August 30, 2015
In the world of trout streams, Alberta's Oldman River is like Miss Universe's gorgeous little sister—no press agent, no publicity, and not much fame in spite of its own eminent qualifications. The Oldman is overshadowed by not only one, but two of its kin: the Bow, which receives most of the adoration that leaks across the 49th parallel, and the Crowsnest, an Oldman tributary that gets the rest. Had Mother Nature not put these other rivers in the show, the Oldman would be the star.
Fascination with this river comes easily, and for compelling reasons: a diverse and dramatic setting on the edge of the Rocky Mountains, a stunning abundance of trout water—nearly 100 miles all told—and a satisfying variety of fish and water types within that space.
Named for Na'pi, the great spirit and protector in Peigan native legend, the river chugs east out of the Rockies and eases onto the edge of the Great Plains draining 10,000—the Oldman flows through the city of Lethbridge and collides with the Bow out in the shortgrass prairie a little east of nowhere. The new river, called South Saskatchewan (no longer trout water), sets a course for Hudson Bay. It is the upper 70 miles of the Oldman, from its headwaters to the Peigan Indian Reserve, that intrigues fly fishers.
The river near its headwaters is tiny and clear. Native cutthroat dart over polished gravel in the moments they feel safe from apparitional bull trout that lurk beneath. The upper river lies within the Rocky Mountains Forest Reserve—government land open to public use—and is paralleled by an all-weather gravel road, which provides easy access to the river. Camping is allowed in the forest reserve, and although the area is popular in the summer, most campers aren't fishing.
Opening day on this part of the river is June 16, but it's better to wait until late June or early July when runoff subsides and the fishing perks up.
The upper Oldman has bugs, but it's not a technical, hatch-matching stream. Western Green Drakes, Golden Stones, and Pale Morning Duns are the most important insects, and a variety of other mayflies, caddis, and grasshoppers show up in good numbers through the prime July-October window. Most of the fishing is a matter of searching for willing volunteers, whether they are rising or not. Attractor drys, often rigged with small beadhead nymphs hanging beneath, are popular and work well for the predominant 8- to 15-inch cutthroat. Be sure to carry size 10-12 yellow Stimulators, size 14 Parachute Adams, and size 14-16 Beadhead Pheasant Tail Nymphs.
The river flows generally south, with easy access via Highway 40 (the old Forestry Trunk Road), a gravel road running north-south through the forest reserve. The Oldman is joined by the Livingstone River and several smaller tributaries. It then meets Racehorse Creek, takes a sharp turn east, and in what seems an improbable move, dodges through a narrow opening in the mountain aptly called The Gap. For fly-fishing purposes, The Gap is the logical demarcation between upper and middle Oldman.
Downstream of The Gap, the river flows southeast away from the mountains and gains elbow room, moving through increasingly open ranch country with cottonwoods, aspen, and evergreens near the shoreline, and rolling grassy hills shadowed by overlooking stands of limber pine. Astute observers notice these pines lean oddly to the east. This is a permanent nod to the prevailing westerly Chinook winds that mature in the mountains and fan the foothills and prairie.
The foothills of the middle Oldman, once home to bison—and mammoths before them—today feed whitetail and mule deer, black and grizzly bear, elk, and cattle. As the river passes through this wild natural area known as the Whaleback, cutthroat share green pools with rainbows introduced in the 1920s and 1930s. The mixed heritage is evident: some pure cutts, some pure rainbows, and plenty of hybrids.
The river gains natural nutrients through the Whaleback and holds more large fish. Above The Gap, a 17-inch cutt is a bragger, but through this stretch it takes around 20 inches to warrant a late-night phone call to a fishing buddy who couldn't be there.
But if you want to catch the biggest possible fish in the Oldman, focus on the bull trout that chomp 12-inch cutthroat like bite-sized hors d'oeuvres. Unlike most of Montana, where it's illegal to catch bull trout intentionally, in Alberta you can actively fish for bulls, as long as you handle them carefully and release them. There are good numbers of bull trout throughout the upper and middle Oldman. Target them by dancing big streamers through deep water and plunge pools on the end of a fast-sinking-tip line. If you do this with a true bull trout streamer, 5 or 6 inches long, you'll catch bulls or nothing. But if you use a streamer about 3 inches long you'll catch some bulls along with a larger class of cutts and rainbows.
