Fishing for Gold in Coal Country: Day Two
After our brief introduction to the river on Day One, we were eager to see more of the Elk and keen on meeting even more of its hospitable inhabitants. I was particularly interested in hooking up with some of bull trout that the river is known for as well, although I fully acknowledged that our timing may have been a bit late for prime char time.
We arrived at the Elk River Guiding Company and met our guides, Kevin Green and Tyler Carson. Jimmy and I were paired with Kevin while Marck and Morris joined forces with Tyler. We’re not competitive or anything like that, but the night before we each tossed $10 (American) into a hat and it was declared that there would be a friendly inter-boat contest for the most fish, and the biggest fish. With less than
$40 Canadian 40 Loonies at stake, it’s not like we were vying for huge sums of money—mainly bragging rights (and the losers would buy beer that evening). The first thing we did was inform Kevin that we must win, and whatever it took to declare victory must be done. Kevin was undaunted by the additional pressure, though he likely assumed that his tip was dependent on our winning the contest. He informed us that he’d been on the Elk nearly every day this season. He was the man for the job. If we could just get past the language barrier we’d be all set. Speaking of that, as a public service to my 12 readers (13 Canadian) here is a cheat sheet that may enhance your next visit to Canada.
We set off upriver
about aboot 18 miles 30 kilometers from Fernie toward our launch point at Sparwood, a town that boasts the biggest truck in the world. We didn’t stop to see the truck up close, but to give you an idea as to how big this truck is, it is easily capable of hauling the largest ball of twine in the world. Sparwood’s livelihood appears to rely solely on the coal industry and, as was mentioned in my previous post, the Elk River flows through coal mining country. While mining began in 1897 the river was there long before then. There are 5 such mines in the greater Elk River valley and as with any extraction process coal mining is not without it’s detrimental impact on the surrounding natural resources. Elevated levels of phosphates, nitrates and Selenium, byproducts of coal mining, are found in the waters of the Elk River and some of its tributaries.
I’d heard of Selenium before, and in fact it’s an ingredient in the multivitamins I take daily. However, the levels of Selenium in the Elk are far above what is needed for cellular regeneration/life sustenance. Too much is highly toxic, and levels in the Elk River are too much. Curious, and slightly concerned, I asked Kevin what some of the visible effects of the Selenium levels in fish are. He noted that shortened upper jaws and missing gill plates are seen from time to time, but the fish survive with these deformities. He also mentioned that they don’t encounter fish bearing the signs of Selenium poisoning all the time, and while the morbid curiosity that lurks within would have liked to have seen and photographed such a deformed fish, I am pleased to report that no such specimens were seen or caught. That doesn’t mean that this isn’t a huge issue facing the Elk watershed—it is—but I’m not here to go into detail about it. My buddy Derek Young fished the Elk in 2012 and did see evidence of Selenium poisoning in at least one fish (photo below).
Mining is bad for rivers and ecosystems no matter what country you’re in, period. And Canada has had its share of bad press with regard to mining pollution this year (read up on the Mount Polley disaster here). I hope the Canadian government gets on top of things and makes damn sure that the mining companies do their part to clean up their acts. Here’s an article on CBC News British Columbia that talks in greater depth about the issues, and an even more recent article sheds more disturbing light on the matter here. The Elk River is a world class fly fishing destination and the cutthroat in the Elk River are known for their size. Could it be that the fish owe their girth to the mega doses of “supplements” they receive? The fish in the Elk seem to be doing fine for now but too much of anything is a bad thing. Let’s hope that things improve before the entire fish populations are pushed over the brink there, and in the states. You see, the Elk flows into the
Kootenai Kootenay River, which flows into Montana where it’s known as the Kootenay Kootenai River. Therefore the coal mining pollution has become an international boundary water dispute.
Enough aboot mining pollution; let’s go fishing,
shall we eh?
As we prepared to set off down the river we strung up our 6 weight rods with sink tips and our 4 weights with floating lines. We’d be throwing streamers early in the day and switching to dries as the day warmed up and the fish began (hopefully) feeding on top. We would also do a bit of nymphing but we don’t want to talk about that openly—one does not go to the Elk River to nymph. However, if one does one will be fishing with just one fly—no dropper, per fishing regulations. I’m not sure if this one-fly limitation is in place to protect the resource or to discourage nymphing. Either way I had no problem with it because I nearly always catch fish on a dropper. Since we only used one nymph, that was the dropper in my estimation.
