Fishing for Gold in Coal Country: Day Three

If you’re still reading after Day One and Day Two, welcome to Day Three of our brief trip to Fernie, British Columbia (Canada).

On our third and final day in Fernie we fished on our own, thus avoiding the challenges brought on by the language barrier we struggled with the day before. We chose to follow the recommendation of a friend and pay a visit to one of the many Elk River tributaries, Michel Creek (sounds like ‘Michelle’ only its missing an extra  ‘l’ and ‘e’). Using sign language and rudimentary hand-drawn maps, the good folks at the Elk River Guiding Company were forthcoming with such information as where to go and how to get there. Despite that it was a 45 minute drive from Fernie into fairly remote country, I’d been told that we should not expect to be fishing alone because it’s quite a popular little river stream creek.

I’ve actually never been sure what criteria determines the difference between a river and a stream, or a creek, or even a brook. But in my opinion a creek is a small trickle of water that one can hop across in a single bound; maybe two.  In that regard Michel Creek is more of a river, albeit not a very big one—at least not this time of year (late Spetember).  Perhaps it’s more of a stream. Michel was skinny and creek-like in places, and in those places it could be easily forded without getting wet above the top our wading boots. In other spots it was more streamlike: knee deep and fairly wide. And in other areas there were pools that were downright deep, making it more like a bonafide river.  We fished the deeper runs and pools, of which there were plenty. Oh, and I was also told to expect wildlife sightings. My friend who had recommended Michel Creek told me he’d seen elk, bear, deer and coyotes all on the same trip in about a 2 mile stretch on the river creek. I didn’t expect to see elk, given that it was elk hunting season and the last thing you typically see during a hunting season is the animal which is being hunted.

Looks fishy, and grizzly.

What we did not see were other fishermen. In fact the only other people we saw were elk hunters, one of whom cautioned us to be watchful of Grizzlies.  The entire Elk Valley is known for its high concentration of bears, and because of that I’d purchased a can of Counter Assault before embarking on our trip. Unfortunately I’d left the can of spray at home. Marck and Jimmy had bear spray, so I reckoned that I’d be relatively safe in the event of an encounter as long as I stuck close to them, though not close enough that they could turn the spray on me. That said,  for the first hour of the day I headed upstream while they headed down. To say that I was a wee bit paranoid of a bear encounter would be accurate, and for the first hour I whistled as I worked the water, looking up repeatedly in hopes of not seeing a large bear emerging from the thick brush that lined the river creek. I didn’t, and as the day wore on I became slightly less concerned about bears and more concerned with catching fish.

One needn’t look far for signs of coal mining in trout country.

A two lane road follows the course of Michel Creek so it was easy to see why this river creek gets plenty of attention from anglers. It’s certainly a wild place, though a pristine wilderness it is not as there is ample sign of the mining industry throughout the area. I reckon I shouldn’t have been too surprised as there are very few places, shy of actual dedicated wilderness areas, where one can go and truly be in the wilderness. But after gearing up and walking a short distance to the river I had to admit that I was a bit disappointed. The Michel didn’t look like much, and didn’t produce any fish right off the bat. Upon further exploration upstream, around a bend, things changed for the better. Once out of sight of the road the river creek soon revealed its better self; its surroundings taking on a much more pleasing appearance. Plenty of structure in and along the riverbed, suggestive of big Spring flows, had created some tasty looking trout water. But the Michel didn’t prove to be the welcoming neighbor to the north that I had hoped for. At least not immediately.

Fish the foam.

After fruitless attempts at rising a couple of fish I saw in some large pools, I worked my way downstream, hoping to catch up with someone carrying a can of bear spray, and catch more fish. As I descended I happened upon a spot where a skinny riffle encountered an unyielding rocky bank, forcing the river creek, which looked indeed like a creek in this spot, to make a 90 degree turn.  At this bend was a small but dense patch of foam. It didn’t look like much but a voice in my head said, “Fish the foam. Always fish the foam.” For once I was glad I listened to the voice in my head because the foam produced my first Michel Creek fish. Despite the smallness of the water, the fish in Michel Creek proved to be disproportionately large and the fat 16″ cutthroat was a beauty, and a lot of fun on my new Sage ACCEL 4 weight. For a few minutes I even forgot to glance over my shoulder.

Always fish the foam.

Now that I was no longer facing a skunk, and less concerned with encountering a bear, I began to fish with greater confidence. That doesn’t mean I began catching fish, however:  as I worked through plenty of nice looking water I began to think that I might be little more than a one-fish wonder. I finally caught up with Morris, who was fishing a very deep pool where the river creek met a vertical embankment which dramatically changed its course (the kind of big, deep, swirling pool where you can’t see the bottom). He’d been catching some fish, and in fact had pulled a couple nice trout out of this very pool. Here the creek looked more like a river and there was plenty of room for two so I rigged up a beadhead soft hackle nymph and swung it through the depths. On my second attempt I hooked an agreeable 12 inch whitefish before moving on. Despite that Morris did not have bear spray either, we fished close together for the next hour or so before finally catching up with Marck and Jimmy, and their canisters of security. Undaunted by the possibility of a bear sighting, they were able to relax and focus solely on fishing. And because of that they’d been slaying fish—nice fish—for the better part of the day. Of course they had also been fishing untouched water. Morris and I were fishing their leftovers, and in a small stream with well-defined holes where the fish would be, one does not want to be 3rd or 4th in line.  We opted to break for lunch so we bushwhacked our way back to the road and then walked a mile or so back to the truck. It’s amazing how much distance one can cover while fishing without realizing it constantly looking over one’s shoulder for bears.

