Fly Fishing in the Canadian Cariboo
A Perfect Trip
By Bill Hodges
Look deep into your imagination to picture the perfect fishing trip. It would hold thoughts of past memorable experiences on the water. Large fish in good numbers, spectacular scenery to knock your senses for a loop, and good friends to witness your triumphs and failures. Throw in some assorted characters you’ve never met, a charismatic and talented guide to point you in the right direction and the nourishment of good food and drink to sustain the adventure. Complete the picture with a collage of memories thrown in the mix that will leave you yearning for more of the same each year thereafter.
Sure, plop down enough dough and you might think you could buy all these experiences. But there’s never a guarantee, regardless of how much you pay. This is the story of a fishing trip that did not cost an arm and a leg, yet evolved into something we fly fishermen can only term…priceless.
For the past five years, four fishing buddies have trekked to either Alaska or Canada looking for that perfect adventure in the wilderness. Salmon or Rainbow Trout would be the ultimate catch-and- release target. Not the type
fish you chance upon in home waters, but fish attainable only from far away. Factors of chance might be dictated by the timing of a King or Coho run, the reputation of a known locale, or just word of mouth from others. The fact is, no one really knows what’s in store on a trip, but high expectation is always the common denominator.
Last year, we were treated to a marvelous fly fishing trip at Eureka Peak Lodge in central British Columbia, the guests of the owners, ace guide Stu Maitland and his wife Joyce. My testimonial story can be found on their website (www.eurekapeak.com) under Fishing Adventures. Jim Purcell, Mike Spurlock, Scotty McMullin and I were so impressed with this B.C. Adventure on the Horsefly River and surrounding lakes that we again turned to Stu to come up with another hat trick. But, as said before, there’s never a guarantee.
In the summer of 2000, our annual trek got off to a shaky start after some missed flight connections from Vancouver to Williams Lake, B.C., where Stu and Joyce had arranged for a Beaver floatplane to whisk us off to Quesnel Lake. There, a group of cabins awaited us where the Mitchell River emptied into the lake. Stu Maitland joined us for the full week as our guide, making no promises about this relatively unfamiliar area, fishing wise.
Our pilot was Gideon, owner of Sharp Wings Air, Ltd. Now in his 70’s, he has over 33,000 hours of experience as a bush pilot. He can fly the 100-mile trip to Quesnel Lake in his sleep, it is said. As a matter of fact, we thought he did just that for a moment, but all of his vast flying experience could sense the Beaver’s roll and pitch, and the flight continued straight and true. We are sure he never really fell asleep but one can only marvel at such a valuable instinct.
From an altitude of 4000 ft., Quesnel Lake appears ahead as the foot of an emerging giant “Y” nestled up in the Cariboo Mountains near the border of Wells Gray Park. The spectacular scenery from all around comes at you in elegant steps, as the lake looms larger. Quesnel Lake is the largest inland fiord in the world, believed to be over a half mile deep. Somewhere in all that pristine water had to be Rainbow and Lake Trout equal to its majesty.
As the snow-capped mountain peaks rose above us on three sides, the descending de Havilland ever-so-gently kissed the water in Gideon’s capable hands. At this point, the spectacle became real. A long floating dock, extending from a group of rustic cabins on the forested shore, beckoned as the plane coasted to it perfectly, and out came Betty and her four dogs.
Betty Frank (or Glynis Cox, which is her original given name) is as colorful a character as you’ll ever meet. We were to hear endless stories about her experiences as a guide to hunters, and as a trapper for pelts. Close to 70, her beauty and personality radiated with a self-confidence that was as genuine as the setting. Her log cabin was modest but comfortable. There, she served meals and told us tales around the fireplace with Stu. From the comfort of her front porch, we watched the water, mountains and forest across the lake.
We had gone somewhat rustic in past trips up North, living in U.S. Forest Service cabins with no electricity or running water. That suited our wilderness longings just fine. Our cabin had a wood burning stove and a sink (no water), modest furniture and bunks upstairs.
One has not truly lived until perched atop the throne of an outhouse in the early morning mist, the crypt-like silence of the rain forest all around, with the threat of a bear or moose emerging at any moment. Such settings may seem far from the polished lodges catering to the business elite, but if you are willing to try a bit more of an adventure at a moderate price, you’ll never regret it. Combined with the ingredients of all that happened, our fish camp was the base for an unforgettable experience, especially the fishing.
