Monday, June 28, 2010

Simply Spectacular!

My latest trip had me at Fortress Lake Wilderness Retreat nestled amongst the spectacular Canadian Rockies along the B.C. Alberta border.

Although I have had the pleasure of fishing Fortress in the past this is my first since Dave and Amelia Jensen took over.  While I was there I thoroughly enjoyed the world class trophy brook trout fishing Fortress is renowned for but also provided one of my comprehensive stillwater seminars.

Fortress Lake is not easy to get to.  It can be accessed by mountain bike and hiking but it is not a trip for the faint of heart.  The route in takes over three hours to complete and involves crossing the Chaba River and traipsing through grizzly country.  The Rockies abound with these magnificent creatures.  I chose the easier option, a scenic 45 minute flight on a Jasper Air Cessna 185 on floats.  My only complaint regarding the flight is that it is too short.  The route out of Peppers Lake near the small town of Hinton to Fortress Lake is spectacular.  After leaving Peppers we headed west to Jasper, turned south along the Athabasca River and then hung a right at the Chaba River and west into Fortress Lake.  Throughout the flight I was going crazy taking pictures of snow capped peaks, rugged ridges and scenic lakes along the way.

As Fortress Lake swings into view the lake’s ice blue coloration provides a beautiful contrast to the adjacent ridges and peaks.  As Fortress Lake swings into view the lake’s ice blue coloration really stands out.  Within minutes of first viewing the lake we were taxing up to the dock at Fortress Lake Retreat. Our trophy brook trout experience was about to begin.


Dave, Amelia, Nick and Dustin were at the dock to great us.  Our luggage was quickly removed from the plane and distributed to our respective cabins.  Since my last visit Dave and Amelia have made a number of significant improvements to the facilities.  The cozy tent cabins complete with queen size beds, cozy comforters and small wood stoves still remained.  No reason to change these.  Additional yurts have been added including a full shower house complete with on demand hot water and a dinning room complete with leather couches.  The dinning yurt was a perfect venue for the PowerPoint seminars I provided on a daily basis.  These new yurts are spacious and well lit.

Perhaps Fortress Lake Retreat’s most unique features are its two washrooms complete with squeaky clean flush toilets.  The washrooms face away from the rest of the camp.  This is for good reason as they have no doors.  A simple turning of the fish signs to the horizontal signifies the facility is in use.  The view from the bathrooms is spectacular as you gaze upon snow capped peaks. If you are lucky the rumble of small avalanches catches your attention. The snow tumbling down the mountain side rounds out your ‘biological experience’.  Dave also makes a good point, should a bear show up while you are taking care of business you are definitely in the right spot!

After a quick tour and orientation we were soon scrambling about getting gear ready and  getting into one of the lodges comfortable aluminum boats complete with 4 stroke outboard motors.  The waters of Fortress are crystal clear most of the year with the exception of a couple of weeks in July when the freshet swollen waters of Chisel Creek cloud the lake with glacial till.  The crystal clear water provided an excellent environment for some impressive underwater shots with my Pentax Optio camera.

Dave suggested we head down to the west end of the lake and within minutes our convoy of aluminum boats was motoring down the lake.  When traveling down the lake from spot to spot it is difficult to focus your attention on your next destination as the spectacular scenic vistas promote long periods of gawking and amazement.

The debris fields left by avalanche chutes are impressive as boulders the size of small houses litter key spots along the shoreline.  These areas are proven brook trout haunts.

Fortress Lake’s trophy brook trout are a naturally sustained population first introduced by Jasper Park rangers in the 1930’s.  These Coaster strain brookies average 3-4 pounds. Five to seven pounders are a daily occurrence.  They are beautiful silver blue with odd darker fish decked out in traditional brook trout color schemes.  I have to admit a preference for the nickel bright variety.  Once landed, Fortress Lake brookies are hard to hold. The large ones in particular seem to be camera shy but we managed to get a few to pose for the camera.  Brook trout are not known for their searing runs as rainbows but they still pull line and bulldog and struggle, significantly testing both your mettle and equipment.

