Visiting my neighbors to the north proved to be more than I bargained for. This trip had it all - new and old friends, incredible food, heart-breaking fish, and a surprise ending.
As I board the plane north, my suitcase full to the brim with clothes for cold weather, I’m already dreading the next morning’s early wake up call. I’m landing late, and the weather tomorrow morning is supposed to be a balmy 42 degrees. Rod case draped over my shoulder, the only thing I know about Calgary is that every year the stampede comes to town. With the stampede already a distant memory for the year, Calgary is a mystery. Of course, I’ve heard of the Bow River, who hasn’t, but it has never been on my radar as a must-fish river. After all, guides refer to me as “the anti-trouter,” and this is trout country. I’ll be fishing three famous rivers; the Bow, Oldman, and Highwood. It’s my hope that this trip north changes my mind toward a species I’m supposed to love, and covet, as a fly angler.
Landing in Calgary, the first thing I realize is that everything they say about our northern neighbors is true. Sign in hand, I’m met by a white cowboy hat-wearing woman who is so excited to see me at this late hour that I wonder if drugs are legal here. With her help I’m whisked through customs, and am soon at my downtown hotel, where they know my name the moment I get out of the cab. I’m impressed by Calgary already.
The morning comes too early. There are three of us here to experience Calgary -- Mal Crispo, Tom Bie from The Drake Magazine, and me. Today we hit the Oldman. This river flows west to east from the Rockies onto Grassy Lake, where it joins the Bow River. In total, it’s 225 miles in length. It contains rainbows, cutthroat, browns, bulls, and cuttbows, among others. My guide today is Brandon Healey from Topwater Fly Fishing and he shows up in his tricked out, right-hand drive Hilux. I can tell already this is going to be a great day.
The smoke from the BC fires obscures some of our view as we snake our way to the river. The mountains, smoky and ominous, are exquisite, and the water so clear we can see every boulder. We stop to take a few photos, and spot hungry fish rising. It will be dry flies today, and I find myself anxious to get on the water.
It doesn’t take long to pull the first beautiful bow out of crystal-clear water. As the morning turns to afternoon, fire response helicopters fly over as the only evidence that we are not alone in this world. The Oldman produces bows, cutthroat, and cuttbows. Every fish is bright, beautiful, and strong from the rushing water that holds them. I marvel that we have spent the entire day on this beautiful river without seeing another angler. As we leave the Oldman, I look back over the landscape. The smell of smoke lingers as I feel something awakening inside of me.
Must be hunger.
Dinner is at Charbar, which I’m excited to learn has a female Executive Chef, Jessica Pelland, YYC’s first Chopped Canada Champion. This locally-relevant and globally-inspired restaurant showcases the culinary influence of Argentina and is known for its ultra-dry aged Alberta beef display and meandering ceviche raw bar. The heart of the restaurant is a custom-made Argentinian wood-fired grill showcasing the art of asado. I’ve never been so happy to call myself a carnivore. The menu is pre-planned, and each course is better than the last. The paired wines go down smoothly, and before we know it, we are walking back to the hotel in the brisk Canadian air. The perfect end to our first perfect day.
I wake with a start and realize it’s only 2:00 am. I have a habit of waking every hour the night before a big float in fear that I’ve overslept. After a fitful night’s sleep, it is finally morning and the Bow River calls. Our guides for the day are Josh Nugent, the owner of Out Fly Fishing, and Naoto Aoki. Naoto has the unfortunate luck to row my butt down the river today, and I have the privilege of spending the day in the boat with Mal Crispo, a blogger from Nova Scotia that I’ve followed for some time now. Naoto clearly has no idea what’s about to hit him. I quickly inform him, for sake of full disclosure, that I’m not a trout angler, and Mal informs him it’s her first day in a drift boat. He counters back with a quick-witted one-liner.
Let the fun begin.
The Bow River is larger than I expect. It is, as expected, bordered on every side by huge pines with the Rockies setting the scene. The river’s source is the Bow Glacier. From there it winds through the Alberta foothills onto the prairies, and even runs through Calgary itself. In June of 2013, Calgary was hit with a 100-year flood and the riverbanks show remnants of the flood with huge downed trees dotting the landscape.
