Seasons of a Fly Fisher: Fly Fishing Canada's Western Waters

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9781927575055: Seasons of a Fly Fisher: Fly Fishing Canada's Western Waters

In Seasons of a Fly Fisher, Brian Smith takes us on a journey to the Pacific Northwest where we experience the thrill of fishing for salmon and cutthroat trout. He expertly guides us to lakes and rivers in BC’s Central Interior that are world-renowned for rainbow trout fishing, then to the Bulkley Valley for steelhead fishing and finally the east Kootenays and southern Alberta for still more trout fishing. Seasons of a Fly Fisher is a year-long adventure through the seasons and the harmonies of nature, in which Brian Smith simplifies and demystifies the challenges of this popular sport. Brian’s award-winning fly patterns and insightful tips guarantee many years of successful fly fishing.

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About the Author:

Brian Smith is a freelance outdoor writer and photographer. His work has appeared in BCWF Outdoor Edge, The Canadian Fly Fisher magazine, The Art of BC Fly Fishing 2005 Calendar and Fly Fishing and Tying Journal. Smith has been fishing the waters of the BC's Central Interior, Cariboo, Kootenays and the Okanagan for more than twenty-five years. In his search for the perfect catch, Smith also targets steelhead and salmon in northwest British Columbia, but readily admits his love is for trout that come freely to the dry fly. Smith is an avid fly fisher, and an accomplished fly tier and rod builder. He was recognized as Contributor of the Year in 1997 for articles published in the BC Wildlife Federation's Outdoor Edge magazine. In 2008, Brian was awarded the Jack Shaw Fly Tying Award by the BC Federation of Fly Fishers. He credits his lifelong passion for fly tying to the pioneer work of the late master angler Jack Shaw, who was his friend and mentor during his formative fly fishing years in Kamloops. Smith has four children and lives with his wife Lois in Prince George, BC. Fly Fishing BC's Interior is his first book.

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April Fly Patterns
Lake water after ice-off is cold, around 3–4°C; not very inviting for fish, humans or wildlife of any sort, so you can’t blame the trout for not cooperating―they’re in shock mode trying to find oxygenated water. In some cases shallow lakes can be very vulnerable to a “spring kill” if the lake’s water is infused with methane gas by strong wind which mixes the water layers too rapidly at ice-off, resulting in no pockets of oxygenated liveable water for fish.
When the fish won’t play, it’s not a good idea to give yourself a hard time either; after all, we fish because we love to fish, and trying to coax a winter-weary trout into a tussle is only half the challenge of fly fishing. The other half is keeping warm and dry, thankful we don’t have to live submerged in frigid water like our friend, the trout.
Spring fly patterns for any still-water lake in April are limited to several insects and their families: midges, chironomids, shrimp or scuds, leeches and water boatmen. Some, like scuds and leeches, are preferred diet items in early spring; often you will find trout selective to only these food organisms, exclusive of any other for short periods of time before strong midge hatches develop with warming spring water. For some fly fishers, chironomids are the only flies they use year-round, oblivious to whatever else is going on that arouses the trout. For me, I rank scud, leech and bloodworm patterns above chironomids during April, these choices waning as May brings warmer water temperatures, prolific midge hatches and more favourable barometer readings.

Scud (Freshwater Shrimp)
Scuds are the mainstay of the diets of many freshwater organisms in the ecosystems of Interior lakes. Not only do they sustain all species of fish, they also supply the protein source for other insects larger than themselves: damsel and dragonfly nymphs, leeches and backswimmers. They are probably the most symbiotic organism in a still-water environment, feeding on plant, insect and animal matter with little mayfly nymphs comprising the bulk of their preferred food palates.
Central Interior fly fishers often overlook the lowly scud because many of our favourite ponds and lakes are slightly acidic, low in calcium content and not great scud-producing environments, but a weed-laden body of water like Dragon has billions upon billions of the little crustaceans. They probably comprise up to 30 percent of a typical Dragon Lake trout’s nutrients. Drag up a bagful of Dragon’s weed on your anchor, and you’ll be impressed with the quantity and quality of the insect life living there―most of your catch will be shrimp along with a smattering of leeches, bloodworms and mayfly and damsel nymphs.
There are two species of scud in our Interior waters, Gammarus and Hyalella. The larger Gammarus is the dominant species in calcium-rich lakes like Dragon; the little Hyalella is prolific in both types of still water, but are the principal shrimp of clear, high-elevation and acidic, tannin-coloured ponds of the Central Plateau.
Although I have not fished scud patterns very often since moving to the Central Interior in 1992 and they rest unused in my old fly box, I regard them fondly as because they gave me many memorable days when I fished them religiously during the 1970s while living in Kamloops. Since that time, when many fly patterns were originated and improved upon by Jack Shaw and others, many adaptations have been made on standard patterns. In the case of the scud, it has become the “baggy” shrimp model, replacing the Werner Shrimp’s deer-hair back with plastic strip and its palmer-hackled legs with picked-out dubbing.
Call me a traditionalist fly tier if you will; I think I’ve earned the reputation―I believe the sliver of plastic is a good idea to imitate a shell-back. I use it because it’s much more durable than deer hair, but I still like the looks of palmered hackle for a scud’s legs. It better imitates the wiggle and scurry of a typical shrimp, captures light, and is alive with contrast when compared to picked-out dubbing material.
In Dragon Lake Gammarus shrimp are dark olive or yellow, camouflaged with the colour of weed growth, and can be fished in an array of sizes from a humongous #8 hook to as minute as a #16, owing to the multi-brooded scud’s ability to produce offspring throughout the year. Every lake will have its own colour of shrimp, but the three colours I work with are dark olive-brown, golden yellow and pale chartreuse green for my smallest imitations and the Hyalella species.
Shrimp are like rabbits of the animal world―they produce huge litters and feed a lot of predators. A consideration when tying and fishing scud patterns is that you must lighten your body colour with the juveniles―an olive green adult will be pale chartreuse when first born and into its early teenage years, only a few short months in the life of a humble scud.
Fish shrimp patterns with a floating line when anchored in less than 3 m of water, a full-sinking line in 3 to 6 m. Weight them well to get them down and fish them with a slow hand-twist retrieve, varying your pace and stopping often to rest, very similar to the crawling action of an emerging chironomid: twitch, draw a few inches, rest awhile, start over―fish on!

