Unguided on the Big Bad Bow

Story by Mark Hume with Photography by Mike Sturk

Mike Sturk is not a fly fishing guide. He’s just a professional photographer who fly fishes whenever he can.

“One of the local fly shops did try to recruit me,” he says, as he steers his truck through the busy downtown streets in Calgary, looking for an on ramp to a highway that skirts the world-famous Bow River.

“But I thought, hey, to do that right I would really have to put in a lot of work to figure out how everything works . . . you wouldn’t want to be guessing about stuff,” he says, one eye on the traffic and the other on the Bow, glinting in the low angled sunlight of a fall morning.

So here he is, picking up a total stranger at his hotel, at the request of a mutual friend, offering to spend the day basically guiding me all over the Bow. For nothing.

But no stress, he says, because he gets to guess about where to go and how to fish. And, of course, he gets to fish himself, which is the big thing.

He has packed a lunch, cold beers and knows where to get hot coffee for his guest. And he has been thinking for days about where and how to fish.  In short, Mike is better prepared than most professional guides – though, unfortunately for you, he’s not available unless you happen to know a photographer who can make an introduction.

“No, no,” he says waiving aside my thanks. “I love to get out whenever I can. And this is a great excuse to fish the Bow again.”

Mike used to be a staff photographer for The Calgary Herald, but now freelances and lives south of the city. He fishes more these days in Rocky Mountain streams, but when he lived in town he put a lot of work in on the Bow and knows it well.

He offers to drive South and East, following the Bow out of the urban core, but says that, really, you can often have great fishing within city limits, if you don’t mind the urban landscape as a backdrop.

“The shit hole,” he offers, as we pass an outfall from Calgary’s sewage treatment plant. “Just to see if it could be done I fished right there once, and caught a nice Brown!”

The shit hole isn’t on our list today….but it doesn’t look all that unappealing as we pass by. Actually, there’s a pretty good seam there where the main river and the outfall confluence meet.

Brown trout were introduced accidentally to the Bow in 1925, when a hatchery truck carrying 45,000 fingerlings broke down on the Trans Canada Highway, in Banff National Park. Rather than let his valuable cargo suffocate, the driver dropped them into a nearby stream – and a legendary fishery was born.

Over the years the Browns steadily shifted downstream, until they settled on the ideal habitat around Calgary, where, as it turned out, urban growth was putting a steady discharge of nutrients into the river. The waste water stimulated aquatic plants, which in turn supported profuse insect populations and the Browns and introduced Rainbows flourished.

Today the 40 mile section of the Bow downstream of Calgary is rated as one of the greatest trout fisheries in the world, with an estimated 2,500 trout per mile. It is a “blue ribbon” stream in Alberta, a province which sets the bar pretty high when it comes to rating trout waters.

There are whitefish, some remnant cutthroat and Brook trout in the Bow, but the big attraction to fly fishermen remain the Browns and Rainbows, which average 16 inches. Fish over 20 inches are common in these waters. And they are fighters.

When Mike hears I have no objection to fishing within the city, he wheels off the highway, cuts through a subdivision, and finds an empty parking lot in a riverside park.

“Perfect!” he says. “Nobody here.”

It does not occur to him for a moment that the reason no one is here is because the fishing is lousy in this stretch.

“Let’s give it a shot,” he says. “I have had some great days on this run.”

He points me to the prime water, suggests a few fly patterns, then wades in below me….and moments later says: “Fish on.”

It is a lovely Brown. Which he follows with several rainbows.

He may not be a guide, but Mike doesn’t like to fish with people who aren’t catching anything. So he wades up beside me, takes off my streamer, ties on a double-fly system with a copper head nymph as the trailer, offers some split shot, a strike indicator, and explains how to get the best drift with the set up.

Then he goes back to the secondary water and catches a couple more fish.

“Hit everything, every hesitation,” he says, watching my strike indicator dancing along the surface.

I do. And the rod wows way over as a big fish takes in deep, fast water. Mike wades up, cheering and unslinging his camera. He nets the fish in due time. Gets the shot. And is obviously delighted that he has been able to show off his river as I slip a 21 inch rainbow back into the current.

A few more fish are lost by me and Mike takes a bunch more, after taking the spot I had vacated.

He says he’s not good enough to be a guide. But from where I am standing in the current, watching how he is filtering one trout after another with a perfectly drifted nymph, I am thinking he could probably teach a few guides a thing or two. He certainly taught me a lesson on how to nymph in cold weather for big Bow River trout.

Later we share a beer at curb side, talking about fish and watching Calgary residents strolling through their neighbourhood. A lot of them nod, smile, say hello. They seem pleased that we are out there, enjoying this great urban fishery.

There are lots of great guides available on the Bow – unfortunately Mike Sturk is not one of them. This river is so accessible you can easily fish it yourself by wading, and getting out for a day or an afternoon when in Calgary on business is easy because there is productive water right there, almost in the shadows of downtown sky scrapers.

You can rent river boats, or just walk and wade. An incredibly beautiful park stretches along both banks of the river in the city, making it easy to forget you are actually fishing downtown.

And if you want to see Mike’s fishing photography, go to:  http://www.mikesturk.com/