The Mountain Lakes

The Mountain Lakes


The massive up thrusting of the Interior Ranges and subsequent sculpturing by ice and water has produced many small mountain lakes in the West Kootenay, a region famed for its big valley bottom lakes. Most are in sub- alpine zones not too far below tree line and lie frozen and deeply snow covered for much of the year. But nearly all the lakes contain fish and most were stocked by man beginning with the turn of the century prospectors and continuing until this day. Rainbows and West Slope Cutthroats are the main species but brookies and Bull trout are also present. Fish are usually small but are often very numerous and easy to catch but the main attraction is the unsurpassed beauty of the high lakes which are often framed by glacier hung peaks and surrounded by pristine forests and wildflower meadows.

My first mountain lake was a sliver of water in the old mining country behind Ainsworth. Loon Lake attracted my parents and me often. Our fishing craft were old water logged rafts that we caught small brook trout from. We sometimes went up with my cousins and Uncle Jack to cut wood and skate in the early winter before the snow piled up. On one of these expeditions, I found a clear spot in the ice near a stump where I could peer down into the lake. I was amazed to see a school of large fish with several at least 50 cm. Of course I was back that summer but failed to catch anything larger than twenty five centimetres. Years later I read that a Nelson girl caught a four kilogram fish in Loon Lake. At the time, it was the largest Eastern Brook trout ever caught in BC and may still be.

Loon Lake was not a true mountain lake because it was only a few hundred metres above Kootenay Lake. The first true high lake I ventured to
was Gibson near the headwaters of Kokanee Creek which is tributary to Kootenay Lake’s west arm. You can easily drive to it now but for years it was reached by a rough mining/logging road then a good hike from the old Molly Gibson mill site. It was created by early miners who dammed a wet basin to provide water and power for the mill which processed ore from the Molly Gibson mine high above the lake. Clare Palmer and I walked in from the switchbacks in 1954 and had two days of superb fishing. Gibson has a large shoal on its east shore and we waded back and forth along its sedge marsh edge and caught several dozen cutthroats up to about 30 centimetres. We could see the fish cruising over the shoal and we would simply drop a fly in front of them. The next day we fished from an old raft and did just as well. You had to be careful of porcupines at Gibson. They would eat the cork handles off your rods for the salt. Anglers and hikers would place chicken wire around their vehicle tires. The porkies would chew them to get the salt in dried dog piss.

Sunset Lake is located in a beautiful cirque basin near the headwaters of a small tributary of Woodbury Creek which flows into Kootenay Lake’s North Arm near Ainsworth. The lake is a lovely half hour stroll on a good trail from an often very rough mining/logging road. Sunset is almost
painfully beautiful framed by Pontiac Peak and Sawtooth Ridge. There is a snowfield with a streak of red algae above the inlet. When we first saw it, Clare Palmer and I thought a goat had fallen and painted the snow with its blood. Sunset’s fish are cutthroats that seldom run more than thirty
centimetres. But Sonny McDonald once caught a fine 45 centimetre fish casting off a huge boulder on the southeast shore. Mountain lake fish are sometimes larger following light snowpack springs and warm dry summers.

1958 was such a year and I made my first trip to Wheeler Lake late in August with my friends Tom Ramsay and Gary Higgs. Of all the mountain lakes, Wheeler is my favourite. An old pack trail leads to the lake which is up the South Fork of Woodbury Creek near Ainsworth. Prior to 1975,
there was a good cabin there built by Fred Bureau of Ainsworth in the depression years. The cabin was a gem. There was an oil drum stove, shelving, bunks and windows and an ice water creek outside the door. The names of many Kootenay Lake old timers were carved or burned into the walls. The cabin was burned in 1974 or 75. Tom, Gary and I spent two days at Wheeler in 1958 and caught more than 400 trout. They were so plentiful that we put four flies on and were able to catch four fish at one time. We just let the first fish drag the fly though the swarm until the others were taken in a minute or two. My father had fished the lake in 1934 not long after it was first stocked and raved about the fishing for four and five pound cutthroats. The lake had lain fallow for millennia. The first fish had plenty to eat but the lake has an excellent spawning stream for an inlet and it likely didn’t take long for the population to build to a point where it stripped down the food supply. There are loads of fish but none greater than twenty five centimetres. This is the case with many mountain lakes.

Fletcher Lake was different. For many years, it was rumoured to contain some really large rainbows. As far as I know, it still is. The people of Ainsworth were adamant that there were rainbows larger than ten pounds. “Under the logs at the east end of the lake but you’ll never land them” they told me often. The only trouble was, no one could actually say they caught one of these giants although many had made the tough hike into the lake. There are two Fletcher Lakes, upper and lower. The lower lake is the one people fish. They drain into the west side of Kootenay Lake near Mirror Lake just south of Kaslo. In the late summer of 1966, Rod McKay, my brother Tom and I hiked in from the end of a new logging
road in Woodbury Creek. We fished under and between the logs near the outlet ever so carefully but caught nothing. We did see a respectable fish by mountain lake standards but it was a thin, dark 40 cm kelt that would be lucky to weigh 1 kilo at the peak of condition. We climbed high on the slope that shouldered the lake’s west shore where we could see sixty percent of the lake’s bottom. The inlet stream had deposited a large fan of gravel and sediment that was slowly progressing toward the deep hole under the logs. No fish were visible but if any large ones decided to cruise the shoals, we were sure we would have seen them. We hiked back down to the lake and fished at the mouth of the inlet and quickly caught about fifty small rainbows. The inlet stream seemed too small for large rainbows to spawn in but it obviously accommodated the smaller fish. We fished our way to the trail along the shore and noticed shell fragments from some sort of crustacean. Could this be the reason for the large trout? On the way out, I looked at a small section of the outlet creek. It was much larger than the inlet and there seemed to be enough gravel to spawn a few
big fish – was there a redd?  Forever the optimist, I felt the big ones could spawn there and some of their progeny could grow large enough to feed on the smaller rainbows by feeding on the mysterious crustaceans. If this could happen, a few very large fish might result because they could live a very long time in these cold mountain waters.

The mystery of Fletcher Lake went on and I convinced myself that the big fish were just a myth generated by wishful thinking. Then I saw a story in the Nelson Daily News about a Boy Scout expedition to Fletcher and other area mountain lakes. There was a photo of a boy holding a large rainbow kelt that was said to weigh three kilos.  The caption didn’t say where it was caught but it had to be Fletcher. A couple of years later, I
learned that Sonny McDonald, a long time West Kootenay angler, was said to have lost a 7 kilo rainbow he had hooked on the fly in a driving November blizzard.
Proof? I guess not.  Sonny McDonald died before I could ask him about the fish. But this is what keeps anglers going. There is always the chance a really good fish and the expectation of something new. That’s enough for me and I hope it always will be.



One Response to “The Mountain Lakes”

  1. Jason Koldewijn says:

    Stumbled across these pages… Wonderful reads! Thank you for sharing your experiences! Looking forward to reading more in the future.

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