Mal is a great angler and quickly gets the hang of fishing out of the boat. She hooks and lands a beautiful brown, her excitement bubbling over her already bubbly personality. It’s fun to fish with another female angler in the boat, and I feel like I’ve already made a friend for life. Naoto is quick on the sticks and one hell of a guide. He’s also the brilliant photographer who took the cover photo of this magazine. (Go ahead, turn to the cover and look again.) I find him to be a closet comedian and it’s not long before my side hurts from his one-liner wizardry. As we float down the Bow, catching monsters from below, I can’t help but feel like one of the luckiest people on earth to have the opportunity to float this river with these fine folks. I feel a certain appreciation for trout coming to the surface of my subconscious. I try to suppress it.
As our day on the river comes to an end, I’m a little melancholy that our group needs to part ways. We’ve bonded over stories of porcupines, grizzly bears, and trout. Each of us left a big one in the river that will haunt our dreams. As we gather for a group selfie, I look around and know I will never be the same.
What is happening to me?
Dinner tonight is at River Café. The restaurant is warm and woodsy, and covered in large fish taxidermy and fishing memorabilia. River Café is dedicated to sourcing local ingredients that are in season, and works with ranchers, gardeners, and farmers, who are responsible stewards of the land. They’ve prepared a menu that centers around our fishing theme. There’s kale broth soup and even trout on the menu. I tend to think of fish as friends, not food, but I must admit, the trout is delicious. Another beautiful day on the books, I’m sad to say good-bye to the rest of my group who leave tomorrow morning. Fortunately for me, I have one more day left.
After a better night’s sleep, I meet up with Brandon from Topwater again, and hop in his truck for a trek to the Highwood River. Brandon has an easy nature about him, and the drive to his little secret spot goes by quickly. Today we are both going to fish and are specifically in search of bull trout in the backcountry. Here there are endless creeks to explore with hungry fish that see little to no pressure. As we don our waders, it doesn’t yet dawn on me how remote we are. Again, I am in awe at the sheer beauty that surrounds me, untouched and raw.
We amble along the river and I spot something in front of me that throws me just a bit off kilter. I ask Brandon what it is. It’s apparently an elk that was taken down by a grizzly or some other predator not too long ago. My senses are heightened, and I’m having a difficult time concentrating on fishing. Every noise has my head spinning around to search for an animal that could eat me. I can tell Brandon is also aware that the predator could be in the vicinity, although he doesn’t truly let on until we’re off the river. We fish our way up the river and I miss a monster in a deep hole. He came up on top of a flat rock, so we could see him in all his splendor, before disappearing again without my fly.
Another fish that will haunt me.
Fortunately, we weren’t eaten by bears or cougars, so we leave this section of the Highwood to have lunch and head to another one of Brandon’s secret spots. We weave our way through the brambles and approach the river. As luck would have it, there’s a green drake hatch beginning as we approach, and the fish are responding. They’re splashing out of the water eating everything that lands. It’s one of those crazy days that reminds me why I love this sport. We quickly get our flies in the water and it’s not long before we are catching and losing fish one right after another. I hook into my first bull, who ate a dry, but lose him. Fortunately for me, Brandon catches the next one and I get my first look at this beautiful, slate-colored fish. I feel like my trip is complete.
As the sun’s rays lengthen into gold strings, we make our way toward the Trolley 5 restaurant and brewery for a cold one. I’m exhausted, but don’t want the trip to end. I joke that maybe I’ll miss my plane and stay a few more days.
The next morning, I awaken early to pack and catch my 10 am flight. It doesn’t take long for me to realize my luck has run out when I can’t find my passport anywhere. In a state of panic, I tear my room apart to no avail. It’s 6:30 am and it slowly dawns on me that I’m not going home today. I should have been more careful what I wished for. Fortunately, I’m stranded in Canada where everyone is nice, and they speak English. In the off-chance that this ever happens to you, it’s good to know that you can fill out the paperwork for your emergency passport online and email it to the consulate. In this instance, the consulate is only two blocks from my hotel and I’m there when they open. After getting a passport photo and waiting for about two hours for the paperwork to be completed, I am back on my way to the airport, new emergency passport (with a photo that is not as good as the last one, I must admit) in hand.
As I wait in the airport, I have time to reflect on the trip. I smile as I realize that the friendships made over fish, food, and floats will last a lifetime. I came here on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, but find myself already planning to come back.
Maybe there is something special about trout fishing after all.