Blindsided by an early spring

Like most of Alberta’s antsy anglers, I have been in such a torpid, cabin-fevered state, that I have not been paying attention to what outdoors phenomena — never mind the calendar — were saying, thus we have all been blindsided by a premature arrival of spring.

The bank ice on the South Raven is melting so fast

The bank ice on the South Raven is melting so fast

Like most of Alberta’s antsy anglers, I have been in such a torpid, cabin-fevered state, that I have not been paying attention to what outdoors phenomena — never mind the calendar — were saying, thus we have all been blindsided by a premature arrival of spring.

What stirred me after a long hibernation, was a joyous one line email dispatch from sister-in-law, Caroline, from the family ranch west of Pincher Creek, that she had found a wild crocus on the calendar’s first day of spring!

Now, that is so early, even for down there, that I just had to load the rig and head out the next day to see what might be going on in Central Alberta’s West Country.

First surprise was the ice completely out and the Red Deer River running free up and downstream of the QE2 highway bridges. In most “springs” the Red Deer might be open and running this early as far down from the Dickson Dam as the Penhold Bridge, but not much farther. The Red Deer, of course, from the dam and all the way down to the Tollman Bridge, is closed to angling until about the middle of May.

Totally amazing was to see the lower Clearwater River running free and clear at the Hwy 22 bridge, with the bank ice shelves disappearing so fast that they will probably be gone when this water opens to angling on April 1st, all bad news for the dedicated few anglers who enjoy excellent fishing on the lower Clearwater just as the ice is going out and for a further brief while.

That struck fear in my heart for what I was going to see on my home and favourite stream, where the early fishing for big brown trout can be excellent, using various plugs, spoons and spinners, or big, bright, white and weighted streamer flies, such as my own Royal Le Tort, just after the ice has gone out, and especially if the bank ice overhangs are still there, under which the browns hide from the sudden ice-out sunshine. Where I like to fish this one, it was a relief to see solid ice, but I will be readying tackle for when the creek legally opens to angling on April Fools.

We just had to zig south to the short stretch of the South Raven River where, 47 seasons ago, I first learned to lure brown trout from under those overhanging ice ledges along the banks, and where I have taken my first trout of the last two seasons.

But not this year, I suspect; the bank ice is melting fast and will be gone when the season opens on April 1st. The reel chatter song of a really early kingfisher invited me to do some poaching, but instead I zagged north to a stream that is legally open all year, with its upper stretches de facto open and running in all but the most viciously cold winters, that tiny gem, the North Raven River.

First surprise up there was to find the parking lot at the upper end of the Bucks for Wildlife water deserted on as fine and sunny a fishing Sunday in March as we’ll yearn for in July, I’m sure. The little river was babbling cheerfully along up here and pussy willows were out, generally meaning there could be early brown stoneflies hatching and possibly some trout rising to eat them. At the bottom end of the B for W water the ice was still in, but with water running over it in places, so it was no surprise that there were no anglers’ rigs parked on the turnout.

Finally I found one angler’s rig parked at a popular spot on the upper end of the North Raven where the pussy willows were close to full bloom. I had just finished lunch when the angler appeared from upstream, being dragged by a doberman on a leash. This young gent had seen no sign of a fish, but on such a fine day he just had to come down early that morning from Sherwood Park, “because it’s been a long winter.”

He’s got that right, and my gut feelings, tell me that winter is not quite done yet. As T.S. Eliot wrote, “April is the cruelest month,” and sometimes in this country, May, June and July aren’t so hot either. That is why I remain surprised more anglers weren’t out on the North Raven to enjoy this preemie burst of spring.

On the way home I stopped off near the Penhold Bridge to chat with fishing guide Garry Pierce and spouse Connie. Garry had just been down to the river and had seen one really big brown trout “rising to eat something I couldn’t see.” We can only hope that the big runoff is either over or hasn’t started yet by mid-May when the Red Deer tailwater opens to angling.

Bob Scammell is an award-winning outdoors writer living in Red Deer.