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BULKLEY RIVER

Fishing Fry For Rainbow Trout

There are many great trout fisheries in BC based on salmon including the renowned Chilko and Stellako fisheries.  However in the Bulkley Valley we are blessed with the Rainbow Alley fishery located on Babine Lake, only an hour away from the town of Smithers (when roads are good).  It is a small river in between Babine Lake, and Nilkitwa Lake and is actually considered to be the upper Babine river in the fishing regulations.  

Although  the make up of Rainbow Alley is very unique to BC, small salmon based rivers in between lakes are very common to the north in Alaska.  Kulik, Ugashik, Brooks, and Agulapak are all legendary rivers that have a similar make up to Rainbow Alley.  Extremely short rivers that facilitate massive migrations of sockeye salmon, which in turn create an incomparable quantity of food sources for the trout that live there.

Babine Lake is about 500 km upstream from the ocean and drains through Nilkitkwa Lake and Babine River into the Skeena River.  Babine Lake is the rearing area for the second largest sockeye salmon population in British Columbia (although this run is predominantly man made).  

This man made sockeye run was created (enhanced) by the Babine Lake Development Project in the 60’s and consists of two spawning channels on Fulton River, one channel on Pinkut River and flow control on both rivers. 

Babine Lake has the largest sockeye stock in the Skeena River system, usually comprising more than 80% of the Skeena Run. Total spawners ranged from 60,000 to 910,000 before enhancement and 265,000 to 1,235,000 since the construction of the spawning channels at Pinkut and Fulton streams.  This number is a bit skewed from the huge commercial fishery at the mouth of the Skeena River.  

This man made run is also very controversial as it has really changed the political landscape of the relationship between DFO, commercial fisheries, and sports fisherman. Steelhead bi catch while commercial fishing for sockeye are a hot button topic in the region.

What this man made run has meant to the rainbows is an enormous supply of food right at there fingertips. 

Traditionally Rainbow Alley is a fishery that starts with the big sockeye fry migrations at the end of May.  The rainbow trout that live in Babine Lake, and Nilkitkwa Lake ease into this small narrow section of river to feed heavily in the spring, and put on some much needed weight after a long winter.  There is no specific date to hit this magical time but it can occur anytime from the ice melt off until the end of june.

Most fry migrations from spawning areas to nursery lakes take place in the spring, when harsh winter conditions in lakes are moderating and the growing season is beginning. The time of smolt migration is correlated closely with latitude: migration is earlier in southern streams than in northern streams. Since 2012 was a bit of a late spring, the big fry migration seem to start in mid June, which is considered to be a couple weeks late.  

The smolt exodus is rapid and regular in single-lake systems but irregular and extended in multilake or multibasin systems.  Babine smolt are considered a mutillake system as they have to navigate both Babine lake and Nilkitwa.  This makes this run irregular and extended. The migration on the Babine can last well into July.  Most migrations commence as water temperatures near 40 F and are over when temperatures approach 50 F. 

Migrations of smolts and especially fry are mainly confined to the darkest hours of the night. Underwater observations of smolts at night during migration show that they are schooled, travel in the upper water levels in shallow rivers and deeper (but not near the bottom) in deeper rivers, and usually face downstream and swim as they migrate. 

The reason to travel at night during migrations, is that fry and smolts are both often subjected to an intense predation by birds and fish.  As they swim through the lake they are in essence a shmorgishborg of food for predatory fish such as Lake Trout, Bull Trout, White Fish, and Rainbow Trout.  It is basically running a gauntlet.
 
Since Rainbow Alley is shallow, the fry tend to be up very high in the water column. This explains why fishing floating lines, and fishing early or late in the day is almost always the most effective way to fish the fry migration at Rainbow Alley.  

Fishing the fry bust at Rainbow Alley is truly an amazing experience. To see such a massive density of trout feeding on the surface is an amazing sight. Since all fry tend to migrate mostly at night it is very important to be fishing early in the morning or late in the evening.  If you are fishing during the day it may be a time to cast some different flies other than fry.  Try leeches, or nymphs, or patterns that the fish are not used to seeing to catch them.  However, when the fry bust starts put on your best imitation and cast towards working fish.

One of our guests compares Rainbow Alley to flats fishing as you are looking for fish actively feeding on the surface.  Use a floating line, long leader and cast your fry into the residual rings left from the trout.  Ideally you will place the fly in the direction the fish is working.  The very second your fry hits the water begin to strip the line, and if you get a hit don’t stop stripping until the fish is on.  Strip speed can vary from fish to fish so continue experimenting until you get its attention.  With so many fish feeding it can be distracting to focus on one fish, but we work the fish one at a time.  This is a very exciting way to fish for trout and the action can be fast and furious.

When selecting a box of fry patterns, you want to make sure you have many sizes accounted for.  
The massive Babine Lake has several arms each with its own run of sockeye.  These distinct populations each have different sized fry. For example the sockeye in the main arm are native, and wild fish that have about 18 small tribs to spawn in.  The fry that emerge from here tend to be larger than the ones coming out of the enhanced channels of Fulton and Pinkut.  In general the higher the density of fry in an area, the smaller average size you will see.

Therefore sockeye fry at the same age are not always the same size.  Combine this with various ages of fry migrating through it quickly becomes apparent you need to represent a few sizes of fry to target these finicky trout.  In general the sockeye fry migrating through Rainbow Alley are fairly small.  We tend to always start with a small pattern when trying to “match the hatch”

After filming large, dense balls of fry underwater we came to understand that one of the most distinguishing characteristics on a fry were the eyes.  The gold eyes illuminate underwater and certainly play a big roll in attracting fish.  It may take some time to work out your own fry pattern, but a well tied fly at home almost always out fishes a store bought one. 

If your interested in fishing Rainbow Alley and learning more about the fry fishery contact us 1-877-846-9153, or contact Jim at the local fly shop Oscars Source for Adventure in Smithers 250-847-3377 jim@oscarsadventuretravel.com  We look forward to seeing you on the water