What is So Special About the Bow River?

I was born and raised in Calgary, on the banks of the Bow River. I was a “handful” as a child. My mother even tried to medicate the tantrum wielding, irrational and explosive curse she had borne; wishing me to the outliers of her environs, if only to get me out of her hair. Thus, I was encouraged to seek my own diversions; with a combination of a genetic predisposition and curiosity, fuelled with constant encouragement, I was allowed to spend countless hours exploring and fishing the Bow River. My parents soon found that my chaotic energy was funnelled into a monk’s patience and stillness. Close, but not quite. Rather, I had found a worthy adversary. I had become a consumable addict, and I spent all conscious hours interplaying with the shadows that emerged and hovered just out of reach of my flies and other offerings. To my young eyes, they truly were all Beasts; with gnarled kypes and spotted flanks, meaty shoulders and agitated lunges.

The Lower Bow River, the portion of the river most associated with trophy status, is roughly 50 miles of tailwater trout stream that meanders downstream of Calgary, Alberta. The Bow, fittingly, originates at the namesake Bow Glacier, located in Banff National Park. Bow Glacier is an outflow glacier from the Wapta Icefield, which rests along the Continental Divide, and runoff from the glacier supplies water to Bow Lake and the Bow River. The glacier is credited for creating the Bow Valley before retreating at the end of the last glacial maximum. Because of the need for hydroelectric development, between 1910 and 1960, the course of the river, and the adjoining ecosystems were severely altered with the introduction of several dams along its path. As Calgary grew in size, and the realization of the inadequacy of the Bow as a receptacle for raw sewage materialized, a water treatment plan was instituted. Starting in the early 1900’s and culminating in the late 1990’s, Calgary’s water treatment plant allowed the river to sustain a nutrient-rich environment, which in turn supported a rich plant and insect life. This, in turn, led to the dense population of trout, below the city. Treated sewage begat trophy trout, and there isn’t a Bow River fly fisher who isn’t thankful for the daily flushing of toilets.

Actually, if it wasn’t for two unfortunate events in the 1920’s, we would not have any Rainbow or Brown trout in the Bow River. As the story goes, in 1925, a truck carrying 45,000 Brown trout fingerlings broke down near Banff. Rather than allowing the fish to perish, the driver released the trout into the nearest stream, which just happened to be the Upper Bow River. It’s impossible for me to say which strain of Brown trout are found here (I’m not a biologist). Brown’s are highly polymorphic, and I suspect that the Browns found in the Bow are a hybridized version of both the von Behr strain and the Loch Leven strain.

The Rainbow trout were introduced in much the same manner: in the 1920’s a train carrying Rainbow trout stock to populate some of the lakes in Banff National Park derailed just before the park boundary. Again, rather than allowing the fish to perish, they were released into the Bow. The Rainbow trout introduced back then were a McCloud River strain of Rainbow. They were a “Steelhead” stock gathered from the McCloud River, a spring-fed stream found in the Sacramento River drainage, in northern California. Both these species of trout are now considered wild, and are self-sustaining in the Bow River drainage.

So what is it that makes the Bow River special? In short, it’s the fish. The Brown trout get very large, and it is, arguably, one of the best places in the world to fish for wild Browns. You can legitimately hope for an encounter with a large Brown when fishing the Bow, and every cast has the chance of hooking a fish of a lifetime. That’s not bull – it’s fact.

The Rainbow trout are wild, angry, mean bastards; like you owe them money (clients’ expletives reinforce this notion), and it is not uncommon to see backing when dealing with a bigger fish. The Rainbows are silver in colour, devoid of garish red swales; a sterility of function riddled down to a metaphorical essence: to fight.

I started this essay waxing poetic about my childhood, and how the Bow, as a child, transfixed me with purpose; a natural Ritalin. Guess what? – I’m still that consumable addict haunted by greasy black sub-surface shadows as they burn off undercut banks. Hopefully with your line attached to them. I’d like to see that.