Once More to Lee Creek

Several weeks ago, I posted an article here on how it’s been more than forty years since I last fished a certain trout stream in southwest Alberta. It was on this very stream, where during the summer of 1972, I was introduced to fly-fishing. Last Tuesday, and for the first time since 1976, I returned to Lee Creek – the stream of my youth.

The headwaters of Lee Creek are located in Montana’s Glacier National Park. The creek crosses into Canada near Chief Mountain and Waterton Lakes National Park. It flows in a north-easterly direction for about 60 km (40 mi.) before joining the St. Mary River near the town of Cardston. It was the upper reaches of Lee Creek, in the foothills and forests west of Cardston, where I used to go camping and fishing. It was here that I would return.

The road to Lee Creek

The road to Lee Creek

My Return

I arrived at Lee Creek around 9:00 am. Much of the gravel road leading here was as I remembered, including the magnificent views of Chief Mountain and the steep, bumpy descent to the water’s edge. Directly across the creek, on the opposite bank, was our old campsite where we would set up our tent trailer and tents. On this day, there were several RV’s and travel trailers parked in what appeared to be permanent, private, fenced-in enclosures. It’s no longer possible to camp here like we used to, and from this point onward it’s foot access only. I was okay with that. At least I could still go fishing.

RV campsite by the creek

RV campsite by the creek

I was anxious to begin my day and waded across the shallow creek with my pack and fishing gear. My plan was to follow the narrow jeep trail on the other side of the creek, which leads to the Pole Haven Community Pasture, and where a rustic log cabin once stood. From there, I would fish my way back downstream to the campsite, just as I did years ago.

Heading out

Heading out

It was along this stretch of water, where I, along with a small group of classmates, came with our grade nine teacher, Mr. Liska, while on a year-end school camping trip. The first morning, Mr. Liska announced he was going for a hike along the creek and would be taking his fly rod with him. He invited anyone who was interested to join him. I had caught a lot of northern pike using heavy lures and tackle but knew little about fly-fishing for trout. I was intrigued by the possibility of catching a fish on a small artificial fly and decided to tag along. Later that afternoon, I would have a chance to try fly-fishing for the first time.

Following the jeep trail

Following the jeep trail

I stopped numerous times along the jeep trail to take photographs and it was almost noon by the time I arrived at Pole Haven. The log cabin was not there. I knew it was gone. Recently, I had been informed it burned to the ground a number of years ago. That’s too bad – it was a neat place to visit. All that remains at the site are a few pieces of charred wood and some slabs of rock that were used as steps at the front door. I had lunch here, then wandered down to the creek about 50 yards away and started fishing.

Sitting where the front door of the cabin used to be

Sitting where the front door of the cabin used to be

It had been a long time since I used a Tom Thumb dry fly and I tied a bunch of them before heading out on my trip. It was the only fly I used here as a kid, and it was the only fly I used this day. On my first cast, a trout smacked the fly. The fish was too small to take hold of the deer-hair fly and it quickly swam away. A cast or two later, a bigger trout rose and took the fly. Within a few moments, I landed a fine 10-inch cutthroat trout. It was my first Lee Creek trout in more than four decades. It felt great to be here again.

Landing a fish

Landing a fish

A Lee Creek cutthroat trout – my first in more than 40 years

A Lee Creek cutthroat trout – my first in more than 40 years

The rest of the afternoon passed quickly. I worked my way downstream, stopping to fish all the likely-looking spots. Most of them held a trout or two – a mix of cutthroats and rainbows, none much larger than about 10 inches. I saw a couple of bigger fish in one of the deeper pools, but they saw me first and spooked.

10-inch rainbow trout

10-inch rainbow trout

Time did not stand still on Lee Creek while I was away. A number of severe spring floods over the years have changed the course of the creek in many places. Much of it, I did not recognize. Most of the pools and runs I used to fish are gone and have been replaced by new ones. The trout are still here, though, and are as cooperative as ever.

Fishing a nice run

Fishing a nice run

Prime bear habitat, and I was not alone

Prime bear habitat, and I was not alone

About a hundred yards from the campsite, I walked past the confluence where the south fork of Lee Creek joins in. I used to spend most of my days fishing up this branch and it was my favorite stretch of water. It’s less than half the size of the main creek, but a series of beaver ponds located about a mile upstream held much larger trout. Time did not allow me to venture up there to see whether the ponds and bigger fish still exist. Another day, perhaps.

Confluence of the South Fork of Lee Creek

Confluence of the South Fork of Lee Creek

The waters of Lee Creek are not as well-known or productive as some of the other trout streams in the area, but that doesn’t matter. This creek will always be special to me because it holds some of the fondest memories of my youth, of the times I came here with my family and friends, learning to fly-fish, and growing up.

Looking Back

My time on Lee Creek lasted about five years, and it was during this period that I made the transition from adolescence to adulthood. We made numerous trips to this place in those days and I enjoyed them immensely. I gradually became less dependent on my parents and was able to travel here on my own. It wasn’t long before I discovered other southern Alberta trout waters and started fishing these more. As time passed, our family fishing trips and outings became less frequent on Lee Creek and we eventually stopped coming here altogether.

When Mr. Liska handed me his fly rod along the banks of Lee Creek all those years ago, little did I realize the effect this experience would have on me. The transfer of the fly rod from his hand into mine marked the beginning of my life-long passion for fly-fishing. On my first cast, a trout rose to the Tom Thumb dry fly bobbing along in the current. It came as such a surprise to me, I forgot to set the hook. Although I missed my opportunity to catch the fish, a fire was lit deep inside of me. It has been burning ever since.