It didn’t take us long before we enticed the first fish on a streamer, and while it wasn’t a particularly large specimen it got the skunk off the boat early. We were officially on the board and as we proceeded in the direction of the river’s current we would stay plenty busy fishing this method. The cutts slammed the streamers with enthusiasm—the beauty of streamer fishing—and we caught some decent sized fish up to
about aboot 17 inches. Each time that we floated over a big, deep hole that looked like it might hold a bull trout or two, I got a wee bit excited. But no bulls were seen in the big pools. Many if not most were already up in the tribs getting their spawn on. No worries, we were catching fish—nice fish: beautiful orange and gold cutthroats that seemed more brightly colored than other westslopes I’d seen before in the states. In the back of my mind I was still hoping for a shot at a bull (fish, to be sure—not an elk, although it was elk hunting season in the Elk Valley). A side note aboot bull trout: those who’ve fished for them know their propensity for attacking a trout that has become hooked. I’ve seen it first hand, but nothing quite like what we would eventually experience on the Elk. Yes, we would see some bull trout, up close and personal. Keep reading.
At one point Jimmy was playing a smallish cutt when it was attacked by a very large predator that grabbed the trout in its mouth right at the boat. The trout escaped mostly unscathed and we did not see the big predatory char again. Downstream a short while later as Jimmy was playing a 12 inch whitefish in a fairly shallow, broad riffle, the whitey was bull-rushed by not one, but three big char.
Holy cow Jesus Murphy! The whitey darted madly as one of the bulls snapped at its tail, again right at the boat in shallow water. Kevin was clearly as excited as were we—he’d never seen anything quite like this. Whether that was the truth or he was just building up the event to ensure a generous tip we will never know. It didn’t matter. It was cool. I slapped the 3 inch streamer down into the foray hoping one of the bulls would lash out in anger and take the fly in a fit of confused rage. That didn’t happen, and the whitefish was saved from the jaws of death and counted toward our fish total. The 3 bulls moved a short distance from the boat and continued to lay in the shallows for a period of time. They were each in the upper mid-twenties in length. I wanted one, badly, and put the streamer in front of their noses on several occasions. It was just like sight-casting delicate dries to rising trout, only the streamer was anything but delicate and the char weren’t trout, and they weren’t rising. In fact they weren’t having anything to do with my streamer whatsoever. Eventually they moved off into the depths of the river. We’d had our load of bull for the day, and it was quite a memorable experience. I tossed another American quarter into the tip jar and we proceeded on.
We met up with Marck and Morris for a lunch that, despite having not included back bacon, cheese or poutine, was quite palatable. Tyler’s boat had not been streamer fishing all morning so they’d fallen behind in the ‘most fish’ competition. They’d caught some decent fish, as had we, but with the competition only halfway over the biggest fish was yet to be caught. What Marck and Morris had that we did not was beer—an oversight on our part. That, perhaps, became our advantage. By lunch time the day was quite pleasant despite that the clouds were stubborn and refused to burn off. I was really hoping for some bright sun rays to show off the Elk River in all its Fall splendor, but that was not to be. Still, as the day warmed we hoped the fish would be looking up. They would be.
We learned the this would be Kevin’s last day guiding the Elk for the season. In two days he would be loading up his truck and camper and girlfriend and embarking on a 15 hour drive to chase steelhead for 2 weeks in the mecca of Canadian steelhead waters. Had we known all this prior to the float we may have requested another guide. After all the season was nearing its end. Kevin had fished long and hard, putting in over 60 days on the river with nary a day off. And now he was aboot to embark on vacation. Surely his head wouldn’t be in the game. Very likely he would not be mentally capable of saving his best for last. That proved not to be the case as he worked hard for us all day long, putting us on many a good fish, all the while doing so with enthusiasm and a great sense of humor. The language barrier would ultimately prove minimal.
