Pike Pinkster

Pike Pinkster
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Monday, 14 September 2015

Anglers Go To Court

In June, a concerned member of the public phoned Report a Poacher regarding a group of anglers on the Oldman River upstream of Highway 22.  The caller suspected that the men may be keeping more fish than the limit (the limit for this area is zero).  The licence plate numbers of the suspected anglers was recorded and passed along to authorities.  Officers responded and discovered six Lethbridge men in possession of 25 cutthroat trout and 4 bull trout.  On September 29, 2015 at 10:00am, the suspects of this event are set to appear in Pincher Creek Provincial Court.
Bull and Cutthroat Trout seized from poachers

The Oldman watershed faces significant pressures from a variety of factors.  Poaching, off-highway vehicle abuse, erosion and natural resource extraction have all played a role in the new unfortunate reality for the Oldman.

I addressed the grim reality our native trout species face in one of my previous blogs: A Load of Bull

There are a large group of stakeholders that have a keen interest in this region.  Anglers have an opportunity to take a stand and place a higher emphasis on a sustainable resource that we all responsibly enjoy for decades to follow.

The Beautiful Oldman River 

The court proceedings against the poachers is an opportunity for anglers to come together.  On September 29, 2015 anglers will be gathering at the Provincial Court in Pincher Creek to respectfully observe the  proceedings.  If you would like to attend this gathering, please sign up here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/oldman-river-poaching-case-tickets-18621116260

It is important that we anglers play a respectful role and show that we take these types of issues seriously.  We won't truly appreciate what we have until it is taken from us.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

A Load of Bull

Don't mess with the bull, you'll get the horns.

Summertime in Alberta is the time for adventure.  Many anglers will be making their way into the back country to tangle with a pair of Alberta's native fish; the cutthroat trout and the bull trout.  These two stunning fish inhabit some of the most pristine and sensitive fisheries in Alberta today.  While populations of pure strain cutthroat trout are at risk in this province, I want to take some time to focus on the plight of the bull trout in Alberta.

A gorgeous Oldman River bull trout

In 1994 the government of Alberta announced that the bull trout would be named Alberta's provincial fish and that a no-keep limit would be introduced.  Bull trout populations across the province had declined greatly and the species was in great danger unless action was taken.  The figures here show the historic and adult density of bull trout populations in Alberta:

Historic adult bull trout density
Current adult bull trout density

Now for some harrowing information on how effective Alberta has been at restoring bull trout populations.  Historically bull trout could be found in 60 different water sheds in Alberta.  In 2014 it was revealed that only 7 watersheds have been assessed as healthy and 20 populations have been lost entirely.  The bull trout has lost nearly 70% of their historic waters.

It appears that the government action in 1994 served mostly as lip service.  The zero keep limit remains, but little else seems to have changed.  In 2012 the bull trout was officially classified as an "at risk" species.  This classification means that bull trout in Alberta could face extinction unless action is taken.  A report in March of 2012 showed that the zero limit for bull trout had not caused populations to recover and that their habitats were increasingly vulnerable to industrial and recreational activity.

The Bull Trout Conservation Management Plan says very clearly that the introduction of invasive species and habitat alteration have been key contributors to the decline in population. Some of the most sensitive bull trout spawning grounds in the province are facing significant pressure.  Like most species of trout, bull trout require a free stone gravel bottom in which to deposit eggs during the spawning season.  Off highway vehicles illegally crossing river systems, logging projects that kick sediment into the rivers and many other factors have dramatically altered these spawning grounds.  The free stone river bottom has been replaced with a hardened sediment that is not conducive to effective spawning.

Bull trout spawning grounds 

Many of the actions in the previous Bull Trout strategy that ran from 1994-2002 focused on angler education.  Many of us remember hearing the "no black, put it back" slogan to help angles properly identify Bull trout.  The Bull Trout Conservation Management Plan has the following goal: to restore and maintain viable, self-sustaining bull trout populations throughout the majority of the species' historic range in the province, and to once again provide some measure of harvest opportunity for the species.  The Plan references habitat protection and restoration as key objectives to achieve this goal.