Leeches
There is no question that leeches are a favourite table fare for fish early in the year. The mature insect is on the prowl just after ice-off, checking out decayed weed beds for its favourite meal of scuds, snails and small nymphs, and more importantly, looking for a mate.
If I had to choose only one fly for April, it would be a leech type of fly: a Micro Leech, Bulldog, Olive Seal Bugger or one of my Blood Bugger patterns―they just seem to be the ticket for spring water after ice-off when the water temperature hovers below 10°C. Trout are shocked and lethargic, and even the fly fisher struggles to keep warm. The reason leeches are dominant after the ice goes out is because they love to dine on decaying matter and dead plant vegetation, and the abundance of their favourite insects in early spring and warming water are the perfect combinations for them to reactivate their life cycles.
For the fly fisher who loves to fish chironomids in early spring, leeches and chironomids work well together, usually after the intense hatches of midges and chironomids is over for the day―trout love to pack a few leeches into their gullets after a big meal of little bugs.
Ever since I began fly fishing back in the late 1960s, leeches have been my “save the skunking” patterns. If I was desperate in late afternoon after a poor morning, I always found I could get even with the fish by rigging a #3 full-sink line and going deep along a drop-off to rouse a good trout into taking a poke at a Shaw leech pattern. I haven’t used Jack’s pattern for a number of years, not because they won’t work, but more because of the advent of improved fly-tying materials. I think there are better and more realistic choices now than those available in the 1950s and ’60s when Jack was inventing his staple fly patterns. Many of the new dubbing materials have incorporated glitter in their fibres, which adds life, translucence and that hard-to-find slimy, buggy look.
Leeches are well represented by a variety of fly patterns, many that have been around for fifty or sixty years; for example Careys, woolly buggers, woolly worms and yes, for real old timers, even Doc Spratleys. They are some of the simplest flies to learn to tie, great for teaching students a few uncomplicated steps toward being competent fly tiers and, most importantly, will catch fish no matter how bad they look to yourself or the public.
Leeches move in a slow and steady undulating manner, which is why 10–12 wraps of lead wire added to the front half of your imitations is a good idea. It allows your fly to bob in the water, replicating the manner in which a leech picks its way around weed beds and free-swims in the water column. Instead of lead weight, many fly tiers use gold, silver or orange tungsten beads when they tie leech patterns, which also provide the weight to allow the pattern to undulate. I have never seen a leech that looked like it had a bead head, but they do work, and it is said “the proof is always in the pudding.”
Depending on the pattern and depth of the lake, a leech is normally best fished deeply, on the bottom with a full-sink line using a slow hand-crawl retrieve, or if you are anchored and standing, with long, slow arm-length pulls of your fly line. Some of the impressionistic leech imitations, for example Brent Schlenker’s popular Bulldog pattern or Denny Rickard’s Olive Seal Bugger, which imitate everything from bait fish to leeches and damsel nymphs, are most productive when fished with a fast-strip retrieve. Defying all fishing logic, however, micro leech models are often fished with indicators in a comatose fashion, similar to the method many people fish chironomid patterns. My personal opinion is that trout actually take them for chironomids, not leeches.
I use many colours for leeches. Unfortunately they all work, but not usually at the same time, so deciding which leech to use is often hit and miss. I often begin with this blood-coloured one in size #8 or 10 and proceed from there. Alternative body materials and marabou tail colours I use are: Dragonfly Mohair Plus Black-Red with black tail; Arizona Simi Blood Leech with claret tail; Dazzle Dubbing BC Blood with black tail; Stillwater Sparkle Blend Maroon with purple tail; and finally for an olive leech, Stillwater Soft Blend Olive with olive tail.

