This article was originally titled Cariboo Wild: Exploring Exploring British Columbia’s Quesnel Lake Watershed. It appeared in the Destinations 2020 issue of Fly Fisherman.
As summer seamlessly transitions to early fall in British Columbia’s Cariboo region, a bountiful return of sockeye salmon floods a multitude of rivers and streams. In hot pursuit are some of the province’s largest and most powerful rainbow and bull trout. With another winter approaching, these fish thrive on the high protein content found in the salmon eggs and flesh that tumble downstream. Exploring this corner of the Cariboo region is perfect for those seeking a fly-fishing adventure in a wild, rugged setting.
The nature of this fishery is a mirror image of many of those that have earned rivers in Alaska such grand reputations. Like a magnet, the annual sockeye return draws large, transient trout and char from all over the system. Stepping into and participating in this magnificent wonder of nature is an experience in itself, watching rainbow trout bumping the spawning sockeye salmon in hopes of dislodging a few eggs.
THE CARIBOO REGION
The Fraser River is the largest watershed in British Columbia, and the biggest single sockeye salmon-producing river on the planet. The Fraser enters the ocean right in the city of Vancouver, where salmon navigate past container ships and under busy highways. Eventually, the salmon reach the middle portion of the watershed, a broad plateau in BC’s interior known as the Cariboo region.
North of the crowds found in the southern interior, yet south of what we would truly consider northern BC, the Cariboo region is about smack dab in the middle of the province. The Cariboo was home to the largest gold rush in British Columbia, but now is a relatively unpopulated region of lakes, rivers, and forests, dotted with small towns and communities such as Horsefly and Likely.
At the heart of this region is the 62-mile-long Quesnel Lake. Its outflow, the Quesnel River, is the largest tributary of the Fraser in this region, and during the late summer and fall months it produces wild, transient rainbow trout that grow to sizes one would expect to hear in third-generation fishing stories. To paint a picture of the potential growing size of these fish, Northern Lights Lodge in Likely, BC, boasts a lodge record rainbow trout of 37 inches, taken on a dead-drifted egg pattern.
Though the Cariboo is home to a vast number of trout-bearing streams, the ones that feed the Quesnel Lake watershed have special notoriety because of the sockeye salmon runs that boost the fertility of nearly every small steam around the lake.
The Horsefly River and many other tributaries of this massive freshwater fjord are all unique in their own ways, though their ability to bring you back to a time before crowds, and before overdevelopment, remains consistent. Shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, racing to find a spot, watching uneducated anglers slide into the tailout as you work your way through a run; none of the above describes the solitude of the Cariboo.
Located just over 500 kilometers from Vancouver, the Horsefly River is accessed via a turn north onto Highway 97 at the quaint town of 150 Mile House. As with many rivers in this region, trout fishing in the Horsefly is largely dependent on the number of sockeye salmon returning to complete their spawning process. A strong run of sockeye is a precursor to a healthy run of rainbow trout running up from Quesnel Lake, some of them up to 8 pounds.
Fall is the season to visit the meandering bends of the Horsefly and explore its riffles and pools surrounded by leaves tinted a perfect shade of gold. Though the Horsefly stretches nearly 100 kilometers, only the lower half of the river is productive due to a large set of unpassable falls. The Horsefly accounts for 75 percent of Quesnel Lake’s migratory rainbow trout population, with these spring-spawning fish using the same spawning beds as the migratory sockeye salmon.
Wildlife is rich in this portion of the province. Bald eagles keep a watchful eye for dead sockeye floating downstream, and grizzly and black bears are drawn to the river to pack on as much weight as possible before their winter hibernation. Northern Lights Lodge located near Likely, BC offers guided trips and packages on the Horsefly River. Local knowledge proves highly valuable, easing the learning curve and drastically increasing your chances at connecting with a wild, trophy rainbow trout.
THE QUESNEL RIVER
Beginning at the outflow of Quesnel Lake, the Quesnel River is a massive waterbody with a rich history. Over a century ago, the river was a powerful attraction for those looking to strike gold. Nowadays, it draws a slightly different demographic. Anglers who yearn for the feeling of traveling back in time will feel right at home on this large river that begins as a wide, nearly stagnant piece of water as it empties from Quesnel Lake.
The Quesnel is renowned as a spectacular dry-fly fishery. These fish are highly surface-oriented, owing mostly to the multitude of hatches on the Quesnel beginning in early summer. Getting these fish to look up during a caddis or mayfly hatch is far from rocket science, but the river is large with sometimes difficult wading, and the most successful fishing is usually from a drift boat or a jet boat.
The Quesnel is barely identifiable as a river at its outflow of Quesnel Lake. As the current begins to form and the river reveals itself, it does not take long before the Quesnel displays its power as a wide, fast-moving river strewn with deep pools, riffles, and structure. With heavy inside bends and large, deep pools, the Quesnel is renowned for its strong and willing rainbow trout.
