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.
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 - Monster Bull Trout
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.
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
Local Fly Fishing & Outdoor Expert