About a year ago August, I got an email from my favorite rocker Paul Kype – famous Fishing Guide and Headliner in the band Texas Flood – of a beautiful Rainbow Trout. I recognized the silver beauty as a classic St Mary’s River rainbow. It had a small head, girthy body and perfect pink fins. It been over ten years since the St Mary was yielding fish like that consistently, but every year I dream of its former glory and will continue to fish it till it returns or I die trying. “I can’t quit” the Mary. In addition to that picture, my buddy Bob who goes every year reported to me last year that the river had returned to its former glory. When I had a chance to fill in for a cancellation this year, I put my deposit down with Howard at Fishabout. My last three trips to fish the Mary were disappointing but for the other options available in the area , with drought, and water management to blame. As if lighting could strike the St Mary’s three times, this years hot weather forced Hoot Owl Regulations (no fishing after 2:00PM). Cam told me this year that there are at least 20 unique opportunities to catch trout 20 inches or better around the Lodge. The Waterton River which flows next to the lodge is home to the Alberta State Record brown trout. Also, the Old Man River has huge 20 inch plus cutthroats that like to eat mayflies on top. Down the road there is the famous Palmer Ponds. They are private spring fed ponds that hold triploid gIants some over 20 lbs – Disneyland for DInosaur sized rainbows to catch sight fishing with Stillwater Tactics. In addition, there are still water lake fishing opportunities within driving range-East Slope has an armada of drift boats. Things change year to year, but because of the cornucopia of trout fishing opportunities surrounding East Slope Adventures outfitters, the guides always have some new opportunities on some nearby water to test you should the Mary be in a coma. The key to enjoying Alberta is to just let it happen and enjoy the new opportunities that the guides suggest.
I’ve always travelled to Alberta in August because I’ve been told that it is prime time. It’s considered prime time because of the hopper fishing. This year I realized that the only reason Hopper season is considered prime time is that it really takes the skill level down necessary to catch fish in the St Mary’s which I think is one of the most technical tailwaters in the world. Even fishing big hoppers on 3x at times can be challenging and sometimes as of recent, nearly impossible. “Last week we got 15 with two average skilled fishermen” Cam said after we had both tried for 6 hours to raise one fish working every rise and promising blind spot. Some of our group only managed a couple fish a day on hoppers even though the fields were swarming with them. My most memorable fish on this trip were not the biggest ones but the ones that took the most skill to catch. I lost some big fish on this trip but I also caught some big ones. Incontrovertible is the wisdom of learning through failure yet many fishermen that actually do it well are extraordinarily rare – lose the hubris and set yourself free. Alberta is a great place to test your skills and it is a breathtakingly beautiful place to do it.
Zombie Grasshoppers – Suicide by Trout
The hatches are different in May and June. It might be a great idea to fish the Mary in or just after September next year for more Mayfly hatches, But on this particular trip, I learned of another variable during hopper season. Cam and Pauli told me that sometimes you just have to get lucky and hope for the Zombie Hopper Apocalypse. “You’ve been watching too much Walking Dead“, I thought. “No, really, Ive seen it and its real. The hoppers commit suicide by all hopping in the water and fish go nuts.” After I stopped laughing and looked around for Candid Camera, I realized they were absolutely serious. Well as it turns out, it’s caused by a parasitic Nematomorph hairworm (Spinochordodes tellinii) This parasite is able to influence its host’s behavior. Once the parasite is grown, it causes its grasshopper host to jump into water by injecting neurotransmitter chemicals into the hoppers brain. The aquatic life cycle of this hairworm requires water to reproduce and uses the terrestrial Grasshopper to get there. Truth can be stranger than fiction. As soon as the Hopper hits the water, the worms exit the drowning hopper and tries to find another worm to hook up with. Usually only one worm per hopper. Once a worm mate is found in the water, the female lays up to 15 million eggs on sticks and plants at the water’s edge. Grasshoppers become infected when they consume the eggs. The eggs hatch inside the hopper and then lives and grows in the hopper for 1-3 months. When they are fully developed inside the hopper they secrete a neurotoxin into the hopper that changes the insects behavior. The Zombie Grasshoppers walks or jumps into the water to die, the mature worms exit and the hopper hatch is on like kong. As a consequence, the trout go on a feeding binge and the fly fishermen witnessing this phenomena have the best hopper fishing of their lives. My next St Mary’s hopper imitation might need to have a long rubber band hanging out of it. Now here is a project for the Wuhan lab-A spray that can create the the Zombie Grasshopper Hatch on demand.