Time will tell just how effective this Management Plan was to restore Bull trout populations in this province.  The Alberta government appears to say many of the right things, yet habitat concerns seem to routinely take a back seat to the interests of industry.  In the 20 years since the Albertan government made a concerted effort to save the species, little progress has been made.

Anglers need to be realistic about government's level of attention to these kinds of issues.  No government will be toppled due to mismanagement of a fishery, and you won't find a question about Alberta's bull trout populations in a leaders' debate anytime soon.  Politics is a game of numbers, and the government reaction is simple: appease the masses.

Fish and Wildlife faces tremendous stress on their limit resources.  Regulations do make an impact, but you need enforcement officers to proper police those who choose to ignore the rules.  This past May long weekend it was announced that additional peace officers would be committed to police Alberta's eastern slopes this summer.  These additional resources should help limit litter, ensure ATVers and mudboggers stay away from sensitive bull trout habitat and respond to reports of poachers.
This ATV driver on the Clearwater River was fined $1,500

We have a responsibility to be stewards of our environment.  Unfortunately enforcement will never be able to address every individual who chooses to ignore the rules.  Those of us who frequent this incredible backyard have a commitment to hold each other accountable.  There are countless individuals who treat Alberta's eastern slopes with care and respect, but there are always a few bad apples.  These areas are some of the most sensitive environments in the entire province, and the human footprint has made a irreparable mark in many places.

The next decade will be critical for Alberta's Bull trout.  Much of the government's current focus revolves around getting our economy back on track and further expanding our natural resource industires.  The reality is very simple: the bull trout will not postpone extinction in Alberta until we find a more convenient time to address the issue.

Our stewardship will go a long way to securing the future of our threatened species.  Nature has  issued a challenge to hold each other to a high standard.  Will you accept?

Friday, 29 May 2015

To the Summit!

When I think of Summit Lake near Coleman one word comes to mind: potential.  Now usually I don't blog about specific locations that I fish, but I'm going to make an exception for a lake I only get to once a year.

Summit Lake is located just across the BC border on the Crowsnest Pass.  Summit is very accessible from the highway and is manageable from shore or from a pontoon or float tube.  The banks all drop off quite dramatically and the lake runs between 20-25' feet in the middle.

Summit Lake

The most unique thing about Summit Lake is the weed growth.  Fishing in the spring and fall are the most productive times of year as the lake gets pretty choked over with weed growth during the summer.  The weed growth gives Summit some of the strongest food supply I have seen in any lake.  Summit is full of scuds, chironomids and mayflies.

While the weed growth at Summit does wonders for the food supply, it can cause some very serious problems during the winter.  Due to the lack of depth, excessive weed growth and the absence of an aerator, Summit can be prone to regular winter kills.

In May of 2014 we took our first trip up to Summit.  The lake was nearly entirely wiped out that winter and we spent the entire day chasing one small school.  The outcome was 8 hours of fishing without so much as a sniff.  We saw countless 20"+ trout dead around the lake which was disappointing to say the very least.

Let me off at the top!

This year we made our second trip out to Summit, after consulting the 2014 and 2015 stocking reports.  We ran into around 10 fish including one gorgeous Rainbow that looked like a retired brood stock.  The majority were between 15-18" and had a ton of spunk.  We mostly fished close to the banks and set our indicators about a foot above the start of the weeds.  We throat pumped a number of fish and found them stuffed full of chironomids.  When we tried to match the hatch, the fish didn't seem interested in what we presented.  The most productive patterns were leeches throughout the day.  The 2015 trip was far and away more successful than the 2015 trip, and 2016 should be even better.

Mother Hen

Summit seems poised for a comeback.  With the abundance of food supply and the cooler water temperatures the fish are able to stay active and feeding for much of the open water season.  The fish in Summit grow very big very fast, and some of the stocked fish from 2014 should be getting close to that 20" range in the next few seasons.  It is my hope that some solutions can be considered to combat the aggressive winter kill that so often plagues this lake.

We will certainly be headed back to Summit Lake again next year, and I look forward to reporting on the continued recovery.  Until next year...

Monday, 11 May 2015

The Bear Necessities

The #1 threat to America is Bears
- Stephen Colbert

I am terrified of going to Australia.  Australia has a plethora of things that can kill you: crocodiles, spiders, snakes, sharks, dingos...the list could go on for ever.  I have relayed my sense of terror to many Aussies that I have met here in Canada, and they look at me rather confused.  They are very quick to point out that I live within a hundred kilometers of bears...freaking bears!

