By Dana Sturn
Photographs by Geoff Moore
Lakes puzzle me. Sure, I can troll randomly and find a fish or two, but to get a lake dialed and turn it into a consistent producer? That’s magic I don’t possess.
Enter Brian Chan, British Columbia’s soft-spoken and affable stillwater magician. Like Penn and Teller, who demonstrate how magic works without tarnishing its luster, Chan shares innovative stillwater methods that make the entire experience more rewarding, turning his secrets into our success.
And now, at 63, he has performed this act for five decades.
Chan understood early on what he wanted in life, a path his father charted by introducing Chan to the outdoors, taking him salmon fishing on the salt water outside of Vancouver. By the time Chan was in fourth grade, his parents also had a solid idea of what their son might become. In fact, that year Chan told his parents exactly what he wanted to be: “I wrote a little paragraph saying that I wanted to be an ichthyologist,” Chan said. “My mom still has that paragraph.”
Chan’s interest in stillwaters began soon after when his father took him and one of his friends to a Vancouver-area lake. Chan’s father sat in the car and read a newspaper while the boys fished in the rain.
“That’s when I caught my very first trout,” Chan said of the tired old brood-stock hatchery rainbow he landed that day, youthful enthusiasm still evident in his voice. “Dew worm under a red-and-white plastic float. I can still see that float go down. That’s probably why I love indicator fishing so much.”
That was a memorable experience, but it wasn’t until Chan took a trip to British Columbia’s interior-lakes region that he realized the lifelong path. “Some family friends took me to fish Heffley Lake, near Kamloops, when I was about 10,” he said. “We caught rainbow trout, and I remember they were just beautiful. Right then I knew that’s where I wanted to live.” It would take years but, with eyes firmly fixed on those rainbows, eventually Chan would get there.
After graduating from high school, Chan enrolled in the British Columbia Institute of Technology and completed its Wildlife Technology program. After graduation he explored BC’s central coast while working for Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Still, the interior-lake country pulled at his core.
“I was living in Bella Coola,” Chan said, “but I wanted to live in Kamloops so I could fish those lakes.” To get there he hired on as a fisheries technician in Kamloops. Eventually he took leave from those duties and earned a bachelor’s degree in freshwater ecology from Simon Fraser University. Degree in hand, he returned to Kamloops and worked as a fisheries biologist for 29 years.
During that time he met legendary interior-lakes angler Jack Shaw, who quickly became his mentor, which makes it no surprise that Chan’s name is deeply associated with fishing British Columbia lakes with chironomids.
He never wants the limelight, and he’s very humble. But he’s the heart and soul of BC lake fishing . . . . He always has time to talk to people and answer their questions. —Mike Mitchell
“I learned a lot from Jack,” Chan said. “He really taught me the value of chironomids to the fly fisher. Back then chironomid fishing was Type II sinking lines or floating lines with longer leaders.” Chan also continued to refine his own approaches and learn from the methods of others. In the 1980s some anglers from Washington State appeared using corkies with toothpicks to hold them in place on their leaders. “When those strike indicators came along,” he said, “it changed everything.”
Another big change occurred in 2003, when Chan was seconded to the Freshwater Fisheries Society and headed its new sportfishing division. At that time British Columbia fishing-license sales had declined; Chan was challenged to increase awareness of provincial fishing opportunities and boost license sales. In those days 70 percent of license sales went back into fisheries-related projects. Today 100 percent of license-sales revenue is invested in projects and services aimed at improving recreational fisheries.
These days Chan keeps busy promoting British Columbia’s fishing (see “Deep Water Anxiety,” Summer 2016). You’ll see his efforts at trade and consumer shows, where he performs spokesman’s duties for the Society, and on TV, where he often cohosts fishing shows. If you Google his name with the tag “fly fishing,” you’ll get numerous results. In addition, Chan is a skilled and widely read author and the host of numerous DVDs explaining the nuances of fishing chironomids and other patterns on the province’s inland lakes. He is also a licensed guide and spends much of his year introducing new anglers to the sport or teaching the old guard fresh tricks. Those efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Chan is held in high regard by his peers.
“He never wants the limelight, and he’s very humble,” said Mike Mitchell, host of “BC Outdoors Sport Fishing,” a TV program that often features Chan as a guest. “But he’s the heart and soul of BC lake fishing. And no matter where he is or what he’s doing, he always has time to talk to people and answer their questions.”
Over the years Chan has developed countless stillwater patterns that are now standards on interior lakes, including the Ruby-Eyed Leech and multiple chironomid imitations. He also has developed specialized fly-line systems for RIO.
According to Simon Gawesworth, RIO’s brand manager, “With Brian’s extensive skills, passion and experience in stillwater-fishing techniques, it was a pretty obvious choice to ask him to help create, develop and test some of our core lake products.”
Even those who hardly know Chan attest to his contributions to our sport. Kelly Galloup, an admitted “fish freak” who targets large trout on moving waters and stillwaters, is one of them. “I don’t know Brian well,” Galloup said, “but I’ve admired his work for decades. It’s safe to say that he and Phil Rowley shaped many of my lake-fishing theories and techniques, and that has had a big influence on the way I look at my lake patterns. Brian has had a major influence on the stillwater scene and continues to influence nearly anyone who fishes stillwaters. What separates Brian from many so-called experts is that he fishes a lot, and his patterns and techniques are born on the water.”
While Chan is humble about his contributions, there is little doubt his influence fuels the Society’s efforts and has led to growth in British Columbia’s fishing ranks, especially on its interior lakes. For Chan, however, it always goes back to the act of fishing. “I’m most proud that I’ve taught a lot of new anglers how to become more successful from a biological perspective,” he said. “How to approach fishing with an understanding of why fish bite through the study of things like lake biology and water chemistry. It’s really rewarding to hear from anglers about their successes and to think I might have contributed to that in a small way.”
The changing seasons frame Brian Chan’s year. When the lakes are iced over, he cross-country skis; and he hunts deer and moose in season. He recently has taken up bowhunting, and he likens its challenge to fly-fishing. But British Columbia’s interior lakes keep him busiest, and from ice-off to freeze-up he often can be found on the waters around Kamloops, perhaps guiding, perhaps fun-fishing with family or friends. In August 2015 my son, Dannon, and I were the lucky tagalongs.
When we arrived at a predetermined lake, Chan was already on the water fishing. Dannon gave him a wave, and within minutes Chan was at the boat launch shaking our hands. Chan cautioned that fishing had been slow, adding that he was sure the bite would pick up now that the “real” fisherman had arrived. My son grinned. And pick up it did.
That’s Chan’s magic: making a stranger feel like a friend and turning a child into the best angler around. Thanks to Chan, lake fishing with a fly is not some arcane pursuit mastered by only a secretive few. Chan’s efforts make a day on the lake a satisfying experience accessible to all. By generously sharing his knowledge and finding joy in watching others’ success, he has become one of the sport’s premier ambassadors. Brian Chan is a great angler and a great human being, and for that he is honored as Fly Rod & Reel’s 2016 Angler of the Year.