What amazes me about Fortress is its productivity.  During our stay I was amazed by the size and intensity of the chironomid hatches.  Throat pump samples revealed that the brookies were keyed into this protein enriched bounty.  One sample from a 4-pound fish revealed over 200 wriggling pupa!   One of our most productive approaches during our stay was suspending size 10 and 12 black and red Ice Cream Cones 18-22 feet below an indicator.  Hanging chironomids at this depth is near the limit of practical indicator fishing and my Quick Release indicators proved their worth.

Thankfully, brook trout tend to be more gregarious than rainbows in their feeding habits than rainbows. If staring at an indicators required a break casting and stripping leech and baitfish patterns provided a welcome alternative.  Fast sinking lines from type 3 through 6 proved most effective.  After making a long cast letting the fly sink from 15-20 seconds worked best for the 18-24 foot water we were working.  A quick glance into the shallows often revealed large brookies cruising the shoreline rocks and sunken debris.  If you could get a fly down to them a firm take often followed.  Sight fishing with fast sinking lines is unique and exciting.   Barry and Pauline from my group did well on a number of occasions casting and stripping small size 4 and 6 brown over white Clouser’s.  Fortress Lake is a mono culture fishery and brook trout are the only inhabitants.  As a result, immature brookies are a favored prey item of the larger residents.

Our four day adventure was blessed by gorgeous blue skies and great weather.  We only had a brief wind whip up the lake for a couple of hours on our last full day. As I recall I only got the rain gear out for a couple of hours in total as a few rain squalls traveled down the length of the lake.  The stillwater school itself was a success and I am already looking forward to providing schools again in 2011.  Next year’s schools will include two options, a four day weekend session running from Friday through Monday, and a comprehensive week long session from Monday through Friday.  Students are provided with morning and evening sessions covering a variety of stillwater strategies, tactics, equipment preferences along with daily debrief sessions to ensure everyone is provided with a complete stillwater experience.  If anyone is interested in either of these schools for 2011 please let me know.  Fortress Lake is a spectacular place to hone your stillwater fly fishing skills.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Prowling the Parklands

I just returned from four days of some of the best stillwater fly fishing I have ever experienced.  Preparations for this journey began back in April when I provided a one day informational session and fly tying clinic for ten of the 12 anglers I would host on a trip to explore some of the quality lakes located in the south west corner of Manitoba, near the towns of Russell, Roblin, Oakburn, Rossburn and Sandy Lake, better known to many as the Parklands.

From my Edmonton area home the drive took approximately nine hours punctuated by strategic Tim Horton's stops for a stretch and caffeine top up.  Driving across rural Saskatchewan has a relaxing almost therapeutic effect on me.  You have lots to see as nothing is there to block your view.  Just outside of Saskatoon I had to stop and snap a picture of Combine World.  A dealership dedicated to selling both new and used combine harvesters.  I knew I was in Saskatchewan for sure after this sight.

The group arrived around dinner time on the evening of Friday June 4 in groups of two to four anglers. We based ourselves at Arrow Lake Lodge near the town of Rossburn.  Arrow Lake Lodge is strategically located amongst some of the finest trout fishing in the region.  The facilities are perfect for large groups.  The main cabin we were primarily occupied in sleeps up to 10 people.  The large dinning room table seats up to 16 and was a perfect platform for my evening lectures. Ray Lazaruk from Arrow Lake Lodge was a pleasure to work with.  I strongly recommend booking a stay, especially if you are part of a larger group of fly fishers.  A word to the wise though, book early, Ray's lodge is popular with both anglers and hunters throughout the year.

After settling in and devouring a healthy dinner of barbecued smokies I provided two seminars to get the group prepared for our first day on Tokaryk Lake.  Each evening I provided seminars after dinner along with a detailed de-brief session to review the key lessons learned from the day's experiences and to set up the following day.  It was a format that proved quite successful.  On the last evening we gathered around my lap top and pluged in cameras and digital cards for a photographic review of the trip.  It was the perfect conclusion to a fantastic trip.

