Just north of the Canada/U.S. border, about three hours from Spokane, Washington, is perhaps the best-kept trout secret in North America. This isn’t a Frenchman’s Creek running through a farmer’s field or an unnamed beaver pond. The “secret” is the Canadian portion of the Columbia River near Castlegar, British Columbia. If you’ve even glanced at a map of North America, you’ve seen the Columbia River staring back at you, but it hasn’t been until recently that rumors of choking caddis hatches and super-size rainbows on dry flies leaked south of the border. Those rumors are at least partially true.
Conservative fishing regulations, reduced pulp mill pollution, and an aggressive fertilization program in upstream Columbia River reservoirs have all helped turn a once unknown, mediocre trout fishery into a dry-fly paradise. If you go, you probably won’t catch a 10-pound rainbow, but during prime time you are likely to cast over pods of gulping trout containing hundreds of native rainbows averaging 16 to 18 inches and frequently over 20 inches.
I grew up on Alberta’s Bow River and have fished most of the famous tailwaters in the West—the Colorado, Snake, Green, San Juan, Bighorn, and Missouri, but I have never seen as many large rising trout at one time as on the Columbia. It isn’t classic dry-fly fishing because the river is too big to wade-fish and too deep in the good spots to safely anchor a boat. But if you hire a guide, or have a boat and a buddy who can row it, the Columbia may be your new go-to destination.
World’s Largest Tailwater
At its mouth, the Columbia River is the largest river on North America’s Pacific Coast. Eight hundred miles upstream, near Castlegar, British Columbia, it is still huge. Formed by the confluence of the Columbia River just below Hugh Keenleyside Dam and the Kootenay River below a series of five hydroelectric dams, the huge reservoir system upstream and the volume of water coming from the bottom-release dams make the Columbia one of the biggest tailwater trout fisheries in the world.
Hugh Keenleyside Dam alone has a reservoir capacity of 7,100,000 acre-feet. In comparison, Lake Bonneville—the biggest reservoir on the lower Columbia—holds a meager 761,000 acre-feet of water. As a result of this huge holding capacity, the Columbia rarely dirties from rain or snowmelt.
The water volume downstream of the confluence of the Kootenay River varies from highs of up to 140,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) during spring runoff to lows of 30,000 cfs during winter and early spring. It’s a trout stream nearly the size of the Niagara. While the flows change with the seasons, the river level doesn’t noticeably fluctuate through the day as levels do below some hydroelectric projects. The regulated flows provide moderate water temperature throughout the year to provide trout with optimum growing conditions. It doesn’t develop anchor ice during the winter, and during the summer, the water stays cool and the trout feed all day long and into the late Canadian evenings.
According to Senior Fish Biologist Jeff Burrows, of B.C.’s Ministry of Water, Land, and Air Protection, the fish population in a river as large as the Columbia is difficult to estimate, but biologists believe there are at least 10,000 rainbow trout over 12 inches long between Hugh Keenleyside Dam and Trail, B.C. If that number is reliable and the trout were distributed evenly throughout the river, that would amount to less than 500 trout per river mile. Luckily for fly fishermen, however, Columbia River rainbows congregate in the most efficient feeding habitats. I’ve seen more than 500 rainbows rising at one time within range of my fly rod.
The trout gather in the Columbia’s huge backeddies because they offer protection from the Columbia’s powerful current and corral suspended and floating food items. Mayflies, midges, and caddisflies by the millions get trapped in this rotating Lazy Susan, and the trout feed for hours at a time. Some of these backeddies are 20, 40, or 60 feet deep or more. When they rest, the trout descend into the protected depths of the eddy. When they feed, they fin quietly near the surface, grabbing a mayfly here and a caddis there as the food makes its rounds.
Big River Tactics
There are trout in the main river channel, but the banks drop off steeply and the river averages 12 to 20 feet deep through much of the summer. With that much water, the trout are spread thinly and often hold near the bottom.
To find rising trout you must find places where the current collects hatching insects and the trout can easily hold near the surface to feed. In late spring, summer, and fall that means fishing the dozens of football-field-sized backeddies between Castlegar and Trail.
Launch your boat at one of the many public access points (see map) and move quickly downstream. When you find large backeddies on the inside of sharp turns in the river or behind obstructions such as erosion-control structures that protrude into the river, get your boat into the circular side current and watch for rising trout or cruisers just below the surface.
On most moving waters trout hold in the water and pick insects from the top as they drift past. This also happens on the Columbia but is not what you see most often. In these backeddies, the food moves, and the trout move as well. Some cruise against the current; others move downstream, either drifting facing into the current or swimming with the current at their backs.
When the trout move and feed erratically in the midst of a Columbia River July caddis blizzard, the fishing becomes outstanding and difficult all at once. At times hundreds of snouts poke out of the water within casting range, and you can’t get a sniff. The fish are not leader shy and not particularly selective to pattern. The problem is coordinating a meeting between an open mouth and your fly, with millions of competing naturals on the water. Don’t get caught changing your fly every two minutes because you think you don’t have the right pattern on. Chances are, you just haven’t hit the trout right on the nose.