Having spent my entire life in Alberta it is quick to forget just how dangerous bears can be.  An adult male grizzly bear in Alberta can weigh up to 700 lbs with a six inch wide paw that can knock your head into Saskatchewan.  Bears are very territorial and many are quite comfortable in the presence of humans.  As bears began to awake from their hibernation, the chances of human encounters increase substantial.

Spring is in the air and many Albertans will be returning to the mountains to enjoy camping, hiking, fishing, mountain biking and many other outdoor activities.  Before you head out, it is important to know who you will be sharing territory with.  There are two predominate species of bears in Alberta: the grizzly bear and the black bear.  Let's take a closer look at these two impressive creatures:


Grizzlies are the biggest and most dangerous of Alberta's bears.  Their preferred territory is in foothills, mountains and boreal regions, but the grizzly has been making a comeback in prairie and parkland areas in Alberta.  Grizzlies are omnivores, which means they pretty much eat anything.  One infamous grizzly labeled "Bear 122" had a reputation of killing and eating black bears in Banff National Park.  The grizzly bear is considered a threatened species in Alberta.  While populations have shown resiliency over the last number of years, human encroachment on the bears natural habitat has put the species at risk.


The black bear is the smaller cousin of the grizzly bear.  Adult males can weigh up to 450 lbs and shares the grizzly's capacity for eating faces.  Black bears have a very wide spread territory and can be found in about 75% of the province.  Black bears are also omnivores and will eat everything from ants and berries to dead elk and garbage.  Black bears are considered a secure species in Alberta.  Black bears can vary greatly in colour.  Some appear to be black, others blonde and others brown.  

If you get into a fight with a bear, you are going to lose.  Both species of bears are deceptive quick and are able to inflict a massive amount of damage to a person very quickly.  Most bear attacks occur when a bear is startled, or when someone gets in between a mother bear and her cubs.  The best way to survive a bear attack is to avoid contact all together.

You don't have to be the fastest, just don't' be the slowest
Some of the best bear habitats in the entire province lay within 200 kms of downtown Calgary.  When you venture out into the great outdoors it is critical you remember the domain you are entering.  Here are a couple of key tips to avoid contact with a bear:
  • Don't go at it alone.  If you are going into bear territory, bring a friend.  Having someone else around will generate more noise and warn bears down the path of your approach.
  • Get loud!  We all go into the mountains to get away from all the noise, but in this case it might save your life.  Whistle, sing a song or just idly chatter to yourself.  Again, by making noise you will warn any bears that might be around the next corner.  They want to meet you far less than you want to meet them.
  • Defend yourself.  If you are attacked, have the necessary tools to properly defend yourself.  Make sure you have bear spray, bear bangers or other deterrents that may ward off a charging bear.  Check out this video where my friend Joey will give you the 101 on how to properly use bear spray.  Different species of bears respond different to human interaction.  Make sure you know the difference between the two species and identify what your best course of action might be.
  • If you are out fishing keep attentive on the water.  These areas are often in the middle of game trails and the chance of an encounter increases.  Many of us get in the zone while fishing, but make sure you take the occasional glance over your shoulder.
If Stephen Colbert is correct, bears are slowly but surely eating their way up the food chain.  Luckily for you the Government of Alberta is here to help.  The Alberta BearSmart is a brilliant public awareness program for people who are entering bear territory.  Follow the simple suggestions and keep yourself safe out there.  Remember, it's their territory, we are just visiting.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Backyard Trout

Spring is returning to the prairies.  The snow is all but melted, the grass is beginning to turn green, and most importantly the ice is beginning to come off our area lakes here in Calgary.  Over the last month I have walked down to my favorite community lake a few times a week to check on the ice.  Ice still covers portions of the lake, but open water is likely only a week away.

Winter is going

Calgary has several communities with man made lakes that offer recreation activities like fishing, boating and swimming to residents and their guests.  Lakes like Auburn Bay and Bonavista are already ice free, and many others should be opening up shortly.  You will typically find healthy populations of Rainbow Trout that eagerly attack even the most sloppy of presentation.  If you do have access to one of these lakes, they are tremendous places to kill a few hours.

