For the first time in many years, I missed my annual April Fool’s, opening-day (spring bear and fishing seasons) giant slalom up and down 30 km of roads tracking along North Raven River searching for signs of spring.
Major reason for missing was that it was a Tuesday, column day, and I had a long attitude session with our new computer to persuade it to do what our old clunker kept doing with ever-lessening ease: get the column and pictures to the publishers.
Besides, the day was too dark, dank, cold and ice-foggy to give much hope of seeing the slightest sign of spring. It was not much better, but by Thursday, we just had to go: readers were asking about conditions out west and predictions for this fishing season.
One of the continuing charms of Red Deer is how quickly you can leave it and be surrounded by all outdoors, and soon everything was looking like an old black and white photo in the fog: there was no colour anywhere, no horizon unless a black tree or bush line marked the line between earth and air.
Not a waterfowl was to be seen anywhere, aloft or, hopefully, stomping the ice hoping for a breakthrough, except there was no ice; the snow lay on it and ’round about everywhere, three feet deep and more where drifted.
First surprise was running water, ice shelf to ice shelf on the Red Deer River at the bridge west of Penhold, and the next surprise was that no ducks or geese were on or beside the open water below Dickson Dam.
All along Hwy 54 there were murders of crows meandering along the shoulders, apparently searching for edibles at the base of the snow ridges. Once we turned north at Raven to start up the North Raven, the only wildlife seen were a couple of chatterings of starlings. Obviously spring had not yet sprung even in the warmer micro-climate produced in the little valley by proximity to the North Raven, Alberta’s most well-known spring creek.
The little river was frozen solid farther up than I can remember for many years; only the upper third, which never freezes in any winter, close to where it flows from underground, was open, clear and running between shelves of ice on each bank. Up here the first pussy willows were just starting to faintly lace a scant few red osiers. Herself, her pruning shears and rubber boots should be good to go for an Easter bouquet in a week or 10 days.
Among the firsts on this traditional trip was not seeing even one angler or his fishing rig anywhere along Alberta’s most popular early season fishing “hot” spot. If anyone had tried the popular Bucks for Wildlife parking lot, they had probably got stuck in deep snow. Wimps: I recall, years ago, after a winter like we have had, strapping snowshoes to my waders and waddling in to a favourite hole and my first 10 trout of that season.
Another important North Raven novelty is that, for the first time in many years, the signs are gone that proclaimed the zero trout limit, except that after June 16, you could keep and kill two trout, provided they are more than 40-cm long.
Those signs were still up on our last season’s April Fool Slalom, alongside signs warning the limit was zero all year because of worries about the Red Deer River oil spill contamination.
Apparently those worries persist. When they end and Red Deer River system fish are deemed safe for human consumption, hopefully our fisheries managers will not resume the major mistake they make over and over in Alberta: targeting the biggest and best breeders for killing and keeping.
Instead, if any harvest is allowed, a slot limit should be imposed on the North Raven, permitting the keeping, say, of two trout per day between 30 and 35 cm.
The Clearwater River was frozen solid at the Hwy 22 bridge, and I ate lunch near Prairie Creek at the Stump Ranch without hearing the merest moan that the ice was even thinking of moving out.
As the ice is going out, and just after on both Prairie and the lower North Raven, the fishing can be fast and furious with white streamer flies cast to the edges of the shore ice for trout suddenly awake, looking up, and hungry after a long, dark winter.
For the first time in many years, also, this year we missed the surest, most colourful sign of spring on these trips: the new season’s edition of Barry Mitchell’s Alberta Fishing Guide.
But that was my fault; this year’s route did not take me by Caroline Supplies. No matter, we picked one up in Red Deer; it was out and right on time, in spite of a sudden change in ownership after more than 40 years, which will likely be the subject of a future column. Fishing?
Read the Guide and wait for the signs.
Bob Scammell is an award-winning columnist who lives in Red Deer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.