Our Man In Canada
November 19th, 2001

Prairie Tarpon

By Bob Scammell
From Fly Fishing Canada, Published by Johnson Borman Publishers

How can you explain the anonymity on the troutless prairies of a fish that runs in schools, take the fry fly eagerly, that is a spectacular jumper when hooked, and when smoked is a famous delicacy to rival smoked salmon? Yet the goldeye is even more unknown than our northern sheefish, which is so obscure that it is call "inconnu" - French for "unknown."


Prior to the completion of the Dickson Dam, Alberts's Red Deer River was one of those large, silty systems favored by the two members of the Hiodon family: many goldeye (Hiodon alosoides), the western member; and a few mooneye (Hiodon tergisus), the eastern member of the family. These fish still inhabit the Red Deer tailwater - a good thing because the river below the dam can still get high and muddy, at which time the goldeye is the fly fisher's insurance fish, feeding freely, even rising to dry flies in brown water that completely puts down brown trout. These fish are common in Alberta's larger rivers after they come out of the mountians and latter out onto the prairies. The Bow, Oldman, North and South Saskatchewan, Peace and Athabasca are Alberta rivers where good fly fishing for goldeye may be found.

The goldeye, armored with huge, hard scales, appears to be a creature from another age, ancient and prehistoric. The fish is shadlike to some, tarponlike to me, as though it would be more at home in salty than silty water. That wonderful eye, encircled with the gold ring, hypnotized me the first time I ever saw it. The sides of the fish are deep, slablike and pure silver. I have an unattributed note that says the Cree called this fish napak kinosew, which means "he is pressed flat, fish." If so, the phrase is very descriptive; the two members of the Hiodon family and the mooneye as well, are narrow in cross section and thin through the shoulders.

In many jurisdictions goldeyes and mooneyes are not even given the status of game fish. In that respect Alberta has been more progressive than most. Here is what Dr. Martin Paetz, Alberta's former chief fisheries biologist, has to say about the goldeye in McClaine's New Standard Fishing Encyclopedia: "The goldeye is probably the best of the province's warmwater game fish as far as sporting qualities are concern." Paetz does on to note that "being insectivorous in feeding habits the goldeye provides excellent fly fishing . . .it will hit floating patterns with reckless abandon and it is not unusual for this fish to leap out of the water in trout like fashion when hooked on light tackle." It is the leaping of these big-scaled, big-eyed and silvery fish that reminds me of baby tarpon.

My father was a fan of the old True magazine, and in it's long-gone pages I read as a kid one of the only articles I have ever seen extolling the virtues of goldeye fishing in, of all trouty places, Montana. That article made the amazing claim that goldeyes could be taken on flies. The trouble was that I did not fish flies in those days, and neither did my father.

It was not until I moved to Red Deer in the early '60s and learned to cast flies that I began to wonder whether goldeyes really could be taken on artificial flies. One June Sunday morning, the Red Deer River was in full mountian runoff, brown and cloudy, so, because I have always believed black to be the most visible color in dark water and that a little flash attracts attention, I tied on a small streamer with a black bear-hair wing and silver tinsel body. From the first cast, I began to feel a curious pluck at the fly just as it started to straighten out in its drift below me. Now I know it was the characteristic raspy pull of a goldeye at a fly. Eventually I struck back, the waters shattered, and a live mirror flipped, shimmered and flashed in the sunshine. Before the day ended I added several more to my first fly-caught goldeye.

Now I seldom resort to streamers. Where the goldeye really shines is in the eagerness with which it will take a dry fly right off the surface. "What fly?" I am often asked, and always reply, "Any fly at all, so long as it is a grasshopper imitation." My own preference is a No. 10 Letort Hopper for its deer-hair durability because a goldeye's tongue and mouth are, in fact, like a rasp and a couple of fish can quickly reduce a hackled Michigan Hopper, for example, to a bare hook.

Fly Fishing Canada

While a perfectly dry, dragless, float upstream often takes goldeyes, it is possible sometimes to cast too well for them. A hard thing for the expert - letting the fly drag on purpose - is one tactic that makes the goldeye such a gem of a quarry for beginning fly fishers. Purposely dragging the fly over where a fish had previously risen, then letting the fly swing around on a long line downstream and making a big wake far below, often draws slashing hits from goldeyes.

Try fly fishing for goldeye if you visit the Red Deer, or any other of the western rivers where the species is found - you'll like it. Me? Now I have the best of two worlds. One September evening I made two casts to two rising fish on the Red Deer River tailwater near the base of Dickson Dam. First cast a No. 14 Elk Hair Caddis produced an 18" (46-cm) brown trout; the second, a 16" (41 cm) goldeye. ~ Bob Scammell

Larry Salamon's Smoked Goldeye Spread
One of Canada's most famous delicacies
(Makes four servings)

4 goldeye

1 egg (uncooked)

Pickling salt as needed


1. Scale, gut and remove heads of goldeye. Split each fish halfway down the back, then freeze. (Freezing allows the brine to better penetrate the flesh.)

2. Place enough water in a container to cover the fish by 2" (5 cm). Place an egg in the water and stir in pickling salt. When the egg floats, the brine is ready.

3. Remove the egg and place the fish in the brine for 12 hours. Remove from brine and smoke according to directions on your "hot smoker" (True North, Little Chief, or similar). Goldeye must be hot-smoked to cook the flesh and reduce the oil content.

4. Remove flesh from fish and combine with mayonnaise for a delightful spread. Excellent with crusty French bread and a tomato and onion salad, dressed with a balsamic vinegar and olive-oil vinaigrette. ~ Wayne Phillips

Credits: From Fly Fishing Canada, From Coast to Coast to Coast By Outdoor Writers of Canada, Published by Johnson Gorman Publishers. We appreciate use permission!

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