In Jasper, the fishing doldrums of August can be pretty severe. Since opening weekend, area lakes been fished hard and in the heat of the summer, trout tend to make themselves scarce. They're not feeding as voraciously as they do in the spring or fall and they're much harder to locate, the coldest habitat having been thoroughly mixed up and down the water column.
When the trout aren't biting, many anglers in Jasper target a different species: the northern pike—or as my Saskatchewan-born dad calls it, the slough shark.
While I know fishermen who've hooked into the naturally-occurring pike in the Athabasca River, to really slay slough sharks, it's much more effective, and more fun, to head to the weed beds of Talbot Lake.
Talbot is a shallow, relatively warm, mud-bottomed lake which sits under the profile of Roche Miette to the east and the nose of the Colin Range to the west. It is flanked by sand dunes one one side and backdropped by an old burn on the other. The purple fireweed contrasts beautifully with the emerald green water and cattails line the banks, giving big fish cover from predators and fisherfolk cover from the transport trucks and motorhomes which rumble by.
Accessibility is always a double-edged sword. I love Talbot because I can have a line in the water an hour after leaving my front door but the close proximity to the road means the boat launch is usually strewn with litter. I usually will try to find a little fish karma by picking up discarded line or recycling, but I draw the line at dirty diapers.
Pike are fun fish to target because they're so predatory. There's a great story of a local fishing shop running a contest to see who could catch the biggest pike with the most random "lure." The winner ended up hooking a green monster on a sharpened tent peg.
While spoons and hairy spinners do a fine job of imitating baitfish and other creepy-crawlers, one of the most fun ways you can attract pike on Talbot Lake is with the hilarious and ridiculous spinning frog. This lure looks like something you'd win in a cracker jack box, but it's highly effective. Like most crank-bait style lures, you can chuck these frogs a mile, but the difference between this and the other hooks in your quiver is the the spinning frogs float, meaning if you do hook it in the weeds, you can simply paddle over and retrieve it. Best of all, pike love to smash them. The spinning legs are like an irresistible propeller buffet to hungry fish; recently I had a pike hit one so hard that I jumped from the sudden sound of the huge splash.
On Friday evening, my friend Geoff, his two kids and I all loaded into his canoe and took turns banging the frog against the weeds. We were only out an hour and we got three to the boat—mind you, the biggest one was hooked by 9-year-old Casey on a small spoon.
The next day we were four-in-a-boat again but it was a flatfish which turned out to be the lucky lure for the day. Just as Casey was getting bored, my rod started dancing. A few exciting minutes later, I hauled in what had been dragging us around the lake. It certainly wasn't the biggest pike pulled out of Talbot , but at 20 or so inches, it was the longest of my brief slough shark career and a wonderful way to beat the summer trout blues.
Fishing on Maligne Lake is wonderous for many reasons, one of which is the fact that Home Bay—that is, the bay closest to home—is one of the most productive pieces of water on the whole lake. Especially during the early season, many fisherman stick within the first 2 km and catch rainbow and brook trout every 20 minutes. There are stories of 40-fish days, of guys going home early because their arms are too sore from hauling in trout. My record on the lake is just nine in two days. Then again, I have a real job.
All this is to say there's loads of anticipation in those opening two clicks. As I was heading to the far end of the lake, I had a long way to travel, but I wasn't against circling back if the bite came on. I ripped my fly with confidence that I'd have a hit off the the ledge that drops off the west side of the bay and continues until the lake's first pinch point.
Nothing. All the battery hauling I did to get the boat kitted out meant I had a late start to the day, so it wasn't surprising that fishing was a little slow, however, I'd expected at least some minor action when I trolled through Rainbow Alley. No matter, I told myself. I had at least 10 more fishy zones to troll through before I'd set up camp that evening, and so my light mood returned.
Besides, how could I complain? Tour boats, crammed full of visitors who'd just paid $55 to get a passing glimpse of (admittedly awe-inspiring) glaciers before they'd be disgorged onto a platform to photograph Spirit Island, cruised by. As they ogled me and I regarded them, none of us cared that we were staring, for we were too far away to communicate verbally. Besides, we'd never see each other again. As they shrank into the distance, I noticed that each boat had two or three people who looked at me more longingly than the others. They knew how special fishing on Maligne is. I could tell thought I was the luckiest person on earth. At that moment in time, I was inclinded to agree.
Mind you, that feeling soon faded. After I sulked out of Trapper's Bay, a supposedly trout-filled inlet, with still no fish to the boat, I couldn't help but wonder if I had learned anything at all in the last three years of obsessing over trying to trick trout. I'd had a bite or two but four hours into the trip my confidence was rapidly falling. I swapped out lures, going from never-fails to old-faithfuls to worked-onces to what-the-hells. I started to think I should have taken a kayak, for I'd never seen the water this flat for this long and at least my hands would be occupied.
