was traversing the mudflats of Medicine Lake, skimming through the foot-deep water so my boots wouldn’t get stuck fast. As a porous-bottomed basin which over the course of the summer drains into a river-like channel, Medicine Lake, at just the right time of year, offers the best of what a meandering foothills spring creek and a nutrient-rich wilderness lake offer: predictable holding water and big, gullible fish. Two weeks later the low, clear water and constant casting would render the brutes spooky and fly-wary, but judging by the footprints, I was one of the first to wade in 2015. Drizzle and light wind provided just enough cover to make an undetected cast and soon enough, it was on. The first of several two-pound fish came to hand, the trout variously dining well below, just beneath and right on top of the glassy surface water.
More than the sum of its parts
Fly fishing isn’t for everyone. The long hours anglers spend agonizing over tackle choices, untangling knots and sitting in the rain surely make us seem wooden-headed to our loved ones. The unsavoury aromas of sweat-stained neoprene, battery acid and fish slime has been known to turn some would-be sportspeople off. And the hermetic frustration felt when the only opportunity to connect to a fish is wasted by a clownish cast can sour your puss for a week.
But fly fishing is more than the sum of its parts. The water, the birds, the shoals, the bugs, the wind, the sun and the mud all collaborate to connect the angler to his or her surroundings. The calculative process of deciding which fish to target and how to go about it is both meditative and primal. And of course once you’ve experienced the strike, that split-second moment when you are connected to the carnal energy of a resident of the dreamy underworld, you’re hopelessly addicted. My angling season is almost at an end, but the gifts I’ve received from another summer on the fly will last a lifetime—or at least, until the ice floes give way next spring.