Imagine the rise and splashing of wild trout echoing through the clean backcountry air. Visualize nobody else, just you and untouched fishing waters waiting for a cast. In the background, sketch a skyline of high mountainous jagged peaks of mammoth rock shooting out from the earth five hundred meters above you. Take note of a rocky mountain sheep casually feeding along a grassy slope on the far side of the desolate lake. Backcountry fishing trips like the one previously described are available throughout Alberta but are commonly associated with grueling treks from the trailhead, but this simply isn’t always the case. There are many options to cater to all fitness levels and budgets. But in the end, catching and cooking fresh trout over an open fire in the solitude of the backcountry will always be “5-star” in my book. Regardless of where you go, how you get there or what you bring – serenity is waiting to greet you.
From Waterton National Park, in the southwest corner of Alberta, northerly along the BC border to Grand Cache, the Eastern slopes of Alberta are full of backcountry trout fishing opportunities. Some close, some far. Some high, some higher. All of them offer great fishing, spectacular scenery and most importantly, solitude. In Southern Alberta, near the headwaters of the Castle river system south of the Crowsnest Pass, Barnaby and the Southfork Lakes offer Golden Trout fishing. Further back, Grizzly Lake has brook trout and will likely get you away from ATV sounds and traffic. All the tributaries of the Castle Rivers have many hidden pools loaded with cutthroat trout.
North of the Castle drainage and Hwy 3, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park in Kananaskis (K-country) has many lakes with moderate hikes ranging from 2 to 15 kilometers. Most lakes have westslope cutthroat trout ranging from 10 – 15 inches in size. Because of the close proximity to Calgary, these lakes can have other anglers. Running Rain Lake is only an hour hike and the view is fantastic; an easy day trip for someone wanting to ‘test the waters’ of backcountry fishing. Take caution on warm days though as the creek you cross on the way to Running Rain Lake, like any Alberta backcountry creek or river, can be a lot deeper and nastier to cross later in the day if the weather has been warm all day. Rawson Lake is a short 3 km from the parking lot and the list is large for lakes with 5-15 kilometer hikes for those wanting more of a workout before they fish. Chester Lake has Northern Dolly Varden (commonly known as dollies). Galatea, Maude and Talus are among my favorites because of the hikes, campsites and great fishing wading just off shore. Hiking into these remote gems won’t leave you disappointed – lots of big and beautiful not-so-picky cutthroat! Just what every angler seeks.
Driving West from Rocky Mountain House on the David Thompson Highway, backcountry lakes like Lake of the Falls offer such spectacular views while hiking in, but are generally more challenging than K-country. Allstones Lake is stocked with brook trout and I frequent it often, since those are my favorite. Allstones should be renamed to “All-up Lake”, because that’s how the trail goes: up, up and it never lets up for 3 hours. But, the dry fly fishing is incredible at dusk. One such night last summer the stars that filled the sky above me also we’re reflecting off the mirror looking lake that I had to myself. Wading only a few metres from shore, each and every cast I hooked a brook trout. After sunset, I had to use the biggest brightest fly I had just so I could see it float on the water – it didn’t matter, the brook trout were devouring anything that landed. Finally, after I couldn’t stand straining my eyes any longer to see my fly I packed it in and retired to my hammock for the night. It’ll be a night I tell my children about for years to come. It’s also a good reminder to consider staying overnight to get the best fishing. Our campsite was lakeside and I woke to the sound of rising trout – much better than an alarm clock.
If backpacking isn’t your forte, consider helifishing which caters to those who enjoy backcountry mountainous surrounds without the strain of hiking or carrying gear. The fishing conditions are the same whether you hike in or taxi in and the fish don’t know the difference. Based near Abraham Lake, along Hwy 11, Wayne Hanson Outfitters fly a minimum of 3 passengers in/out of remote backcountry lakes for day or multiday trips. They allow you to choose from the following destinations, all lakes under $500 round trip per person:
- Cutthroat trout: Landslide Lake or Lake of the Falls or Obstruction Lake
- Golden Trout: Michelle Lakes or Coral Lake
- Trophy Cutthroat Trout (C&R): Ram River Canyon(s)
You still must bring everything you need (and they have weight limits), but they get you there and back. And if you think you can handle the hike one way, they have a 50% discount for those so inclined. Fly in and hike out, or hike in and fly out – the choice is yours.
