Our Man In Canada
May 1st, 2000

The Downtown Fly Fisher: Edmonton
Variety is the Spice - of Fly Fishing On the Prairie

Text by Roman Scharabun
Photos by Duane S. Radford

Although parts of Alberta are famous for their incredible fly fishing opportunities, Edmonton is not usually regarded as one of them. Unlike Calgary, its arch-rival to the south, it has not been blessed with the Bow running through it. Historically, Edmonton was the "Gateway to the North" and the "Klondike," and the summer celebration of Klondike Days is a popular tourist attraction, but flyfishing?

The city also hosts the largest Fringe Festival (alternate theatre) in North America, but you won't find anyone giving a casting demonstration there. The well known West Edmonton Mall, with its hundreds of shops and displays, has a fleet of submarines that take shoppers on underwater tours, but no one will be seen roll casting there. And although golfers have to contend with ponds and canals of all sorts (some of which have incredible Callibaetis hatches), not a single fly fisher will be found stalking their banks. In 2001, the city will be host to the world Track and Field Championships. Do you think distance casting will be one of the events? Not likely! Nevertheless, among all these activities and achievements a veiled jewel awaits.

Edmonton is situated on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, which winds its way through the heart of the city. The river's source is the Saskatchewan Glacier in the Rockies and from there it flows east ultimately joining the South Saskatchewan River near Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, and finally emptying into Hudson's Bay. As Edmonton grew from a primitive settlement to a burgeoning modern city of 650,000 the demands could have easily laid waste to the river valley, but city planners had the foresight, not only to protect, but to enhance the habitat, and although the water is always turbid to some degree, it provides some unexpectedly excellent fishing.

Reading the River

In Edmonton (and for many miles upstream) the river is slow moving but very powerful. The speed of the river current varies between 2km and 8km an hour, peaking in June and July, which restricts wading opportunities. However, there are exposed gravel bars that can be reached from the shore during normal flows, which provide some very exciting fishing for goldeye, mooneye and mountain whitefish. A boat is needed to cover places inaccessible to wading, but avoid float tubes and pontoon boats. This is a big, powerful river, so go with the "Real McCoy" such as a drift boat. Aluminum boats 14' and longer can also be used, but must be equipped with a motor with enough power to handle that 8 km/hr current.

The N. Saskatchewan River is home to walleye, sauger, pike, goldeye (and less frequently mooneye) and mountain whitefish. There are sturgeon in the river as well, but fly fishing for them is really a stretch of the imagination - although stranger things have happened.

The odd brown trout has also been caught, but the numbers are quite low and the likelihood of success is marginal. Several hundred browns were apparently released in the Devon area upstream of Edmonton a decade or two ago, but, although the occasional specimen is caught, it does not appear that the planting has been successful even though suitable habitat is present in the area. The main target species for the fly fisher are goldeye, whitefish and pike.

Reading a big, even-flowing river such as the North Saskatchewan can be a challenge. It helps to simplify the situation by treating the river as two rivers - one along each bank - and to explore the areas you'd expect to find fish holding in smaller waters. Let's face it - fish are fish regardless of species, and they require essentially the same basic conditions for survival: (1) protection from the current, (2) protection from predators, (3) access to a reliable food source and (4) adequate water oxygenation. Sounds a lot like what you would look for when trout fishing, doesn't it?

Look for current seams (where slow and fast water meet), in-stream obstructions such as sunken logs (this isn't a mountain river so you won't find much in the way of boulders), and cut-banks. Overhanging vegetation and gravel bars can be particularly productive, especially for goldeye. The mouths of tributaries, including stormwater outflows, such as White Mud Creek and Mill Creek, are also good. Finally, accessible bridge pilings, deep holes, wingdams, rock piles and side eddies are also prime holding areas. As bank access is difficult, these structures are best explored from the vantage points of bridges and riverside hills, but a boat is necessary for full access.

Fishing the River

Goldeye are the main target for the dry fly on the North Saskatchewan. A 9-foot, 3-4 wt rod will do very nicely. A double tapered fly line is a good choice since you may find yourself roll casting frequently and this can be difficult with a weight forward line. Fly selection is not critical and usually an olive bodied Elk Hair Caddis in size 14-16, attached to a 5x tippet, will bring these fish up. Skating these at the heads and tails of shallow flats, over gravel bars, or alongside cut banks is the most productive technique. Fighting a goldeye is an interesting experience due to their body shape. They are rather thin but broad vertically. When hooked they often turn their bodies sideways in the current, substantially increasing resistance.

I recall one warm August evening driving down a truck trail west of Edmonton. The trail came to an end at an old gravel dig. I parked there, strung up my rod and walked about a hundred yards to the river. The high cirrus clouds were backlit orange by the failing light as I cast a #16 Royal Wulff up to the head of the gravel bar ,and started stripping the line in gently. Just as the fly came even with me, it disappeared in a gentle swirl. Five minutes later I was holding a silvery, fourteen-inch goldeye. He had used the current expertly and had made me use all my skill just to land him. They truly are fine fighting fish.

The same equipment can be used on mountain whitefish, but for these, subsurface patterns such as the Gold-ribbed Hare's Ear, Pheasant Tail, and the Deep Diving Sparkle Caddis are the most effective. But if the whitefish happen to be rising while you're there in the evening, then try a brown bivisible or the reliable Adams in sizes 16-18. Take care in fighting these fish, as the hook can easily be dislodged from their small, delicate mouths.

For pike and walleye, an 8 weight outfit is more suitable. Although walleye seldom take a surface fly, pike will readily, particularly if it's early in the season. Strip large poppers or bombers (size 2/0 to 2) or hopper patterns in size 6-8 to bring these toothed critters up from holding lies along the bank. For sub-surface patterns the perennial woolly bugger is very tough to beat, as is the Bunny Bug. Remember you'll also need to set yourself up with a much heavier leader if you're after pike or suffer a lot of break-offs. ~ Roman Scharabun

Continued next time!

We thank the Canadian Fly Fisher for re-print permission!

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