Day 1-Tokaryk Lake

Based upon reliable reports we targeted Tokaryk Lake for our first day.  My personal thoughts were that if Tokaryk Lake fished well it would provide an element of confidence to tackle some of the more fickle waters we would visit in the following days.  Tokaryk did not disappoint.  In fact it excelled to the point of mythical.  The day started with a threat of rain and it did open up for a short while in the early afternoon.  The clouds broke soon after and I had the raccoon weather marked face to prove it! I started by making a few initial stops in the shallow reaches of the lake.  With nothing to show for my efforts I moved to slightly deeper water and suspended a brown and copper Ice Cream Cone beneath one of my balanced Sparkle Leeches.  It didn't take long to get a response.  The indicator drew under and when I set the hook all went crazy.  About five pounds of nickle bright rainbow exploded on the surface and tore line from my reel at breakneck speed.  After a prolonged battle I felt fortunate to have the magnificent fish lying beside my boat in my Moby net.  I removed the Ice Cream Cone from its upper jaw and stared at the beauty of this fish.  It was as bright as a chrome bumper, beautiful fat and perfectly conditioned.  Tokaryk fish are so bright that they over expose if you are not careful when taking pictures as evidenced below.  It was going to be a good day. 

Two members of our group, Andrew and Wade had anchored themselves in about 14 feet of water, drawn there by the number of low flying birds working the area.  They proceeded to put on a clinic using chironomid patterns.  They had numerous double headers and I managed a few shots of their 'Tokaryk twins'.

Chironomids were hatching in numbers and the trout were definitely keyed into them.  I joined Andrew and Wade and had a fantastic day taking over 20 fish to 8lbs on chironomids and balanced leeches.  Tokaryk fish are gorgeous, large and strong.  On two occasions I was snapped off by headstrong fish.  The last time resulted in my forgoing the indicator and fishing perhaps my favorite method, a floating line and long leader.  Nothing beats the take of a trout using this method.  I finished my day reluctantly at 6pm as dinner beckoned and I had to prepare for my evening session.  I was fortunate that the lodge was about 15 minutes away.  I capped my day with one of Tokaryk's browns but I have to admit I was smitten by the 4lb average nickle bright rainbows.  What a start to the trip, everyone had similar results to mine and for many they caught some of the largest rainbows of their lives.

Day 2-Patterson Lake

Patterson Lake, an even closer drive from Arrow Lake, was our target for day two.  I had the pleasure of fishing Patterson on previous trips and it is one of my personal favorites. I was looking forward to visiting it once again. Like Tokaryk, Patterson is another trophy lake containing both large rainbows and browns, Patterson did not give up her treasures as easily as Tokaryk but results were still impressive.  The rainbows seemed to be focused on small scuds despite the large numbers of cinnamon caddis and chironomids that were coming off in the morning.  Doug from our group did well early on using a small Diawl Bach.  The Diawl Bach is a Welsh pattern featuring a brown hackle beard and tail, peacock herl body and wire rib.  At least this is its original configuration there are now tons of variants.  My personal favorite features a pearlescent Mylar shellback.  The Diawl Back like many peacock based patterns works well when trout are fixated on scuds.

I was also successful using balanced leeches for the rainbows.  The brown trout favored larger meals and along the cattail lined edges of the lake they patrolled beats rounding up and slashing through the large numbers of stickleback and fat head minnows that inhabit the margins.  We learned to move often and target the weed edges.  Once a brown had been hooked or landed move along and work on the next stretch.  Watching these large browns work small schools of baitfish into compact balls and aggressively plow through them was quite educational.   My best fish was a 25" brown.

Not everyone in the group caught fish but those who did all managed large fish.  Patterson, after all, did not receive it's trophy status by accident.  Like Tokaryk thought the average size of Patterson fish is impressive.

Day 3-Pybus Lake

We had originally planned to drive north of Roblin to sample some of the tiger trout that inhabited Twin Lakes.  After discussing some reliable reports we decided to head for Pybus Lake near the town of Sandy Lake.  Pybus was about 40 minutes or so from our Arrow Lake Lodge base camp.  At first the lake looked promising, clear skies and a light breeze.  Within 30 minutes I had landed a plump silver bright 4.5 pound rainbow on a balanced leech suspended beneath a Quick Release Indicator.  A throat sample revealed scuds, leeches, zoo plankton and a variety of chironomids.  All the samples were dead though indicating that this trout had not fed recently.  It proved a bit of an omen.  As the day progressed the weather changed for the worse.  Clouds rolled in the temperature dropped, a classic warm front was approaching.  The weather change had an effect on the fishing and we had to work for them.  Moving often and working the shoreline weed edges where food would be we took advantage of any foraging fish  there.  Most of the group adopted this strategy and bumped and ground their way around the lake taking fish hear and there.  Bob from our group took full advantage of this strategy.  Casting towards shore using a slow sinking line and a Marabou Thunder Creek we tied at our tying session in April Bob hooked a monster rainbow.  I was on hand when he landed it and it measured out at a whopping 29 inches.  What a toad!  The fish was magnification as bright as an open ocean coho or fresh steelhead.  The grin on Bob's face was almost as long as the fish itself.  Bob's 'grip and grin' image says it all, "Come to Manitoba!"  I tend to underestimate fish but this fish had to go at least 10 pounds, its girth was impressive to say the least.