Stu Maitland had arranged for a large jet boat for the five of us, two smaller skiffs with motors, and float tubes (known as belly-boats in Canada) for drifting the Mitchell River. Fly fishing in this part of the world has one of the greatest chances of success. Conversely, a spoiled trip in this far away place is worsened by the trouble and expense it took to get there. As I said, however, this trip was priceless.
The Mitchell River winds its way to Quesnel Lake from its origin, Mitchell Lake, about 10 miles upstream. Getting to Mitchell Lake itself would have been fun because our imaginations ran wild about its renowned beauty. After all, we could see part of the snow-covered mountains known to surround it way up there in the clouds beyond. Gideon, our intrepid pilot, has a private Mitchell Lake cabin where he often flies in his grandkids for a picnic or a weekend of fishing. As delightful as it was here, we pictured a more magnificent Shangri-La up the river. Unfortunately, the gravel beds below the ever-shallower water stopped our skiff’s progress.
So we turned and drifted back towards Quesnel Lake a few miles. Some of us remained in the big jet boat while others were in float tubes. To stalk the fish in quiet solitude, at a controllable speed and at eye level, a float tube is the only way to go. This magnificent river was home to 30+ inch Rainbows and we knew it.
We’ll never know if this particular moment in time in the summer of 2000 was unique or commonplace, but a hatch unfamiliar to us was occurring. White moths, an inch long, were everywhere. They were in the water with wings fluttering desperately, in the overhanging bushes within range of predatory eyes just beneath the surface, and in flight. Their cocoons were spotted in bushes all along the riverside.
We knew we had found paradise as we approached several specific turns in the serpentine river. A hundred yards ahead we heard loud splashes and looked up to see concentric rings marking the spot.
As we neared the source of this commotion, it became obvious we had made it to fishing Nirvana. Ever so often, a giant rainbow would leap completely out of the water to snatch a white moth off the overhanging vegetation, sometimes a yard above the water! As we mentally marked the location, a loud splash behind us in the middle of the river would jerk us around. Where fluttering white wings had been a moment before, only the disturbed surface remained.
Most of us had Stimulator artificial flies on floating lines that first day, or a Willie Sockeye Smolt below the surface on a sink tip. Certainly nobody had thought to tie some white moth imitations. Nevertheless, we aimed at the last spot we saw and were rewarded with the splash of the take, a quick jerk, and a fight on our hands. Sometimes the pull of the fish sent our tubes back upstream against the current. A 25-inch Rainbow takes awhile to land properly, before release. But the 15-inchers somehow put up a greater, longer and more exciting fight.
After that first day on the water, we searched our tying materials for something to match a white moth. On size #2- #6 hooks with black thread, we formed a tapering body with some 1-millimeter thick white foam wrap we found lying around, and white elk hair wings to produce a caddis-like moth. We knocked ‘em dead over the next 6 days with this innovative white moth fly, created with the efficiency of teamwork.
Part of the day’s fun was watching the real moth meet its demise before our eyes. As we motored quickly upstream to drop off the float tubers, we’d spy the sputtering wings of a hapless moth ahead trying to escape its floating roost. With the wind in our faces, we’d watch anxiously for the inevitable splash to come as we approached. Trout were everywhere in this river, every day.
Stu has devised a system of competitive awards for his clients, based on fish length. A silver pin is given for a 20-24-inch fish, a gold pin for a 25-29-incher, and a ceramic pin for a plus 30-inch monster. All in our group received either a silver or gold pin for the cap. Mike Spurlock landed a 28-inch Bull Trout (often mistaken for a Dolly Varden), making him the champ of the trip. Jim Purcell caught an 8-pounder on his last day out that may have been even bigger in girth. Jim also landed a 22-inch Rainbow on his 6-foot, ¾ weight rod, but our usual equipment was 5 to 6-weight rods on 2X or 3X tippets. Fish this large are not leader-shy.
We often trolled the lake near Watt Creek with either orange sockeye smolt patterns or purple egg-sucking leeches on sinking lines. An occasional Adams dry fly proved fun near the creek mouths. While sometimes we were rewarded with large trout, it was nothing compared to the bounty of the Mitchell. Once, we went 5 miles or so down the lake’s edge to a river mouth that produced Mike’s Bull Trout. These beautiful fish hung mostly around the river mouths and several were caught in one of two places where the Mitchell River spills into Quesnel Lake.
