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  • Fly Fishing the Elk River

Fernie Trout Town - Fishing the Elk River

High in the Canadian Rocky Mountains on the Continental Divide of North America starts a river of special quality.

Cold, clear water snakes through the mountainous valley with a sense of purpose. Upon exploration, it would seem the Elk River has been designed to provide the perfect habitat for both trout and fly fisherman alike. Historic coal mining towns, grizzly bears, and rugged Canadian wilderness are the setting through which this classic freestone river flows.

At 220-kilometres (140 miles) in length, the Elk changes character several times along its journey to Kookanusa Lake and meets up with several tributaries of equal charm and worth. The Elk River has been gaining a reputation as one of the finest dry fly fishing rivers in North America and many have become completely enamored with the beauty of its setting. If you dream of dry fly addicted Westslope Cutthroat and large feisty Bull Trout in their native mountain habitat – this is the place for you. 

The River

Situated on the British Columbia and Alberta border, the Petain Glacier sits regally on the continental divide beside iconic Mt Joffre. The glacier's ancient ice and winter snow accumulation provides the seed water that feeds into Elk Lakes. The lakes, in turn, seem to provide a-cleanse of sorts from the typical glacial sediment that makes many glacier-fed rivers murky and aqua marine blue, resulting in the Elk River being gin clear and ready for trout. 

From the town of Sparwood down, the river enters the main valley, meets Michel Creek and gains some momentum and girth. Several consecutive sections each provide a good day's float and many walk-and-wade opportunities. Each section has its own slightly different character and several honey holes. The first of these is Sparwood to “Gerrits” (a rock quarry and cement operation), known for big greedy Cutthroat, long boulder sections, countless riffles and some deep corner holes.

I have had some explosive days on this section and sometimes daydream about it… Next on the hit list is Gerrits to the hamlet of Hosmer. Another good day float, this section is simply drift-boat heaven. Grassy overhanging banks, long deep runs, buckets, boulders and corner holes. Count on some spectacular spots to pull over and have lunch on a sandy beach or beside a creek outlet. Hosmer has a new boat launch after the spring flood of 2013 and is a good place to start or finish a day.

Hosmer down to Fernie is the next section and is of no lesser excitement. Prepare for some braided sections and big log jams. The views of the Lizard Range only add to the magical qualities of the Elk River. Don’t stop as you enter the town of Fernie, buckets and holes are ripe for the casting. You will pass under 2 bridges and come to another new boat launch that has room to wait if someone is ahead of you. Ample parking and a public washroom make this the best launch on the river. It is also right in town and close to all the amenities in Fernie. 

The next section is a bit shorter and perfect for a late day float. Fernie to Morrissey winds through perfect trout water and includes some long deep runs, riffles, and seams. The takeout at Morrissey Bridge has also had some work done recently and there is parking along the road there.

Morrissey to Elko is the next haul and should be given a whole day. If you like fishing logjams - this stretch is for you. Some great stretches of wood provide perfect habitat that the Cutties stack up under and along. You may lose a few flies, but with accurate casting and natural drifts along the debris, you will find some great action. The easy access float options end at Elko at the Hydro dam. Below this is the Elk Canyon; the domain of river rafts and experienced boatmen, due to class 3 rapids and impressive canyons.

The Catch - Pure Strain Westslope Cutthroat Trout

  • Much has been said of perhaps the one true mountain trout species of western North America. Some profess there is not enough fight in the Westslope Cutthroat Trout; some say they are too easily fooled onto an artificial fly and they don’t get big enough. Well, not all feel this way; some of us believe they have some great redeeming qualities. They thrive in some of the most scenic and wild places on the continent. Cold, high-altitude rivers that other species would find difficult, beautiful alpine valleys and rocky landscapes that you see in turn of the century oil painting of the western landscape are the world or Cutthroat. The deep forests and hard-to-reach places that drive our need to explore, seem well suited to their needs.

  • When you find yourself far from the city and deep into the mountains – you will often find Westslope Cutthroat eking out a living in the small creek and quiet places. I guess it’s the habitat as much as the species that some of us find so alluring about Cutties. Then there is their voracious appetite for feeding off the surface. No other trout spends as much time looking up for flying insects. No other will spend as much time in a day or almost any season attacking the surface of the water with reckless abandon. If you are partial to dry flies and love the mountains, this is probably your trout of choice.

  • The Elk River and the valley it threads through seem to be a perfect mix of ecosystem and climate. Cold mountain water from the continental divide and an excessive local winter snowpack flows into a wide lush valley bottom. The warmth of the valley helps produce a copious and varied amount of insect life, which in turn keeps the Cutties happily gorging most of the year. The Elk River holds the largest population of pure strain Westslope Cutthroat left. The colour and spotting of these fish, especially the hefty ones are truly spectacular.