As the sun began its slow descent and I boated to a place where I'd landed a silver and green brook trout the year previous, my skunk-soured mood lifted a bit. The reflection of Mount Phillip on the lake was too brilliant to focus on the negative. The reedy call of a loon pierced the silence, reminding me that catching fish is just one small part of fishing.
It was with this mindset that I decided that I'd give the fish one last chance to tell me I wasn't a fool for thinking I knew what they liked to put in their mouths. As I passed Spirit Island and gazed into the spot where my boat would soon disturb the placid waters, a strike—so sudden and forceful and unmistakably caused by a fish—made me shout, my first utterance in hours. I looked heavenward, thanking the universe for this natural high which I can only compare to seeing a meteor burning through the sky after waiting all night staring at the stars.
The fight was tremendous at first, the fish rocketing out the water, letting me know that rainbow danced on the end of my line. I reeled in breathlessly, letting the fish dive when it needed to, savouring the feeling of its pull. I would be flashing back to this moment as I lay in my tent that night. Three times it ran away with the line this before I could bring it to the net. I scooped it quickly, admiring its colours, its smooth scales, its heaving and healthy girth. As it turned out, this rainbow would be the only fish of the trip. But one is infinitely better than zero.
It all starts with the first cast. The first cast is what you've been thinking about since you got on the trail, since you got in the truck, since you planned the trip the evening before, since you reeled in the last cast on the last trip. The first cast is the point where it all begins. The first cast could tell you that this will be the day that you will always talk about. The first cast is everything. Nevertheless, you must act as though the first cast means nothing at all. The first cast of the night should be performed with nonchalance, because one must never get their hopes up. For if fishing is distilled to anything, it's distilled to hope, and the fact that you want as little of it as possible so that your expectations can always be exceeded. But it’s hard not to feel an urgent sense of hope. Especially on a calm, golden summer's night when you’re hiking to a tiny piece of water in the Rockies that sees few anglers.
On this night, my friend and I were unable to contain our excitement. We practically ran the three kilometres to the lake. When we arrived, the fish were jumping and the sun was trying to come out. We set up near a submerged log and a pool of black water. My friend had his rod at the ready in less than a minute after dropping his backpack. Sure enough, the first cast produced. "Look at this, man!” he laughed, as he reeled in a small brook trout. I considered that this could be one of those nights. My first cast was equally successful. An eight-inch trout snapped at and snagged on my size 12 royal wolfe. As we settled into the evening, our night quickly became more ordinary. We each reeled in five beautiful, if small, brook trout. On this occasion, the first cast wasn’t a harbinger of the fishiest night of our summer, but it was an excellent way to exceed our expectations. Because you never want to put too much hope into the first cast. Until next trip, that is.
I've never had good luck on Pyramid Lake. Because it's close to town, it gets pounded pretty hard; fish are more wary here than other lakes, local anglers will tell you. That said, I watched Jo yank a 3-lb laker out of the depths last season on opening weekend. He had his spinning rod, while I was ripping a wet fly with more of a hope and a prayer than any sort of strategic plan. As you might imagine, I got flat-out skunked.
Pyramid Lake holds a surprising variety of species: rainbows, lake trout, whitefish...even the occasional brook trout, however, I certainly couldn't attest to any of that diversity myself. My success on Pyramid consisted of accidentally hooking a minnow on a spinner a couple of years ago and illegally catching one feisty rainbow. Last fall, I finally tricked a trout into eating a dry fly, but learned later that the season had actually closed a few days before. Oops. With very few expectations, then, on June 1, my friend Geoff and I decided to give Pyramid another shot, if only to get my aluminum canoe onto the water for the first time this year. We strapped the silver bullet onto the top of his car and had our gear laid out on the beach less than 20 minutes later. What I learned from Jo's hook-up in 2012 was that lake trout will go for a plunging, heavy lure. At Online Sports, Jasper's local tackle shop, there are photos of guys displaying huge fish pulled out of Pyramid Lake. A little detective work told me that heavy, hairy jigs were the tools they used to produce a hit.
The rig I set up was based partly on this beta, helped along with a healthy dollop of angler karma. The weighted streamer I tied onto my sinking line was actually procured from a tackle box that some friendly fisherman left at the local thrift store. Since my girlfriend volunteers there, she snagged this mix of motley lures and brought it home to her fish-obsessed boyfriend.
At first I had my doubts as to the effectiveness of using someone's random, rusting flies, but the homemade patterns were definitely tied with Jasper fish in mind. There were wooly buggers with a hint of flash, designed to seek out those big bull trout that make the Athabasca River home; there were red and black nymphs, perhaps with Medicine Lake rainbows in mind; and for my purposes at Pyramid, there was an orange, white and black hairy jig, with a huge, heavy head, designed to go deep.
After shooting the breeze with a couple of other fisherfolk who hadn't had any bites, we were starting to wonder if Pyramid had our number once again. Then, as we drew to the tip of the rocky island where so many couples recite their wedding vows, my rod bent in half.