I began fly fishing in 2013.  To say my learning curve was steep is a dramatic understatement.  Luckily for me I had a community lake at my disposal that helped expedite my learning process.  Multiple times a week I would wander down to the lake and throw some flies around for a few hours.  Not only was I able to practice casting, I was also able to better understand how a trout behaves in a lake.

Many of our community lakes were not designed with fishermen in mind.  The lakes typically have very uniform underwater geography.  Here are a few traits that most of our community lakes seem to have in common:
  • rocky areas near the shore
  • a consistent drop off that moves away from the shore
  • a flat deep shoal that runs to the other end of the lake
  • relatively featureless bottom with light weeds
Uniform depth changes nearly across the board

Trout in a lake are relatively predictable.  The fish will stay close to transition zones where there is an obvious change of depth.  They will scour the bottom for any food sources they can find, and will move up and down the water column when they identify a food source.  When bug life is active on the surface the fish will often rise dramatically to feed; I have seen trout slam mayflies off the surface in less than a foot of water.

I have the luxury of fishing off a dock.  Fishing from the dock is a very visual experience.  I have a bird's eye view of the fish and can often quickly find the drop off where the trout are patrolling.  By identifying their path, you can ensure that your fly ends up on trout highway.  My favorite presentation is a leech pattern at a depth of seven feet under a strike indicator.  A few subtle twitches of the indicator is usually enough to trigger a strike from a passing trout.

Community lake fishing is a great time to experiment.  I love to go down and try new retrievals, new patterns or new casting techniques.  The stocked fish in these community lakes are significantly less picky than their river cousins and make for a terrific confidence booster.  What these fish lack in intelligence they more than make up for in spunk.  These fish fight like crazy and usually offer a terrific aerial display.

The quantity and quality of these fish is pleasantly surprising.  The harvest of the fish at my favorite lake is very low, and I suspect that osprey and loons take home more fish than the residents.  Despite the low take home, the lake still gets adequately stocked every year.  You would think this aggressive approach to stocking would restrict the size of the fish, but surprisingly that has not been the case.  I can routinely go down to the dock and pull out a dozen fish in an hour with many of them being in the 20" range.  

Nothing beats getting out of the city and finding a quiet lake with a healthy trout population.  With the busy lives that all of us have, it can often be difficult to find the time to get a line in the water.  The quality of fishing at some community lakes can equal bodies of water you may have to drive a few hours to get to.  Whether you are teaching a friend how to fly fish or just trying to kill some time in the evening, your local community lake is a great place to drop a line.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Water, Water, Everywhere

Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drops to drink.
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge

March 22 is 2015 World Water Day.  The UN established World Water Day in 1993 as a day to talk about how we will manage water in the future.  The topic for this year is Water and Sustainable Development, a topic that should resonate well for folks living here in Alberta.

Canada has the third largest supply of renewable water in the world after Brazil and Russia.  With such abundance, it is easy for us to take this resource for granted.  Not only is Canada blessed with an abundance of natural resources, we seem to have the ideal mix of resources.  Energy and water security are two enormous issues that our world will face in the 21st century, and Canada will have a key role to play.

Radical and Proud
Humans make a bigger impact on our environment than any other being on this planet.  We have identified resources that are critical for our survival, and we are willing to make a considerable impact on our environment to extract and exploit raw materials from the earth.  The environment and the natural resource industry are often at odds with one another, and historically a compromise between progress and the responsible development of resources has been difficult to identify.  Those who identify as conservationists or environmentalists are often portrayed as radicals that are standing in the way of our economic potential.

Hatch Magazine contributor Todd Tanner recently wrote an open letter to American anglers.  I encourage you to read Todd's article, as I feel it is also very applicable to Albertans.  I think Todd sums it up perfectly when he states that "it is almost as if our love of the great outdoors is standing in the way of progress".  Somehow a desire to pass along a green and clean environment to our children is a radical idea that threatens our futures.  What a fascinating concept that is.