Final Thoughts

Last week, I went back to the place where I learned to cast a fly rod, where I camped with my family, fished with my father, and walked miles of waters with school friends, in search of trout. My return rekindled a lot of memories, including those of some of the people I had spent time with on Lee Creek. I thought of my father. It was him who drove me here for the school campout in grade nine. We had made a wrong turn along the way but finally found the right place, not long before dark. Later on, my father would also enjoy coming here to fish. My visit to the creek on Tuesday occurred within a day of the date he passed away, seven years ago.

I thought of my old school friends, Ed, Walter, and Larry, and of the times we pitched our pup tents along the creek, and of going fishing together. Sometimes, we would come here during the fall and winter, and camp in tents or stay in the log cabin. Instead of fishing, we would hunt deer and other small game.

I also thought of my teacher, Mr. Liska, who encouraged me to try casting a fly into the waters of Lee Creek. His patience and enthusiasm for teaching, whether it was indoors in a classroom, or in an outdoor setting, will not be forgotten.

For a few hours last week, it was as if I had stepped back in time and that it was the summer of 1972, once more.

Log cabin along Lee Creek (ca. 1973 – 1975)

Log cabin along Lee Creek
(ca. 1973 – 1975)

Enjoying a cup of coffee at the front door of the cabin ca. 1973 - 1975

Enjoying a cup of coffee at the front door of the cabin
(ca. 1973 – 1975)

This entry was posted in On The Water and tagged , , , , .

12 Comments

  1. Jon Harris October 29, 2018 at 3:03 am #

    Vic,
    I came across your site and really enjoyed this story. Although from a different part of the world, so many of my own memories are also seen through casting a fly. I once travelled to Fernie to ski, not far from you I think. You are fortunate to live and work in such a beautiful place!

    • Vic Bergman October 30, 2018 at 10:56 am #

      Hi Jon,

      Thanks for visiting my site. I’m glad you liked the story. I suspect everyone who fly-fishes has a similar tale and can relate.

      You are correct, Fernie is very close to here – it’s only about an hour drive away. Along with the great skiing, Fernie is also famous for the cutthroat trout fishing on the Elk River, which flows right through town.

      I agree with what you say about being fortunate to live here. Sometimes, though, I tend to take it for granted, and it takes someone to remind me of this. I read several posts on your blog, Fishing for Trout, including your recap of this season and the one in August where you spent a day on the Wiltshire Avon. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to fish a chalk stream in the UK. There’s sure a lot of fly-fishing history on the streams where you live. I’m sure it’s very unique there, too. Thanks again!

  2. CLIVE SCHAUPMEYER August 24, 2018 at 4:34 pm #

    Vic:
    Wonderful story.
    Touching … and has an air of “mortality” to it.
    Where have the years gone?
    Onward!
    Clive

    • Vic Bergman August 24, 2018 at 6:02 pm #

      Hi Clive,

      The older I become, the more I wonder where the time has gone. Once you start losing your parents, siblings, and friends, you start thinking more about the things that are important in your life. I had not looked at some of my old Lee Creek photos for years and thought it would be great to revisit the place. I caught fish that day, but fishing was not the reason I went. Now that I have been there again, onward I go! I’m glad you liked the story. Thanks for visiting and commenting.

  3. Terry Hrudey August 12, 2018 at 3:17 pm #

    A really great story Vic, and the mystery creek is the one I remember you telling me about one day in the shop a few years back. I loved the photos too, especially the one of the cool dude with the cowboy hat and all the hair. Lots of great memories for sure.

    • Vic Bergman August 12, 2018 at 4:12 pm #

      Hi Terry,

      Glad you liked the story. Those were great times. You probably didn’t know I was an urban cowboy kid back then. Cowboy boots, jean jacket, and I even had a real horse. I can’t grow hair like that anymore, though, at least not on a full head of it! I usually don’t talk too much about my cowboy, long hair days. Thankfully, they were brief.

  4. Kurt Lindberg August 10, 2018 at 6:48 am #

    Vic,
    A wonderful story indeed and it seems to take just one person’s interest in us and to share the great passion of fly fishing to set many of us on a lifetime path filled with lasting memories. I know you have inspired many over the years, myself included. I thank you for that and the insight on the rivers and alpine lakes of the area. I appreciated the help in my early years of fly fishing although you may not have even known the influence you had. Thanks also for sharing this story!
    Kurt

    • Vic Bergman August 10, 2018 at 9:58 am #

      Hi Kurt,

      Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad I’ve been able to pass along some information to you over the years that has been helpful. Sharing info is how we all learn, myself included. Everyone knows something that can help the next guy.

  5. robert garnier August 9, 2018 at 3:44 pm #

    Vic: Wonderful story. Without Mr Liska and trips to Lee Creek there would be no Crowsnest Angler. I like the fact you fished the same fly: a Tom Thumb.

    We all have a Mr Liska in our past. It’s nice when people share their passions and time.
    robert

    • Vic Bergman August 9, 2018 at 6:01 pm #

      Hi Robert,

      Mr. Liska was a great teacher, and was my favorite. It’s amazing the impact one event, and one person, can have on your life. I think all fly anglers have a Mr. Liska and a Lee Creek in their past. Along with fly-fishing, Mr. Liska was passionate about photography. Both of these rubbed off on me. I wish I could have thanked him personally. He passed away in 1995, a couple years after we opened the fly shop. Thanks for stopping by. I always appreciate your comments!

  6. Bob Costa August 9, 2018 at 11:28 am #

    Beautiful story!

    • Vic Bergman August 9, 2018 at 1:23 pm #

      Hi Bob,

      Thanks, I’m glad you liked the it. I’ve been meaning to go back to Lee Creek for a long time and I finally made it. Best day of fishing I’ve had for a long time!

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