From an angler’s point of view, the trout’s unpredictable movement and feeding behavior can be extremely frustrating. The trout dodge and weave like boxers, and getting your fly in front of their faces can be like trying to photograph a hummingbird. You can’t follow the bird with your camera—you can only aim the lens at the nectar and be ready to pull the trigger.
In these backeddies you can see smaller current seams that momentarily gather higher concentrations of insects and then disperse them. The trout temporarily key on these floating rafts of food, sucking and slurping with audible indelicacy, sometimes sticking with a pocket of food until the current breaks it up. At other times they rise just once and then move on to the next target.
For the best success, keep your eye—and your fly—near the areas with the highest concentrations of insects and rising trout. When the hatch is sparse or just getting started, it is often possible to identify a single trout rising every few feet along a predictable course. Zero in on one of these fish and track its movement and feeding rhythm to guess where it might come up next. It’s like casting to gulpers on Hebgen Lake, except the flowing water creates drag and makes everything more dynamic and challenging.
In the last weeks of June and through July the afternoon and evening Grannom caddis hatch blankets the surface of the best backeddies. The more insects there are, the less the trout have to move and they can eventually settle down and just drift with the current. When the hatch is heavy, their feeding rhythm also increases. Although it becomes easier to get your fly close to a fish in a heavy hatch, you have to put the fly right on the trout’s nose. Even then, your fly competes with hundreds of other nearby naturals.
Another place to focus your attention is the top of the backeddy along the seam where the main river and the circular currents collide. Trout move in pods along this seam, and you can backrow on the inside edge, waiting for them to come to you. You’ll usually get two or three good casts into a pod as it moves past.
If there are other boats fishing the same eddy, it is polite to move with the current down the seam, around the backeddy, and then make another pass. A stationary boat obstructs other anglers. Rivers are inherently dangerous, and the size, depth, and water temperature of the Columbia make it potentially lethal. If an accident happens while you are fishing, you are a long way from shore in deep water. Always wear a life jacket and consider hiring a professional guide at least on your first day on the river.
Grannom caddis turn on in late April or early May—sometimes you can get good dry-fly fishing when the water is still low before snowmelt. The reservoir upstream of Keenleyside Dam drains 14,100 square miles of the Canadian Rockies, and though the river downstream rarely muddies, the sheer volume of water can dampen the dry-fly fishing.
In late June the water drops, and by July the caddis hatch is in full swing. In the mornings you’ll find risers still eating the leftovers from the hatch and egg-laying flights of the previous evening. Between 10 A.M. and 2 P.M. there is often a lull in surface activity, but by late afternoon the caddis begin to stir, and the trout respond accordingly. By 6 P.M. the hatch is heavy enough to bring hundreds of trout to the surface of a single backeddy and in the hour before dark, the prime feeding spots are a frenzy of trout backs, dorsal fins, and snouts. High wind can put a damper on the feeding activity and electrical storms can drive you off the water, but the July caddis hatch on the Columbia is as close to a sure thing as there is.
Columbia River guide Dwayne D’Andrea has a caddis pattern with a black seal-fur body, Antron trailing shuck, and deer-hair wing that you can fish through all stages of the caddis hatch. It’s a great emerger and adult caddis, and while there may be better low-riding spent-caddis patterns out there, they are difficult to see on the water amongst all the naturals.
Through most of the summer, there are also Pale Morning Duns (Ephemerella infrequens, inermis) and Blue-winged Olives on the water. Parachute Adams (#14-18) cover everything with upright wings and do a fair job of imitating the many spent mayflies and caddisflies that are on the water at times. Rusty, black, and tan spinners tied with white or amber Antron spent wings will also be eagerly eaten but are difficult to see, so you may want to fish them near a small yarn indicator. (Tandem-fly rigs are prohibited in B.C., so using a highly visible dry as an indicator is not an option.)
Caddisflies greatly outnumber all mayfly species on the Columbia, so when using a general searching pattern, it’s best to start with a caddis. When mayflies are hatching, the trout prefer them. This preference could be because the mayflies taste better, or the trout are just tired of caddisflies, but D’Andrea reasons that the mayflies are sometimes slower to fly away and more of a sure thing for the trout. Terrestrials also get caught in the backeddies and at times, a black ant or black foam beetle will outfish other patterns in the midst of a caddis hatch.
Nymphs like beadhead Pheasant Tails, Copper Johns, Deep Sparkle Pupae, or Kaufmann’s Metallic Caddis (green) work in the backeddies as well and sometimes catch slightly larger trout if you can master the tricky currents and get a deep, drag-free drift.
Like all tailwaters, the Columbia is also loaded with midges. The trout rarely feed on them on the surface, but you can fish a midge pupa or larva subsurface as you would for a Chironomid hatch in a lake. D’Andrea has a rod holder on his drift boat, and sometimes he rigs a sinking line with a single midge pupa such as Philip Rowley’s Chromie. He casts out, shakes out 60 feet of line, and then puts the fly rod in the holder while he rows and his anglers focus on rising trout. Yes, it’s a bit like trolling, but it gives him an indication of what’s going on down below.
