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Size Matters

 

In the mythological, quixotic and fantasy world of fly fishing the trout stream is ground zero. The point of entry, the wellspring, the source from which all knowledge and truth builds. A flow of water with enough gradients to create a compendium of pools, riffles, scours and structure with sufficient volume to harbor trout and grayling, yet not too big to become confrontational and intimidating. Up and down the Alberta Forestry Trunk Road and in the great Boreal forests of the north, Alberta anglers are blessed with a number of these tiny, perfect little fisheries. But not all rivers are in the category of comfortable little creeks that can be exploited with easy wading and short casts. Depending on your attitude, Alberta is either comforted or cursed with several main stem rivers that start big at their Rocky Mountain ice-field sources and only get bigger as they come charging out of the mountains and spread out once they hit the flat lands. The Oldman, Bow, Red Deer, North Saskatchewan, Athabasca and Big Smoky quickly come to mind. When it comes to fly fishing size does matter. Not only in the nature of the fishery but the dimensions of the fish that they hold. Big water usually means big fish.

Size matters like this Bow River rainbow trout

Size matters like this Bow River rainbow trout

But coming to terms with a wide expanse of moving water in which there may or may not dwell a feeding trout, can be problematic for a flyrodder more familiar with the intimate surroundings of a creek or small river. Where do you find a fish in all that water?

Reading the Water

When assessing a small stream fishery it immediately becomes obvious that 90% of the trout and grayling will be found in 10% of the water so that’s where you focus your attention. On big water the math changes exponentially and at first glance most of the river appears to be deep and protected enough to hold fish. Unless they reveal themselves by actively feeding, trying to cover that amount of water is physically impossible, both because of the time it takes and the physical constraints of your equipment. So don’t. Instead fish the stream within the river. This is the structure – some subtle, some obvious and close enough to the bank that you can comfortably cast to. Feeding fish will move out of their deep-water holding areas to the edges of a river. Here they will establish feeding lanes where shoreline structure creates seams and buckets that concentrate hatching insects and other food sources drifting in the current. So look for rock outcroppings, gravel kickers, drift-wood sweepers, undercut banks, foam lines back eddies, or anything else that causes a quickening of the current and a pocket of soft water behind it. Just as you would on an intimate foothills creek, ignore the big flow in the middle that you can’t reach anyway and focus on what’s before you. Some rivers like the Red Deer tailwater below the Dickson Dam, require the successful angler to sight fish for the big, but often scarce, brown trout that inhabit this stretch of river rather than randomly casting to likely holding water. Here the angler often spends more time on the bank with his hook in the fly keeper than on the water, waiting for a buttery brown nose to show. Swinging a streamer like a Woolly Bugger or Zonker through the streambank can also be a productive way to economically search water when fish aren’t showing.

Accessing the Water

Large rivers with significant volumes of water present the angler with additional problems not encountered on the archetypical trout stream. And that is access. On an average afternoon’s hike up a compact Alberta trout or grayling creek an angler will easily fish through several dozen pools. If one doesn’t yield a fish then there’s another beckoning at the next bend, which will likely be only a few paces away. The scale of angling on a large river changes fundamentally. Instead of a smorgasbord of fishing opportunities – each with its own subtle uniqueness – the best a walk-and-wade angler can possibly hope to cover in a day is the number of pools that you can count on the fingers of one hand. So you have to pick your spots with care. Sometimes hiking to the next piece of fishy looking water is rendered impossible by impassible by cutbanks or bentonite oozes, while wading to the other bank is usually not an option.

