One step out the door was a reminder that “April is the cruelest month,” according to poet T.S. Eliot, and that this one was starting out viciously. The north wind was so strong and sharp that it scaled the teeth in my rictus grimace and blew a mournful “retreat” in my sinuses.
But the wind also carried the frequent words of my late friend, Lloyd Graff, whenever the subject arose of cancelling any trip just because of hurricane conditions in Red Deer: “It would set a bad precedent.”
I can’t remember ever calling off my annual Poisson d’Avril (April Fish) Grand Prix. Somehow the French version sounds classier and less stupid than our April Fools. Whatever you call April 1, the Grand Prix is a 20 km or so slalom, zig zagging up the North Raven River from where it enters the Raven near the bridge on Hwy 54, up to and beyond its remarkable headwater springs to Hwy 22X.
Among other things, it is a search for signs of spring through one of the more unique micro climates in Alberta. It is also a must-go situation, because spring bear and most of the fishing seasons open April 1 out here; the joke on us April Fish — Fools is that sane black bears are still deep asleep in their dens on this date, and few of the waters legally open to fishing are in fact open and flowing in most years.
But the Red Deer River was wide open and flowing from the Dickson Dam, to as far as I could see downstream from the Penhold Bridge. April Fool — no — Fish again; this section of the river does not legally open to angling until the May long weekend. Not a goose or a duck swam right below the outlet of Dickson Dam, but thousands were on the wing, scouting stubble, then settling to feed and homestead on snowmelt ponds in the fields. Multiple murders of crows were joyfully riding the wicked wind and doing their amazing aerobatics. Not a gopher punctuated the blank pages of the scant snowdrifts remaining in all the usual gopher hangouts.
First big surprise of the day was to find both the North Raven and Raven Rivers open and running very high, but clear, at their confluence just south of the Hwy 54 bridge near the hamlet of Raven; the North Raven blackish, but clear, the Raven also clear, and the colour of strong tea.
So, the start of the Grand Prix: up Wall Street Road and ever north and westward up the North Raven, detouring here and there to scout some of the “secret” spots of certain North Raven Maniacs in search of someone to ask “how’s fishing?” But nobody was fishing this Sunday morning, all the way up, probably because of the overcast and wind, possibly because this was not really opening day: the North Raven is legally open to fishing all year, and the upper three or four miles downstream of the source springs stay flowing in all but the worst winters. As usual, I tried in vain to puzzle out and triangulate the location of “Rye Corner,” known to the late Dr. Bill Parsons and the “Kingfishers” group of fly fishing pioneers on this little river, back when everyone called it Stauffer Creek. Some day someone will chronicle the North Raven-Stauffer story, possible the richest fly fishing history of any Alberta trout stream, rivaled only by the Bow and Crowsnest Rivers.
Last year on April 1, after a bitter winter, the North Raven was still frozen solid all the way down from Hwy 761. This year, after the softest winter I can remember, from bottom to top, for the first time I can recall, the North Raven was running clear, but very high, washing out all the bankside ice ledges under which big brown trout like to hide from the sudden spring sunshine. That handful of Maniacs likes to stand on those ledges and enjoy fast early season streamer fishing, luring those big browns from under the ice banks on both sides.
The Clearwater River was running free up and down from the Hwy 22 Bridge and those magical ice ledges along both shores were in place, just begging for some early season anglers.
Another April Fools joke awaited me at the first bridge over my beloved, but always contrary home water, lower Prairie Creek. It, too, opens legally to fishing on April 1, and I actually fooled myself that I might make a ceremonial cast or two. But it was the only totally frozen river or creek of this trip. During wind lulls I thought I could hear moans and groans of impatient ice wanting to crack and float away, leaving those magic ice ledges behind.
Cotton clouds were scudding in sunshine against patches of blue sky, so I went back down the North Raven from top to bottom. Three rigs of antsy anglers were now parked at the usual spots.
Bob Scammell is an award-winning outdoors writer living in Red Deer.