Industry is synonymous with progress.  When our economy is fraught with uncertainty, as we currently experience in Alberta, environmental considerations often take a back seat.  When the economy is more stable, then we have time to acknowledge environmental concerns.  Environmental concerns cannot be issues of convenience, they must be a priority regardless of the economic circumstances.

Wherever we walk, we leave footprints.  In some cases the prints we have left are irreversible.  While we may not be able to reverse our historical impact, we can ensure that present and future impacts are mitigated.  I fail to see how protecting the future of our environment is a radical notion.  The future of our resources and our environment has implications for each and every one of us.

Athabasca River running through the Alberta oil sands

Social Licence
Social licence is a term that the natural resource industry throws around a lot in North America.  Social licence is what exists when a project has the ongoing approval within the local community and other stakeholders.  Social licence mandates that industry play by a set of rules that are created by local stakeholders.  Should industry not abide by these rules, projects cannot move forward and will face considerable public scrutiny.

In my estimation social licence is a very romantic notion.  The stakeholder engagement process involved can be very costly and time consuming.  While many operators are talking the good talk, I am still not convinced that they view social licence as something that is good for business.  Shell Canada receives a considerable subsidy from the Albertan government for the Quest Carbon Capture and Storage project, but would they still be moving this project forward if that subsidy did not exist?  Industry needs to reach a place where they accept social licence as something they MUST obtain, rather than something they are forced to obtain.

Site of the Shell Quest Carbon Capture and Storage facility

A paradigm shift is required in regards to the natural resource industry. Saying the right things needs to result in doing the right things as it relates to sustainable resource development.  If you read the mission statements of companies like Suncor or Cenovus, they both reference operating in a manner that makes Canadians proud and demonstrates responsible stewardship of the land.  Many companies are now including environmental performance reports as a part of their annual reporting.  The industry is trending in a more positive direction as they are investing more resources into sustainability than they have in the past.  This trend must continue.

Environmental performance must be a key pillar for oil and gas operators.  As resources are developed, the industry must focus on ways to reduce the impact it has on our fresh water supplies.  There is some terrific work being done in the Alberta oil sands that I feel is not getting the attention it deserves.  In their 2014 Sustainability Report, Suncor reported that in 2013 their oil sands mining operation consumed 2.01 cubic metres of water to produce one cubic metre of oil - a 13 percent reduction in water consumption since 2007.  That six year trend is positive, but that progress must continue to move forward.

Green Means Go
Environmentalists and conservationists have an important role to play in Alberta's future.  The conversations about the responsible development of our natural resources will play a critical role in the future of our fresh water supplies.  Today is World Water Day, a day for reflection on what role we as individuals can play to protect our most precious resource.  Water is vital for all forms of life on this planet, what are you willing to do to protect it?

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Ice Ice Baby

Ice Ice Baby
- Robert Van Winkle, American Poet

Before I go any further I want to make one point very clear: I really don't care much for ice fishing.  For me ice fishing is a necessary evil to help get me through the winter.  Despite my clear disdain for the cold, ice fishing always makes for a few fantastic fish tales.  I want to share a couple of great stories from this season and also give you an idea of what worked well for us through the bitter cold of winter.

Winter is the only time I don't smile while holding a pike

I did more ice fishing this year than I have in any year previous.  The big reason for this; Guide Dionne got a power auger which made our lives SIGNIFICANTLY easier.  We struggled through the 2013-14 season hand drilling holes through three feet of ice, and we were miserable because of it.