The other bull trout technique is more reactive than proactive. You hook a small fish and while you're bringing it in a big bull swoops out from under a rock and tries to take him away. This is startling, but after quickly releasing the little trout and calming down, you should cut back your leader, put on a big streamer, and make it behave like a cutthroat in trouble. And no, it's not ethical to troll the little guy around the pool before you land him.
You probably won't catch a 10-pound bull in the Oldman, but you may catch a 3- or 4- or 5-pounder—if you can tear yourself away from the dry-fly fishing.
The river flowing through The Gap is accessible from Highway 517. After leaving the forest reserve, the Oldman flows through private ranches where landowner permission is required. Farther downstream there is public access and a campground at the Waldron Bridge on paved Highway 22. Another bridge provides access on a gravel road 10 miles downstream.
The best dry-fly fishing in this middle section usually arrives alongside the Western Green Drake and lesser Green Drake (Flavilinea) hatches, which begin in early July and continue for five or six weeks. Blanket hatches rarely occur, but cloudy, calm, warm afternoons produce plenty of flies and rising fish. And on those days when all components are not in place, the fish often take a dry Green Drake anyway.
In the summer, carry dry Green Drake patterns (#10-12) like the Green Paradrake or Green Drake Thorax. If you want to fish a dry with a nymph, try a #10 yellow Rubber-legged Stimulator with a #16 Copper John. Bull trout hunters use streamers—#2 or larger—tied in colors to match cutthroat fry. It's hard to beat a Clouser Minnow in pale pink or orange.
Conventional nymph-and-indicator fishing in this section is difficult because the water is deeper than it looks, and because there are frequent and sudden changes in depth—from knee deep to 15 feet just a few steps away. Most Oldman veterans concentrate on the heads of pools and shallower water, fishing drys solo or with small nymphs hanging a couple of feet beneath.
The middle river is wadeable but use caution. Though the bottom is not particularly slippery, it's easy to be fooled by the exceptional water clarity and find yourself in deeper than you expect. Also, in some areas peculiar longitudinal or diagonal rock ledges protrude from the river bottom, and the deep slots between them make wading tricky.
Fifteen miles downstream of the Waldron Bridge, near the south end of the Porcupine Hills, the river enters the Oldman Reservoir, an irrigation storage reservoir created in the early 1990s by the Alberta government amid much opposition and controversy. Just north of the ranching town of Pincher Creek, the river emerges from beneath the Oldman Dam as one of Alberta's few tailwater trout streams.
The tailwater section of the Oldman is one of Alberta's fly-fishing enigmas. It has good years and bad years. During good seasons it produces plenty of 15- to 22-inch rainbows on nymphs and streamers. Some of Alberta's best Pale Morning Dun dry-fly fishing occurs on this part of the river. Because it flows through a warm, dry grassland, hopper fishing can be great. Between the good years, though, are puzzling seasons when hatches and fishing are unreliable for reasons nobody seems to know. The good news is 2005 and 2006 were good years. Rainbows dominate this water, and there are some bulls present along with an occasional brown.
The Oldman tailwater is accessible from the dam and downstream for 7 miles. At that point, the river enters the Peigan Indian Reservation where access is not permitted. There is good foot access directly below the dam at the Cottonwood Campground and 5 miles below the dam on Highway 785 at Summerview Bridge.
The tailwater reach of the Oldman looks like a miniature version of the Bow River below Calgary. As the river winds through the prairie, each bend has a high bank on the outside and a low flat on the inside. The long runs, deep banks, and back eddies all hold fish. There is a good half-day float from the bridge just below the dam to the Summerview Bridge. This is easy water to navigate and is suitable for inflatable or hard-sided boats.
Essential drys for the Oldman tailwater are Pale Morning Dun imitations like the PMD Sparkle Dun and Rusty Spinner (#16) and a good hopper such as the Charlie Boy in #8-12. Carry streamers too; a #6 olive Bow River Bugger is a good choice.
Several attempts have been made to introduce brown trout downstream of the Peigan reserve near the town of Fort Macleod, but the lack of success keeps most fly fishers upstream.
When somebody says they've been fishing the Oldman, they're not really giving out much information. They could be talking about a tiny mountain creek, a rugged foothill stream, or a broad tailwater. While these multiple personalities may keep the Oldman River out of the spotlight, they also combine to create a great and diverse Western trout stream.