Updated: Nov 16, 2022
Curtis and stood in ankle-deep water. The sound of quick-moving water filled our ears. To our left, the fast water dropped off sharply into a slow, deep green pool. Ahead of us, only millimeters from the gravelly riffle and aforementioned drop-off, several fish fed on floating insects that bobbed down the riffle. The gravel bed of the river extended in finger-like protrusions out into the deeper water. The plan was to fish the fingers along the pool one at a time along the length of the run. As we re-rigged our lines with fresh dry flies, the fish began feeding heavier than before. One after the other broke the surface with their attacks on the helpless insects, I could see their backs as they sipped the mayflies, they were heavy and dark. Bigger Cutthroats than I had ever seen! It seemed hard to believe where I was and what I was doing at this moment.
"I could see where I needed to cast my fly, up into the faster water."
For years now, it has been elusive to me. A far-off destination that was inaccessible, foreign, and exclusive. But here's the thing: The river is only six hours from my house and is entirely accessible. It is the Elk River in Fernie, BC. I have no idea why it seemed so unattainable to me. It is basically right there in my backyard and like most rivers and streams in Canada, available for everyone to access easily.
The Elk River flows for two hundred and twenty kilometers (140 miles) and has its source deep in the Rockies, at Elk Lakes. These snow-fed lakes sit in a valley between Mount Aosta and Mount Fox very close to the Alberta-British Columbia border. Ultimately, the waters of the Elk River flow into the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean. In select places between Mt. Aosta and the Pacific, the water combines with the perfect amount of minerals, oxygen, nutrients, and biology to produce what is commonly regarded as the best Trout water in North America. Rocky Mountain Whitefish, Cutthroat, and Bull Trout attain a very large size and eagerly consume dry flies and nymphs if you know where to present them.
I have known about this special river for many years. Much has been written and filmed about fly fishing the Elk River near Fernie, BC. I doubt that I will add much to those volumes. However, I would like to share with you my first visit to the river and some of the pictures and stories I collected there.
Curtis Hall and his partner Paige live in Fernie. Curtis is a professional guide in the area, part-time now. He has immersed himself in fly fishing over the years and has become a master at casting, finding fish, and knowing the rivers in the area intimately. He and his Father Mark host the Hunter Conservationist Podcast. I have appeared on their show several times now and we have become friends over the years. When the opportunity presented itself that I should come fish with Curtis, I did not hesitate. Plans were made. I loaded up the Suzuki and made my way to BC. This was the second time this year that I've crossed the border into the lovely province to the west.
While I was traveling, Curtis had made arrangements to borrow a drift boat from his fishing outfitter boss at Fernie Wilderness Adventures for the next day. Luckily for me, there was a boat that wasn't being used, and Curtis was invited to use it. This leads me to my first point about fishing this river. A drift boat is not necessary at all. There are many points along its fishable length where you can walk and wade and access amazing fishing opportunities. Having said that, the boat gave us access to fish in otherwise unavailable locations and we could fish comfortably as we drifted to the next great spot to get out and wade. So, while not necessary, it was a valuable tool. It makes me want to build a drift boat...hmmm
Another obvious benefit to hiring a guide and his boat is that you will learn so much about the river, flies, and techniques that produce trophy-class Cutthroat. I would've caught fish on my own, but now I have knowledge from fishing with Curtis that will stay with me forever. As I write this, I have holes and riffles pictured in my mind that would be very hard to stumble upon accidentally. And of course, Curtis showed me a few of his guide tricks for making fish appear on the end of fly lines. It was a productive day in many ways aside from just catching fish.
I could see where I needed to cast my fly, up into the faster water. Not too far though and not too close, the fly needed to drift, drag-free, down the length of one of those gravel fingers where the huge trout were still actively feeding. The first cast was decent, nothing happened. Again, this time a perfect cast, right where I needed it. Too far up into the white water and it would submerge and become soaked. Too close to the feeding fish and they'd know there was something wrong here. The fly bobbed down the riffle and just as it hit the darker, deep water, a splash! This was a big fish for me...I had never caught a Cutthroat more than fourteen inches. Those fish simply don't exist on the streams that I fish closer to home.
"We both whooped and laughed at the take and now the ongoing fight of fish versus bamboo"
Instantly the line that, moments before, lay floating about my feet was gone and the fish was onto the reel and out into the deep water downstream. My beloved two-weight bamboo rod, built with my own hands, strained completely against the power of the fish on the end of the line. There was more bow in the rod than I had ever seen and the picture of it snapping in half was clear in my mind, even as I struggled to get the big fish closer to the net. Curtis was right there and we both whooped and laughed at the take and now the ongoing fight of fish versus bamboo.
Almost as suddenly as it started, the fish was in the net and the rod and line went slack. This was the biggest Cutthroat I had ever caught. We admired him quickly, snapped a picture in the net, and then dipped him back into the water. He thrashed away out of sight as if he had never been absconded from his home by these strange two-legged creatures above him.
The high-fives went around our little group; smiles, and excited congratulations at a perfectly executed stalk on the fish we had drifted upon. Curtis ended up catching two or three more out of that same run and I lost maybe four more. There was just a bad string of luck with fish not fully committing to eating the fly or hook sets that were too early. But there was that one fish. The big golden Elk River Cutthroat that I will remember forever. The ones that got away didn't bother me in the least.