Fishing for Gold in Coal Country: Day One


It was a suggestion by Morris several months ago that we pay a visit to our friendly neighbors to the north and fish the Elk River near Fernie, British Columbia (that’s in Canada, FYI). While Morris may not generally be known for good decisions I must admit he was right-on this time.  In advance of our trip we read up on the area in general and the Elk in particular. What stood out was that the Elk is known for its big, wild, native westlope cutts on dries and a chance at even bigger bull trout. That’s all we needed to hear. Canadians are known for their welcoming hospitality—we expected that their fish would be equally as friendly and inviting. I also learned that the area is coal mining country and that the Elk and it’s tributaries face certain issues from mining pollution. We’d learn more about that the next day.

Oh, Canada!

After a 9 hour drive that found us traveling mostly at speeds ranging from 75 mph to 80 kph, a border crossing at Kingsgate (that did not result in detainment or any unsavory searches) and a stop at the Moyie General Store (for the best jerky we’d ever had) we pulled into Fernie, a small ski town nestled along the western slopes of the Canadian Rockies. The weather was overcast with intermittent drizzle so we couldn’t see the peaks that surrounded us, but we could see enough to get a good sense that on a clear day the scenery would be amazing.  The first thing we did was check in to the Red Tree Lodge, which would be our home base for the next 3 nights. Accommodations were quite respectable. In fact, the digs were a few notches nicer than where we typically stay on fishing trips.

Morris, Jimmy and Marck at the Elk River Guiding Company.

Immediately afterwards we drove right to the Elk River Guiding Company and inquired about fishing licenses licences and fees. We would be floating with a couple of their guides the next day, but wanted to ply the waters of the Elk for a few hours that afternoon to see just how welcoming these Canadian fish would be. Behind the counter at the shop was a very pleasant and helpful young lady named Leah. She wasn’t just a pretty face working the desk: as an angler herself she was very knowledgable with regard to fishing the Elk. Leah was forthcoming with information on where to go and not only generous with suggestions for several patterns that would produce fish, but more than willing to sell us several of each pattern! The shop is very well outfitted and Leah made us feel welcome—she even accepted our American currency straight across, despite that the exchange rate favored favoured Canada by 11 cents at the time of  our visit. We purchased our non-tidal fishing licenses licences and paid our $20 daily Classified Waters License Licence fees, thanked Leah for her help and bade farewell until our return the next morning. 

Beauty, eh?

After driving downstream from Fernie a few short miles kilometers we found a pullout and geared up. The Elk follows the highway, or rather vice versa, so access is readily available. This can obviously be a double-edged sword; thus our expectations were limited—if a river can be easily accessed from a road it typically means heavy fishing pressure and very educated or nonexistent fish.

I picked a likely looking spot where one might expect a fish to live and cast a #16 parachute Hare’s Ear into the vicinity. This was not a pattern that was recommended at the shop, but it was a pattern that produced many westslope cutts on the St. Joe earlier in the summer—a confidence fly, as it were. On the first pass a very respectable fish rose to and promptly rejected my fly. Well, THAT wasn’t very welcoming. Turns out I had misjudged the fish on the first pass, and on the next drift the same fish showed its true Canadian colors by being quite hospitable as it decided to indulge me—and in doing so revealed that it was, indeed, a good fish. A little too good, actually, as it slipped my poorly set hook after engaging me in a few exciting seconds of sport. I should point out oot that the Welcoming Canadian Fish was generous enough to return the fly. I moved on to another spot and pretended to appear interested in finding another fish. Actually, I was merely hoping to give Welcoming Canadian Fish a little time to cool down and forget aboot its sore lip. After 20 minutes I would go back to taunt him a second time. Meanwhile I had no luck rising other fish. Marck and Morris had crossed to the opposite bank, and Jimmy had moved upstream a ways. They’d all caught a few modest sized cutts but I wasn’t concerned with their well-being: I was targeting a fish that was more than modest-sized.

Moving back downstream a few paces, and armed this time with a size 18 BWO, I was delighted when the Welcoming Canadian Fish welcomed me a second time by taking my fly on the first pass.  The fish ran toward the middle of the river, put its head down, pulled hard, ran toward the bank, thrashed madly and once again, in a gesture of international generosity, returned the fly to me. I got a good look at the fish this time and can confirm that it was a solid 17 meters inches long (fortunately Canadians use inches when speaking of fish length). It was bright gold with a vibrant orange underbelly—more brilliantly colored coloured than any westslope cutthroat I’d ever seen before. I tied on another fly and angled my way upstream toward Jimmy to see how he’d been making out. Turns oot he’d caught several 10-12 inch fish but nothing for the past hour or so. I tried an October Caddis dry, a white Sculpzilla streamer, and a small Purple Haze dry, all to no avail.  I decided that the third time might be the charm and worked my way slowly back downstream, encountering no willing participants along the way, toward the previously Welcoming Canadian Fish.  As I once-again approached the lair of the fish I heard Jimmy voice his enthusiasm as he played a good fish that he’d just hooked in water I had just angled not 5 minutes previously.  He proceeded to land a beautiful 18 inch fish. What an ass Good for Jimmy!

The third time proved not to be a charm as I could not get the Welcoming Canadian Fish to rise again. As our first day drew to a close, Morris and Marck returned from their cross-river jaunt and reported that they’d kept themselves rather busy catching multiple fish, including some very respectable fish in the 18 inch range. Whatever Good for them! It was encouraging to see that the fish of Canada were living up to the friendly billing of their countrymen, for at least 3 out of the 4 of us.

Not to worry, we’d only fished for about 4 hours and tomorrow would be another day. The fish would have plenty more time to show us me some of their generous hospitality, and with that in mind we headed back to Fernie for some food and libations. Beer is expensive in Canada. So is food. But that didn’t deter us from enjoying pizza and a couple pitchers jugs of pilsner as we enthusiastically pondered what lie in store for us the next day.

Stay tuned, won’t you eh?









  1. Howard Levett

    Nice and entertaining report Kirk. I’m really glad I studied a foreign language while in school. Just goes to show you how valuable education is.

    • Kirk Werner

      Thank you, Howard. And I obviously agree with you. Now, more than ever due to this international community in which we live, it’s important to be able to communicate with our foreign neighbors. While at times a bit awkward, we were able to order beer by grunting an gesturing.

  2. Joe

    Glad you are enjoying the time in Canada and the Elk. Thankfully its a short drive for me to get there and by far one of my favorite places to fish. Get to Michelle Cr if you can.


    • Kirk Werner

      Hey, Joe. We greatly enjoyed ourselves, for sure. Despite the lengthy drive I’ll go back again one day, hopefully when the exchange rate favors the US Dollar. Then again, that may never happen. And you’re getting a couple weeks ahead of me—I’ll write about the Michel in a couple weeks. Thanks for the comment.

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