Catching more than a fish on the mighty Bow

Calgary Herald, June 1: Most of us see the Bow River every day, often while stuck on a bridge in rush hour. The river is a traffic bottleneck and the line between north people and those people in the south who don’t understand which lane to get in heading up Crowchild.

Two years ago this month, the Bow burst its banks. And this time of year the thousands who were flooded and the thousands more who helped them recover are inclined to give the river a wary eye.

Which is why you should go fishing.

A day on the Bow—a world-famous fly fishing river—won’t resolve the debates over flood mitigation plans. It won’t find the money to pay for them or undo the horrendous damage done by the flood waters. But it will show you the river in a whole new light.

You will see where the swollen river carved out new banks—huge trees tossed around like kindling, long roots dangling in air where the earth used to be. You’ll see where islands in the river were erased and new sandbars created. There are no construction fences here but there are sparrows chasing crows, wildflowers exploding on the shore and the sun heating up a big blue sky.

As you float down the river in a little red boat, it doesn’t really look like damage. It looks like nature. Indeed, the flood that caused billions of dollars of ruin also restored a lot of delicate riparian areas. It won’t bring back the time, money and tears lost to the flood, but maybe there’s a little comfort knowing the flood is helping bring back the northern leopard frog, the trumpeter swan and other at-risk species.

The beauty of the Bow is old news to thousands of fishermen (Sorry, I can’t bring myself to say ‘fishers.’ Maybe ‘people who fish?’). It can get pretty crowded at Policeman’s Flats southeast of the city as trucks wait in line to launch boats in the river.

One morning last summer, as a giant red sun was just starting to rise, I climbed into a drift boat for a fishing expedition. I didn’t care that much about catching fish, but I wanted to see the Bow.  I hadn’t spent time on a river since canoeing down the North Saskatchewan when I was as a kid at Camp Keewaydin. My buddy Duane Coombs, a veteran fly fisherman, offered to take me out.

He warned me he was going to yell at me. “You’re bending your wrist—keep it strong.  Go again. The rod is an extension of your arm. You’re the boss, cast with authority. Go Again. Again.”  Eventually I managed a rudimentary rhythm but I still couldn’t see my fly on the river. It’s tiny, the water is moving, and I was distracted by all that nature. By the eighth time I missed a “hit,” Duane was getting a little  hoarse.

Catching a fish involves an intricate back and forth with the line, like those decades-married couples doing the jive at weddings when you were a kid (not the polka with your brother). Eventually we change to the “more productive” nymph fishing, with a little ball on the water and a fly below. I catch a fish. As I start the jive to reel it in, I’m amazed by a pelican gliding directly overhead. I had no idea we had pelicans in Alberta.

Duane scoops up my fish with a net and tells me it’s a 19 inch male trout. I hold it long enough for a picture and then let it go, wondering how many times it has been caught, photographed and released. Duane catches a fish in about a second, we hop in the water for a swim and then we float along the river digging into sandwiches and talking about trout. Duane’s been fishing for decades. He likes being on the water and all that paying attention. “There’s a lot to know and learn,” he says. “It takes a lifetime and you never know everything.” We pass a guy throwing out 50 foot casts as if he was tossing pebbles.

Back on shore, I felt the river the rest of the day as my legs adjusted to land.

Back in the city, we’re still adjusting after the flood. There are fewer bins lining the streets that were washed out but there’s still a lot of angst and uncertainty. Going fishing won’t erase that. But it will give you a different kind of awe over the river.

When I’m stuck on the bridge on Crowchild, instead of thinking about the bad drivers in front of me, I like to think about the trout swimming below me. I watch the water flow and remember what Duane said that day on the Bow: “Trout live in beautiful places.”

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