An Early October Elk Hunt

An Early October Elk Hunt

BC's Elk River is spectacular in the fall

  • By: Todd Tanner
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Todd Tanner

There's something truly primordial about our fear of being eaten. Death, of course, visits all of us in one form or another, and most folks eventually come to grips with the idea that our life will end and the world will go on without us. But getting eaten…damn. The prospect conjures up all sorts of nasty images, and it doesn't seem to matter whether it's a shark or a crocodile or a grizzly bear with its teeth in our guts. It's an ugly business, pure and simple.

When you take the time to think about it, our general aversion to being chomped actually extends beyond our own flesh, encompassing not only our loved ones and our pets but, surprisingly, a wild cutthroat trout whose sole tenuous attachment to our lives is through a 6-weight fly line on a gorgeous British Columbia river. The Elk River, say, in southern BC. You could almost say that while he's on our line, that trout is under our protection. It's supposed to be a fair contest between man and fish. Remember Michaleen, from the great John Wayne film, "The Quiet Man?"

"Gentlemen, if you please. This is a private fight. The Marquess of Queensbury rules will be observed on all occasions…Non-belligerents will kindly remain neutral."Nature has its own rules, though, and they don't often take into account our civilized sensibilities. So when a monster of a bull trout grabbed Lynn's cutt by the tail and was trying to eat it right off the end of his fly line, we were first amazed, and then incredulous, and then perhaps just a little offended. Well, at least Lynn and I seemed offended. Braide, Lynn's son, moved right past empathy for the cutt and focused on catching that big bull with one of the nine-inch pike flies he'd brought along for just such an occasion.

Lynn said he was going to keep his fingers out of the water.

The Elk isn't a civilized river, and that's not just because it's home to bull trout longer than your leg. Although it's only half an hour north of the Montana border, the Elk flows through some of the most incredible scenery on the continent, with jagged mountains looming over the river valley and forests of larch and spruce spreading out as far as the eye can see. It's wild country (as wild as anything with a few paved roads and a handsome little town like Fernie, BC, can be) and the elk tracks and bear scat on the river's edge are simply smaller manifestations of the region's untamed nature.

In other words, if it isn't the perfect place to fish for trout, it's so damn close that it doesn't matter.

Todd Tanner

Lynn and Braide Sessions hail from the Henry's Fork-Ashton, Idaho, to be specific-and the three of us hoped a mid-October trip to the Elk would be just the thing to wrap up another fishing season here in the Rockies. Both father and son are fly-fishing guides and the fact that they were eager to drive the 500-odd miles from Idaho to the Elk should give you a feel for just how special it is. There's some awfully good water, including the Henry's Fork, the Madison, the Yellowstone and the South Fork of the Snake, within an hour or two of Ashton. You don't travel all the way to British Columbia, and pass up so much quality angling closer to home, without an excellent reason.

When we finally rolled into Fernie, having already convinced the gal at Canadian customs that we were fishermen and didn't represent any serious danger to her country's security, we grabbed the necessary licenses and permits, and then made a beeline for the river. The weather forecast, which had been calling for rain and cold temperatures, was dead wrong and we wanted to take advantage of the sunshine and blue skies while they lasted.

That very same sunshine proved to be our undoing, though. With clouds and a steady drizzle, you can fish the Elk and convince yourself that it's just another river. After all, gray is gray, and it's easy enough to concentrate on the angling when all that you see is damp and dreary. But if you float the Elk in sunshine, in October no less, with the river winding through peaks that literally steal your breath away while the aspen, birch, cottonwood and larch paint the slopes in swaths of brilliant gold, it's difficult to keep your eye on a dry fly. You just can't. Those damn mountains, rising up from the forest floor for as far as the eye can see, are hypnotizing, enthralling, captivating-you literally cannot focus on the water, not with every bend in the river revealing some stunning new vision of the Creator's handiwork.

It's a crazy place.

I followed Braide's lead and switched to streamers. I could pick out my target, shoot in a cast, and then fish it blind. The trout that I'd missed with my dry flies, beautiful westslope cutts that averaged between 14 and 18 inches, were just as happy to eat streamers. Even better, I got to stare at the mountains to my heart's content.