I missed the Zombie Grasshopper mass suicide but I did catch half a dozen fish on hoppers in and around Grasshopper Alley on the Mary. When the hoppers are on the shoreline thick, I often watch for rises after kicking some grasshoppers in the water and walking the river. I fished the Mary for two days looking for hopper fish and most of ones we spotted, we were able to jump or catch. The Mary fish still fight hard but the classic tiny head and big shoulders was a rare event on this trip. The going theory is that the more a fish is caught, the more it loses it length to girth ratio. Cam caught a fish that he recognized for the third time and told me the first time he caught it, it was fat, shiny and pink. The third time, it was skinny, weak, and thrashed.
I also was able to nymph up some nice fish with very small mayfly nymphs on New Zealand indicators. One thing the guides taught me this trip is that most fishermen use flies that are way too big, switching to really small flies can make your day. Most of the effective flies this week were size 18 or smaller PMD nymphs and caddis pupa. Fishing with 5x with the size 18 and below flies lowered the hook to landed ratios but there were some epic fights this week. One 25 inch fish that Bob nymphed on a size 20 near the dam made a fierce run across the river and between some boulders . Pauli suggested giving the fish slack to get it out of the boulders and when Bob complied, the fish shot upriver below the dam . The fish then turned around and made a full speed run downstream . Bob had thought the fish was off but Pauli saw the fish in front of them with the fly still in its mouth. Bob caught up with the slack and the fish was soon in the net. Sometimes luck is on your side, and sometimes a fish will snap 3x tippet on the first run.
The Reach Cast Clinic
One evening at dinner, the topic of reach casting came up and things got interesting. Using the drone, I wanted to compare different styles of Reach Casting . As many veteran fisherman that exist is how many different reach casts there are. Everyone has their idea of the perfect cast but in my humble opinion, the perfect cast is defined as a long drag free float and a hooked fish. I didn’t see much difference between the three of us other than we might differ on where to position yourself to the rise when you use it. When you position upstream form the rise, lots of other things come into play like mending (the mountain) and stack mending the reach cast. Cam, Bob and I found a stretch of the Waterton to compare how each of us achieve a drift free float over a given area. I was able to use the drone to record each of our casts from directly above. Cam said it all when he said there are three guys here who know how to catch fish with lots of experience and that’s all that matters. Then he asked for the trophy.
Euro Nymphing the Turbine Hole
Fishing pocket water on the Old Man, high sticking a nymph and split shot was effective and entertaining. It’s the best way of picking up fish on heavily fished sections of the Old Man river. It’s been a long time since I fished this way but when I was a teenager it was the primary way I fished for trout on rivers like the West Branch of the Feather River, the upper sections of Hat Creek and the Truckee river. It felt enjoyably nostalgic. Cam took me to the “Turbine Hole” which as its name implies get is current from a turbine shooting water up and out 180 degrees. Because of the tricky currents and the large concentrations of huge fish here, it is a great place to Euro Nymph. I fished a 10 ft 4 wgt with Cams guidance and hooked 5 large whitefish and one large rainbow . Euro nymphing is a relatively new way to fish the rivers here and the guides weapon of choice is the new Douglass 11 foot 4 wgt .DXF 4114. Its so nice, I bought one the day returned. Im looking forward to fishing some California Streams with the 11 ft Euro setup.
The Palmer Ponds
As with every trip to Alberta, I come back a changed man. What I really like about the St Mary’s is the technical challenges, the big water with complex currents, the rising of selective feeding fish and the Mayfiles, Caddis and and Ants that can change conditions at a drop of a hat. If you dont try, you dont get. However, I found some of my happiest places this trip on the Waterton and the Palmer Ponds. The Old Man river is famous for its beauty and there were lots of free campsites on the river that I imagined would be perfect places to park my Revel 4×4 for a week. Where we were fishing was less than 20 miles from Montana. The Old Man gave up large numbers of jewel cutthroats to us all week some as large as 24 inches. Catching lots of quality cutthroats and having shots at Bull Trout has been pretty consistent year to year more so than the St mary’s. The most memorable day of the week was the day I spent on the Palmer Ponds with Mauro and Paul – three guys just trying to figure it out. Fishing the Ponds is also a hit or miss situation that changes daily. The Pond fish get lots of pressure from guests of the Palmer Ranch as well as from East Slope Adventures. According to the Julia Palmer, hooking one fish in the ponds was considered a pretty good day. She was surprised to hear that between Mauro, Paul and I , we managed to hook 10 and land 7. I think the secret of hooking fish in the Ponds is cracking the bug code. We got lucky and together we figured out the fish would hit small scuds and stripped damselfly nymphs that day with less scrutiny. Later in the day I even caught a 7lb fish on a hopper. All the fish were 7-15 lbs.
