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Down a Lazy River –
A Fly-rodding Adventure on the Lower North Saskatchewan

 

When it comes to fishing in moving water, for a vast majority of Alberta flyrodders, it’s fundamentally an upstream affair.

Sure there are some cosmic Arctic grayling creeks around Fort McMurray and elsewhere in the northern boreal.

But the Front Range of the Rockies, whose snowfields and glaciers are the genesis of a myriad of trout, grayling and mountain whitefish streams, is the jewel in the Alberta flyrodders’ crown.

Of course, there are trout angling opportunities all over the landscape thanks to the progressive stocking program developed in the 1950s. When you get out from under the shadow of the Eastern Slopes, angling with a fly inevitably has a stillwater somewhere in the scenario.

So there was something surreal and unsettling about heading down the Yellowhead Highway with a couple of flyrods in the back, the morning sun in my eyes and a river angling experience in my immediate future.

While my inner angler kept shouting “wrong way, Jose!”

I was riding out on the flatland at the invitation of Alberta’s premier downriver guide Shane Hansen (www.northsaskatchewanriverguide.com) for a day of flowing water flyrodding.

Our target water was only a short jetboat trip from the Saskatchewan border and the flow we would be fishing had left its Saskatchewan Glacier birthplace a week or so ago.

And to pile it on, there were no trout or grayling present in the runs, eddies and glides of this stretch of the lower North Saskatchewan River we would fish.

I met Shane at the Heinsberg launch and rigged my rods while he launched his Marathon Marine jet boat.

Shane Hanson at the controls of his Marathon Marine jetboat
Shane Hanson at the controls of his Marathon Marine jetboat

Hansen has built a loyal client base offering trips on the big water for sturgeon during the run-off months.

And when the snowmelt and early summer monsoons have abated and the river “gins” up, he switches focus to the NSR’s prolific walleye population, which often yield triple figure days.

But that involves bottom fishing with nightcrawlers and frozen minnows from a static platform.

Flyfishing in a river context usually means going with the flow, casting to the likely-looking holes, buckets and current brakes.

Or better still, drifting flies over surface feeders.

Fortunately the lower North Saskatchewan has impressive numbers of insect-eating fish, willing and able to smack a dry fly presented over their feeding lanes.

None of them are species that flyfishers normally associate with our sport.

They are goldeye and more importantly their close cousins mooneye.

We loaded the gear, Shane backed the jet into the flow, hit the throttle and we were off.

The primal black poplar banks closed in on us. Up ahead a black bear swam the river. The Moose Island bald eagle rested in a towering river-bottom spruce. The North Saskatchewan down here remains pretty well the same as when David Thompson first saw it.

Almost immediately we found fish feeding in a slick.

Since it was mid-summer and there were no visible bugs present, I reckoned a hopper was something they might recognize.

I was correct and was immediately rewarded with a hook up when I twitched the foam pattern. A fish like a chrome hubcap launched in the morning sunshine and jumped a couple more times before sliding into Shane’s net.

The half crescent over its eye identified it as a mooneye.

Lower North Saskatchewan River mooneye
Lower North Saskatchewan River mooneye

This was going to be easy. Or so I thought.

The rise suddenly ended, the fish switched off and it was over.

I put away the 5-weight dryfly rod, picked up my 8-weight walleye stick and was able to dredge up a couple of ‘eyes with a Bunny Strip streamer in a tempting Eddie known only to Shane.

Then there were insects on the water again. Fish began eating them.

A big tan bug with upright mottled wings, which I mistook for a hexagenia - Alberta’s largest mayfly - began drifting by.

On closer inspection it turned out to be a very large pale morning dun which was hatching sparsely over the feeding lanes.

Whenever one remained on the water for a prolonged drift it disappeared in an aggressive swirl.

An extended body Parachute Brown Drake worked well. Until the hatch petered out and so did the rise.

Shane ran the boat over to the shady south bank where we found a riffle literally boiling with rises.

But they didn’t want to know about the Drake or a number of other flies in my boxes.

Until I knotted on a generic H and L Variant which got the mooneyes’ interest again.

Downriver flyfishing species have largely flown under the radar, for a fundamental and compelling reason.

They have too many bones, their flesh isn’t firm and unless they are brined and smoked they are almost impossible to consume.

Luckily this eat-what-you-catch ethos is no longer a guiding principle for a majority of flyrodders who have advocated catch-and-release as a key conservation tenent.

What does count is a free-rising fish with enough mass to provide a worthy tussle on appropriate tackle in a gorgeous natural setting. A little mystery adds to the narrative.

Lower North Saskatchewan River mooneye tick all the boxes. Because they are largely inedible angling pressure over the years has been minimal and they inhabit the big river in prolific numbers.

The long leisurely march toward midsummer’s night had begun. The river turned molten pewter and the evening birds came out.

Evening calm on the North Saskatchewan River
Evening calm on the North Saskatchewan River

So did a snow-white mayfly. Not an occasional specimen like the day hatches. But in a great creamy mass, breeding in the soft evening air above the glides, them falling to the surface to deposit their eggs and die.

The river became electric with fish as we drifted homebound for Heinsberg, rising all around the boat in a manic feeding frenzy.

Spent insects lay in windrows along the current breaks as I searched in my fly supply for something somewhat similar to the bug on the mooneyes’ menu.

Blanket hatches like Shane and I were in the midst of can be as frustrating as they are fascinating.

The fish had clearly made up their minds what they wanted to eat. Close enough didn’t count. It was an exact imitation or nothing.

Snow-white, down-wing mayflies are an unknown entity on the Eastern Slopes trout streams. I’ve never encountered such a hatch.