This trip could not have turned out any better.  Everyone caught fish and enjoyed each others company.  A real sense of team permeated the group as everyone pitched in to help out with food, clean up, loading and unloading boats and perhaps most of all sharing information regarding flies, locations and successful presentation techniques.

We are already planning on another hosted trip for the fall and another for 2011.  If trip interests you please let me know by emailing me at

To round this tale off and put it into perspective I have had the good fortune to chase trout on lakes right across North America including British Columbia, Alberta, Washington, Oregon and Alaska.  At this moment I don't think you can beat the stillwater fly fishing the Parklands region of Manitoba has to offer.  In my books that's saying something.  For example, when our group visited Tokaryk on the Saturday we were the only people on the lake!  The same was true for Pybus and we only shared Patterson with a few other anglers.  If you want a quiet remote experience, large average fish size, diversity of species visit the Parklands region and find out for yourself.  I doubt you will be disappointed.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Tough Conditions!

Who says fly fishers aren't tough!  Last Friday I spend an educational day guiding on Millers Lake located just west of Edson Alberta.  Weather reports were calling for overcast skies, 60% chance of rain and cool temperatures.  I confirmed with my client, Ruth the preceding day to see if was OK with the conditions.  Sunday was predicted to be a better day.  More on that later! Without hesitation she wanted to go.  We arrived on the water around 10am and begin setting up the boat and gear.  As with all clients I ran through the set up we would be using, the flies and rationale behind my plan of attack.  The goal of all of my trips is to educate clients on the charms of stillwaters so they can apply some of my approaches the next time they get on the water.

As conditions were dour I expected fish to be somewhat inactive, reluctant to chase the fly and to be located in the deeper regions.  My suspicions proved correct.  Our approach for the day involved hanging a small chironomid pupa about about 2-3 feet above a balanced Sparkle Leech under one of my Quick Release Indicators.   Within about half an hour we had our first fish of the day take Ruth's black & red Ice Cream Cone.  A careful throat analysis revealed zoo plankton. Confirmation once again that fish were hanging out along the deep water edges or suspending in deep water.  Zoo plankton are light sensitive and tend to stay deep during daylight hours.  As the day progressed trout changed their focus and began targeting the balanced leech.   I experimented with a number of depth settings and having eight feet between leech and indicator was the winning ticket.  We toughed things out until 5pm when the almost constant rain let up.  Thanks to my wife for the hot soup she provided for lunch.  It provided much needed warmth to our cores.

All in all it was a great day that exceeded my expectations given the conditions.  Ruth caught and released numerous fish with a few going at least four pounds.  Millers is clear lake so the resident rainbows are nickle bright.  Gorgeous well conditioned fish.

If my guiding season is going to proceed like this when conditions are challenging I can't wait for warmer weather to get the hatches going.  Don't worry I know better but still it is fun to dream.

I still have a few limited guide days available so if you are interested in spending some time with me please let me know right away.

Although the weather office called for better weather over the weekend it was not to be.  It turns out that Friday was the best day.  A nasty low pressure system rolled in from Montana and spat out ugly weather for the balance of the weekend. This included a couple of inches of snow.  The balance of my weekend was spend peering out of my window shaking my head extolling the virtues or lack there of when it comes to prairie springs!   I did have a chance though to catch up on my Fly Fusion column and prepare for my next trip.  Four days exploring the Parklands region of southwestern Manitoba for trophy browns, rainbows and the hyper aggressive tiger trout.  I will be provided a complete report when I return.