Angling from a drift boat on the Red Deer River

Angling from a drift boat on the Red Deer River

One way to even the big water odds is to drift the river. The classic way is with a MacKenzie boat where the oarsman controls the speed and direction of the boat with upstream stokes so the anglers can concentrate on covering the lies, most of which will be close to the shore. Rubber rafts are an adaptation of this while individual anglers can experience a lengthy piece of river in pontoon boats. Jet boats in larger and more remote rivers where conflicts with shore anglers and others are less likely are another option. Boats with standard outboard engines are not recommended, as is boating on big rivers by anglers who have little experience on moving and unfamiliar waters. But drifting comes with its own set of complications. Anglers can run many kilometers of river in one trip requiring either a shuttle service as is available on the Bow below Calgary, two vehicles, or a friend willing to drive your truck and trailer around to the takeout point. Drifting permits the angler to consume a massive amount of water in an outing, access the feeding lanes and prime water along both banks plus increase the angling experience by getting away from the concentrations of anglers at the bridges and launch ramps. A day on the river in a drift boat, raft or pontoon – complete with the traditional noon-time shore lunch – is a cosmic way to enjoy Alberta’s great rivers. Fly fishing on the Big Boys can be extended well beyond the cold water zones which hold trout. Large migratory populations of free-rising goldeye inhabit most of the province’s big rivers that can be accessed either by shore angling or by drifting, great fun on a dry fly when they’re on.

Gear for Big Waters

Big water and big fish equates into bigger gear. The place for your delicate little 3 weight is in the rod rack at home when planning a big water visit. For dry flies and high stick nymphing, a 5 or 6 weight fly rod is more appropriate. But for pounding the bank with streamers or Woolly Buggers, as is often required on the Bow, an 8 weight is not out of the question. Reels loaded with both a floating line and something to get a streamer down to the pay zone is also recommended.

Big Smoky River near Grande Cache

Big Smoky River near Grande Cache

The big rivers can also carry heavy flows during the summer fishing months, either from mountain run-off, glacier-melt flows, and the infamous Alberta June monsoons or sometimes all of the above. Don’t let this put you off. Fine angling can occur despite the high, off-color water. Some of the most prolific hatches of mayflies and stoneflies happen when the big rivers are swollen into the willows. It requires gearing up with enough split-shot to get a nymph rig bouncing off the bottom, or bright streamers weighted with cone or bead heads. Others like the Athabasca, Big Smoky and North Saskatchewan only come into their own when the glacier-melt slows down later on in the summer and fall. Thinking big means thinking differently, but when you make the necessary attitude adjustment, size only matters in the size of the fish the big waters produce.


Previous Fishing Articles

(1) Fly Selection for Beginners

(2) Fly Fisher's Christmas

(3) New Waters

(4) Big Bad Burbot

(5) Looking Back

(6) Out of Africa

(7) Finding Success on Crowded Trout Streams

(8) Mountain Peaks, Fast Streams, Fall Colours And Rocky Mountain Whitefish

(9) The Browns of Autumn

(10) Fly-Fishing Pike Through The Seasons

(11) Walleye Town

(12) River Fun - One Bite At A Time

(13) Fly Fishing Larger Rivers

(14) Going With The Flow

(15) Becoming A Better Fly Fisherman

(16) Swinging The Fences

(17) A View From The Aerie

(18) Dixieland Delight

(19) Atlantic Salmon - The Fish of 1000 Casts

(20) Do It Yourself Pink Salmon

(21) Montana's Cool Missouri

(22) Pretty Is As Pretty Does

(23) Toothy Critters

(24) Hard Water Lakers at Cold Lake

(25) Top Ten Flies

(26) Northern Exposure

(27) Home Water Lessons

(28) Chicken Of The Sea

(29) Sealing the Deal – How to Ensure You Land More Fish

(30) Deep In The Heart Of Texas

(31) Keep It Up!

(32) River Fishing for Fall Walleye

(33) After the Flood - A look at Southern Alberta rivers and streams one year after the flood