The Catch - Hybrids

  • The lower portion of the river below the Elko dam has hybrid Cut bows – a cross between a Rainbow Trout and Cuttrout. This section of river flows into Koocanusa Lake, which is actually the Kootenay River dammed into a massive reservoir that spans a few hundred miles from Canada into the US. 

  • Rainbows, which inhabit the Kootenay River, have interbred with the Lower Elk Cutties creating an interesting subspecies that seems to have the appreciated traits of both. They will easily take a dry fly and also leap out of the water like a rainbow. An average day on the Elk River above Elko dam will have you into many 14-16 inchers, several 17-18" and the odd chance at a 20 incher. There are rumours and photos of behemoths larger than 20 inches, but these are rare. There are times when a hatch is on that almost every cast can get a surface strike, these are the times that Cuttrout endure themselves to you and leave you dreaming in the off-season.

  • The early season starts with a terrific Golden Stone fly hatch - go big and juicy with #10-12. Early summer sees Green Drakes and Yellow Sallys become popular, mid-size is fine.  As the water clarity improves in late summer terrestrials are added to the menu, Black ants, hoppers, and beetles are all fair game. If you experience a rain shower at any point, get Blue Winged Olives out, size #14-16. In late summer small mayflies will be rewarding. Later in the fall Oct Caddis and Blue Winged Olives work well. Green Drakes and Deer Hair Caddis are something to have on hand most of the summer.

The Catch - Monster Bull Trout

  • If size does indeed matter to you - the Elk holds something special. The mighty Bull Trout also calls these waters home and are willing participants in the game of fly-fishing. Most are aware that the Bull Trout is more akin to the Char family, but let's not hold that against them. They represent the top of the aquatic food chain and like to throw their weight around. The Elk's healthy population of Bull Trout seems to make themselves known in surprising moments. It is not uncommon to suddenly find one attached to and trying to swallow your Cutty. Fighting two fish, one of them enormous, on a small dry-fly set-up can be a bit crazy. These river sharks have a tendency to dart out of the shadowy depths at unexpected moments startling an angler and providing moments of adrenaline. Although they are known to take the odd Stonefly off the surface in early summer, big weighted streamers are usually the way to go. Try a purple stripe tease streamer #2 or a White Bunny.

  • Above the Elko dam, a population of resident Bulls gets between 20 and 30 inches - though a bit bigger is not unheard of. The lower portion that is open to Koocanusa Lake and the Kootenay River has a very healthy population of Bulls that get to epic proportions, 30 inches and up is common. Late summer and fall is when they come up the river from the lake to do their thing. It’s a spectacular sight to see hundreds of big fish stacked up in holes, waiting to move upstream. In the fall you will often find rising Cutties, Cutt-bows and Bulls all inhabiting the same holes and runs on the lower reaches of the Elk. The Wigwam River, which meets the Elk just below Elko dam, has a thick migration of Bulls in the fall, which has also gained a reputation. 

Local guide and shop owner Paul Samycia says: "The Elk River has what all-fly anglers are looking for. A beautiful free stone river with spectacular scenery, wild native fish eager to take a dry fly, miles and miles of wade-able and drift-able water with a great small town to base your adventure out of. The fly-fishing culture in Fernie is being noticed by fly anglers around the globe and growing to be something that you just have to be a part of! My favourite time of year is either early in the stone fly season when we are still discovering the changes from the spring run-off or in mid to late September when the Baetis blanket the water and the fish line up in the runs sipping like robots on almost every bug that floats by”.

The Elk River and its tributaries comprise a lifetimes worth of exploration and quality fly-fishing. The aesthetic beauty of the Rocky Mountains, rugged wilderness and clear trout streams leave one enchanted by and addicted to the place. This certainly is one of the gems of North American Fly Fishing and should be on your list.

The Elk River Essentials

When: Year-round except spring spawning closure (late Apr – June 15). July – Oct is prime. Winter can be good when the river is open.

What: Best as a float fishery, but a variety of public access points are available for walk-and-wade anglers. Book a Guide.

Appropriate gear: 4, 5 and 6-wt. rods, floating - tip lines.

Useful fly patterns: Spring and early summer = Large Golden Stone flies, Western Green Drakes and Yellow Sallys. Mid summer = Deer hair caddis, Pale Morning Dunes and Hoppers. Late summer = Black Ants, Hoppers and Beetles.  Fall = Oct Caddis and Blue Winged Olives

Necessary accessories: Polarized sunglasses, waders, cleated wading boots, life jacket, sunscreen, dry-fly dressing.

Non-resident license: $80 Annual plus $20 per day on classified waters. Note: All the trout streams around Fernie are classified waters.

Books / maps: Backroads Map Book – East Kootenays

Fly Shops & Guides

Accommodation in Fernie, BC

Mike McPhee
Local Fly Fishing & Outdoor Expert

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