As most fly fishermen will tell you, catching fish is not the only reward of the journey. In most instances, beautiful scenery just happens to be where trout are found, so just being there is half the fun. There were many memories we experienced that completed the trip. As I viewed the photographs we took on our disposable cameras, or on Mike’s new digital, several highlights of the week came to mind:
n The logging camp a mile across the lake, where barges carrying tanker trucks and heavy equipment came and went daily up the lake. We could hear the off-loaded trucks working their way up the switchbacks and over to the far, unseen valley beyond the ridge. What must have been huge chainsaws could barely be heard, but when they stopped the deep thud and thunder of a fallen Douglas Fir or Spruce would reverberate across the lake. We watched Cessna’s with loggers come and go daily to the camp’s dock.
n Betty’s stories about the area and her younger days. The time she was badly cut on the leg while trapping and placed maggots on the tissue to prevent gangrene. The icy cold spring in the back of her cabin where we kept the beer cold, and from which gravity and a hose provided running water to her sink faucet in the cabin below. The propane refrigerator on the back porch that kept Jim’s diabetes medicine chilled. The rifle on her wall, ever ready for the intruding bear. Once, a Grizzly rummaged through her cabin while she watched from a safe distance, the carnivore between her and her weapon.
n Betty’s delicious meals cooked in the wood burning stove. Perhaps an occasional fish we did not release, or some beef… or bannock.. What’s that, you say? According to lore, this was the food of hunters, trappers, backwoodsmen and prospectors from a century ago. It is a simple biscuit concoction to have for breakfast or to take with you as a snack. I would be remiss in withholding the recipe Betty gave us: 4 cups flour, 1 heaping tbsp. baking powder, 1 heaping tbsp. sugar, 1 heaping tbsp. salt, mix in a bowl. Add 1 cup of cold water in the middle and mix, pat flat and drop in 1 inch of vegetable oil, turn when brown and place on a paper towel. We could never get enough of that bannock, complete with honey.
n Betty’s pet cats, Shadow and Owl, who ruled the household. They were usually found nestled on the quilt atop the bed in the corner, next to the warm fire where Betty and Stu would tell their fascinating stories of life in the wilderness. A life of which most of us are unfamiliar. Her four magnificent sled dogs, Alf, Yukon, Lobo and Teddy, each had a personality distinct from the others. Yukon, half wolf and half husky, was quite easily the largest dog I have seen in all my years.
n Wildlife big and small. We saw moose, beaver, lynx, bald eagles and osprey, but no bear, sable, or otters. The most fun was watching and, shall we say, disposing of, the cute little mice in our cabin. Betty warned us not to sleep with an exposed hand, as you might. You could wake to find a sleeping rodent warming itself in your palm. The second the lanterns were extinguished (I do not exaggerate), their scampering would begin.
n A wilderness mousetrap, which Betty and Stu taught us to build, solved the extermination problem: Straighten the wire of a coat hanger and stick it through the ends of a metal can. Coat the can’s surface with peanut butter and lay the wire hanger and can across a bucket containing a few inches of water. Prepare a stick ramp from the countertop or floor to the edge of the bucket. The poor little rodents head right for the ramp, tightrope across the wire to the can, step onto it and roll into their watery grave. Exhaustion finally takes them silently to those great crumb droppings in the sky and in the morning you toss out the bodies and begin anew.
n The dock as a fishing platform. In the fading daylight just before dinner, we would take our rods out to the end of the dock, usually one or two at a time, to watch the dry fly action on the surface. What fun to cast to the center of the circles where feeding Rainbows had been, and watch them almost always repeat the performance for our Adams, Elk Hair Caddis, or just about any fly you wished to cast. And these were trout of the 14 to 22-inch variety. Just another day in paradise!
Finally, an overall synopsis of the trip, from my perspective, would center around that feeling of tranquility I got after dinner, sitting on Betty’s front porch on leg-less cushioned chairs, a Backwoods cigar in one hand, and Jack Daniel’s bourbon in the other. The dogs would curl up at my feet and my friends were all about. The emergence of night would challenge the fading sunlight reflecting on Mt. Watt’s snow across the lake and beyond the clearcut foothills. Mike would again curse the blinking red sandbar light on the tower down the lake and insist we get Betty’s rifle and “take it out” for disrupting the natural beauty of the setting. The year’s best jokes would be passed all around, along with a capsule of the day’s wonderful events. It doesn’t get any better than that, folks.
Soon, the dropping temperature and the warmth of the liquor would remind us it was time to crawl wearily into our sleeping bags. We knew tomorrow would be as good or better than today. It just had to be. Stu and Joyce Maitland of Eureka Peak Lodge and Outfitters have done their magic once more and we will be forever grateful for this priceless trip.