"Yes!" I shouted, being careful not to grip the line too hard should the huge hit snap my leader. Geoff, who'd been skunked on Pyramid as many times as myself, was equally stoked. He reeled in his line as my own went screaming to the bottom of the lake.The take felt solid, and after fighting the fish a few meters below the surface I knew that the hook was set.
But then a sick sensation overcame me; I flashed back to the beginning of the day, when I set up my rod. I recalled noticing a tiny chip in my leader. While it passed a modest tug-test, I knew the beast on the end of my line was going to pull hard and heavy. I tried to keep as little pressure on the line as I could while still bringing the fish to the boat.
As if there wasn't enough excitement, suddenly, the wind whipped up, threatening to blow Geoff and I into the shoal. Two years ago, the two of us had tipped a canoe while paddling the frigid AthaB. The silver bullet—light, small and with its gunwales only inches above the waterline—is fairly unstable on flat waters, let alone a choppy lake. With an excited crew and an angry trout heaving its girth off the starboard side, we were flirting with disaster.
Fishin' buddy Jo with a nice lake trout from Pyramid Lake on opening day last year. Note the net.
The fight continued. As delicately as I could, I brought the fish to the surface, hoping to tire it out so I could get it to the boat and release the thing back to the dark depths from whence it came. We got a good look at it, its size and gorgeous colouring catching us off guard. However, as I got him near the shiny boat, the fish spooked. It gained new strength and plunged back down. My reel screamed, matching my own exclamations of delight.
As we considered our next move, another depressing fact made itself known: in our haste to get on the water, we forgot the net. This would make landing the fish in the rocking boat next to impossible. I cursed my stupidity and asked Geoff to ferry us to shore, where I could get out of the boat and fight the beast to the beach. Expertly, Geoff guided us into a flat spot while I let out some line and precariously put my feet on land. Everything was going great: the fish was exhausted, the boat was upright and I was on the beach, ready to haul in my first bona fide lunker on Pyramid Lake. That's why, when the rod went straight, the compromised leader finally giving way, it was so heart-wrenching. The monster lake trout—not to mention my second-hand lucky lure—would not be resurfacing. The battle was lost, preparedness giving way to overeagerness.
The fishing wasn't a total loss. We managed to pick up a few hits from some dancing rainbows and I eventually did reel in my first, legally-caught fish from Pyramid Lake: a small Rocky Mountain Whitefish. Geoff proved himself once again as a great boat driver and I learned that if there's a doubt about your fishing rig, to switch it out.
As for the elusive laker: I'll be back. I just need to find another box of pre-loved flies.
Fishin' statement, not a fashion statement. Jo Nadeau with his 7th brook trout of the day.
Parks Canada staff sends hordes of hikers to The Valley of the Five Lakes for good reason: The circuit offers a chance to trek around Jasper's montane forest without fear of getting lost; the views of the sapphire lakes don't disappoint; and the flowing, rolling single track makes ones forget about everything but chirping birds and where to set down for a picnic.
While hiking the Valley of the Five is fairly easy going, it gets a bit more awkward when you're hauling in a belly boat. But if you're an early-season angler, after the fishing season opens on the May long weekend, the Valley of the Five Lakes is a great place to wet a line.
My friend Jo and I humped our fishing crafts 5 kms or so into the Valley of the Five on opening weekend (May 18) this year, donned our waders, fins and other goofy fisherman gear and tried to catch ourselves a few of the gorgeous Eastern Brook Trout that were stocked in these parts decades ago. I'd had fun sight-fishing with a fat streamer at about the same time the year previous, and while I had some good bites right out of the gate this time around, I couldn't set the hook on any of the fish that were interested in my fly.
Jake Daly was just going to go birding. Then he saw us going in with our rods and had to make a few casts.
Jo, on the other hand, was hooked into a nice brookie within 20 minutes. He was slow-trolling a size 16 bead-headed nymph, meanwhile, some tourists in a rental boat were snagging tons of fish on some spinning gear. Not that I was going to resort to that. Our buddy Jake showed up with his rod, but with no boat, even his neat roll-casting couldn't get his fly out far enough. As Jake and I were wondering what it was going to take to produce some action, Jo started hollering from the other end of the lake, telling me to start kicking my way over there. I had been enjoying the sun and chatting with Jake while Jo—probably propelled by the fact his waders were leaking and he was getting cold—was zipping all over the water. He had obviously found the hotspot. By the time I arrived, of course, the bite had turned off. That's not quite true: I was biting my lip quite forcefully as Jo explained how he had just landed 5 nice brookies in a row. When I finally clued in and put on a fast-sinking nymph I got a few good hits, but twice my knot failed me and another time my tippet broke. I felt bad for leaving those piercings in the fishes' mouths; I felt like an idiot for letting my knot fail. All was not lost, however, as fishing, if nothing else, teaches you patience. While it was hard to stomach the 8-1 shellacking by my good buddy, I brought home a few lessons that I'll take with me next time I'm on the water.