Not that I was the only one doing a little gawking. By the end of our float all three of us had missed fish because we couldn't keep our eyes off the scenery. It probably didn't help that the Elk's cutthroats were keying on the plentiful October caddis. With a fair number of the big bugs around, the trout, which were as brilliantly colored as the fall foliage, seemed happy to slam pretty much any oversize imitation we tied on, which made for a tough choice: We could throw streamers and hook nice cutts while looking at the mountains, or fish dries and miss strikes because we were looking at the mountains.

Yeah, life can be pretty hard.

We had dinner in town that night-Fernie is a great place to visit, with a handful of decent restaurants, comfortable lodging and a genuinely friendly feel-and then caught the tail end of the Mets/Dodgers playoff game at a sports bar. A little earlier, at the takeout, Braide had wandered off and hooked a dozen more trout while Lynn loaded the boat onto the trailer as the Harvest Moon rose over the mountains to our east. With that huge moon rising up from the peaks, on top of all those incredibly beautiful fish and a day full of mind-boggling scenery, sometimes you just end up feeling blessed.

The following morning we ate breakfast and then decided not to fish the Elk. Yeah, I know, how could three anglers float the Elk, have an incredible day, and then just leave? Well, to be absolutely frank, we'd heard some wild stories about a little creek, a tributary in fact, that might be on the far side of spectacular, and being adventurous and pretty well sated-the most common phrase the night before had been something along the lines of, "If I don't catch another fish for the next two days, it will still be a great trip"-it honestly seemed like the thing to do.

At least until the creek, which was a fair drive from town, turned out to be so skinny that you could almost jump across it in spots. But we were there to fish it, so we threw on our waders and proceeded to catch just as many fish as we had the day before. It wasn't always easy, mind you. The trout, living as they were in such thin water, proved skittish, and you had to make a decent cast and get a good, drag-free drift before they'd eat your fly. But we landed some beauties-stunning cutts that were every bit as big and healthy as anything we'd taken on the Elk. And after a day on the big river, the intimate little creek was perfect; a slice of pie and a good cup of coffee on the heels of a great Thanksgiving dinner.

Speaking of Thanksgiving, the gal at the hotel desk in Fernie asked us if we were in town to celebrate. We, of course, scratched our heads and asked, "Celebrate what?" Well, it turned out that we were only a couple days removed from Canada's Thanksgiving and most of the hotel's guests were there for the big holiday.

Being from the States, the idea of Thanksgiving in October seemed a little strange at first. Then again, any day we had a chance to fish up in BC was a cause for thanks, and in that context it was easy enough to join in the spirit of the moment.

Todd Tanner

We spent our last day in British Columbia on the river above Fernie, and while this might start to sound boring and repetitive to those of you who've never actually floated the outskirts of heaven for cutthroats and bull trout-we smoked 'em. The morning was cloudy and misting, so when the clouds parted and the blue skies came out, it was too pretty for words. When we hit an island that divided the river I sat and watched Lynn stick a nice trout on the far bank. He was backlit by the sun, his rod arced and the water brilliant with silver light, and I swear he looked more like some ancient spirit of the river than a flesh-and-blood human being.

Maybe other folks feel like they actually deserve such great fishing, and such incredible scenery. It's funny, but I honestly don't. It almost seems like a place so close to perfection should be reserved for the saints and special people of the world-the Mother Teresas and Gandhis and Black Elks and Mister Rogers who offer so much of themselves to the rest of us. Yet deserving or not, I can't imagine giving it up.

In fact, from the time we're little kids we hear all this stuff about religion and rapture and a state of grace. Mostly it's associated with preachers on a Sunday pulpit and stained glass windows and so on. But you can't stand on gravel bars like the ones I stood on, with good friends at your side, pure river water at your feet, rising trout in front of you and impossibly huge mountains all around, and not be touched. Call it what you want; pick the words that suit you. The Good Lord did some of his finest work on the Elk and we're blessed that our neighbors to the north are willing to share their bounty with those of us who love to fish.