It is important to understand what draws these large rainbow trout and bull trout (char) upstream in search of salmon eggs and flesh. Sockeye salmon are the longest-range species of all five Pacific salmon, meaning they reach the greatest inland distance during their migration. After a four-year stay in tidal water feeding exclusively on plankton and krill, sockeye begin the upstream migration through fresh water, bound for their natal streams.
Their bodies transform from dime-bright silver to a vibrant shade of red, their heads turn olive/green, and the males develop a large humpback. Their journey through the mighty Fraser River begins in late summer, when these fish stop eating and focus soley on the re-productive mission ahead.
As sockeyes pass through Quesnel Lake in search of their many home tributaries, they sound a dinner bell, and they are followed by hordes of hungry trout and char. Sockeyes often stage for a short time before the spawning process actually begins, with males and females pairing up on beds made of small-size gravel called redds.
As the females drop their eggs and the males fertilize them, a percentage of the eggs are inevitably washed downstream by the force of the current. Rainbow and bull trout put their caution aside and slide into very shallow water to reap the benefits. Alternatively, they hang on the deep sides of ledges or inside logjams in anticipation of loose eggs tumbling into their wheelhouse.
Quesnel Lake itself is the deepest freshwater fjord in the world. It boasts over 200 miles of shoreline, and a recorded depth of 2,000 feet—other spots may be even deeper. Regulations on Quesnel Lake are carefully managed, disallowing the use of bait or barbed hooks. The lake’s abundant shoreline is dotted with small creeks and tributaries that empty into this glacial abyss.
These creeks offer plenty of food for trout and char species that can be found patrolling the steep shoreline at their entrance. Though some of the creeks are a mere stone’s throw across, sockeyes flood them during spawning season. The flush of eggs and flesh entering the lake gives good reason for hungry rainbows to stake out at these creek mouths. Although the largest rainbows in Quesnel Lake primarily feed on juvenile Kokanee salmon, at some times of the year they are stacked at the creek mouths, or cruising just a fly cast away along the lake’s dramatically sloped shoreline.
Another exciting event is Quesnel Lake’s annual fry hatch. As the sockeye eggs transition into alevins, and eventually the fry stage, they migrate into Quesnel Lake where they spend one year in preparation for their oceanic journey. The fry often follow Quesnel Lake’s rocky shoreline, and rainbows and char “bust” on balls of fry in the same manner tarpon attack sardines. This year-round food source is part of the reason Quesnel Lake has the ability to grow rainbow trout that push the magical 20-pound mark.
Much of the Quesnel system presents shots at fish in the 4- to 8-pound range, so 6- or 7-weight rods are appropriate. Longer 10-foot rods give you the ability to mend the line over greater distances when fishing toward structure or a complicated current seam. Look for a rod with the backbone required to turn a fish that is headed for structure, and to cast heavy flies to get to the river bottom as quickly as possible.
When given room to run, these adfluvial rainbow and bull trout make short work of the first 100 feet of line on your reel. Reels with large arbors and ability to hold 100 yards of backing are standard. Leave your click-pawl reels at home. The stop ping power of a quality disk drag allows much more control over the fish.
The Quesnel watershed isn’t a place that requires delicate presentations. When the egg drop begins, rainbow trout enter a naive state in which few things deter them from their cravings for dead-drifting eggs. For egging, a weight-forward floating line with a heavy front taper allows you to turn over heavily weighted flies and strike indicators (where permitted). You’ll need a sinking-tip line for Flesh Flies and Egg-sucking Leeches.
If there were a trout fishery in British Columbia for 0X tippet and heavy-gauge hooks, this would be it. Flies often consist of egg patterns, rabbit-strip Flesh Flies, and gaudy streamers such as Egg-sucking Leeches in black or purple. Check the regulations before fishing any of these tributaries, as many classified waters prohibit the use of strike indicators, swivels, split-shot, and plastic beads.
Tapered leaders ending in 0 or 1X are a great start, with tippet to match accordingly. For summertime stonefly and caddis hatches, carry Stimulators, Chernobyl Ants, California Blondes, and Elkhair Caddis. A variety of mayfly imitations like Parachute Adams (#10-16) come in handy, especially when fishing the outflow of Quesnel Lake into the beginning of the Quesnel River.
Big trout and large rivers like the Quesnel require 6or 7-weight rods, mostly to deal with large Flesh Flies, Egg-sucking Leeches, or heavy egg rigs with split-shot and indicators. A 9-foot rod is adequate, but a 10-foot rod gives you greater reach for mending.
- Winston Boron III Plus 9-foot 7-weight $ 895
- Cortland Big Fly 7-weight fly line, $ 80
- Simms g3 guide river camo bootfoot vibram soles, $ 800
- Simms Dry Creek Fishing Backpack, $ 210
- Simms G3 Guide Tactical Wading Jacket, $ 500
- Simms Midstream Insulated Pullover, $ 170
- Smith optics Hookshot Chromapop Glasses, $ 170
*Jordan Oelrich is the owner of Interior Fly Fishing Co. (interiorflyfishingco.com) in Kamloops, British Columbia.