Bow River Camp, Alberta
Ken Morrish September 01, 2022
Bow River Camp, Alberta
I have wanted to experience the Bow River for more than 30 years. A trophy wild trout fishery that flows through a major metropolitan area and then slides out into a lonely prairie canyon was something I have always wanted to see, but for Fly Water Travel's first 23 years, there was never a turn-key multi-day package that warranted a serious visit. That was until I became acquainted with Aaron Caldwell, a master guide, chef, and commercial fly tier who divides his time between the Babine, the greater Terrace region, and his home waters on Alberta's Bow. To sweeten the deal further, Aaron's camp is a type for which I have a particular weakness: a riverside, canvas-tented, base camp with a prominent fire pit. I had the good fortune of being accompanied by longtime Redington Ambassador and professional photographer Amber Toner from Calgary. And while the Bow was her home river, the lower canyon where camp was located was in many ways a world apart from the upper urban beats she knew intimately. Ultimately this is easy to reach two-night three-day trip proved to be a winner on all levels with great fishing, a fun dynamic staff, and food that surpassed all expectations.
Where did you go and how did you get there?
I flew from Seattle to Calgary, Alberta. I flew right over Glacier and Waterton National Parks which was stunning. Then its a 30-minute Uber ride to a motel which is right next to the Fishtales Fly Shop where the trip originates the following morning. From the shop you will be driven 35 minutes to the McKinnon Park put-in where the jet boats will be waiting. From there it's about a three-minute boat ride to camp.
Where did you fish?
The program targets roughly 30-miles of prime trout water downstream of Calagary. The top end of the water is located 25 miles southeast of town in a gentle canyon section that is surprisingly wild. We saw moose, deer, weasels, abundant birdlife, and listened to the coyotes howl every night. The size and nature of the water was in many ways similar to the Yellowstone.
How was fishing?
It was good! The section we fished is very rainbow-rich and the first day all the fish we landed were between 17 and 20 inches. They were slivery and almost steelhead-like, and I was very impressed with how hard they fought. Both Amber and I saw backing and we landed at least 15 fish between us. The following days we saw a greater size range of fish and while we landed fish up to 21 inches, we both tangled with larger fish that we wished we had been able to hang onto. Rainbows up to 26 inches are present and even larger brown trout are caught with some regularity. The browns are moody, and we had really nice hot sunny weather, which made them less eager to play than some days.
How did you fish?
One of my favorite aspects of this trip is that I fished five different methods and caught fish on all of them. At times, especially early in the mornings, we fished a single hopper or caddis, foregoing the dropper to enable us to get the dry REALLY close to the banks. This produced some great fish and can be a very productive method of getting the big browns when they are in the mood. I fished hooper dropper as well with the dropper accounting for roughly 60% of the takes. While not a pillar of the existing program, I was keen to do some trout Spey fishing and the guides were into accommodating it. There is a great piece of swing water a short walk downstream of the camp as well as plenty of big classic runs in both of the primary beats. I swung mid-sized streamers on a sinking ploy leader and caught fish on a straight swing as well as when imparting action to the fly. The next method I used was fishing a double streamer set up on seven weight with a sink tip. When the hopper grab slowed we went to this method, and it is by far the most demanding method best suited to strong casters who like banging lots of casts out quickly tight to the bank. I had a great time doing this and caught a heap of fish up to 20 inches and lost one really large fish. I must admit that after doing for 1/2 a day, I was whipped! The next day when I got to fish with Aaron, he showed me an alternative streamer/leach technique that he has developed over the years. It is arguably just as effective as slamming double streamers, require far less energy, and actually a good deal more effective for the average guests/caster. Aaron's rig consists of fishing two rather large but very lightly weighed leeches roughly 28 inches apart on a floating line. The oarsman sets guests up 20 to 30 feet from the bank and from the elevated platform of the jet boat the anglers deliver the leeches to the juiciest part of the bank/seam structure. Now this is where is get interesting. Instead of stripping the flies out of the zone and casting them back, Aaron and his crew teach guests how to activate the leaches with a series of micro-mends, wiggles, and tip shakes that that make them flutter and dance about in the current. Under normal lighting and water conditions you can see the flies 70% of the time as well as a array of violent, slashing, multi-directional strikes that had us screaming out loud. The better you get at it, the longer the flies remain in the strike zone, and the fewer casts the anglers need to make, conserving a great deal of energy and at the same time getting a great visual fishing experience. While I did not nymph and indicator fish or Euro nymph, the river also lends itself to both methods for those interested. We wet waded and spent about 30% of our time wading.
Where did you stay?
We stayed a cool riverside tent camp. It is a fixed camp located on private property not far from a public put-in but on the opposite side of the river. The camp has two large double occupancy center-pole canvas guest tents and two smaller single occupancy tents of the same design. The tents have lights, carpeted floors, a small table, cots and pillows. Guests bring their own sleeping bags. There is an outdoor shower, and a small, tented river toilet. Since the weather tends to be nice during August when the camp operates, we ate all our meals outside under a canopy. If it gets nasty, they have a large wall tent set up just in case. The head guide Aaron just happens to be a highly trained chef as well. While the dining scene is very casual, the food is outstanding. Our first night was pizza-war night and the second night was taco-war night. In both cases, Aaron and his main camp-man Jim compete to see who can deliver the best piping-hot product from the kitchen. Lunches were great with sandwiches, vegies and salads, they had flavored bubbly waters instead of sodas and the coffee was always strong and tasty.
What equipment did you use and how did it perform?
I was lucky enough to get my hands on Sage's newest 5-weight, the 590-4 R8 Core. In general, I don't get excited by rods as long they are lined properly, but for me the R8 is an exception. It is light, responsive, and loads beautifully at all line lengths. It is a really a high-performance rod that has soul, and those two things are rarely found in the same package. It fishes well with RIO Gold or a Grand depending on what you are doing but my favorite line is a bit of sleeper. For several years I 've had a soft spot for overhead casting RIO's Single Handed Spey lines on my trout rods. Because they were designed to water-load, they are considerably heavier than standard single-hand lines, so I load up my Sage Spectrum LT 5/6 with a 3-weight Single Handed Spey which weighs just a bit more than a standard 5-weight line. For my tastes, this combo is magic, in large part due to it taper. It shoots aggressively, it lands flies softly, and it is a hoot to snake-roll. Amber used a Redington Crux 590-4, paired with her trusty Redington BEHEMOTH 5/6 Reel, and a 5-weight RIO Elite Gold floating line. She loves this particular pairing and how it can handle a lot of different tasks throughout the fishing day. She threw it nicely and put the brakes on some really nice fish with her BEHEMOTH. I also used my trusty Sage 4-weight trout Spey rod with a RIO Scandi body and a 10 ft sinking ploy leader. It was great but next time I will pack a Skagit line and likely move up to a 5-weight so I can throw larger heavier streamers with greater ease.
Bow River Camp, Canada
Fish for high quality wild rainbow and brown trout on Alberta's remarkable Bow River.