Behind Enemy Lines – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Trout

Swan Hills Sculpture

Swan Hills Sculpture


The e-mail in-box bonged the other day with the latest dispatch from the brook trout front by my Cochrane, Alberta buddy Jim Stelfox.

The Environment and Sustainable Resource Development senior fish biologist has been waging a cold water war against the invasive brookie for a decade and a half now.

There’s no let up insight.

The great spymaster John Le Carre comes quickly to mind.

“Unfortunately it is the weak who destroy the strong,” reckons the cold war yarn-spinner of books like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People.

Brook trout in Eastern Slopes trout streams are the essence of weakness, according to Stelfox.

“Since brook trout can out-compete bull and cutthroat trout and hybridize with bull trout,” Jim wrote in his latest pitch to exponentially boost harvest of the imported pest in bold attempt to eradicate it from flowing waters, “a reduced bag limit for brook trout could result in brook trout populations increasing.

“At the expense of native bull and cutthroat populations,” he emphasized.

The weak clearly are destroying the strong, especially when brookies, which “mature quickly and are less susceptible to angling”, can easily overpopulate a fishery, stunt and crowd out the native fish.

Stelfox’s Northern Slopes counterpart George Sterling of Edson has similar problems with brookies and our iconic Athabasca rainbows. Athabows being the only native rainbows east of the Great Divide.

Stelfox’s conundrum is: how do you increase the brook trout harvest to scorched earth proportions when many anglers have trouble telling trout species apart?

His proposal is pretty radical.

“It’s recommended that consideration be given to making it a requirement for anglers to demonstrate that they are proficient in identifying the common salmonids,” his study concluded, “before they are permitted to harvest trout from flowing waters in the Eastern Slopes.”

Chrystina Lake

Chrystina Lake

John Le Carre has the appropriate quote:

“Sometimes we have to do a thing in order to find out the reason for it,” he wrote in A Perfect Spy. “Sometimes our actions are questions not answers.”

Whether Stelfox’s Trout School concept will fly with anglers – and government – is a question not an answer.

But not all brook trout are bad brook trout.

In the great central Alberta massif there are little muskeg-water lakes – nestled between ridges of sighing lodgepole pines – where eastern brook trout thrive.

Beyond that, they are encouraged to exist with annual stockings from the government hatchery. Chrystina Lake is one of these.

The sign beside the Swan Hills highway declares the elevation at 1,268 metres, which, remarkably, is a fifth of a klick higher than the Rocky Mountain town of Jasper.

At the visitor centre in town a colossal battle rages in perpetuity. It’s welder Ken Orcheski’s epic showdown between a metal Swan Hills grizzly and an iron goose (or is it a swan?) over a re-bar nest of golden eggs. He calls his masterpiece Wilderness Playground.

On the tea-stained surface of Chrystina, once my pontoon boat clears the protection of the south arm where the launch is, a similar struggle breaks out.

A catatonic shift in weather patterns is occurring. It’s been that kind of spring. The wind is big and unpredictable.

The pines on the moraines protest but it does them little good.

Red/Black Leech

Red/Black Leech

There’s some solace behind a bank of spruces, I set the boat anchor and begin casting a Red/Black Leech in a fan pattern. Then begin a slow, twitch-twitch-stop retrieve.

I can’t shake the feeling of being suspended in a John Le Carre novel, I’m behind enemy lines and a KGB Mercedes is about to appear around the windy point with evil intent.

My fox red Lab Penny sets up an observation post on the port side pontoon.

Instead my flyline goes taunt, I set the hook and find a feisty brook trout – with golden and red spots haloed in blue and those gorgeous tangerine fins with white leading edges – pulsing at the end of the line.

It measures 16 inches on the stripping apron ruler. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Trout.

Two more follow plus a fourth of about 12 inches until the anxiety of running Highway 33’s infamous antler alley after dark drives me back to the launch. (By the time I make Barrhead in the midnight twilight glow I’ve counted 15 whitetail does and 4 moose).

“If you make your enemy look like a fool,” John Le Carre wrote, “you loose the justification for engaging him.”

At Chrystina Lake I engaged the brook trout enemy. They’re nobody’s fool.

This column originally appeared in the Edmonton Sun

Chrystina Lake brook trout

Chrystina Lake brook trout

2 responses to “Behind Enemy Lines – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Trout

  1. Pingback: Tippets: Brookie Enemy Lines, Two-handed Retrieve, Tour of Allcock’s | MidCurrent·

  2. Pingback: Tippets: Brookie Enemy Lines, Two-handed Retrieve, Tour of Allcock’s - Skiff Life - Flats and Back Bay Fishing·

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