Bear, Beaver and Mosquitoes
“You can’t fly on an airplane with that Bear Spray in your luggage ” said the apoplectic airline attendant when she spotted the big bottle in my backpack. After showing her that it was just a big bottle of Tabasco Sauce, she let me off moments before calling the air marshal on me. So much for flying first class for the perks. Actually I did discover that flying first class with Canadian Airlines does have some fly fishing perks other than a nice lounge, inflight entertainment, served food with booze, and more legroom. You are allowed two 70 lb bags for free vs one 50 lb bag. You could probably check a float tube in addition to your clothes and gear, One of these days I’m going to tie flies in first class and see how that goes over. Fortunately the only bear I saw this trip was off the road.
Bob, our fearful leader has had some drama with bears in Alberta over the years and he insisted that we all buy some bear spray in Calgary, hence the inquiry in first class. I bought mine but I never took it anywhere. Most of the places we fished were pretty populated with humans but even the guides had stories of fishermen eaten by bear. While fishing in the Palmer ponds on our last day, my new friend Mauro was almost killed by a beaver. The palmer ponds are actually beaver dams with a healthy population of beavers constantly building the dams that make the ponds. Mauro narrowly escaped being injured or killed when a fallen tree came crashing to the ground inches away from him. When Paul and I heard the loud crack and crash of the tree, WE knew it was where Mauro was standing and I was afraid to even look. down the shoreline. Mauro was still standing . There he stood with a big, freshly felled tree next to him calmly casting at the huge fish in front of him. I thought, those surgeons have nerves of steel. I would have peed my waders and drop to my knees thanking god. When I asked him about it later, I think he was in shock that it came so close. We later checked out the tree and discovered that a beaver had decided that this was the tree he needed for a dam and timed it to fall at 2 pm in the afternoon. The trunk had to be 3 feet across. Like something out of the movie “Final Destination” it wasn’t his day to die. That’s a lot of toothpicks Bucky.
Riddle me this. What is the latest rage in Mosquito Repellent that makes you feel sexy as well. The Answer – Victoria Secrets Amber Romance. When Victor let me try some on our last meeting, I thought I had just been shown the holy grail of Mosquito repellant. After the initial euphoria wore off, I realized that it was the smell that I really liked. It smelled like Gina when she gets all dressed up for the Opera. “Something that smells that good has to work ” I was wishfully thinking. There are tons of references on the effectiveness of Amber Romance vs 100 percent DEET. Most studies state that Amber Romance is 60 percent as good as DEET but slightly better than Avon Skin so Soft. The St Mary’s River was thick with the worst mosquitoes I had ever seen this year and a perfect place to test the Amber Romance. The mosquitos were thickest in the grass near the river. The guides had mentioned a freak storm the week before. I looked for the worst patch of mosquitoes I could find and once I was covered from head to toe with biting bugs, I decided to slather up with Amber Romance. I was smelling good, but the bugs didn’t care. The swarm was not repelled by the sexy aromas of Amber Romance. Luckily I had my Repel 100 and sprayed it over the Romance confident that the clouds of mosquitoes would part. Evan that failed to deter the Mosquitoes. In retrospect, I think that these Mosquitos were atypically fierce and that maybe amber romance may work better on wimpy California Mosquitoes where the 60 percent will get the job done. If it doesn’t work, Ill give it all to Gina to wear around the house. That’s a win win.
A wise old fisherman that I had met at Lake Strobel a couple years ago told me something that has stuck with me to this day. He said that of the 100’s of trout that he caught over the week, most over 10 lbs, only 10 were memorable. If I had to remember the 10 most memorable fish of the week , 3 of them I hooked and didn’t catch. 3 of them were caught by someone I helped, and the last 6 were mostly not big but just challenging to catch. I really enjoyed the scenic vistas of Alberta and I enjoyed filming experts like Bob, Cam and Pauli as well as people catching their personal bests. Fishing was pretty slow all week but there were some moments that made me glad I made the trip. Also with Marks Wedding coming up in a week, I used the long hikes to lose a little weight.
“Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out” -Robert Collier
It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that things are difficult. “