In early fall, the hatches begin to taper down until only midges are left. In November, the trout move out of the backeddies and into the main river channel where they hold near the bottom through the winter. When the weather begins to warm up in late March through April, the river is at its lowest point of the year, and the trout hold along the edges of gravel bars prior to spawning or are still in the long sweeping runs they wintered in.
April is a prime month to go after the biggest trout in the Columbia—not with dry flies but by swinging flies steelhead-style through the best holding areas using sinking-tip lines. Dedicated fishing with Woolly Buggers, Egg-sucking Leeches, black General Practitioners, white Muddlers, or Barr’s Slumpbusters right on the bottom usually results in a dozen or more big rainbows per angler per day.
This fishing usually continues until the end of April when rainbows move out of the holding areas and begin to spawn in earnest. By the time the spawn is over in mid-May, the river will have at least tripled in volume, and anglers must wait for the water to recede and the fish to begin keying on surface food in late June.
The Columbia River has at least 10,000 rainbow trout over 12 inches in the 24 miles of water between Hugh Keenleyside Dam and Trail, B.C. According to Burrows, the average rainbow is between 16 and 18 inches. A 26-pound rainbow was caught on bait near Castlegar in February 2003, but most trout caught on flies are smaller than 24 inches. In an evening of fishing, it is not uncommon to catch and release several trout between 20 and 22 inches.
The province does not stock trout in the Columbia. It is possible for small numbers of trout from Kootenay Lake or the Arrow lakes to pass through the hydro impoundments using navigation locks. Also, stocked trout could migrate upstream from Franklin Roosevelt Lake in Washington. But most of the population is made up of wild, naturally reproducing trout native to the upper Columbia watershed.
B.C. has a single barbless hook rule on all flowing waters. Make sure your barb is crimped down completely, or tie or buy your flies on barbless hooks. Dropper flies or tandem rigs of any type are not permitted, and the rule is frequently enforced. The Columbia is open to fishing all year with the exception of a March 1 to June 30 closure in a short section in Castlegar to protect spawning rainbow trout. All bull trout (char) must be released. Regulations are always subject to change so check the booklet you get with your fishing license before you fish. For more complete information, visit http://wlapwww.gov.bc.ca/fw/fish/regulations/intro.html/.
Castlegar is not a fly-fishing hub, but it has ski resorts, golf courses, and all the services required for tourists traveling to and from Upper and Lower Arrow lakes, Kootenay Lake, and B.C.’s popular interior. There is only one licensed outfitter fly fishing the Columbia and boat traffic is light.
Dwayne D’Andrea is the only local fly-fishing guide. He is an expert oarsman and knows exactly where to find the trout. Contact Mountain Valley Sports Fishing and Tours at www.kootenayflyfishing.com or call (800) 554-5684. The Monte Carlo Motor Inn (800) 820-3313 is next door to Castlegar Sports Centre & Fly Shop where you can buy your licenses. Tent and R.V. camping is available at Pass Creek Regional Park (250) 304-2062. For more local business information, visit the Castlegar Chamber of Commerce website at www.castlegar.com
The trout population hasn’t always been as prolific as it is today. The numerous upstream reservoirs act as nutrient sinks and when linked along the same waterway in a series, the lower reservoirs become starved for nutrients. In the early 1990s, native stocks of Kokanee salmon in Kootenay Lake and Arrow lakes plummeted, both in numbers and in the size of adult Kokanee entering the spawning tributaries.
Studies showed that the nutrient levels in these lakes were well below historical levels with the zooplankton severely depleted. To bring back the salmon, the Columbia Basin Fish & Wildlife Compensation Program (CBFWCP) began fertilizing the lakes with a blend of food-grade nitrogen and phosphorous to increase the productivity of zooplankton, the primary food source of Kokanee salmon. The fertilizer is dispensed from the back of a ferry every week from April to August on Arrow lakes and Kootenay Lake. After the first year of fertilization (1999), phytoplankton (algae) abundance increased 250 percent, and the Kokanee returns in the fall of 2004 were the strongest in a decade.
Biologists with CBFWCP are responsible only for the lakes’ Kokanee salmon population and have not studied the effects of the program on the river fishery downstream, but local anglers say the trout fishing has dramatically improved since the fertilization program began. Every year the caddis and mayfly hatches intensify, and the trout get heavier.
There are also other reasons for this improved fishery. The Celgar bleached softwood pulp mill on the banks of the Columbia near Castlegar was a frequent polluter of the Columbia and a source of chlorine, PCBs, and other chemicals toxic to sensitive aquatic insects such as mayflies and stoneflies. Downstream of the mill effluent, extensive reaches of the river bottom were matted with pulp fiber and covered in a slimy film.
A $700 million upgrade in 1993 brought the mill into compliance with environmental regulations. While the mill has not had a perfect track record during the past decade, the improved effluent no longer mats the river bottom, and the insect populations have rebounded.
Ross Purnell is web content director for www.flyfisherman.com/. He lives in Palmyra, Pennsylvania.