Discovering Alberta's Blue Ribbon Rivers

Bow River Fly Fishing

By Phil Rowley 

When I first learned to fly fish, as with other fly fishers, I dreamt of one day casting to rising trout while standing knee deep in one of North America’s blue ribbon trout streams. Rivers such as the Madison, Henry’s Fork, Missouri and the Green filled my imagination. However, because these rivers were located in America, my dreams were put on hold as I navigated the complexities of cross-border travel plans and fluctuating exchange rates.

Thankfully there is a homegrown, easily accessible, Canadian blue ribbon entry: Alberta’s Bow River.

The Bow River, which runs right through Calgary’s downtown core, is tailor-made for the fly fisher. It is the premier attraction for angling enthusiasts. Prime trout habitat, coupled with a diverse food base, contributes to the above-average sized brown and rainbow trout that reside within the Bow. Trout in the 16- to 18-inch range abound. Fish in excess of 20 inches are considered commonplace and, for the trophy-minded, there are also some true monsters nestled within the Bow. That includes trout pushing and, on occasion, exceeding 30 inches.

Throughout the year, Bow River trout respond to a variety of presentation tactics intended to imitate the river’s healthy population of midges, caddisflies, stoneflies, mayflies, forage fish, terrestrials and other aquatic invertebrates. From working the banks using streamers, to nymphing riffles and runs, to the one-on-one experience of targeting surface-feeding trout tight against the banks or in quiet backwaters, the Bow River offers it all.

Whenever visiting a world-class destination such as the Bow, booking a guide is strongly recommended. Drifting the river under a guide’s tutelage allows you the full Bow River experience while learning the local nuances and tactics needed for success. This is knowledge that will help not only for solo trips on the river, but also for your home waters, too. For those preferring a do-it-yourself, walk and wade approach, a network of bike paths and trails traversing both sides of the river provides easy access.

To get deeper knowledge on the area and insider tips, visit one of Calgary’s fly shops, such as Fish Tales Fly Shop or Out Fly Fishing Outfitters Ltd. Their staff are experts on the area and can point you in the right direction while ensuring you have the correct gear and flies. These shops, along with the locally-operated Foot & Chain Fishing Exchange, also offer full service guide trips, which allow you to learn on site and take full advantage of the local gems first hand. 

It’s recommended to always check with the local fly shops to find out what the current regulations are, as they change annually.

 For those living in British Columbia, accessing the prime stretches of the Bow River from the city of Calgary downstream to Carseland couldn’t be easier. The drive from Vancouver to Calgary via Highway 1 is only approximately 10.5 hours. That’s less driving time than venturing north to Terrace or Kitimat and only about an hour more than the drive to Prince George — and the drive across the Rockies itself is more scenic and interesting than the journey up north.

Both WestJet and Air Canada service Calgary’s international airport on a regular basis. As the Bow offers vehicle-friendly access, once you’ve landed in Calgary, a compact rental vehicle is all you need. It’s useful not just to access the Bow but for exploring the city’s numerous attractions and, of course, visiting local fly shops. You might need the full weekend to see it all.

Other fly fishing hotspots in the area include the Elbow River, the lesser-known cousin of the Bow. Here you’ll find good action for the elusive brown trout, as well as mountain whitefish. In fact, record-breaking whitefish have been caught here. In more recent years, this river has seen a growing population of pike, perfect for the fly fisherman looking for a good fight.

The Elbow River feeds into the Glenmore Reservoir, which in turn provides much of the city’s water supply. Located in the city’s southwest, this is an often-overlooked fishing hotspot, but it’s a good bet for landing large brown and rainbow trout. It’s not uncommon to land a trout that weighs several pounds.

The Highwood River is a tributary and where trout spawn, making this a great fly-fishing destination. You would think you’d have to drive for hours to get to such a beautiful and pristine location, but it’s located less than an hour from the city. There are several fish species to target in the Highwood, including rainbow, cutthroat and bull, as well as brown and brook trout and whitefish. It’s not uncommon to hook into a rainbow over 23 inches here, and you’ll want to pay special attention to the deepest pools – these hold populations of aggressive and fun-to-catch bull trout, some reaching lengths of over 30 inches. 

With so much to offer, Calgary makes a great travel base from which to reach regional attractions and fishing opportunities. Rich trout streams such as the Oldman, Crowsnest, Castle and Livingston are just a few hours away. To the west, just over an hour away, near to where the Bow trickles out of the Rockies, lies the scenic town of Banff, along with Banff and Yoho National Parks — destinations well worth a visit either during your stay or on the way back home.