Adrift on the Elk

British Columbia in summer
Elk River, British Columbia
British Columbia's Elk River.

“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.”

The wry, completely accurate observation comes from the man on the sticks behind me and I have to admit, after missing a half-dozen hooksets, that I do appear to be stubbornly equine.

But, in my defense, I’m distracted. Distracted by the mist-shrouded Three Sisters and surrounding Canadian Rocky peaks that rise majestically to the north of our drift down the Elk. Distracted by the lush riverbanks of lodgepole and fir and quaking aspen. Distracted by the lake-filtered emerald green glacial melt as it races along wide stretches of perfectly smooth freestone rapids. Distracted by…

Crap. Missed another.

“Let me know when you’re ready to take the oars.”

We roll out of our comfy beds at Fernie's Park Place Lodge at a civilized hour (code words for overslept), but there’s no panic. No scooping of gear and dashes for the door. Unlike most trout fishing, at this time of year in British Columbia it’s not about catching the morning or evening hatch, but rather about just getting on the water. With a solid fourteen hours of good terrestrial opportunities, there’s no need to hurry, no need to sacrifice that few extra winks.

Across the street, the Elk River Guiding Company is hopping. Drift boats are staged and bristling with gear while fishermen mill about, anxious to get started. The place hums with a nervous energy as if every feather-and-thread insect in the well-stocked wooden bins is alive and buzzing. We wander in at the tail end of the rush and Paul Samycia, the shop’s owner, greets us at the door.

“Nice of you boys to join us. We’ll be the last boat out of here.”

I can’t tell if he’s pissed or he’s pleased. But he smiles, so I hope for the latter.

Elk River Guiding Company
Inside the Elk River Guiding Company (photo: Mike Sepelak).

“Be sure you have your license with you,” you’ll be reminded many times while in BC. They are right.

I haven’t been carded in the US in years, but a BC Fish and Wildlife officer materializes out of nowhere at the remote backcountry boat launch and checks out our creds. Friendly, but thorough, as he also checks Paul’s papers, despite the fact that they know, and respect, each other quite well.

I’m good with that.

Terrestrial - Ant
Rigging an ant (photo: Chad Shmukler).

They’re breaching like porpoises in The Pipeline. Fat chunks of pepper-spotted cutthroat, impossibly beautiful and actively feeding. Paul scratches his chin and hands us #16 red-assed ants with hi-viz posts. The risers jump all over them.

“No way there’s that many ants out there, Paul.”

He shrugs. “I know. But they’re eating ‘em so what’s the problem?”

And I think - as another handsome cuttie crushes my offering as it flies down the chute - that there’s really no problem at all.

Absolutely none.

Westslope Cutthroat Trout - Closeup
A particularly pretty westslope (photo: Chad Shmukler).

We pause in a deep crease, anchor against the shear stone wall that rises from the north side of the fissure - dense Douglas firs to our south, slow, bottomless pool underneath us – and put aside the 5wts in favor of 7s and 8s that we’ve rigged for this very spot; for the beasts of the Elk.

After twitching small dries, the big bunny strips feel like lead and we chuck-and-duck them off of the hard rock face and let them settle into the indigo blue hole - let them sink, swing, and then strip back slowly.

But the bull trout don’t appear to be interested today. I get a single tap, a headshake, and then nothing. “Must have been a cut grabbing the bunny’s tail,” Paul suggests. “The bulls don’t mess around.”

Elk River British Columbia
Paul Samycia holds the drift boat in position while Mike Sepelak works a picture-perfect piece of Elk water (photo: Chad Shmukler).

No hoppers and droppers here.

“Tandem rigs aren’t allowed in the province,” Paul tells us as we pitch terrestrials at the banks. “I don’t like them anyway. You need to decide what they’re eating, top or bottom, and go with it. It’s fishing, dammit. Figure it out.”

And I suspect that he doesn’t miss sorting out client’s tangles either.

Westslope Cutthroat Trout Underwater
Paul Samycia releases a beautiful westslope cutthroat trout (photo: Chad Shmukler).

We scoot along Picky Fish Bank and wonder how it got its name. They aren’t picky today as we hit doubles on hoppers; putting deep bends in our graphite and testing Paul’s rowing and net skills. When two fish are on, we’re on our own to catch and release the little ones, sixteen inches or less.

Happily, most require Paul’s net.

Elk River Cutthroat Trout
Your average Elk River cutthroat trout (photo: Chad Shmukler).

For the better part, the Elk is a perfect float. Fast enough to run a decent drift yet not so furious that a strong oarman can’t hold it in place to hammer a good lie. But it has its cantankerous side too. Paul expertly avoids a handful of sweepers, bobs artfully through a couple of drop rapids, but sticks one big rock good and solid, testing Chad’s balance and staying power in the front of the boat. Took us all by surprise, Paul included.

“Haven’t rowed much this season,” he admits with a grin, though aside from that single bump, he handles the river with precision. “Flooded pretty good last year and there’s a lot of changes out here. That, and too much time running the shop.“ He’d later check with his regular stickmen who nod in agreement.

Take that run from the right, not the left these days.

Takeout on the Elk River
A private takeout on the Elk River (photo: Mike Sepelak).

“Three-hundred yards to the takeout,” Paul shouts. “Hit that right bank hard.”

“Just enough time for five more fish,” I joke.

Chad let’s number five shake loose at the takeout, making me a liar.

Elk River Guiding Company, Fernie, BC
Recounting the days successes back at the shop (photo: Mike Sepelak).

The drive back to Fernie is quiet - the sweet sound of satisfaction – and we kick back at the shop and sip a cool one. Our visit here is just beginning and it’s hard to imagine it getting much better. Willing fish, beautiful scenery, wild rivers in abundance in all directions.

British Columbia in summer.

A perfect time to be adrift on the Elk.


Fascinating! Drifted off into a day dream reading this. Dreaming I was oaring. Good short read.

The Elk has long been on my list of must-fish rivers, but I'd sort of forgotten about it and hadn't thought about it in years.

It has officially been front-burnered again.

Forgot to mention: those are some of the most beautiful cutties I've ever seen.

Thanks Lance. I find myself drifting back pretty easily, these days. A wonderful daydream.

And Gink, get that pot boiling and check off that bucket item. The cutties are indeed spectacular.