Ultimate West Flyfishing

Ultimate West Flyfishing

World-class cutthroat fishing without world-class crowds

  • By: Bruce Masterman
An eerie salmon-hued haze created by smoke from nearby forest fires hung low over the Purcell Mountains that overlook the St. Mary River in southeastern British Columbia. But the scrappy Westslope cutthroat trout didn't seem to mind the smoke when my eldest daughter, Chelsea, then 19, and I visited the area one August day a couple of summers ago. It certainly didn't affect their ability to see our flies. "You should be prepared for some very good fly-fishing," our host, Gary Gow of Ultimate West Flyfishing, had told me when we'd booked.As it turned out, Gow, and the St. Mary River itself, did not disappoint. Shortly after he launched the inflatable raft in a pretty stretch of river near his base in the city of Cranbrook, British Columbia, Gow pointed to a sipping rise next to a submerged boulder. The cutthroat ignored the first drift of a size 10 yellow Stimulator, but eagerly rose to the second one. The fish fought hard in classic cutthroat style: no jumps but frequent and persistent runs toward deeper water, causing my whippy 3-weight rod to bend like an inverted 'U' and my heart to pound like a drum. A minute or two later, I released a gorgeous 14-inch, hard-bodied trout back into the clear water. The encounter was a portent of exciting action that followed for the next several hours on one of western North America's most overlooked trout waters. Overshadowed by the region's more popular cutthroat rivers-the Elk near Fernie, and the Oldman and Castle just across the border in Alberta-the St. Mary goes quietly about its business of producing world-class cutthroat fishing without the world-class crowds. Gow says it's fly-fishing like Montana was 40 years ago. This clear, freestone river boasts thriving hatches of stone flies, caddis and mayflies, making for spectacular fly-fishing action for anglers who approach it by boat or on foot. However, much of the river, especially the lower section, cuts through a deep canyon that makes foot access difficult. Floating is the best approach. Gary Gow first fished the St. Mary a few decades ago while living in the southern Alberta city of Calgary, which is less than four hours away. The fly-fishing it offered for native cutthroat impressed him then, and it impresses him even more now that he has a chance to regularly explore the river as part of the Ultimate West Flyfishing business he operates with his wife Sandra. The Orvis-endorsed fly-fishing guide service is based out of the Tartan Trout Guest House, a sprawling 4,000-square-foot, three-story house built of tamarack logs. Featuring high-beamed ceilings, the chalet-style lodge is nestled on 10 wooded acres just north of Cranbrook. Deer and elk occasionally wander past the front door. The guestrooms are spacious and finished in a trout décor. A den includes a fly-tying desk and complete library of fly-fishing literature. As Chelsea and I found out, both Sandra and Gary are gracious hosts. But Sandra, an accomplished fly fisher in her own right, is the undisputed queen of the kitchen, turning out delicious meals at the start and end of the day. But fly-fishing is the main attraction. In addition to fishing the St. Mary, from mid-March to mid-November Gary also takes visitors on quests for rainbows, brook trout, huge bull trout and cutthroats in other lesser-known rivers, streams and lakes, as well as the Elk. He is also a qualified guide on popular Alberta waters such as the Bow, Oldman and Crowsnest rivers. The day we spent with him on the St. Mary, however, qualifies as one of the best days on the water that Chelsea and I have ever shared-and not just because of the fishing. The scenery was spectacular, with the river passing through open ranch country and heavily treed woodlots. We spotted mule deer and both bald and golden eagles. The often-braided river alternated between deep pools, long quiet runs and exciting, choppy riffles. The water was lower than normal, the result of a lingering dry season that had created ideal forest-fire conditions. Several times, Gary and I had to hop out of the raft to push it through a stretch of shallow water. We saw one other fly fisher all day-and he was with one of Gary's guides. Although the cutts were especially skittish because of low and clear water conditions, we still managed to catch many fish on top with Elkhair Caddisflies and Stimulator dries. When that wasn't working, we switched to size 12 beadhead Prince, Pheasant Tail and Gold-ribbed Hare's Ear nymphs worked below tiny cork indicators. A certified Federation of Fly Fishers instructor, Gary patiently coached both Chelsea and me on proper presentation, fly selection and reading the water. He had talked about the possibility of fishing to pods of feeding cutthroats, but although water conditions ruled that out, we still saw a number of rising trout. And, even where they weren't rising, a blind drift through a riffle or pool more often than not generated a response. The day was warm, hovering in the low 80's, so Chelsea and I opted to wet wade whenever we left the boat. In the exuberance of youth, she fished through one pool, then jumped in-clothes and all-for an impromptu swim in the cool water. At the next stop a few minutes later, she waded out into thigh-deep water to drift a caddis through a promising-looking run. On the third cast, I heard her holler and turned in time to see her 5-weight bouncing under the weight of a good fish. After gently removing the hook, she held the trout in the water until it regained enough strength to swim away. Standing up after watching the fish vanish in the depths, her brown eyes sparkled and a broad smile creased her tanned face as she said, "I'd like to do that again." And she did. For further information, contact Gary or Sandra Gow at Ultimate West Flyfishing, 2356 Samuel Crescent, Cranbrook, B.C., Canada V1C 6T1; 800-779-8338, www.gotflyfishing.com Bruce Masterman is a full-time writer who fly-fishes throughout southern Alberta and British Columbia.