Story and photos by Greg Thomas
I don’t like rattlesnakes. In fact, I’ve never spent any time specifically looking for them. I have run into them on occasion, mostly when hunting or fishing, but also once when I unintentionally rode a mountain bike over a hissing, 40-some-incher, with both of my feet splayed to the side and toes pointed at the sky. I may or may not have screamed.
Some people would say that snakes are hiding behind every sagebrush plant on earth, fangs poised and ready to strike, but that isn’t the case. I’ve seen only a dozen or so over the 30-some years I’ve spent tramping around Western trout streams. Still, it’s difficult not to be afraid of them—or if not afraid, at least tactfully aware of their presence even when they’re unseen. That’s human nature. You are rare, indeed, if you don’t involuntarily seize when you detect a snake-like form directly in your path. So it turns out to be a serpentine piece of faded garden hose; your body, for that split second, says, Run for your life!
That’s what happened recently in Alberta, when I was walking a narrow dirt path between high grasses, right in the footsteps of my friend Randy, and a snake shot out from under his boots and raced between my legs. I yelled. Randy laughed, just as he had a few minutes prior when I’d grabbed a thick line of barbed-wire fence running across a stream and lifted it so he could duck under and not tear his backpack or the backside of his shorts. That’s when a bolt of electricity ran up my arm and seemed to blow up in my left elbow with an audible snap. Snakes. Electricity. Now I know the presence of each offers an equal effect on the body.
So here we were in Alberta, each of us snake-wary and walking the final quarter-mile to our truck, with a massive thunderstorm nipping at our backs. As Randy pushed on, I unzipped my pack and removed a round plastic container that loosely held about five-dozen split-shot. With the wind humming, rain falling and lightning cracking overhead, Randy had no idea I’d sneaked within a few inches of him. When I lowered my left hand to his heels and shook the split-shot loudly, his body went into that involuntary defense mode, meaning he pulled his arms in front of him, apparently trying to become as thin as possible, and quickly thrust his body forward all while turning his head and yelling, “Whoa!” Just as quickly, he understood it as a farce, but not before I was already bent over, hands on knees, laughing loudly. A moment for memory, a little form of perfection.
We’d come to Alberta on a whim, deciding on a Wednesday evening that I would forego a trip to the East Coast and, instead, chase trout along southern Alberta’s Rocky Mountain Front—something I’ve wanted to do for decades.
When I called, Randy asked, “When do we leave?”
“Friday at five,” I said.
“For how long?” he asked.
“Four days,” I answered. “A true DIY road trip. No lodges. No guides. No set plans. Liquid. Learn on the fly. We won’t be able to do it all. But, if we like it, we can come back to do it all over again.”
Randy paused for a millisecond and said, “I’m in. I’ll pack my camper.”
I ended the call, walked downstairs to the bookcase and searched for a copy of Due North of Montana: A Guide to Flyfishing in Alberta.
Alberta hosts a bevy of productive trout streams ranging from the Red Deer, Ram and Raven rivers, north of Calgary, to the Crowsnest, Castle, Oldman and Highwood, south of the city. All of these rivers are detailed in Due North, and all of them have beckoned since I bought the book in the ’90s. As we drove north out of Montana and into Alberta’s southern wheatlands, Randy and I knew one thing: With just four days of fishing, we’d have to pick our targets and hope for the best. And as we pulled into a store at Pincher Creek, the best option appeared to be staying in the camper until a wicked lightning storm and major downpour passed.
Unfortunately the rain held steady, and when we awakened the following day, we dressed as if dealing with an October chill rather than a pleasant summer day. We both knew the water was likely blown out. The peaks surrounding the Oldman were obscured, and low clouds scuttled between the trees. The ground was soaked, and water was pooled in every depression. The previous evening we’d driven by two massive mule deer bucks standing under a tree, exposed to the world, including poachers, declaring that to be dry in a monsoon was more important than staying alive.
Bundled up in waders, sweatshirts and stocking hats, we began a mile-long hike to the river, and then scrambled down a cliff to the water, hoping the added effort would relate to solitude and some willing cutthroat and bull trout. The previous evening, on the drive into the Oldman, we had noticed that all of the campgrounds and unimproved sites—almost anywhere you could pull a vehicle off of the road—were already taken by anglers.
