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Babine River Rainbows

By Jim and Carolyn Z. Shelton, 🕔Mon, Mar 21st, 2011


Light danced in sparkles across the rippled currents of Babine River. Anchored in Rainbow Alley, we puzzled at the school of huge rainbow trout jumping around our boat. There were no obvious hatches this afternoon, save the occasional mosquito. Yet surfacing trout fed in slurps, splashes, and leaps. Acrobatic Bonaparte´s gulls swooped to the water, snatching up prey.

We tossed out the usual suspects: mayflies, stoneflies, and caddis. The result - zilch for takes. On a whim, we stuck our fine mesh net overboard and seined the current, dumping the contents on the boat deck. One single fry about an inch long - a perfectly black and silver-hued little salmon - writhed on the plywood.

We knew that salmon fry emerge from tributaries to Babine Lake, and migrate downriver toward sea in late May and early June. This was late June. Apparently the past winter´s heavy snow pack and huge sockeye runs extended their exodus several weeks. Whatever the cause, we searched our streamer boxes. A "Black-Nosed Dace" might look lame amidst thousands of live smolts, but we gamely tied them on floating lines.

We´d spot a rise, then try to anticipate the next slashing trout. A minute later, bingo! Hooked but undaunted, a hefty rainbow high-jumped over the water, flopping with a ker-splash! The contest lasted until its headshaking leaps sent the hook flying. Two more outsized trout quickly unhooked themselves before we netted and released a bright, scrappy two-pounder.

Schools of tiny salmon smolts darted to cover in flooded grass off the bank. Thinking they might attract some big trout, we tossed smolt patterns into the churn of fast water nearby. One fly traveled less than 10 feet and wham! That rod bent into a deep arc and another rainbow was on for good.

Trout released themselves more often than we did during the ensuing spree. The last fish caught regurgitated a live salmon fry into our net. Returning the tiny fish to the river, we felt sympathy for its plight. Through cover of darkness, tens of thousands of salmon smolts would descend past bird and fish predators to the ocean, as they had for centuries. Subjected to whims of nature, only a small percentage would return as adults.

Stonefly Smorgasbord

We sped down Nilkitkwa Lake to a short, fast water section of the upper Babine. After only one mile a weir blocks downstream travel. Strong currents make anchoring and fishing tricky, but with risk comes reward. Some of the Babine River´s largest rainbow trout swim in this swift stretch.

Fish fed voraciously on a smorgasbord of hatching stoneflies — big goldens, little chartreuse greens, and a host of others. After drifting a hundred feet, we spotted several active trout feeding just off a steep bank. We anchored and cast out both sides of the boat a few dozen times, then coasted down 20 feet or so and repeated the process.

A downed cottonwood broke the flow near shore, creating a fishy-looking current line with a back-eddy beyond. We drifted close, then cast a Stimulator and big Babine Special into rise rings. With a strong tug, a gleaming rainbow broke the surface. It raced across the current into the eddy and leapt several times before coming in for release.

We released two that nudged either side of five pounds. One took a large elk hair caddis on the second try after it jumped over the fly and missed once! Beleaguered from a rowdy fight, the huge rainbow tired to the point that we rowed to slower water for a careful release. The second brute took a golden stonefly nymph fished deep, at the end of the drift. Like many big fish, it took the fly then dove to sulk. The line seemed snagged, but minutes later, the fish realized its predicament and streaked across the river into heavy current. It took nearly ten minutes to land, every second tense with the fear of breaking off. Sparkling in the last rays of sun, we snapped a few photos and off it bolted with a tail flip.

What to Take

Good roads lead to Fort Babine Lodge. If you decide to fly, book a flight into Smithers. Trout on the Babine are hefty and the wind can be brisk; a nine-foot six-weight rod is perfect. When smaller trout were taking dries on placid Nilkitkwa Lake, we changed over to nine-foot for four-weight rods. Starting out each day, we often put a sinking line on one rod, and floating on the other to see who got the first and most action. A dry line is a necessity for the stonefly hatch; a sink-tip handles streamers and stonefly nymphs better. You´ll also need leaders (4X) and tippet material (4X and 5X). Depending on your technique and flies, you may want split shot or lead putty and strike indicators.

During most of our trip, we cast to aggressive rising fish. Bring a camera to take pictures of your trophies before releasing them.

The Fly Box

Once the salmon fry begin their downstream migration, trout go crazy feeding on them. If you see splashy rises, nothing hatching, and it´s June, flip out a smolt pattern and hold on tight. We had action on smolt patterns in Rainbow Alley morning, noon, and evening.

Timing the stonefly hatch is a bit trickier, but when the weather clears and sun warms the water in mid-to-late June, these big buzzers really entice the trout. Use the Babine Special, Sofa Pillow, and Stimulator in #12.

Keeping the Fishery Healthy Upper Babine may be the best large rainbow trout stream in British Columbia, but some are concerned for its future. Locals say the fish are fewer and smaller than in past decades. They blame those who kill limits of large fish during the early "fry hatch" when they feed aggressively on young salmon migrating downstream.

If we want to enjoy seeing and catching these trout that grow to eight pounds and larger, releasing most or all large, spawning—age fish is key. The cold waters of Babine Lake allow fish to grow for many years. The expression "Let ‘em go, let ‘em grow" is appropriate.

Our preferred method of releasing fish includes a non-abrasive net. Keep the fish in or near the water, remove the hook with forceps, or just let the line go slack. Keep the fish over or partially in the water for quick photos. Then, place the fish in gentle current until it revives to swim right side up. Keep the net handy if needed to capture and revive again.

On the Babine River you can experience extraordinary days surrounded by natural beauty, while catching dozens of big rainbow trout on dry flies. With the privilege of this kind of fishing, comes the responsibility to care for these fragile and magnificent natural resources as if they were your own.

For more information...

Fort Babine Lodge rents cabins with kitchenettes and motor boats; boat ramp available.

Call (250)847-8221 or (250)846-5611.

Write to...
P.O.Box 4452,
Smithers, B.C., Canada
V0J 2N0.

Babine-Norlakes Lodge offers a full-service lodge and guided fishing.

Call (604) 846-5259. Write to...
P.O.Box 1060, Smithers, B.C., Canada
V0J 2N0.

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