June 18, 2015 Features & Images » Feature Story

Finding new angles 

Fishing reeling in fans in the Sea to Sky corridor

Finding new angles - Fishing reeling in fans in the Sea to Sky corridor - BY DAN FALLOON
  • By Dan Falloon
  • Finding new angles - Fishing reeling in fans in the Sea to Sky corridor

The Sea to Sky region, and Whistler in particular, is well known for drawing lovers of the outdoors who push their limits through high-octane activities.

But there's another segment, too, that appreciates the easy access to more tranquil pastimes.

Rick Mackay has seen both sides.

The Comor Sports manager moved to this area a little over a decade ago to snowboard and mountain bike here. But after a few seasons flying off cliffs and traversing the trails, the St. Thomas, Ont. product opted to pull on a pair of hip waders in search of fish as big as the adrenaline rushes he chased.

"The older I get, the more beat-up my body becomes, the more the fishing is easier on all those things," he chuckles. "I was always one to push it with snowboarding and when I was 18 to 25, jumping off cliffs was all I cared about. Now that I'm 36 and I've broken more bones than you can count, with fishing, I don't come home sore. I can still go to work the next day."

Mackay, who started off as a spin-cast fisherman but has transitioned primarily into fly fishing, says he appreciates the different effects on his brain, as the latter requires greater precision of technique for success. Whereas his leisure tended to create an atmosphere where he was trying to minimize thinking in many ways, he embraces fly fishing for the "mental challenge" it provides.

"When you're mountain biking and snowboarding, you're constantly fighting your brain, fighting the fear away of certain things," he says. "With fishing, you just relax the brain, calm the nerves."

click to enlarge Daniel Bosco proudly holds a rainbow trout he caught while ice fishing. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BRAD KNOWLES
  • Photo courtesy of Brad Knowles
  • Daniel Bosco proudly holds a rainbow trout he caught while ice fishing.

These days, Whistler is a hub for the extreme, for those looking to test their limits on one of the region's many mountains. It wasn't always that way, though. Any of the fishing guides in the area are quick to point out that the resort has its history rooted in becoming a lake country destination. Alex and Myrtle Philip opened Rainbow Lodge in 1914 and welcomed visitors taking train rides up to set their lines.

Clint Goyette of Brackendale-based Valley Fishing Guides says Alta Lake's accessibility from the booming burgh of Vancouver helped what became Whistler to initially find its footing.

"The proximity to Vancouver allowed for a shorter train ride than going somewhere really remote like the Chilcotins, which would take you many days," says Goyette, who is originally from Deep River, Ont. and has represented Canada at the World Fly Fishing Championships. "Whistler was a doable thing back in the day.

"It's that close in time that Whistler was considered a remote place to go fishing. It's only been 100 years since Alta Lake was (established as) a fishing destination."

click to enlarge Ben Davies displays a rainbow trout he caught fly fishing. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BRAD KNOWLES
  • Photo courtesy of Brad Knowles
  • Ben Davies displays a rainbow trout he caught fly fishing.

Ebbs and flows

Whistler's trajectory as a destination for the more extreme sports has generally been upward and has reached higher peaks, to the point where the resort is synonymous with skiing and mountain biking. Fishing, meanwhile, has settled into more of a complementary role in the recreation scene, but guides are excited about rebounding interest in the activity.

When Brian Leighton first came to Whistler 40 years ago, he knew all of the resort's hottest spots for fishing. In recent years, though, he's heard about more people venturing out and discovering new spots that are unfamiliar to him.

"There's been a lot of people who go places that I go that I don't know," says Leighton, who founded Whistler Fishing Guides in 1988. "That used to not be the case. You pretty much knew all of the key fishermen that lived in the valley, but now, there's lots who you don't know and there are some very good anglers out there.

"We're Canadians, for goodness sake. It's what we do. We fish, we hunt, we go in the bush."

Tourism Whistler doesn't keep statistics specific to fishing in Whistler, but its impact ebbs and flows with other tourism-driven industries, many of which have strong reliance on neighbours to the south venturing up for a trip, according to Leighton, who ran his service in addition to working as Whistler Blackcomb's safety manager.

"We're victims of the Canadian dollar and the majority of our clients are American," he says. "When the American dollar is a higher value than the Canadian dollar, we see lots of Americans.