The Oldman is a beautiful mountain trout stream, perfect for cutthroats as it rolls from one deep pool to the next. Some of the pools are formed by ledge rock, others by steep rock walls rising vertically from the water. The fish hold in the pools but spread throughout the run as daily summer hatches begin. You can take the fish on classic cutthroat flies—Humpies, Wulffs, flying ants, Chubby Chernobyls—but more specific imitations, such as the Purple Haze, Parachute Adams, X-Caddis and Rusty Spinner get better results. You have to remember—as I learned on this trip—that these streams all rest within a day’s drive of Calgary, with its 2 million residents, of which a high percentage must be anglers. These fish see pressure. These fish see all sorts of flies. These aren’t your typical cutthroat trout that rise without question to dries. Maybe early in the season, but not in August.
That morning we pulled a handful of nice cutthroats from the Oldman—one on my first cast (which made me believe we were in for a field day)—but we didn’t catch nearly as many as we thought we might. By the time we’d worked another mile downstream, we discovered that we weren’t alone. We heard voices, and then glanced down from a bluff above the river to find a bikini-clad young woman in the river, laughing and holding a tissue high. I don’t want to discuss what was going on, but I was glad I wasn’t still wet-wading downstream from her. I pitied the giant bull trout we’d seen in a pool below, better than 30 inches long for sure, that might soon mistake some floating missile for a mouse, something that would never be forgotten in bull-trout circles and often recounted as the time Walter ate a UFO (unidentified floating object), flipped on his back and floated away in the current, never to be seen again.
I digress. We fished a few other spots on the Oldman that day, but the outcome was the same. The water was up and off-color. The fish were hesitant to rise. Probably they were trying to find a comfortable place to hide in the elevated flow. By 4 pm we called it quits and decided to drive north to the Highwood River. We’d been told that this stream harbors rainbows better than 20 inches, plus bull trout and a bunch of cutthroats. And then somewhere along the way we crossed a beautiful canyon and a small mountain stream and said, simultaneously, “What about that?” We hadn’t even seen it on a map, and nobody had said a word about it.
Twenty minutes later we were downstream from the bridge watching an 18-inch cutthroat gracefully sipping flies off the surface. Trouble was, we couldn’t even see the flies it was eating. Randy tied on a Chubby. No go. Then he tried an Adams. Nothing. He shook his head and was off, headed downstream to another beautiful pool. I tied on a flying ant and made a couple of casts. Rejection. I tied on a Rusty Spinner, and again the fish snubbed me. I tied on a small, green hopper and promptly fouled it on the opposite bank. Game over on that dude.
I retied tippet, wound on another Adams, hit a pool just upstream and yarded out a 15-inch cutthroat. A few casts later I had another. I shouted so that Randy would look upstream and think that I’d hooked the 18-incher, and that’s exactly what happened: He looked up, saw the rod bent, and then shook a fist at me and yelled, “I suck!” as he’d been frustrated more than once this day.
After a while I waded down to Randy, and from the opposite bank I said, “This makes me want to fish this creek all the way to its confluence. But we wouldn’t get out of here until after dark.” We had headlamps. We had a camper to sleep in wherever we chose to park. We had food. What we didn’t have was time. But we did have a game plan.
“If we fish this out, we won’t get to the Highwood until tomorrow afternoon,” I yelled over the sound of a rapid running between us. “Do you think we should go?” Randy raised an arm over his head and motioned upstream, and 20 minutes later we were in the truck driving north again.
“That was tough,” Randy said. “You know there were some good fish downstream from us too. And I bet there were bull trout stacked up at the mouth of that creek.”
I agreed, adding, “I know, but like we said, we can’t do it all this time. Another day we’ll be back and can hike this whole thing.”
When we got to the Highwood that evening, we ran into a problem that threatened to become the theme for the trip: another electrical storm moved in and forced us off the water just after we’d arrived at a confluence pool that we’d singled out from some local intel. There were supposed to be a bunch of cutts and bulls spread through the section, but especially at the mouth of the creek. Randy might have stayed through the storm and fished, but I once had a lightning bolt hit 10 yards from me, and that wasn’t a pleasant experience.
We woke the next day to more of the same: unsettled weather and a chalky river on the rise. We considered leaving the mountains and finding water elsewhere, but I wanted to fish a particular feeder stream and had a hunch it was clear even with the main river blown out.
And my hunch proved true. We spent a half-day bushwhacking upstream and crawling around and sometimes over vertical cliffs. We worked our butts off to reach water that few people fish, and mostly it was worth the effort. We saw some beautiful country, but the bulls and cutts acted the same way here that they had elsewhere.
