Fly Fishing in the Canadian Cariboo: A Perfect Trip
Look deep into your imagination to picture the perfect fishing trip. It would hold thoughts of past memorable experiences on the water. Large fish in good numbers, spectacular scenery to knock your senses for a loop, and good friends to witness your triumphs and failures. Throw in some assorted characters you’ve never met before, a charismatic and talented guide to point you in the right direction, and good food and drink to sustain the adventure. Complete the picture with a collage of memories that will leave you yearning for more of the same each year thereafter.
Sure, plop down enough dough and you might think you could buy all these experiences. But there’s never a guarantee, regardless of how much you pay. This is the story of a fishing trip that did not cost an arm and a leg, yet evolved into something we fly fishermen can only term…priceless. For the past five years, four fishing buddies have trekked to either Alaska or Canada looking for that perfect adventure in the wilderness. Salmon or rainbow trout would be the ultimate catch-and- release target. Not the type fish you chance upon in home waters, but fish attainable only from far away. Factors of chance might be dictated by the timing of a king or coho run, the reputation of a known locale, or just word of mouth from others. The fact is, no one really knows what’s in store on a trip, but high expectation is always the common denominator.
The year before, we were treated to a marvelous fly fishing trip at Eureka Peak Lodge in central British Columbia, the guests of the owners, ace guide Stu Maitland and his wife, Joyce. (My testimonial can be found on their website at www.eurekapeak.com.) Jim Purcell, Mike Spurlock, Scotty McMullin, and I were so impressed with our adventure on the Horsefly River and surrounding lakes that we again turned to Stu to come up with another hat trick.
Our annual trek got off to a shaky start after some missed flight connections from Vancouver to Williams Lake, where Stu and Joyce had arranged for a Beaver floatplane to whisk us off to Quesnel Lake, where a group of cabins awaited at the mouth of the Mitchell River. Stu joined us to guide for the week, but made no promises about this relatively unfamiliar area.
Our pilot was Gideon, owner of Sharp Wings Air, Ltd. Now in his 70s, he has over 33,000 hours of bush pilot experience and can fly the 100 miles to Quesnel Lake in his sleep, or so it is said. From 4,000 feet, Quesnel Lake appears as an emerging giant “Y” nestled up in the Cariboo Mountains near the border of Wells Gray Park. The spectacular scenery from all around comes at you in elegant steps, as the lake looms larger. Quesnel Lake is the largest inland fiord in the world, believed to be over a half mile deep. Somewhere in all that pristine water had to be rainbow and lake trout equal to its majesty.
As the snow-capped mountain peaks rose above us on three sides, the descending de Havilland ever-so-gently kissed the water, and the spectacle became real. A long floating dock, extending from a group of rustic cabins on the forested shore, beckoned as the plane coasted to a perfect stop, and out came Betty and her four dogs. Betty Frank (or Glynis Cox, her original given name) is as colorful a character as you’ll ever meet. We were to hear endless stories about her experiences as a hunting guide and fur trapper. Close to 70, her beauty and personality radiated with a self-confidence that was as genuine as the setting. Her log cabin was modest but comfortable. There, she served meals and told us tales around the fireplace with Stu. From the comfort of her front porch, we watched the water, mountains and forest across the lake.
Our cabin had a wood burning stove and sink (no water), modest furniture and bunks upstairs. We had gone somewhat rustic in past trips up north, living in U.S. Forest Service cabins with no electricity or running water, so it us just fine. One has not truly lived until perched atop the throne of an outhouse in the early morning mist, the crypt-like silence of the rain forest all around, with the threat of a bear or moose emerging at any moment.
Stu had arranged for a large jet boat for the five of us, two smaller skiffs with motors, and float tubes (called belly-boats in Canada) for drifting the Mitchell River. The Mitchell winds its way to Quesnel Lake from its origin, Mitchell Lake, about 10 miles upstream. Getting to Mitchell Lake itself would have been fun because our imaginations ran wild about its renowned beauty, but gravel beds below the ever-shallower water stopped our skiff’s progress, so we turned and drifted back towards Quesnel Lake a few miles. Some of us remained in the big jet boat while others were in float tubes. To stalk the fish in quiet solitude, at a controllable speed and at eye level, a float tube is the only way to go. This magnificent river was home to 30-inch-plus rainbows and we knew it.