After breaking for lunch we broke out the 4 weights and began throwing dries. My brand new Sage ACCEL caught Kevin’s attention so we talked a bit aboot that. When I mentioned that I got the rod because it reminded me of my beloved
Z-Axis Zed-Axis, it turned into somewhat of a Sage lovefest. As it turned oot Kevin is also a fan of Sage rods and has a fondness for the Zed-Axis as well. But I digress. Our lunch was barely digested when Kevin slowed the boat and dropped anchor in a fairly nondescript little run. Sure, it looked fishy, but then again so had many other spots we’d floated past withoot spotting any fish rising. Kevin wanted to give this particular spot a closer look, and we were glad he did: fish were soon rising in great abundance. Anchored a mere 30 feet 9.144 meters from the bank, we observed fish feeding in current seams every few feet, sipping on mayflies. The bugs were small; the fish were not. We got a good look at each individual cutt as they rose and picked off bugs: some were larger than others, but it would be not untruthful to say that the smallest fish were 15 inches. Some rose delicately, sticking just their noses above the film while others porpoised completely out of the water. We targeted the fish nearest the boat first, working our way gradually toward the bank. We caught fish in every seam.
As we worked closer to the bank, it became increasingly more difficult top present our flies (or at least it did for me). Casting toward overhanging branches was not without its challenges and at one point I tested Kevin’s patience by hanging up in the same tree no fewer than three times. On three consecutive casts. While Kevin re-rigged my tippet and flies, Jimmy was afforded the opportunity for a power play (that’s a hockey term; Canadians do like their hockey and Fernie is no exception—it has its own hockey team), of which he took full advantage. He would land our team’s big fish of the day while I remained in the penalty box (another hockey term). Noteworthy in particular was one fish that took Jimmy’s fly and instantly acted like no other trout I’d seen before. Without the slightest hesitation it ran, at warp speed, toward the boat, then upstream, downstream, and finally toward the bank and into a snarl of partially submerged branches before snapping off. All Jimmy could do was hold on and laugh. We were amazed at how fast and strong this particular cutthroat was, and how differently it had reacted when compared to the scores of other fish we’d hooked in the same locale. They were all strong fish, but this one had a particularly nasty, un-Canadian-like disposition. It must’ve had a particularly large dose of vitamin S that morning. Perhaps it was even missing a gill plate…
The trouts rising in this fairly nondescript run left their welcome mat out for well over an hour and a half as Jimmy and I took turns landing several and losing several more. There was one last fish; a big, darkly-
colored coloured fish rising tight to the bank under the same overhanging branches that had put me into a timeout a few casts earlier. I wanted that fish as much as Kevin did not want me to lose another fly so I adjusted my angle and made one last hope shot toward the bank. Kevin breathed a sigh of relief as my fly cleared the shrubbery and drifted right over the nose of the fish. Because I was fairly certain I couldn’t duplicate that cast, I breathed a sign of relief when the fish sipped my fly and the hook was set. I breathed another sigh of relief when that fish was brought to the net. It was the last fish we’d catch from that nondescript little run, and as it turned oot it would be the last fish caught that day. Time-wise we’d fallen way behind and had some water to cover to catch up with the other boat so that we could humbly announce to them that we had already won the “most fish” competition, and likely the “biggest fish” as well thanks to Jimmy’s 18+ inch bruiser.
We pushed through a couple miles of river, fishing streamers occasionally when things looked right to do so, but mainly cutting the distance between our boat and the takeout. As we proceeded quickly downriver we had time to sit back and reflect on the beauty of the area. Aspen and cottonwoods were turning shades of yellow and gold, further enhancing the natural glory of the area. But a coal train served as a reminder that beauty is sometimes skin deep.
The day threatened rain but never made good on that threat, thankfully. The w#nd had begun to rear its ugly head and the temperature was dropping as we encountered the other boat above the takeoot at Olson. A brief exchange indicated that Marck and Morris had not encountered the same pod of rising fish in the nondescript run that we had. But again, they did have beer. It was clear that the 30-some odd fish we’d landed would best their total, and while it was likely an act of welfare Jimmy and I conceded the biggest fish to their boat. We split the pot with them and that night we would share in the cost of beer—probably a good thing since it cost $38 (Canadian) for 2
pitchers jugs of beer. And Canadian jugs are no bigger than American jugs.
The next day we would head into the bear-infested hills past Sparwood to chase fish a small trib of the Elk River, so tune in next week,
unpleasant persons hosers.