Road tripping through Canada and fly fishing Alberta has always been a dream trip for me. The stars aligned last August with an unexpected break between jobs and housing, a thousand dollar van with a makeshift bed and enough smoke filled air in Montana to drive anyone crazy. So I did the only natural thing and loaded the dog, rods and camp stove in Missoula. A few hours later I was at the Stonefly Bar in West Glacier for enough drinks to leave my guide friend hungover on his next day trip. As he was greeting clients, I cruised north to Cardston for a background check, passport stamp and a new adventure.
Fly Fishing the Waterton River
I hadn’t considered that it was a Sunday so exchanging money was out of the question. The sporting goods store was also closed and finding a good map was out of the question. Luckily a gas station would take my credit card for a license and some basic supplies. I found a basic tourist map, enough to roughly make out a few drainages, and began driving. My first accidental water crossing was Waterton Reservoir. Figuring a tailwater might produce, I hopped below the dam and started prospecting with a streamer.
It seemed desolate and after a few hours I jumped back to the van and followed the drainage above the reservoir using a network of backroads. If the cross-sections weren’t so clear and easy to follow, this would likely have been a failure. Luckily, I found a bridge above the reservoir and jumped in the river. It was still slow, especially on the dry and dropper. A small streamer managed to move a few small fish on the way out though. Overall, pretty nice water and not much for people roaming around here. Driving the backroads with distant views of the Canadian Rockies while watching big mule deer eat fresh cut hay was a great end to the day.
Off to the Mountains
I drove through the night and woke up under a bridge on the Oldman River. Bigger water, beautiful water. Really wish I had a jet boat here. I made bacon, eggs and instant coffee under the bridge, watched a guide launch a jet boat and took off for higher ground and wade friendly water.
Without a great map, I just followed a drainage and lucked out when I guessed on a turn off the highway and found dirt leading to public lands with plenty of space to roam around and jump off the roads into river canyons. I’ll refrain from naming any of the waters here but most were spectacular hike-in rivers and streams with canyons, deep runs, pocket water and excellent fishing.
The first evening came with a handful of cutthroats eager for a purple foam hopper and a bull trout in heavy pocket water that ate the same hopper. First time I’ve seen a bull grab a dry. I fished my 5 weight Rise Level series the entire time and it handled everything from 10 inchers to the 24 inch bull trout. Nice to have a great all-round rod.
I stayed at the confluence of two rivers for 5 days, working up the side canyon of each and down the main stem in the evenings. Every day came with numerous beautiful cutthroats over 14 inches and a few random bull trout. The climax was a single run of emerald green water choked between steep canyon walls with difficult access. Perched from a cliffside rock, I crouched down, secured my footing and set to casting directly upriver. A colorful 15 inch cutthroat grabbed and came to net on the first cast. A few casts later, a larger one sucked down a Parachute Adams. After a few seconds, he threw the hook. I immediately cast back into the pool and hooked a small 12 incher. Within seconds, a massive bull trout sprung from below a rock ledge and hammered the cutthroat. The entire fish cleared the surface and landed on his side like a shark. I kept pressure on the now deceased cutthroat until the hook straightened and the king bull trout descended back beneath his ledge.
Back in the Smoke, Worst Wildfire Season Ever
While I was fishing hard without cell service, major fires were springing up in Glacier National Park. Eventually a block of smoke rolled in and I reluctantly pulled camp. Nice thing about a semi converted camper van is the ability to stay mobile. I roamed lower in the river valleys and continued the hot streak between bridge access and farm colonies.
Cutthroats with more frequent rainbows and another big bull that came unbuttoned on a streamer. It was still smoke filled air but I had these rivers to myself. Eventually they flattened out and access became close to impossible so I crossed back over to the United States.
Not Ready to Leave the Campervan for Home
I picked up cell service and found out the room in my new rental was ready. Although a fresh bed and shower sounded nice, I wanted another month of roaming. I settled for 2 days up the South Fork of the Flathead. 60 miles of bouncing on the dirt road with a stop to coat hanger rig a loose exhaust pipe later and I found a quiet riverside camp at sunset. I pulled out the stove and pan fried the perfect steak with mushrooms cooked in a pile of butter.
I started the next morning with a drive up the Spotted Bear where I found some great wade spots and smaller cutthroats. Working down the drainage, the fish started growing a bit and all were eager for purple haze. I hit the main stem hard the next day, continuing the game of hop scotch down the river until it was time to make the long drive down the dirt road home. It won’t be long before I’m fly fishing Alberta again. Next time I want to get farther north, fish the Bow River and play in some of the lower density fish drainages where there may be some bigger brown trout.