Midge and Chironomid
Midges? Dare I write about midges and chironomid in the same paragraph? I think the pesky midge has defied and wreaked eternal havoc on more lake fishers than any other insect. The only good thing about pairing these two bugs is that their main hatches occur at the same times of year, spring and fall.
When the midge is a solitary hatch, trout are very difficult to entice. The most difficult challenge is the size of the insect, a diminutive 1–2 mm in length. Take a look at a ruler; these are tiny, tiny flies, usually olive of the chaoborus or glass worm species and impossible to replicate on a hook. If you are lucky enough to somehow catch a random fish and examine its stomach contents, and discover the gullet is packed with thousands of green transparent larvae and pupae, you are in for a tough day. Your best bet is to choose an olive micro leech or chironomid, hoping colour is part of the attraction and trout can be fooled.
Chironomids, however, are the most staple hatch to occur in early spring, beginning soon after ice-off, continuing their activity well into the months of May and June depending on water temperature, waning in July and August, and then coming on again during September and October. I sheepishly admit that I am not a diehard fisher of chironomid, preferring to seek my spring game with bloodworm, leech, scud and mayfly nymph, resorting to chironomids when I have to or am being badly beaten and out-fished by anchored, bobber-slinging chironomid guys and gals.
I must explain that last statement or people will think I am an old fuddy-duddy. I began my passion for fly fishing in 1968 and moved to Kamloops in 1972 where I befriended the late Jack Shaw, who taught me fly tying and how to fish chironomids with type 1 slow-sink and type 2 medium-sink fly line choices using the countdown method: cast a long line and let it sink for 5, 10, 15 or 20 seconds before you begin your slow inch-by-inch retrieve. Once you hit fish at their preferred depth, you have the formula, and you should be off to the races if the trout want to play. Without the bobber, you feel every touch through your rod, and can enjoy the scenery and wildlife while you fish instead of concentrating on watching the bobber―it’s just something I prefer.
Chironomids have four life stages: egg, larva (bloodworm), pupa and adult. After hatching, all three phases can be deadly to imitate, but the pupa stage is the one most fly fishers concentrate on because it’s the most visible and vulnerable form for the fish. The pupa ascends through the water column at a slow, meandering pace, wriggling and swimming its way to freedom on the surface, pausing and drifting through resting periods, gradually finishing its long, treacherous journey at the top. Even then it’s a target for cruising trout―it can’t be free until it breaks the surface film, sheds its shuck and dries its wings for ten to twenty seconds, at which time it’s a meal item for quick-winged cliff swallows and frisky trout that are pillaging the surface water. Life can be tough when you are an insect!

A Little April Glory―Dragon Lake
Dragon opened early in 2010, the last of its ice dropping in a March 29 windstorm, which is several weeks earlier than normal and a month ahead of 2009. Alas, an early opening doesn’t always provide for great fishing. Perhaps the trout are as confused as we are, similar to us rising at 5 a.m. when we are accustomed to getting up at 7 a.m. Whatever the reason or excuse to fish, it’s never a bad idea to round up a few buddies and just go no matter what the prospects, outcomes or thought processes. You can chart the weather, barometric pressure, moon position and solunar tables that will predict favourable weather, a rising barometer and the best days of the month and time of day to fish, but what does this mean unless you are retired, live on a lake or river and available to take advantage of every opportunity to capture great trout fishing? Not a darn thing―the best time to go fishing is when you can―to hell with the reasons not to! We live and play in a great land of opportunity in this North Country―why not exploit our moments every chance we get?
Kevin Beatty is a good sport. He’ll freeze his tail off in a pontoon boat during early trout fishing season any possible chance he can get, but I prefer my newly acquired one-man 1-m punt when the water temperature is hovering in the low single digits. A pontoon boat is a huge step above a belly boat through early spring because you only get wet from your knees down, but after thirty-plus years of spring fishing in those styles of watercraft, I must admit the punt is pretty comfortable. In reality, a serious fly fisher needs to own all three watercraft: a punt for easy access on boat launch-style lakes; a pontoon boat for four-wheel drive access lakes and river drifting; and a belly or U-boat for hike-in lakes.
Dragon was tough fishing after ice-off. Not for Kevin Crawford who lives on the lake and can watch and wait for the trout to move, but for regular working guys like me who can’t afford to retire, own lakefront property, or even dream of living on a fishing lake with my wife unless it has ski-boat potential (usually poor fishing prospects). Kevin Beatty and I fished it April 4; Kevin, Blair Moffat and I tried it April 11; and the three of us joined by Dale Freschi fished it on April 18.
During a day of fishing, Dragon rainbows do not go onto a bite for long periods of time unless they have good reason such as bug activity―the first strong chironomid or mayfly hatch of the season; a very favourable barometer with an upswing in air temperature; or a positive lunar phase, preferably new moon or first quarter. Some or any of these conditions do not occur on a regular basis, usually only several times during a calendar month, which is why fishing can be great one week and fair, average or poor the next. The fish are still there but their conditions, habitat and feeding cycles are constantly changing, which is why we hear “Good luck” from friends and family as we head out the door to enjoy some of our favourite days on earth. In my line of thinking, serious fisher peop...

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