Anchored in a boat on one of the Okanagan’s seemingly endless number of mountain lakes, the fisherman eyes a small orange bobber floating atop the water, moving up and down in the small waves. Below the bobber (also called a strike indicator) and unseen to our eyes, a small imitation of an insect dangles four feet below the surface, hanging very still, just a foot or two off the bottom of the water.
We are fly-fishing, sitting in just six feet of water, anchored in a flat-bottom boat, watching our strike-indicators, waiting for them to (hopefully) disappear, signalling a fish has eaten our fly below the surface of the lake.
The fly we are using is called a chironomid. The boat does not move. The bobber continues to sit atop the water.
The chironomid imitation hangs below. Fish rise. Birds fly.
The anticipation is palpable. The expectation of a “fish on,” the potential for a trophy.
The bobber goes down; all of a sudden out of sight. Lifting the rod, the fisherman can feel the fish on his line, feel the power and pull of a rainbow trout.
With little or no tension coming from the small fly, all you feel is the fight of the fish. The thrill of the catch. It is what the fly fisherman craves and will sit for hours waiting for. The hit, the take. Fish on.
As a kid fishing with my dad, we were always up at the crack of dawn, pushing off from whatever campsite we were at in dad’s 14-foot aluminum, him trolling a flat-fish and me dragging a willow-leaf and worm, the classic gear with so many bells and whistles and flashers that you might not even feel a smaller fish over the pull of all the gear.
But it worked. Maybe it was because I was the kid, but I had the luck, pulling in fish on a regular basis as dad smiled from the back of the boat, happy to see his kid enjoying the outdoors.
As a young man out of college, I was introduced to fly fishing by friends who had grown up fishing with flies.
By the time I had entered the workforce I bought my first fly-rod and belly-boat combination, catching my first rainbow in Dragon Lake in Quesnel, home to trophy rainbow trout in a lake that sits right on Highway 97 heading north.
I had no net, couldn’t land it in the water and finally dragged it on shore, hooting and hollering with no one around to witness the epic battle.
Years later, I would never go back to the way I fished growing up. I bought my dad his first fly-rod as a gift and now he too is content to drag a fly around a lake, usually opting to troll with a black leach, what had become my go-to fly.
But I had never gotten into chironomid fishing, a strategy used by ‘serious’ fly fishermen, anglers who you could routinely see netting fish from their anchored boats.
What did they know that I didn’t? Why were they anchored in the same spot, watching a bobber, bringing back memories of the old bobber and worm trick, where as a kid you would dangle a fat worm below your bobber and just wait for the hit.
Why chironomids, I ask my host, an Ontario native, long-time fisherman and co-owner of Trout Waters Supplies, the Kelowna-based fly shop that is a must-stop for Okanagan anglers, both locals and tourists alike.
“Why chironomids? On account of they are a huge portion of the rainbow trout’s diet,” says Nick Pace as we sit in his boat.
“I like to say you have to find out what the menu is. That’s what it comes down to. You find out what they are eating and you make a presentation.”
More often than not, what they are eating are chironomids. According to fishing author Phil Rowley there are some 3,500 species of chironomid in North America with the little bug constituting over 50 per cent of a stillwater trout’s food source.
Back on the water, Pace moves our boat to a new location and as we cast out and begin to wait and watch, it doesn’t take long for the first action of the day.
The bobber goes down and I soon feel the familiar pull of a trout. It spits the hook halfway to the boat.
“Toss it back in the same place,” says Pace as I pull the fly line out of the water and fire it back to where I had the hit.
Boom, the indicator is under the water again and this time the amateur fisherman in me manages to get it to the net, a nice 16-inch rainbow, healthy and full.
It’s time to find out more about this fish’s diet. Leaving the trout immersed in water, Pace turns it upside down and slides a throat pump into the trout’s mouth, sucking out its latest meals to see if we are on the right track.
Once he’s done that the fish is gently released back into the waters to swim and eat and fight another day.
Our lake does have special regulations but anglers are allowed to keep certain fish.
However, I’ve long practiced catch and release and am happy to watch this specimen swim away.
“The real key is if you catch one you can get a throat sample and you can get to see what they are eating,” says Pace, adding it all helps narrow down what kind of fly to use.
“I’ve caught them before using a leach and you do a throat sample and it’s full of shrimp.
“At least you get to see what they are eating and you can always change your fly.”
This natural rainbow was eating chironomids as the throat sample brought out a few live samples of a similar size to our imitation.
It’s a pattern Pace tied and calls the Liberace for its bright colouring.
It’s nearly a perfect match and it produces a few more hits as the wind increases and this amateur’s casting gets worse and worse.
The worsening conditions force us to the shore, where tales of fishing take over and my 15-inch catch has soon grown to nearly 18, 19 inches in classic fashion.
From the time the ice comes off Okanagan lakes and moves through the spring and summer months, Pace will use chironomids to target rainbows, but depending on the weather, the lake, the time of the year and active insect hatches, things can change.
“At certain times of the year you have certain insects that are more prolific,” he explains.
“After the ice comes off you have chironomids, shrimp and leaches as the main source of food they target.
“As the season goes along there are certain inspects that are more prolific. In July we know the sedges (caddis flies) are out so we have our Tom Thumbs and Michalak sedges to fish dry flies.”
Dry-fly fishing is perhaps the top rung of all fly fishing. It’s the biggest reason fish rise in a lake, coming to the surface and eating a recently hatched adult fly.
For fishermen, the ability to watch a fish hit your fly on the surface of the water is about as good as it gets.
On this day, heavy winds are keeping us from trying out any dries and keeping the fish from rising too much. Still, we keep moving to new spots and getting decent action with chironomids, despite the wind and word that the lake had been fishing tough.
“I think fish are always looking for their next meal.” says Pace as we wrap up the gear and head for home.
“Are there times they aren’t moving as much? Yeah. But in the Okanagan we have so many quality lakes that you can go as a novice fisherman and have a successful day or as an experienced fisherman you can have a day you won’t be disappointed with.”
For information on local fishing spots as well as gear and clothing, you can drop by and see Nick Pace at Trout Waters Fly and Tackle.
The shop has grown since it was opened in 1995 in West Kelowna by Savas Koutsantonis.
Pace joined Koutsantonis as an owner in 2003 and the operation moved from the Westside to settle into its current location on Highway 97 across from Dilworth Centre where an army of well-informed staff are ready to share tips and locations and may even draw you a map to the always well-guarded ‘Secret Lake.’
Find them on the web at troutwaters.ca.