Article by Rory E. Glennie
Strathcona Provincial Park on Vancouver Island, British Columbia was officially proclaimed in 1911. To date, this area largely remains a true wilderness setting. BC Highway 28 bisects the park to join the East side of the Island at Campbell River to the West side of the Island at Gold River. This narrow, two-lane strip of asphalt offers a portal to the beating heart of Strathcona Provincial Park and traces its life’s blood arteries. It is in those arteries tenkara fly fishers seek their quarry.
Triggered by the springtime release of melt water from the surrounding snowy mountaintops — which raises the river level enough to give enough depth over the spawning gravel and a sense of overhead security to the migrating trout — the rainbows appear en masse. This gold rush of lake resident rainbow trout traditionally takes place between about mid-May and Father’s Day in June.
As you might imagine, the early runs of rainbows have purposes for being there other than feeding. Like their sea going steelhead cousins, these landlocked trout enter the stream for procreation. Groups of from a dozen to fifty or so will hold near the heads of runs or spread throughout the quickest riffles. Average size of these rainbows is about twelve inches long. Only rarely will any of these trout extend past the fifteen-inch mark. Even so, they are quite territorially aggressive and will feed on occasion. A deep drifted nymph like a Killer Bug or a fry imitation swung through the holding areas will often elicit a solid strike. As well, on a good day, a high riding hair wing dry fly may pique their interest enough to commit a surface take.
Curiously enough, in contrast with many noted Rainbow trout stream fisheries elsewhere, a single-egg fly pattern is often less effective in drawing a positive response from these fish than is a buggy or fishy looking fly. Then, seemingly as suddenly as they appeared, these early Rainbows retreat back to their home lakes to live on the largesse of foodstuffs available there.
In conjunction with the early season melt-water, riffle and run rainbow fishery, there is the curious habit of a few large Cutthroat trout taking up residence in the deeper pools. Curious because these fish do not show up in the catch of the early-running rainbows. They figure into the catch later, typically mid-July to early October, when trout fry are abundant and the largesse of summer’s insect bounty is at its peak. These few large Cutthroat — living out seemingly solitary lives in the deeper pools and canyon waters — become aggressive feeders. They stay in the stream until freshets from fall rains boost the low summer flows enough to coax these fish into emigrating safely back to the lake. There they over-winter, since the balance of the year the food base is inadequate to support actively feeding adult fish.
Small Stream Cutthroats are Simple Creatures
Do not get that confused with “easy to catch”, although, sometimes they do give that impression. Fortunately for us fly fishers, cutthroat trout are akin to eating machines. Rarely are they not hungry or willing to at least chase down a morsel to cram into their gullet. Lucky for us too is they like to sample from the buffet and seldom get locked into chomping down one kind of food item. If your fly is a rough approximation of food you will usually get an initial response. After that, you may have to fine tune your offering and presentation to trigger a solid take. Then again, you could probably throw a black woolly bugger at them and be done with it, but there is some fun in the challenge an occasional picky trout offers.
Nor are cutthroats stupid creatures. You blundering around in the water will make them wary. Having a couple of their compatriots thrashing the pool as they dance on your line will also put them down. The same station they use to wait in ambush for food may well become a secure sanctuary to hide from you. When wading is necessary practice stealth, otherwise stay out of the water. Play the fish quickly, away from the feeding area to minimize disturbance.
Wood is Good
Cutthroat trout love wood. More specifically, woody debris in the water. Logs, root wads, a jumble of sticks or low overhanging branches touching the surface all offer possible holds for cutthroats. Cutthroats will sidle up to the wood, hang close beneath it, park in the upstream water cushion, or hover in the downstream back eddy. As long as the flowing conveyor belt of food is near enough for a fast grab they will be there. They will be there too, after a fright has sent them for cover. They just won’t be interested in taking your offering until enough time has passed to make them comfortable again. That could be a while, so go on to other venues and quietly return after your former intrusion has been forgotten.
Woody debris is renowned for eating flies. If you are not tickling the bark or clipping the stick-outs occasionally then you are not fishing close enough to interest many cutthroats. Loosing flies to snags is part of the game. A wood pile or tree branch well decorated with someone’s flies is one area you can be sure is worthy of further study.
On Your Way
Without giving exact details on where to go or naming creeks, the foregoing should be enough to whet your exploratory tenkara appetite for a Vancouver Island adventure. Getting there and finding some wilderness waters to discover at your own speed is the allure. The fish, as they say, are a bonus.
Rory E. Glennie, a resident of Vancouver Island, British Columbia has been fly fishing the mountain streams for wild, native-born trout since 1970. The only Canadian member of Tenkara USA Guide Network. Staff writer for Island Fisherman Magazine since 2009.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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