How to Handle Cutthroats and Bullies

Fernie, British Columbia
September 4, 2017

I’ve just returned from four days of fishing for wild Canadian westslope cutthroat trout in British Columbia. This is the third year in a row that I’ve fished the famous Elk River that runs through the beautifully tranquil town of Fernie in the eastern-most portion of the province. After each day of fishing on the Elk, I swear it’s been the best day of dry fly fishing I’ve ever had. And as a perfect complement to the extraordinary fishing, the town of Fernie, surrounded by the Canadian Rockies is a brilliant destination in itself.


After being founded in 1904 by coal mining pioneer William Fernie, the town immediately burned to the ground. Subsequently, the inhabitants thoughtfully rebuilt the town’s buildings using brick. Nonetheless, the brand-new “fire-proof” city burned once again a few years later in an even more ferocious inferno after a forest wildfire ignited a lumber mill on the edge of town. Many of the buildings you see today in the downtown area date from the town’s second resurrection. Although coal mining and industrial forestry are still major staples of the area economy, Fernie is now famous as a snow skier’s paradise, the birthplace of guitar legend Alex Lifeson, and the shooting location for the critically acclaimed film Hot Tub Time Machine. During the summer off-season, however, mountain biking and (more importantly to this out-of-shape, middle-aged adventurer) fly fishing take center stage.

Unlike many North American trout streams where anglers can tie on a buffet of multiple nymphs and wet flies, Elk River fishing regulations specify that only single flies can be used. The freestone river is typically fished with an experienced guide and a drift boat. The recommended rod size for catching the 14 to 19-inch long, plump “cutties” is the standard 9-foot 5-weight. However, it is recommended that anglers also bring a 7 or 8-weight rod just in case they get the opportunity to catch the celebrated main event: the monstrous Bull Trout. These chances quite often occur as follows…

It’s around 2 PM (Mountain) when after giving my Chernobyl ant a seductive twitch, the chesty cutthroat politely sips the fly. After quietly mouthing “God save the queen,” I quickly lift my rod tip which immediately bows under the pressure of the now irritated trout. After a brief sparring match, the trout is on his way toward the landing net when a three-foot long sea monster materializes from the depths of the rocky river bottom. To my horror, the alien marauder tears a chuck out of the fatigued trout like a barracuda attacking a freshly hooked, hapless red snapper. My shock is interrupted by the puzzling cries of delight from my young guide, Dylan, who has now cast down the net and is scrambling to unsheathe the “bull trout rod.”

Although only 22 years-old, Dylan has more fishing experience than most professional fisherman three times his age. Like most of the guides on the Elk River, he fishes on his days off and habitually wears a baseball cap with a brim as flat as a billiard table with a variety of flies perched on top. I’m not even sure whether the flies are hooked into the bill or just placed there unattached. The bill is so flat that I’ve heard he places his sandwich and coffee there so the he can fish through lunch. By contrast, I was taught to form the bills of my caps using two rubber bands and a Budweiser tallboy. As far as I can tell, the differences in extreme brim shaping are more generational than geographical.

Still catching my breath, I’m handed the stouter rod. Instead of a floating tip line, the 8-weight rod and reel is strung up with a sinking tip fly line with a heavy leader on the end of which is tied a streamer that reminds me of Richard Petty’s hatband. After casting a dry fly the size of a sand gnat all day, my first few casts with this enormous streamer is very lackluster. From a distance, I’m sure it looks like I am angrily whipping the river in retaliation for some egregious personal offense. Needless to say, after this demonstration of vulgar casting, the bull trout has retreated to its lair at the stream’s bottom. Always tactful, Dylan gives me the sympathetic line that I’m sure he’s delivered to out-of-town fishermen every day since the summer began, “Good try, those bullies are almost impossible to hook…now let’s change up your rod and fish this riffle coming up.”

If you’re planning on fishing the Elk this summer, my recommended gear list would include: fly rods (both 5 & 8 weights) and reels, dry fly floatant, beard oil, extra fly line, iPhone, last year’s leftover Canadian Loonies, reel covers, lucky bottle opener, waders that you probably won’t use, Dukes mayonnaise, polarized sunglasses, passport, western flies [especially fat alberts, purple hazes, a mix of beetles (especially Ringos), various hoppers and ants, greasy poos, skanky pops, slack jaws, whisker don’ts, lip rippers, and gummy worms (for when no one’s looking)], Copenhagen snuff, 18-inch-long zip ties, earplugs, Faulkner novel, hat, bandana, more than one pair of fishing pants, wading sandals, wool socks, under drawers, nippers, forceps, two Daredevil comic books, leaders and tippet, fleece jacket, mustard-based BBQ sauce, sunscreen, a bottle of Four Roses bourbon whiskey, and a Case Sodbuster.

I also highly recommend Elk River Guiding Company, Big Bang Bagels, and Fernie Brewing Company.

Until next time…ramble on.