(34) Reindeer Lake - A Diversity of Opportunity

(35) Hawg Holes

(36) Saltwater Salmon

(37) Early Season Dry Fly Fishing

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

(39) The Fly Fishing Season Ahead

(40) IN SEARCH OF SPECKLED FOOTBALLS

(41) FISHING CANADA'S PRAIRIE CITIES

(42) Bright Fish from the Land of Silver

(43) Canada's "Other" Salmon

(44) Fall Walleye

(45) Wet Flies

(46) Versatility the Key to Success

(47) Grayling of the Boreal

(48) Teaching Kids To Fly Fish

(49) Size Matters

(50) Fly Fishing Small Streams

(51) Chasing Winter Whites One Lake At A Time

(52) Manitoba's Fishing Jewel

(53) The Twelve Gifts Of Christmas

(54) The Point Of It All

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

(56) Fall Fly Fishing

(57) Personal Pontoon Boats 101

(58) Big River, Big Fish

(59) Bottom Bonanza

(60) Fishing Small Flies

(61) So Many Choices, So Little Time

(62) Four Seasons of the Bow

(63) Favourite Lakes - Some Like it Hot

(64) GEARING UP FOR SMALL STREAM TROUT

(65) Trout Hunting - New Zealand-style

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

(67) Edge Walleye

(68) FLY FISHING STRATEGIES FOR HIGH WATER

(69) Smallmouth Bass – An Oft Overlooked Challenge

(70) Four Corners – Four Waters

(71) Chasing Pothole Trout

(72) Springtime Stoneflies

(73) The Torrents of Spring

(74) Drift Boat Fly Fishing

(75) Bust Them With Bait

(76) Cure the Winter Blues with a Good Book

(77) Hot Strategies for the Cold Months

(78) Cutthroat: The Angler's Trout

(79) Terrestrials

(80) Fly In For Fishing Fun

(81) Rocky Mountain High

(82) Reading the clues

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

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

(85) Fly Fishing 101

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

(87) The Bountiful Bones of Ascension Bay

(88) Grayling in the Eye of the Beholder

(89) Fly Fishing for South Fork Clearwater Steelhead

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

(91) Eliminating the Spook Factor

(92) Trust Your Electronics

(93) The Most Important Hatch of the Year

(94) Early Season Nymph Fishing for Trout

(95) Finding Success for Ice Trout

(96) Walleye can be Humbling

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

(98) Winter Flyfishing

(99) North Saskatchewan River - An Underutilized Gem

(100) Hot Fall Pike Action

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

(102) Reading Trout Stream Waters

(103) Frequently Asked Questions

(104) Streamer Fishing for Larger Trout

(105) The Lure of Big Walleye at Last Ice

(106) Deep Water Perch

(107) Post Spawn Brookies

(108) A Fisher's Life

(109) The River's Last Stand

(110) The Big Ones Come out at Night

(111) Coho on the Coast

(112) Chasing and Catching Halibut

(113) Summer in the Mountains

(114) Peak Walleye Season

(115) Slow and Steady Wins the Race

(116) Last Ice Rainbows

(117) The Burbot Event

(118) Tackle Matching

(119) Ice Fishing Strategy #2 - Going Light

(120) Ice Fishing Strategy #1 - Location

(121) The Lure of Brook Trout

(122) The Shallow Water Hunt is On

(123) Hot Backswimmer Action Happening Right Now

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

(125) Adventure at Davin Lake Lodge, Northern Saskatchewan

(126) The Vesatile Plug

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

(128) Planning your Upcoming Angling Adventures

(129) Good Fishing at Last Ice

(130) Maximize the Odds - Use Multiple Presentations

(131) Daily Fish Migrations

(132) Fish Migrations - Following the Spawn

(133) Lake Whitefish - An Ice Fishing All Star

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

(135) A Look Ahead to Great Trout Fishing

(136) Wrestling White Sturgeon on the Fraser

(137) The Fun in Ultra Light

(138) Flyfishing and Leadcore Lines

(139) Embrace the Spirit of Adventure

(140) Never Stop Learning

(141) Ice Fishing is Getting Hot

(142) Jigging through the Ice

(143) An Ice Fishing Unsung Hero – The Setline

(144) Rainbows on Ice

(145) The Season of Ice Begins

(146) Red Hot Fall Pike Action

(147) Hitting it Right with Water Boatman

(148) Facts On Cats

(149) West Coast Adventure

(150) June Walleye Frenzy

(151) Aerated Lakes are Big Trout Factories

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

(153) "Northern Exposure"

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

(155) Early Season Pike On The Fly

(156) Man Overboard