by: Andrew Penner
Fat Albert was definitely a hit. Sure he had scrawny legs, big buggy eyes, and was sickly pale in appearance. But, for whatever reason, they went after him again and again. For a fly, he was simply irresistible. Similar to the conniving little cutthroat teeming in the crystal-clean waters of the renowned St.Mary River, I came to the Kootenay Rockies hungry for a world-class fishing – and golfing – experience. My appetite was thoroughly satisfied on both fronts.
Meandering through a pristine, pine-covered valley in the Kimberley/Cranbrook region, the St.MaryRiveraffords a classic Canadian fly-fishing experience. The swift-flowing, free-stone river is a prime British Columbia cutthroat fishery. White fish, bull trout, kokanee, and some rainbow trout are also present. As I found out, the cutthroat season, which typically runs from mid-July to the end of September, might be the best time to visit.
For golfers, the fact that this beautiful river meanders alongside four of the area’s best golf courses is, well, icing on the cake. In total, there are seven championship-calibre golf courses to choose from in the Kimberley/Cranbrook corridor. And the seven courses – St. Eugene Mission, Bootleg Gap, Trickle Creek, Wildstone,ShadowMountain, Kimberley Golf Club, and the Cranbrook Golf Club – are all located within twenty-five minutes of each other, making the region an attractive option for golfers who love the idea of staying in one spot and playing a variety of courses.
Unfortunately (depending on how you look at it), this region, tucked into the far southeast corner of British Columbia, flies somewhat under the radar as one of the best golf destinations in the North American west. Besides their proximity, the incredible beauty, quality, value, and easy-to-come-by tee times also adds significant appeal.
While other golf hot spots are stalling or in decline, a couple of brand new developments – Shadow Mountain and Wildstone – have burst onto the scene here. And, similar to the tried and tested golf courses in the area, these new layouts afford memorable mountain golf experiences. Capped with dazzling views and a laid-back, unpretentious vibe that prevails throughout the region, this new duo is, interestingly, decidedly different in character and design.
Wildstone, conveniently located just minutes from downtown Cranbrook, has the distinction of being the first Gary Player designed golf course in Canada. Opened in June, 2011, it was also one of only a handful of new golf courses to open in North America that year. And, while it’s getting plenty of attention for that reason alone, its merit as a must-play course in the Kootenay Rockies is founded on more compelling reasons. For starters, the price is exceptionally attractive. Unquestionably, the $65 green fee ($75 on weekends) is more than fair. When you factor in the impeccable playing conditions, you’ll quickly realize you’re playing a course that, typically, would be double the price.
But, most importantly, the quality of the layout – including its playability, variety, strategic merit, and meticulous shaping – is the greatest attribute here. While the course does have no clear-cut “signature hole,” it’s got many that could make the short list. The par-3 6th, a stunning par-3 with a babbling brook and a gorgeous mountain backdrop, is certainly a contender. However, the 17th, a sweeping old-world par-4 with an incredible Donald Ross-style green (think upside down saucer), and the 18th, a 500-yard downhill par-4 with a heroic tee shot option, are super-strong holes you could easily chalk down as favourites. Bottom line, this is the type of course that will see a high rate of return golfers.
Located just a of couple miles to the north, Shadow Mountain, a tough-as-nails Wayne Carlton design, also boasts gorgeous greens and jaw-dropping views. Actually, the views here – and the away-from-it-all atmosphere – are, perhaps, as good as anything you’ve ever experienced. However, while the course is stunning from a visual perspective, it plays extremely difficult with frustrating slopes, narrow landing areas, and a number of awkward shot requirements. (True, for most of us, every shot is awkward!) However, if you can handle a score that’s eight to ten shots higher than your norm, by all means, give this course a go. But leave your ego at the door and bring an extra sleeve of balls.
After a couple of rounds of golf under my belt, it was time to switch hooks. Instead of the head-high, left-to-left heatseekers that snap into the woods at the two-hundy mark (my forte), it was time to test my skill with hooks that catch fish. I had heard about the bounty and the beauty of the St. Mary for years and fly-fishing has recently become a passion of mine. In my case, it was a very natural progression as my method for both sports is precisely the same (ie: watch hook fly, drink beer, repeat).
We put into the St. Mary just below the Kimberley Golf Club, a classic tree-lined course and a long-standing favourite of mine in the region. Guide Jeff Chlopan with Kimberley Fly Fishing and local outdoorsman Darren Wallace were my fishing companions. Given the fun-loving nature of the guys, I knew we were in for a good day.
After floating by Bootleg Gap Golf, a terrific 27-hole facility in Marysville, the fishing really began to heat up. The clean, shallow river offered a secluded experience with a distinct, wilderness feel. In fact, after passing Bootleg Gap we drifted for five hours, or so, with no sign of mankind. But, unquestionably, the little “cutties” that swarm these waters made their presence known.
The action was virtually non-stop. Shortly after we launched Jeff reached into his bag of tricks and pulled out Fat Albert. “We’ve been having a ton of success with this fly,” he boasted. “We bought three hundred of these guys last year and didn’t have much luck with them at first. But lately, she’s a different story.”
By lunch the hit count was ridiculous and, when it was all said and done, we certainly totaled over a hundred hits for the day. However, with barbless hooks and the cunning nature of this species, we netted, perhaps, about 25% of what we had on the line. According to Jeff and Darren, who had each bagged over 30 days on the river that summer, this was normal. (Cutthroat are catch-and-release only.)
Even though lunch on the serene shoreline was incredibly tasty (we had seafood salad and massive chicken Caesar wraps supplied by Jeff), the pull of the river – and the action-packed nature of the fishing – kept the break to a minimum. The “cutties” were hungry and Fat Albert was delicious fare for the feisty fish. Although the largest we caught was perhaps 18 inches, their sheer quantity and voracious appetites made for an incredible day of sport fishing.
After gliding past the 9th fairway of the beautiful St. Eugene Mission Golf Resort we finally reached our take-out location. But, with the sun still hot and high in the sky, I wondered aloud if we should mosey over to the first tee and keep our “lucky” day going. Lo and behold, everybody was game. Apparently, when it comes to “the hooks,” I’m not the only glutton for “punishment.”
For more information on golf and fishing in the region visit www.kootenayrockies.com.
Andrew Penner is a freelance golf writer and professional photographer based in Calgary, Alberta. You can visit him at www.andrewpenner.com