So, needless to say I didn’t have a reasonable facsimile to offer.

I could only watch in amazement as the lazy river drew us homeward, while the mooneye hordes ignored my multiple offerings and fed in what can only be described as a frenzy.

Extended-body Brown Drake dry fly
Extended-body Brown Drake dry fly




Previous Fishing Articles

(1) Down a Lazy River –
A Fly-rodding Adventure on the Lower North Saskatchewan

(2) The Fly Fishing Season Ahead

(3) IN SEARCH OF SPECKLED FOOTBALLS

(4) FISHING CANADA'S PRAIRIE CITIES

(5) Bright Fish from the Land of Silver

(6) Canada's "Other" Salmon

(7) Fall Walleye

(8) Wet Flies

(9) Versatility the Key to Success

(10) Grayling of the Boreal

(11) Teaching Kids To Fly Fish

(12) Size Matters

(13) Fly Fishing Small Streams

(14) Chasing Winter Whites One Lake At A Time

(15) Manitoba's Fishing Jewel

(16) The Twelve Gifts Of Christmas

(17) The Point Of It All

(18) Fishing With Friends-Big Weather Seizing The Day

(19) Fall Fly Fishing

(20) Personal Pontoon Boats 101

(21) Big River, Big Fish

(22) Bottom Bonanza

(23) Fishing Small Flies

(24) So Many Choices, So Little Time

(25) Four Seasons of the Bow

(26) Favourite Lakes - Some Like it Hot

(27) GEARING UP FOR SMALL STREAM TROUT

(28) Trout Hunting - New Zealand-style

(29) Don’t Leave Home Without Them –
10 Lures That Should Be In Everyone’s Tackle Box

(30) Edge Walleye

(31) FLY FISHING STRATEGIES FOR HIGH WATER

(32) Smallmouth Bass – An Oft Overlooked Challenge

(33) Four Corners – Four Waters

(34) Chasing Pothole Trout

(35) Springtime Stoneflies

(36) The Torrents of Spring

(37) Drift Boat Fly Fishing

(38) Bust Them With Bait

(39) Cure the Winter Blues with a Good Book

(40) Hot Strategies for the Cold Months

(41) Cutthroat: The Angler's Trout

(42) Terrestrials

(43) Fly In For Fishing Fun

(44) Rocky Mountain High

(45) Reading the clues

(46) Where the Trout Are
The art of locating feeding trout
in rivers and streams.

(47) K.I.S.S. and Tell Fly-fishin

(48) Fly Fishing 101

(49) To Catch a Big Halibut, or Ling Cod

(50) The Bountiful Bones of Ascension Bay

(51) Grayling in the Eye of the Beholder

(52) Fly Fishing for South Fork Clearwater Steelhead

(53) Manitoba's Red River - North America's Catfish Capital

(54) Eliminating the Spook Factor

(55) Trust Your Electronics

(56) The Most Important Hatch of the Year

(57) Early Season Nymph Fishing for Trout

(58) Finding Success for Ice Trout

(59) Walleye can be Humbling

(60) The Secret to Landing the Big One Finally Revealed

(61) Winter Flyfishing

(62) North Saskatchewan River - An Underutilized Gem

(63) Hot Fall Pike Action

(64) Tips and Tricks to Save the Summer Slow Down

(65) Reading Trout Stream Waters

(66) Frequently Asked Questions

(67) Streamer Fishing for Larger Trout

(68) The Lure of Big Walleye at Last Ice

(69) Deep Water Perch

(70) Post Spawn Brookies

(71) A Fisher's Life

(72) The River's Last Stand

(73) The Big Ones Come out at Night

(74) Coho on the Coast

(75) Chasing and Catching Halibut

(76) Summer in the Mountains

(77) Peak Walleye Season

(78) Slow and Steady Wins the Race

(79) Last Ice Rainbows

(80) The Burbot Event

(81) Tackle Matching

(82) Ice Fishing Strategy #2 - Going Light

(83) Ice Fishing Strategy #1 - Location

(84) The Lure of Brook Trout

(85) The Shallow Water Hunt is On

(86) Hot Backswimmer Action Happening Right Now

(87) Fishing Among Giants-Pursuing Lake Sturgeon on the Prairies

(88) Adventure at Davin Lake Lodge, Northern Saskatchewan

(89) The Vesatile Plug

(90) Bead Head Flies, Plugs and Shot and other Spring Favorites for Pothole Trout

(91) Planning your Upcoming Angling Adventures

(92) Good Fishing at Last Ice

(93) Maximize the Odds - Use Multiple Presentations

(94) Daily Fish Migrations

(95) Fish Migrations - Following the Spawn

(96) Lake Whitefish - An Ice Fishing All Star

(97) Pick Your Favorite Brook Trout Lake...and Go Fishing

(98) A Look Ahead to Great Trout Fishing

(99) Wrestling White Sturgeon on the Fraser

(100) The Fun in Ultra Light

(101) Flyfishing and Leadcore Lines

(102) Embrace the Spirit of Adventure

(103) Never Stop Learning

(104) Ice Fishing is Getting Hot

(105) Jigging through the Ice

(106) An Ice Fishing Unsung Hero – The Setline

(107) Rainbows on Ice

(108) The Season of Ice Begins

(109) Red Hot Fall Pike Action

(110) Hitting it Right with Water Boatman

(111) Facts On Cats

(112) West Coast Adventure

(113) June Walleye Frenzy

(114) Aerated Lakes are Big Trout Factories

(115) "First Fish of the Year - Pothole Rainbows and Browns"

(116) "Northern Exposure"

(117) Sometimes There is More to Fishing Than Catching Fish

(118) Early Season Pike On The Fly

(119) Man Overboard