A third option, which may not be classified as ‘backcountry’ to some is to fish the river systems in Banff and Jasper along the highways. The great part about this option is the “remoteness” part is totally up to you. You can likely fish with your vehicle in sight, or you can hike up or down stream as far as you like to get the serenity (or better fishing) you’re seeking. If you’re fishing the national park waters, you’ll need to purchase a special license and they have additional regulations as well. The tributaries of the Athabasca River in Jasper National Park hold some big bull trout. I’ve never seen another angler while fishing for big bulls there. The hiking is easy because it’s always flat ground and the bull trout are hungry.
Always check the fishing regulations, trail reports and fire bans before you plan your backcountry fishing trip. If having an open fire shore lunch is what you’re after as far as ambience, you won’t want to target a lake with catch & release only restrictions inside a fire banned area. Regardless of how I get there, my backcountry pack consists of:
- If I’m staying the night: Tent with vestibule (or tarp), sleeping pad and bag
- Icebreaker merino wool clothing (warmth) and quick dry clothing (sun protection), hat, polarized sunglasses and rain gear
- Food and Water filtration system
- Jetboil Stove
- First Aid Kit and survival kit
- Gerber Multi-tool or folding pocket knife
- Bear spray
- Thermacell or Mosquito spray/sunscreen
That’s the easy part of getting the pack to a comfortable weight as there are numerous companies that specialize in lightweight outdoor gear. For fishing gear, the first challenge is always deciding which type of fishing to do. I can never decide, so I pack both my compact spinning and my 5 weight fly rod, which also means two reels and line types. If there is any chance what so ever to bring my belly boat, I will. It’s heavy, but I love fishing from a boat, especially fly fishing as you then have endless back casting room. There’s nothing quite like being on top of a mountain range in the middle of a gin clear lake with schools of fish at your feet tips, talk about a neat experience. I pack a small 6 x 10 inch box of flies and tackle usually with these:
- Egg-sucking leeches
- Wooly-buggers (various colors)
- Bead-headed pheasant tail nymphs
- Adams and stimulator (for when the trout are rising)
- Muddler minnow
- Alligator spoon
- Rapalas (aggressive action)
- Panther martin spinner
- 5 of diamonds of various sizes
My ‘never forget’ cooking items are: fish grill, butter, Mrs. Dash and tinfoil. With all the hype about organic food these days, why not go catch some and eat a few antioxidant wild berries on the hike in. I seldom order fish in a restaurant because I was raised on shore lunches and it just doesn’t taste any better than eating a trout you caught 10 minutes ago. Relaxing lakeside, listening to butter bubbling, feeling the heat from the cooking coals and watching an eagle soar high above trying to catch his own meal as you doze in and out of sleep is the serenity I seek when backcountry fishing. Things slow down quickly and get really simple. It makes you appreciate the conveniences we have every day, like countertops to clean a fish. I love hiking in and out as well. The exercise is great for the heart and body. After a hard earned swim in a mountain lake, I guarantee you’ll have one of the best sleeps of your life. Stress and worry about everyday issues vanish while in the backcountry – it’s back to basics: food, water and staying warm and dry in your shelter. Somehow you have to fit fishing in though to help pass the time, but trust me, that isn’t hard.
The health benefits of a back country fishing trip cannot be over-looked, and could be the sole purpose of one’s trip. However, getting away from all the crowds and noise is attractive to many people, including myself. Doesn’t having only three things on your daily to do list sound appealing: fish, eat and sleep. For me, my youth fishing trips on the largest freshwater lake in the world were crowded if we saw two other boats. Needless to say, since moving West to the larger busier urban areas of Alberta and fishing smaller pot hole sized lakes, the fishing experience was not how I remember it. For this reason alone, I committed myself to explore the remote peaceful fishing locales of Alberta. Backcountry lakes fit into this category and are what I call: serenity ponds. These remote lakes and streams offer tons of water to yourself usually with unpressured hungry fish. This restful setting will remind you of why it is important to put in extra effort into getting away from it all. Remote solitude is something every angler should experience at least once their lifetime, if not once a season.
Reasons to make a back country fishing trip a priority are plentiful; everyone’s are different – have you thought about yours? No matter what your reason for embarking on a back country fishing adventure, fond memories will surely accompany you for years to come.
By Gord Nuttall
(All photos © Gord Nuttall)