Exotic probably isn’t the first word the comes to mind at the mention of British Columbia, Canada. But, Hilary Hutcheson begs to differ. Hutcheson grew up in Montana’s Flathead Valley and as soon as she was old enough to drive she remembers feeling the pull of the North. Specifically, Fernie and its surrounding rivers.
“If we ever got some time off from work, it’s only two and a half hours from where I lived and worked so it seemed like a really exotic thing to do,” says Hutcheson. “It’s probably like what it must be like for kids down in California to go across the border to Mexico.”
Sure, just swap dollar Coronas and street meat for Ketchup-flavored chips and Cutthroat and BC is basically the Baja of the North. Kind of. For Hutcheson the allure has always been the promise of good trout fishing. The Elk river runs right through Fernie. Outside of town there’s the Bull River. A little farther still are the Wigwam and Bow rivers. And then there are all the creeks and tributaries that feed these river systems. Basically, Fernie offers a buffet of fishy waters.
And healthy populations of fish to boot. Both Cutthroat and Bull Trout are abundant. Anglers come from all over the world to fish for both. And with a couple outfitters in Fernie, it’s easy to find a guide to put you on these fish.
We were lucky enough to get Paul Samycia to show us around. Samycia is the owner of Elk River Guide Company. He’s been working the rivers around Fernie since 2003 and among the locals he’s known as the guide to get.
Hutcheson has fished with him a few times. As she puts it: “Paul’s my first pick.”
“If we were doing the dodgeball game lineup where you choose the people to be on your team, I would choose him for sure,” says Hutcheson. “He’s definitely my kind of person. He’s really real. What you see is what you get. He’s the kind of guy I would choose to fish with on a day off. He takes it seriously, but he still has a good time.”
And he knows where the fish are.
“Yeah, that’s an important part,” says Hutcheson. “Paul knows where the fish are.”
Samycia has the most “rod days” of any outfitter in the area, meaning he’s allowed to book more days of fishing with clients than any other guide service in Fernie. What’s more he has a Bachelor of Science in Zoology. The result is an unmatched intimacy and knowledge of the aquatic ecosystem in and around Fernie.
So, while Paul proved he was more than capable at showing us where the fish were, he also brought us up to speed on some of the issues the local trout populations face. The biggest area of concern in these watersheds is the legacy of mining and waste water disposal. And Paul isn’t one to mince words.
“There’s no doubt that there is an impact,” says Samycia.
As Samycia explains it, the main culprit is Selenium, a chemical element, that is a byproduct of the mining process. Selenium makes its way into the river systems and the resident trout have been found to have survivable deformations as a result.
It’s not a pretty picture. But it’s the reality. Towns like Fernie were built around these mines. And as Paul sums it up, “They’re not going away anytime soon.”
He remains hopeful for the fish though. These are big watersheds we’re talking about. And from our experience, the trout fishing is still remarkable. As was our whole experience in Fernie. By day we were chasing trout around pristine Rocky Mountain rivers. And at night, thanks to our media credentials and one Mike McPhee, Island Lake Lodge welcomed us into their world-class accommodations. And honestly, for a couple trout bums, nothing’s more exotic than 800-thread count sheets.