Fishing adventures often take us to a far off place, but we sometimes forget about exploring our own backyard, and for me, that means northern British Columbia. In July 2009 a fellow fly fishing club member told me about a special opportunity with BC Safaris and I jumped at it. I was lucky enough to be one of eight anglers that accompanied six wranglers and guides, and 36 horses on a three day horseback ride from Dease Lake to Turnagain Lake Lodge, in north western BC. Then with the lodge as our base, we enjoyed an additional three days of fishing for wild rainbow trout, Arctic grayling, lake trout, whitefish and bull trout.
A bit of history on the area
The community of Dease Lake is within the traditional area of the Tahltan Nation who have lived in the area for thousands of years. When westerners moved into the area the focus was initially on fur trading, but later the Klondike gold rush saw the town grow to accommodate and service those seeking their fortunes in the Yukon and northern BC. Today Dease Lake functions as the Government and supply hub for the area.
Dease Lake is reached by either charter flight or a scenic 18-hour drive from Vancouver. For the wary traveller the Northway Motor Inn and Zora's Café can provide good accommodation and meals. A short 25 minute flight from Dease Lake will take you to Turnagain Lake, where you will be greeted by the friendly staff of the Lodge.
Turnagain Lake is just north of the famed Spatsizi Plateau. The southern boundary of the Turnagain region is the Stikine River. The Eagle River and Tanzilla Butte in the northwest corner form the northern boundary. For more information on the area visit www.bcsafaris.com.
The ride into the lodge
After arriving in Dease Lake, having an excellent dinner and a good night's sleep, we rose early to meet up with head guide Shane Black and his five wranglers. Following quick introductions we were each assigned a horse for the next three days; mine was a white mare called Daisy. Full of pent up energy we set out on what would become an epic journey. The first day took us half way or approximately 34 kilometres closer to the lodge and far away from both the modern comforts and stress of modern civilization.
As the horse train crossed rivers, rode up and down hills and pushed at times through knee-deep mud, it did not take long to realize that our steeds were very sturdy. Even when crossing a river with the water all the way up to my boots and blood pumping fast in my veins, the best thing to do was to trust the horse, as it knew best if it was slipping or standing steady.
Being on horseback also provides the best vantage point to admire the passing scenery including some curious caribou that came running to investigate our spectacle a bit closer. Then, they promptly emptied their bladders and scurried off over a hill, no doubt welcoming us in their own way.
As we pushed further into the back country, the second day provided equal if not even more spectacular scenery than the first day's ride. We travelled through lush green valleys, carved into the earth thousands of years ago by advancing glaciers. And to cap off the day we dismounted at a base camp located on the shores of Glacier Lake. The cabin there has a spectacular view of the lake and the Arctic grayling are plentiful.
On the third day, our last on horseback, we passed a few more glacial lakes, and a couple dormant volcanoes that display the scars of past eruptions in a mosaic of red, brown and purple sand and rock. This, in contrast with lush valleys, and emerald green lakes complemented by bright blue skies, made for some truly breathtaking vistas. And just when we thought it could not get any better, Shane, the head guide, called a moose, which promptly came running towards us - a special moment for the average city slicker.
During the three-day ride we hardly encountered bug life requiring a blood donation from us for their survival. Using insect repellent during the day was not really necessary, except for a short period on the third day when the horses were ambushed by some horse flies as we rode through a section of deadfall forest and swampy terrain. It created a little consternation among the horses, but apart from this, we anglers were all surprised at the general lack of blood sucking and biting insects during the day. Night-time was all together a new ball game, and I strongly recommend a bug net suit or insect repellent as the sun goes down, but this is not unusual for July in northern BC.
Location and logistics
The only way in to the lake by land, is on horseback, i.e. there is no road. A three day trip on horseback is not for everyone, and given that it is only offered once a year, when taking the horses into the lodge for the season, the majority of people visiting Turnagain fly into the lodge on a classic yellow and blue de Havilland Beaver that can seat up to six people.
The lodge consists of a group of cabins: the main cabin has a communal lounge, bar for drinks, dining room and kitchen, and a second cabin that is used as wash house with warm water for showers after a long day of fishing. For guests there are three guest cabins that each sleep four. All the cabins are built in the traditional Canadian log cabin style, adding to the authenticity of the whole experience.
Fishing Turnagain Lake
The first day of fishing at Turnagain Lake proved there is no lack of lake trout, rainbow trout and especially Arctic grayling in the area. To locate the fish start by focusing on the creek mouths and steep drop-offs along the shoals of the lake. Simply wade along in the shallow shoals casting into the very steep drop-offs of the lake, wait for the fly to sink to the desired depth, and then start to retrieve. The lake also has a number of small islands and outcroppings or peninsulas - focus on the submerged rocky outcrops these create. The fish are fairly easy to catch, no doubt due to the limited access to the area and low fishing pressure. The rainbow trout is easily fooled with a weighted nymph and sink tip fly line, but a fast stripped woolly bugger or streamer will elicit very hard hits from bigger fish of up to 18-inches.