That evening we decided to try the Highwood’s canyon section, because I’d read so many great things about it in Due North. I also had read that getting in and out of the canyon was no cakewalk and not for those affected by heights. That was no lie. A first: After hiking across a long, grassy field and through a stand of aspens, we grabbed hold of a rope and lowered ourselves along a trail to the river. There was a place on the trail where you would have died if you’d let go or if the rope had snapped.
It was all exhilarating, and the river was supremely beautiful. I saw a few bull trout, and Randy caught a couple of modest cutthroats, but there was no sign of rainbows. On the climb out of the canyon I noticed that the safety rope was tied to a tiny aspen. I counted the day as fortuitous even though we hadn’t landed many fish. It was good, I declared, just to be alive.
We camped on the Highwood again that evening and looked over the map book. We considered several other streams—all cutthroat and bull-trout waters—but we figured they’d be blown out by the mountain weather too. We talked about returning to the beautiful Oldman even though the water was off. And we figured there would be far fewer anglers on a weekday versus when we had fished it over the weekend. But we decided to pitch the remaining itinerary and wander around Alberta shooting landscape images and documenting the ever-changing light and moods that this gorgeous province provides.
Along the way we pulled in at a random campground to inquire about the fishing in the lake it was perched next to. We met a woman there who, in the 20 years she’d lived next to the lake, had
We shared stories about our kids, talked about our experiences fishing in the mountains and discussed the crazy summer weather that brought record moisture to ultra-green Alberta and brown drought to Montana. And we agreed that the three of us were fortunate to live in the Rocky Mountains—the same landscape, really, just separated by an arbitrary boundary. As Randy and I started to wander away, she said, “Fly-fishing, right?”
We nodded, and she said, “I know a place you guys should go. Hardly anyone fishes there. I’ve heard that the fish are difficult to catch, but they are big.”
Bingo, I say in the slow, accentuated manner of a detective who just found the key clue.
Over the years I’ve learned that the best fishing information can be found by talking with locals, often in bars where buying a few drinks goes a long way toward securing places to fish on private land. These people, often non-fishers, don’t realize that anglers consider each other, at once, both friend and foe. While we keep tight-lipped about particular places and the fish that swim there, these people share information as if the streams were beaches in California where everyone should check out the sunset or rivers that could withstand the masses that invade Times Square on New Year’s Eve. The more the merrier, they must figure.
And I’ve learned that the best part of a good road trip is taking a leap of faith, even from someone who’s lived within a hundred yards of the water for 20 years and has never thrown a cast. When I get back to Alberta, I want to hug that woman.
That’s because Randy and I were on the water shortly after talking with her, and what we saw shocked us: a giant dorsal fin, followed by a long back, followed by the confident tail wag of a large trout eating mayflies off the surface as if it had never been stung by an artificial fly.
We split up, Randy taking one run and I taking another, close enough so that we could hail each other if a good fish was hooked. It didn’t take long before Randy yelled, “You better get down here. It’s big.”
And it was: a huge rainbow, 20-some inches long, taken on a #18 dry. I was next, with a slightly smaller fish that sucked in an Adams. We each caught two more fish before the light faded.
When we reached the camper, I said, “I think we can camp right here.”
Randy replied, “Right now is there any other place in the world to camp?”
We were up at first light, walking the banks, scanning for rising fish. For a while the trout were down, and we learned that these brutes, for whatever reason, weren’t even slightly interested in streamers or nymphs. By midday we saw some rises, and as we continued upstream we found a spot where a half-dozen or more fish were rising predictably. These weren’t pushovers; we had to go to 5X or 6X, fish them from above and let the flies drift, drag-free, over them. Still some wouldn’t eat. The ones that did were rockets. They’d race for the opposite bank and jump as if stung by an electric fence. Later that day, after Randy released another slab, he couldn’t muster anything more creative to say than, “Man, this is good.”
That was the evening I shook the split-shot next to Randy’s heels and he came unglued. By that time we were being pelted by hail and chased by lightning, and the hatch was completely off. It didn’t matter. A good road trip can be measured by many things—the most important, in my mind, being that it includes the unexpected. This we found by encountering fall-like weather and blown-out rivers in August; taking a chance and fishing a feeder stream that’s begging us to return; and nearly tripping over some of the best dry-fly fishing imaginable, only because we changed our itinerary based on frustrations with the weather.
Alberta, we learned, is big and beautiful and full of secrets waiting to be discovered.