"It was really strong up until 2008 when the American economy took a downturn and the Canadian dollar got strong; Americans weren't as prone to come up here."

Leighton has attempted to adjust by appealing to "people who are coming to Whistler regardless" and becoming a fun option for longer-term visitors who might look to take a day or two off from their main recreational pursuits.

"If they're coming from Australia and they're keen to fish, we're going to take them," he says. "We're not bringing people to Whistler as destination fishermen.

"It's much like in the wintertime, people come to ski, but maybe they're going to go ziptrekking or snowmobiling."

Leighton also notes there's a significant population from northern Europe, specifically Scandinavia and the British Isles, who primarily come to ski but also seek steelhead in late winter and early spring.

"They don't need a lot of guiding. You just take them to the river and show them where the fish are and what flies you used and they can take it from there," he says. "Those guys are a joy to fish with because they're usually pretty good."

Goyette, who started his service in 2000, estimates Americans make up 80 per cent of his business, with the bulk of those coming from sun-baked states like Florida and Texas.

"Almost every time I get people into their first trout of B.C., they are like, 'This is the biggest trout I've ever caught,'" he says. "I had a guy catch a trout last year, and he's fished all over the world and (in) Alaska. He says 'This trout was bigger than I ever caught in Alaska.'"

Goyette has also observed an uptick in corporate recreational spending, to the point where he proclaimed, "fly fishing is the new golf." He makes the comparison based on both being activities that are an all-day commitment.

That attitude is helping to drive a rebound, especially as he observed a decline in his business earlier than Leighton.

"We saw a big bump back before 2005 and then it really slumped for almost 10 years," he says. "It seems like a lot of people are back to go fishing and it's going to be a lot of fun this summer. Not that it hasn't been, but I feel like the vibe of Whistler is really taking off and fishing should be a big part of it."

Whistler Fly Fishing's Brian Niska, who finds himself inclined toward Squamish over Whistler and Pemberton, says his clientele is about a 50/50 split between Americans, and Europeans, Australians and fellow Canadians. He notes while a fair number of Vancouverites take him up on learning the basics of angling, they don't tend to make up as large a portion of the guiding business.

click to enlarge Rick Mackay shows off a rainbow trout he caught in the South Chilcotins area. - PHOTO COURTESY OF RICK MACKAY
  • Photo courtesy of Rick Mackay
  • Rick Mackay shows off a rainbow trout he caught in the South Chilcotins area.

Something for everyone

One of the major boons to the area is that there's something for nearly every angler within a reasonable distance. From the lakes of Whistler for novices, to more secluded options for those seeking that trophy catch, the Sea to Sky has it all.

Leighton grew up fishing in the Okanagan, he feels moving to this part of the province helped improve his ability and his instincts as an angler.

"I learned more about fishing in Whistler particularly because of the rivers that we have. We're close to the coast, so we get salmon runs. In the Okanagan, it's primarily trout, so my world was expanded," he says. "As soon as I got here, I got as much information from whatever source I could. I read, talked to people — that's what it takes, it takes time."

Leighton explains June is typically a time of transition with the lakes in Whistler Valley being cool, though conditions are starting to warm. Notably, he thinks it's the best month for trout with hungry spawn eager to bite as they look to put on weight.

"The lower lakes in the valley and in Pemberton are good the soonest (into the season) when the ice comes off. A month or two after that, they're great," he says. "Then as the summer progresses and the water warms up, the fish become less active in the valley and we go to the more alpine lakes at 4,000 (1,200m) and 5,000 feet (1,500m)."

Preventing overfishing has long been on the radar, though Goyette says heavy development, like public beaches and encroachment from new homes around lakes, is also an issue as it threatens spawning habitats. As a member of the former Whistler Angling Club, he helped in the club's association with the Whistler Fisheries Stewardship Group, which kept an eye on fish populations in Whistler.

Stocking efforts and increased protections of spawning habitats have helped, especially for those interested in lake fishing, but Goyette once again harkened back to the resort's history with a vision.

"We understand that we need to have these things, but it would be awesome to have a phenomenal fishery like there used to be," he says. "You look at the museum photos and there are guys with 36 trout when there are four of them in the photo. They took the time to take the train get to Whistler to do all that, but you can imagine if everybody could drive up to Whistler now in the same volume, you just would have no fish left," he says. "Alta Lake and Green Lake are catch-and-release lakes and that's because we want to maintain the wild population."