We’ll never know if this particular moment was unique or commonplace, but a hatch unfamiliar to us was occurring. White moths an inch long were everywhere—in the water with wings fluttering desperately, in the overhanging bushes within range of predatory eyes just beneath the surface, and in flight. Their cocoons were in bushes all along the riverside. A hundred yards ahead we heard loud splashes and looked up to see concentric rings marking the spot. As we neared the source of this commotion, it became obvious we had made it to fishing Nirvana. Ever so often, a giant rainbow would leap completely out of the water to snatch a white moth off the overhanging vegetation, sometimes a yard above the water! Then a loud splash behind us in the middle of the river would jerk us around. Where fluttering white wings had been a moment before, only the disturbed surface remained.
Most of us had stimulators on floating lines or a Willie sockeye smolt on a sink tip. Certainly nobody had thought to tie white moth imitations. Nevertheless, we aimed at the last splash and were rewarded with the splash of the take, a quick jerk, and a fight on our hands. Sometimes the pull of the fish took our tubes back upstream against the current. A 25-inch rainbow takes a while to land, but the 15-inchers seemed to put up a longer and more exciting fight.
After that first day on the water, we searched our tying materials for something to match a white moth. On size 2–6 hooks with black thread, we formed a tapering body with some 1-mm white foam wrap we found and made white elk hair wings to produce a caddis-like moth. We knocked ‘em dead over the next six days with this innovative white moth fly.
Our most notable catches were Mike Spurlock’s 28-inch bull trout, making him the champ of the trip; Jim Purcell’s 8-pounder that may have been even bigger in girth; and a 22-inch rainbow Jim landed on his 6-foot, 3-4 weight rod. Our usual equipment was 5- and 6-weight rods with 2X or 3X tippets. Fish this large are not leader-shy. We often trolled the lake near Watt Creek with either orange sockeye smolt patterns or purple egg-sucking leeches on sinking lines. An occasional Adams dry fly proved fun near the creek mouths.
As most fly fishermen know, catching fish is not the only reward of the journey. In most instances, beautiful scenery just happens to be where trout are found, so just being there is half the fun. There were many memories we experienced that completed the trip:
· The logging camp a mile across the lake, where we saw barges carrying tanker trucks and heavy equipment coming and going daily up the lake and Cessnas bringing loggers to and from the camp’s dock. We could hear the off-loaded trucks working their way up the switchbacks to the valley beyond the ridge and the deep thud and thunder of a fallen Douglas fir or spruce when the chainsaws stopped.
· Betty’s stories about the time she put maggots on her badly cut leg to prevent gangrene. The rifle on her wall, ever ready for the intruding bear. Once a grizzly rummaged through her cabin while she watched from a safe distance, the carnivore between her and her weapon.
· The delicious meals Betty cooked on the wood burning stove: the occasional fish we did not release or some beef and bannock, a backwoods biscuit that hunters, trappers, and prospectors have eaten for breakfast and taken as a snack for a century or more. We could never get enough of that bannock, complete with honey.
· Betty’s pet cats, Shadow and Owl, who ruled the household from the quilt atop the bed in the corner, next to the warm fire. Her four magnificent sled dogs, Alf, Lobo, Teddy, and Yukon, which was half wolf and half husky and easily the largest dog I have ever seen.
· Wildlife big and small. We saw moose, beaver, lynx, bald eagles, and osprey, but no bears, sable, or otters. Betty warned us not to sleep with an exposed hand, as you could wake to find a sleeping rodent warming itself in your palm. The second the lanterns were extinguished, their scampering began.
· The dock, where in the fading daylight just before dinner, we went for some dry fly action from 14- to 22-inch trout. Just another day in paradise!
Finally, that feeling of tranquility after dinner, sitting on Betty’s front porch, a Backwoods cigar in one hand, and Jack Daniel’s in the other, with dogs curled at my feet and my friends all about as night challenged the fading sunlight reflecting on Mt. Watt’s snow across the lake. Mike would again curse the blinking red sandbar light on the tower down the lake and insist we get Betty’s rifle and “take it out” for disrupting the natural beauty of the setting.
Soon the dropping temperature and the warmth of the liquor would remind us it was time to crawl wearily into our sleeping bags. We knew tomorrow would be as good or better than today. It just had to be.
By Bill Hodges