Berkshire Woods and Waters: Making the best of a fishing trip to Canada

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Allen Gray of Pittsfield, Paul Knauth of Hinsdale and I recently spent nine days fly fishing in south western Alberta, Canada. We were concerned even before we left that there would be fires all over the place out there. While flying into the Calgary airport, the pilot commented that there was fair weather, there should be a smooth landing and that the only problem that we may encounter would be the smoke. We had also heard rumors that parts of Crowsnest Pass and Hillcrest, Alberta were being evacuated. (Upon arrival, we found that not to be true. Fake news!)

Driving the 2 hours southwest to our cottage in Blairmore, Alberta, we could smell and see the smoke. We had intended to fish the Livingstone, Carbondale and Oldman Rivers, located in or near the Rocky Mountain Provincial Forest. But upon arrival, we quickly learned that these rives were closed to fishing in order to prevent the possibility of starting more fires. Not only were they closed, but also the roads which led to them. One person who owned land along a closed road told us that they had to have a permit just to get to their homes. They weren't even allowed to ride their horses on their own property.

Our first morning, we went to the local fly shop to purchase some flies and fishing licenses. There we met other fishermen and guides, and we all were facing the same problem — where to fish? Anglers were disappointed to learn that after traveling hundreds or thousands of miles to fish a particular river, it was closed. Prior to leaving home, we knew that there were forest fires in Alberta, British Columbia and Montana, but we had already purchased airline tickets, rented a cottage, arranged for a car rental, etc. well in advance, and we would lose the down payments. So, we took our chances and went anyway.

Susan Douglas-Murray, co-owner of the Crowsnest Caf and Fly Shop, said that basically there were only two nearby rivers which we could fish that were still open, the Crowsnest River and the Castle River. We had known about these rivers from past trips, but we usually bypassed them in favor of the more popular Livingstone and Oldman Rivers, where we could catch westslope cutthroat trout. Because all of the visiting anglers were referred to these same two rivers, we expected to see shoulder-to-shoulder fishermen on them.

We needn't have worried, for these rivers are large and cover great distances with plenty of room for everyone. If we wanted to, we could have fished over 25 miles of the Crowsnest River, a beautiful river which flows through farms, grasslands and several towns.

On our first two days, we fished the Castle River, another gorgeous river. Paul and Allen had decent luck, but I lost two giant rainbow trout that broke my leaders. We were fishing in 88-degree weather those days, with no shade to speak of. It was definitely hat-dunking weather.

For most of the remaining days, we fished the Crowsnest River, a river that is virtually loaded with rainbow trout, some of which are really large. They were very frisky trout, nothing like the hatchery-reared rainbows around here. Paul phrased it accurately: "You hook into one of those large rainbows, and after jumping a few times, they settle onto the river bottom and say, 'C'mon angler, let's have at it.'" One behemoth broke three of his tandem fly rigs before he finally landed it. Same thing happened to me. I lost five of those big rainbows before I could land one. Allen lost a couple of the big ones, too, before landing some. Although they would leap three or four times, we were able to handle the smaller rainbows, but the big ones gave us serious trouble.

During our entire stay, we could smell and see the smoke from distant fires and hear the sounds of helicopters ferrying firefighters and equipment somewhere. There was one day we were fishing in what appeared to be a snowstorm, but it was actually falling ashes. We never saw the normal color of the sun, for it was always an orange or red color caused by the smoke. At times it looked like a big balloon in the air. Fortunately, it wasn't a choking type of smoke, and the days were usually gorgeous.

There were a couple of days when the wind was horrific, making it difficult to place your fly where you wanted it. Once, while crossing a river, a sustained strong wind came up which almost blew me over. I grabbed my hat and stuffed it into my shirt, while bracing against the wading staff. The wind was so strong that it bent my flyrod like I had a fighting fish on. Trying to handle the river current, strong wind, hat, fly rod and cigar was a chore. Something had to go and it was the cigar. I watched that expensive cigar float down the river. It cost darn near a buck.

In the evenings before dinner, we would sit out on the deck, have a drink and look at the Canadian Rockies, or at least what we could see of them through the smoke. Then we would enjoy a delicious meal expertly prepared by Allen.

In the mornings, we made our sandwiches and headed for the fly shop. One morning as we entered the shop, one of the fishermen there pointed to Paul and said to the others, "That's him!" The day before he happened to see Paul land a large trout and agreed to take a picture of him holding it. Paul became an instant celebrity whose advice was sought. Even the resident professional fishing guide who was in the shop that morning wanted to know what flies he used. They were quietly huddled over the fly selection as Paul advised the guide which ones to use.

It started to get chilly the last couple of days, with rain and hail and temperatures in the low 30s, but that didn't deter us from fishing to the end. I doubt any of us were overly upset at not fishing our intended rivers, because we discovered great new fishing areas.

The memorable 10-day fishing trip cost less than $2,500 per person, and that included our food, which probably shouldn't be included in the cost as one has to eat somewhere anyways. If you decide to go there someday, be sure to stop at the Crowsnest Caf and Fly Shop and Susan will steer you to some fantastic fishing waters.

Questions/comments: Berkwoodsandwaters@roadrunner.com. Phone: 413-637-1818.

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