From 2010 to 2014, the Freshwater Fisheries Societies of B.C. reported 16,620 fish were stocked in Whistler's lakes, with 14,000 being rainbow trout and the remainder coastal cutthroat trout. The 2015 plans call for 3,500 rainbow trout to be released in four different lakes in Whistler, with another 700 coastal cutthroat going into Alta Lake, which had received 350 a year from 2010 to 2013. Pemberton was on track for 575 rainbow trout split between Ivey and Mosquito lakes. The two lakes split 3,050 released fish between 2010 and 2014.

One of the major factors in releasing cutthroat into Alta Lake is to drive out stickleback in order to prevent competition with juvenile trout.

"The plan of attack is they'll eat the stickleback and that opens the door for the juvenile trout to have more food at that life stage," Goyette says, while noting the juvenile trout were less likely to be eaten, though not entirely safe, from the cutthroats.

Access to the resort has also been a major factor, as upgrades to Highway 99 have made it more reasonable for people from the city to get to Whistler or Squamish for a day trip, which is a significant advantage over other big cities.

"You shave off a whole hour commute. With the new speed limit increases, the new upgrades, everything combined," he says. "(For example), you want to fish in a stream from Edmonton, you're driving two and a half hours to the closest place worth going to, so it's pretty awesome (to be so close here)."

As a fly fisherman, Mackay has begun to shun the resort for Pemberton, or trips to the Cariboo and South Chilcotin regions, explaining the pressure on the fish here has given him all the drive he needs to try to find spots that are a little more secluded.

"When fish are getting lured with lines every day, they start to wise up to them," he reasons. "I go north where you don't see as many people and the fish get bigger much faster it seems, and in more quantity.

"It's not terrible around here, don't get me wrong, but I'm past the point of catching a hundred little fish in a day and I'm looking for two big ones in a day."

That said, Mackay explains he has had one of his best seasons in the area already, having hauled in a 13-kilogram Chinook salmon earlier this spring when out with Pemberton Fish Finder owner Brad Knowles. He was also encouraged by the past year of ice fishing.

"I caught a lot of really big rainbows (rainbow trout)," he says. "It's all about luck, buddy. I definitely put myself in the right places at the right times this year. And that comes with experience, too, I think. I'm starting to figure out the area more and more. Every year I waste less time fishing places where I shouldn't bother at that time of year."

click to enlarge Like with skiing and snowboarding, avid anglers will sometimes access prime remote areas via helicopter. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BRAD KNOWLES
  • Photo courtesy of Brad Knowles
  • Like with skiing and snowboarding, avid anglers will sometimes access prime remote areas via helicopter.

Finding the next generation

On a gorgeous late May morning, Knowles, also the owner of Spud Valley Sporting Goods, is trapped behind the desk of the Birch Street store. Only figuratively, of course, but as he stands in the business his father Ivan started in 1976, he describes how his wife Melissa is essentially a "fishing widow" as he tries to top 300 days a year on the water. Add hunting to the list, too, to ensure the proverbial black veil stays on.

In a stroke of coincidence, she calls as he's telling the story and confirms it, even recalling a story where her family discovered Brad's priorities and, half-jokingly, she was third. But with a family now, he's passing along the joy to his children, something that brings him joy.

Knowles is now into the derby game up in Pemberton, having held the second Pemberton Winterfest Kids Ice Fishing Derby in January.

"It's a family event," he says. "We like to promote fishing in the area."

It's an attitude of great inclusion, and one Knowles embraces every day of the year.

"From a business perspective, I enjoy fishing with families," he says. "I find children's laughter and smiles can be infectious, especially from a person like myself being a professional, I've caught every fish there is. Seeing it through a child's eyes, it lights a fire for me again."

Eric Wight has worked to help promote the sport as a family-friendly activity here in Whistler, taking the lead organizing the annual Father's Day Fishing Derby since 2010. The owner of Backroads Whistler acknowledged he likes to hit the lake himself every year.

"I like to keep it a little bit small so I can fish with my kids," he says. "We have a good turnout and many people coming every year."

The company supplies many of the necessities for a day on the lake, including canoes, and Wight explains the event has typically accommodated about 50 people.

"We've got a bunch of free rods and reels," he says. "It's great if people can bring their own lures — maybe an Apex watermelon or a woolly bugger fly, a big fat one."

