Border Crossing: Fishing the Elk River
August 21, 2009
By DAVE REESE
There’s something in the water just over the border in Canada.
John Hollensteiner holds a fish on the Elk River near Fernie, B.C./Dave Reese photo
The Elk River looks similar to, say, the North Fork of the Flathead, with braided channels and long runs of gravel bars to fish. The scenery is comparable, with tall peaks nearby. But something’s happened in the water; the fish are bigger. While you may be content to catch eight- to 16-inch cutthroat trout on dry flies on our area rivers in northwest Montana (not that there’s anything wrong with that), the Elk River offers a cutthroat trout fishery where the fish are hefty and put up a sporting fight on a fly line. The Elk River’s cutthroat trout are heavy and thick, from being raised on the abundant aquatic insect life in the river. The fishery is also doing well because it’s been catch and release on most sections of the river for the past 10 years.
WHERE IT’S AT: The Elk River is about two-hour drive from Whitefish, depending on how much time it takes you to cross the international border at Roosville. The river runs through the resort town of Fernie, a friendly little burg known for its small-town charm and hospitality. The fish love to take dry flies like golden stone flies, drakes, pale morning duns and caddis.
Temperature is crucial on this river, as we noticed on a recent trip. As the morning began to heat up, we watched huge stone flies drift down out of the nearby cottonwood trees.
The two-inch flies fluttered to the water, lit briefly and dropped their eggs, then began their slow ascent back into the trees. Over and over we watched this happen, and we tried to imitate this — with some success — with our artificial offerings. When the sky clouded up, things shut down. The flies stopped their activity and the fish stopped hitting the surface. That’s when you turn to streamers and nymphs.
When the water temperature on the Elk hits that magical 55 degrees, the fish start looking toward the surface to feed. “It’s like fishing bankers’ hours,” says Dave Brown, owner of Dave Brown Outfitters fly shop in Fernie. Brown, whose shop was the first on the Elk River to offer guided fishing, says the river has become more popular with two major user groups: Flathead Valley anglers and Calgary, Alberta, anglers.
IF YOU GO: Dave Brown Outfitters; davebrownoutfitters.com