The long road ahead.

Following lunch we hopped in Marck’s 4Runner and drove downriver a find some new water.  After dropping Jimmy and me off at one spot, Marck and Morris drove further down. The plan was that Marck and Morris would fish down from where they parked while Jimmy and me I would fish down to where they’d parked. Then we (myself and Jimmy) would drive down and pick them up at the end of the day. And so we hit the river once again, rejuvenated from a beer and sandwich; eager to cover some unmolested water. It felt good to be fishing near someone who had bear spray, too.

The water we’d covered before lunch was far more varied and took us further from the road. It was better water at these low flows. The water we fished after lunch didn’t have as many deep pools and defined holes but we caught a few fish. In fact I caught more trout in the afternoon than I had all morning, but the water was less inviting overall, and the fish a bit smaller. At one point Jimmy and I came upon a run where large rocks broke up the flow of the river. There were no stretches of water that were very deep, and when a BWO hatch came off in the middle of the afternoon there were no fish rising. Not obviously, anyway. But we began to hook a few fish in small pockets behind rocks—in water that appeared on the surface to be too small to hold a respectable fish. They were not the 18 inch fish of the Elk which we’d caught 24 hours earlier, but they were beautifully colored and appeared very healthy—no Selenium-induced deformities.

Jimmy with a nice Michel Creek cutthroat.

After encountering a few welcoming fish we continued down the Michel, covering likely looking water that gave up no fish. The w#nd picked up and it threatened rain but did little more than spit a few drops on us which was a relief because there’s not much enjoyment to be had getting drenched while not catching fish. After a short while we came to a railroad bridge over the river. There had been recent maintenance work on the bridge and from the looks of things the construction crews would probably return soon to finish the work. There were drums of unknown fluids, tools and materials stacked along the side of the tracks. The smell of fresh railroad ties hung in the air—the smell of creosote. Beneath the bridge were chunks of discarded railroad ties, in the river creek. I’m sure the crews would be back to remove those. Marck and Morris were standing along the river a short distance upstream from the bridge, working a long deep run and we could see fish rising from our vantage point. We hadn’t expected to encounter them here as the 4Runner was parked just a short distance away alongside the road.  We expected to have to drive a mile or so downriver to pick them up, but as it turns out Marck and Morris had started heading downstream from the bridge but the water wasn’t very enticing. And they’d found several more chunks of creosote-soaked railroad ties scattered throughout the river below the bridge. The lack of regard for the river creek by the railroad crews was fairly disconcerting.

We called it a day on the Michel and headed back to the car. The collective opinion was that everyone had enjoyed their time on this small river and that we wouldn’t mind returning a little earlier in the year when there was a bit more water volume.  We also acknowledged that if we were to come back earlier in the year we’d encounter more fishermen and perhaps even some critters. In the end no wildlife was seen, and no bear spray was deployed. That said, if we do come back I won’t forget my bear spray next time: you never know when you might have to use it on a railroad worker who’s throwing scraps of toxin-coated wood into a river that’s already dealing with issues from coal mining pollution. 

If you plan to fish Michel Creek, this article will be of much more use to you than the article you’re currently reading. Read the article—it’s a good one, and points out why a dandy little stream like Michel Creek should not be kept a secret—it needs friends.

And thus concludes our trip to Fernie, BC. It was everything I had expected, and more.  Canada is indeed a welcoming place, but the currency issue, language barrier and their unwillingness to drop the metric system are discouraging. And not that you would, but don’t eat the fish. Instead take a multi-vitamin supplement if you want safe doses of Selenium.


  1. Kevin Breen

    Well, Kirk…I finally got around to reading your entire un-accomplished synopsis of your wonderful trip…like all good fishing trips, expectations were met as were un-expectations, and no bodies were mauled….lots of fish were caught, also…which kinda adds to the glamour….nice story…but I was really hoping for a bear….thanks for sharing…

    • Kirk Werner

      Kevin, thanks for reading, and for taking the time to comment. I was really hoping for a bear encounter, too. One that resulted favorably for all included while providing just enough drama to make it a good story. Alas, that was not to be. Maybe I should have just made something up. Maybe next time!

  2. Teddy

    Always fish the foam! I love it. I thought this was a great piece and I felt as if I were there for a moment hah. Awesome trip awesome memories!

    • Kirk Werner

      Thanks for the good word, and for taking the time to dig up this Drivel® from yesteryear! It was an amazing fish in that small patch of foam. And a great fishery overall.

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