Those who have their own boats are welcome to bring them to help more people take part in the event.

The event first kicked off in 2001 with Paul Beswetherick, Tom Cole, Ian Fairweather and Brian Niska leading the charge hosting the events, which drew numbers more than double what Wight tends to draw at over 120 participants.

"It was too big for me," he says. "We've been running 50 people the past few years. I'm happy with that. It saves all the fish for us."

This year's event is slated for June 21 from 8 a.m. until noon at Lakeside Park. There's significance to being all wrapped up by the time the clock flips from a.m. to p.m., Wight explains.

"It's all over by noon," he says. "All the moms say 'You have to be finished by noon. I've got other stuff for the kids to do with dad."

Niska, who has been guiding for over 30 years, running his own service for the past 14, notes the Cast and Blast event is held in Squamish every April, which helps increase interest in fishing in the area, adding that several workshops like bear safety, knot-tying, fly-tying and conservation are discussed by a dozen different presenters. About 300 people typically attend the free three-day event, including an increasing number of women, who are getting into the sport.

While fishing has become more accessible to all, women traditionally haven't been drawn to it in the same way as men, but the playing field is levelling.

"The more girls fish, the more girls have friends that are drawn to it and have friends that fish," he says. "It's easier for people to dabble in it, easier for people to get started and there's lower cost to fly fishing equipment. If someone spends $200, they can get a decent setup and a B.C. fishing license for residents is pretty affordable."

Licenses cost residents $36 for a year or $10 for a day. They are available at Whistler Hardware or Whistler Visitors Centre in the resort, Canadian Tire, Service BC, Squamish Home Hardware or Wal-Mart in Squamish, or online at fishing.gov.bc.ca.

click to enlarge Rick Mackay holds a sea-run cutthroat trout. - PHOTO COURTESY OF RICK MACKAY
  • Photo courtesy of Rick Mackay
  • Rick Mackay holds a sea-run cutthroat trout.

Casting lines online

For a sport that defines getting away from it all, a common thread in the rebound has ironically been the rise of social media.

It was one thing to tell a friend about a day on the lake or in the river, but when one can see photos from the day on Facebook or Instagram — and some of the reaction it generates — the seed is planted in the minds of followers.

"When I was a kid, there was no posting pictures of the bass you caught, (but today when pictures are posted), then all of a sudden your friends want to go out there, too," Mackay says.

Easier access to information is helping the boom as well. Knowles is conscious of this, posting regular reports on his website, www.pembertonfishfinder.blogspot.ca.

In addition to the website, Knowles also spends plenty of effort doing something else he knows well — talking fishing on camera. The gregarious Pemberton lifer hosted Elite Fishing on Whistler Cable before the station went under, and now regularly posts a variety of helpful clips to his YouTube page. The videos range from fishing reports from the area to in-depth analysis of different types of flies. He has over 1,000 subscribers.

"We've noticed a huge change with our website and online presence with up-to-date fishing reports. It lets people know what's going on in the area and where people can gain easy access to good fishing," he says. "It's a useful tool."

Though social media can help create connections and make fishing a social activity, that's not always the case. Mackay, for example, has friends with kids and a girlfriend with whom he fishes, but he often makes the trip a solo one.

"To be honest, a lot of the time, I end up going by myself with a can of bear spray and that's about it," he says. "Even if you're not catching fish, it's not the worst thing to be doing.

"I've seen grizzly bears. I've seen a really cool fight between two male lynx that I got 10 feet away from and got a pretty good video of. I saw two moose last weekend (I fished)."

Even though Mackay has only been at it for a decade in the Sea to Sky, he's already noticed a significant change in demographics just from what he sees online.

"When I first started fishing, a lot of the old men were the only ones fishing, but now I see on Facebook and social media a lot of pro snowboarders and skiers and random guys getting into it," he said. "A lot of people are starting to enjoy it. A wider variety of people."

Further information

Trout Country Fishing Guides, www.fishwhistler.com. or at 604.849.0868.

Whistler Fly Fishing: whistlerflyfishing.com

Whistler Fishing Guides whistlerfishingguides.ca

Pemberton Fish Finder pembertonfishfinder.com

Valley Fishing valleyfishing.com

Freshwater Fisheries Society of BC gofishbc.com

BC Fishing Regulations www.env.gov.bc.ca/fw/fish/regulations/

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