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.


  1. Those pics of Fortress really entice a guy to get that lake off my bucket list. I remember when I first read about that lake in an issue of Canadian Flyfisher when I lived back in Ontario. Now that I am so close to it living in Hinton, I cant figure out what is holding me back? Likely the thought of traipsing through grizzly country! Nice article really hope to attend one of your seminars soon.

  2. Hi Kevin, it would be great to see you there. Perhaps one of my 2011 schools would be an option for you. We are planning both a weekend and week long school for 2011. They will be scheduled around the same time as last year to take advantage of the incredible chironomid hatches at Fortress.

    Cheers, Phil