All of my negativity aside, we actually had a pretty productive hard water season this year.  I do want to offer you some words of wisdom on what made us successful this year.  Here are a few things to consider for next season:
  • Like every other style of fishing, find those transition zones.  If you can find a drop off that offers cover and a food source, you should find the fish.
  • Stay mobile!  If something isn't working, find a new spot.  I know this doesn't work for those less rugged fishermen who like to use tents or sheds, but some days you will have to really work to find the fish.
  • Experiment with presentation: set on the bottom with some slack, set just off the bottom with a tight line, set suspended in the water column.  Until you figure out what is working, keep playing with it.
  • Experiment with the colour of your jig head.  Sometimes the smallest detail can get a fish to bite.
  • Don't be afraid to go shallow.  We typically start the day by looking for 11' of water.  If we don't pick anything up, sometimes we will move into 4-8' of water just to see what's happening.  Some of our bigger fish this past season came from a shallow hole.
  • Walleye can be tricksters.  They often strike very delicately and you'll miss it if you don't have your hand on the line.  If you feel that gentle tap, set that hook.
  • Don't forget to tighten up that line before you set the hook.  We fished with my younger brother quite a bit this past season, and he earned the title "The Noob".  He gets really excited when that rod tip starts to bounce and immediately runs over and sets the hook as hard as he can.  The problem is if you don't tighten down first, you'll crack that line like a whip and break the fish off.  Needless to say we had quite a few laughs at his expense this season.
We had really good luck on walleye in January, but they seemed to entirely disappear by the time February arrived.  They likely moved out to deeper water as the ice got thicker.  Our range for finding fish fluctuated between 4-17'.  We finally hit some bigger pike in February, but the majority of our season was made up of some of the smallest pike I have ever seen.

Lunker alert!
Now I want to get to the real purpose of this blog...to share my favorite story from this past season.  Guide Dionne and I pretty much only use jigging rods with cheap wire rod holders that fall over with a small gust of wind.  Typically we try to anchor the holders with some snow and ice, but we aren't always that smart.  You should also note that we typically put some distance between the holes we fish from.  It isn't uncommon to see someone from our group sprinting 40 metres across the ice to get to a rod that is about to go down a hole.  These stories don't always have a happy ending.

Let's get one thing out of the way: Guide Dionne and I are athletes through and through.  There are countless examples of perfect baseball slides to grab a rod that is following a fish down a hole.  Unfortunately for us, athletic ability seems to go hand in hand with lack of intelligence.

Guide Dionne was out fishing by himself in January at one of our favorite Southern Alberta destinations.  He watched in horror as a rod that he set up 30 metres away tipped out of the rod holder and went straight down the hole.  Guide Dionne licked his wounds and kept fishing for a few hours in the same bay.  He worked around the bay, and eventually came back to the spot that he had lost the rod.  He dropped a smelt down the hole and waited.

Within a few minutes the rod tip started to bounce; fish on!  Guide Dionne began reeling the fish up through the hole and realized that something odd was happening...he had a fish on, but he was also bringing up an extra line.  He finishes pulling the fish up, and starts to hand bomb the extra line up through the hole.  Up comes the rod that he lost earlier with a fish still on the end of the line.  He reeled the poor exhausted fish up through the hole and sent him on his way.  This fish had dragged that rod around for about four hours before accidentally running into the second line.  What are the odds!

Now I know what you are thinking; lightning can't strike twice, right?  Wrong.  Guide Dionne and I were out a few weeks ago and decided to drill a bunch of holes relatively close to each other.  I set up a rod in an area that didn't have much snow or ice built in the general vicinity, so I had to leave the rod holder without an anchor until I was able to get a few hand fulls of snow.

I wandered out a few yards and found a snow bank.  With an arm full of snow I watched in horror as my rod tip began to bounce.  I threw the snow and sprinted as quickly as I could to the rod holder.  The ice around the hole was very flat and clean, so naturally I slid right past the hole.  I eventually came to a stop and lunged for the hole a few seconds too late; we made another donation to the pike tackle club.

Guide Dionne and I remained silent for a few minutes as we tried to process what just happened.  Were we really this dumb?  Was that fish a new Alberta record?  Which one of us was going to stick our head down the hole to find the rod?

All of these questions were put on hold as Guide Dionne got a hit on a hole a few metres away.  He reeled up the line, and to our surprise we began pulling up another rig!  I quickly grabbed the extra line and started to hand bomb it up through the hole.  Guide Dionne was able to land a small pike, and I was able to land a rod and reel covered in mud and freshwater shrimp.  The fish had broken off the line, but we saved a rig none the less.

In summary:
We lost two rigs down holes this year, and were able to recover both of them.  You can call us crazy, or you can call us stupid...neither would be incorrect.  We clearly live on the edge.

I am so very pleased that spring is upon us.  The pike season has just closed until May on most Southern Alberta lakes, and I we won't see many of these fish again until the ice clears.  This past hard water season was the most productive one I've had in my life, and I have been able to take away many fond memories.  All of that being said, bring on the open water!

So long Chinooks!