In one particular situation we fished a creek mouth where catching the species of your choice can be determined by simply moving closer to or further away from the creek mouth. The rainbow trout are right at the creek's mouth in slightly faster moving water, and a bit further away into the lake are the Arctic grayling and behind the grayling, lake trout - you can literally choose the species you want to catch. This was almost a 'too good to be true' scenario, but lodge staff confirmed that this was not just a once-off anomaly.
The Arctic grayling at Turnagain are an average size of 15-inches. These fish are not that picky and will take any nymph imitation smaller than a size 10 hook. Using a bit of flash in a nymph, like that in a flashback pheasant tail nymph, proved to be deadly for the Arctic grayling. The best presentation is to use a sink tip fly line with a five-foot leader. Cast into the slow current of the creek that flows into the lake. The drag on the fly line caused by the creek's current pushing into the lake will move the fly sufficiently to entice the Arctic grayling.
An added bonus of fishing Turnagain Lake in early July is the long days, with daylight lasting well past 11 o'clock at night. Putting in a fishing session after dinner is easily doable, making for a 14-hour fishing day. During the evenings the primary species is Arctic grayling, and at this time of day they can mostly be found in the shallow bays of the lake. The fish will reveal themselves while actively feeding just below the surface. They will be rolling mostly on mayfly nymphs below the surface and other small insects such as tiny midges on the surface. To target them cast to rising fish, using a floating line, long leader and a small halfback mayfly nymph or flashback nymph tied onto a size 12-14 hook. Retrieve the fly using a medium paced hand twist retrieve.
To catch the lake trout keep working the drop-offs, have a bit more patience and use a slower hand-twist retrieve. A full sinking fly line, five foot leader and a size 6-8 black or maroon leech imitation can be quite successful. The lake trout you will catch on the fly will not be monstrous but are still a respectable 18 to 20-inches. And given that most fly anglers have not caught a lake trout on the fly, this is an excellent opportunity to check another species off from the list. To catch the big lakers, flies are not the answer, but instead big spoons trolled deep are the best option.
Bull trout and mountain whitefish are also available and if you catch these you will complete the Turnagain Lake grand slam of catching five species - a feat that is easily attainable in one day. The whitefish you are sure to catch while targeting rainbow trout at the creek mouths. The bull trout may be a little harder to find, but they are best caught using decent size streamers in a size similar to a size 2 hook 4X long.
When targeting the Arctic grayling and rainbow trout in the lakes, a four weight nine foot fly rod should be sufficient, but when targeting the lake trout and bull trout it is better to use a six weight or heavier fly rod.
River fishing in the area
A 30 minute flight East on the lodge's Beaver takes anglers to a small river that connects the Rainbow Lakes. This river is only about one-kilometre in length but is fairly wide for its size, approximately 150-metres at it's widest. Using an old hunter's cabin as base of operations for the day, anglers can set out for different parts of the river.
The river has excellent holding water for fish, consisting of deep pools and long runs bordered with big boulders and rocks that create seams that act as conveyer belts, carrying food to waiting fish. The shear abundance of large stonefly nymph shucks on the rocks suggests that there are good stonefly hatches. The first day we fished the river we had overcast skies but warm air - conditions perfect for mayflies to hatch. With perfect weather conditions you can expect at least five different mayflies of various sizes and colours hatching in good numbers. All of this just reconfirms the fact that this is a very nutrient rich river.
Working my way down the river bank to the tail-out of a long deep run I noticed several fish in the 18 to 20-inch range hovering just below the surface. These fish were obviously not concerned about an aerial blitz by winged predators as both dorsal and tail fins were exposed and clearly visible above the water surface. The rainbow trout in the area are unusually bright silver and heavily spotted. Using a size 10 Western Green Drake dun to 'match the hatch' the surface did not erupt in an explosion, but instead a big 20-inch plus rainbow trout just gently sipped the fly. This was in stark contrast to its acrobatic leaps for freedom. This same scenario repeated several times during the rest of the day, some fish landed and some gained their freedom with fly still attached. The biggest challenge fishing this river was making at times 60-70 foot casts to fish rising further away. The fish closer in were easy to fool, but those a bit further out, were not so easy as you only had a drag free drift for a couple seconds. If your cast was not accurate, there simply was not enough time to present the offering to the fish's taste.
A second day of fishing on the same river did not have the same dry fly action but still was equally enjoyable. With overcast skies and occasional sunny periods, success was achieved with subsurface flies such as size 6-8 black or golden stonefly nymphs and heavily weighted size 10 flashback pheasant tail nymphs. The best success was had when casting across the current and then letting the fly swing through the run.
In an ever increasingly smaller world, finding a wild and remote escape is becoming much harder. Northern BC is such a place - the final frontier, for anglers. This part of the province is still very much under utilized as a fishing destination and it has much to offer for adventurous anglers. This trip was as much about the adventure of a three-day horseback ride and the beautiful vistas, as it was about fishing. Sometimes pursuing your fishing interests can be a good excuse to explore the extraordinary , and quite often those places are not too far from your own backyard.
Exploring Turnagain by Horse and Beaver
by Danie Erasmus
First published in Jan/Feb 2011