CALGARY, Canada — Another McKenzie boat drifts by and its oarsman hails Barry White, who is guiding two novice fly fishermen down the Bow River this day.
"What'd ya do with those buggers?" the oarsman asks.
Nothing personal. Translated, the oarsman is asking White how successful his clients have been using woolly buggers--a big, black, furry artificial fly--for lures.
"Nothing," White replies. "We're putting the Adams (artificial flies) on now."
"The caddis flies are starting to swarm on the surface, but the only fish rising are small," White confides to his clients.
Meantime, they'll stay with White's embellished version of the universally popular San Juan worm.
"It's so gaudy they call it the Las Vegas worm," he says. "I know a couple of other places."
Perhaps no one knows them better. White, the proprietor of Bow River Anglers, has been guiding on the Bow since 1977, but only in about the last five years has the river come to be appreciated as a premier fly fishery--some say, the best fly stream in North America, for the consistently large size of its brown and rainbow trout.
Eighteen inches is common, 24 a reasonable goal. As evidence, three No. 5/6, average-weight rods will snap under the strain of the fish this day.
"Two things people say about the Bow are it's real pretty, and the fish are real tough fighters," White said.
The Bow--pronounced as in Elbow, a tributary that joins it amid Calgary's city streets--flows from glaciers in Banff National Park 100 miles northwest of the city, winds through town and then rolls east to join the Saskatchewan River and eventually to dump into Hudson Bay.
It follows a changing montage of scenery from mountains to metropolis to prairie. Floating the length of the Bow you will hear the buzz of a big city and the cries of waterfowl. