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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.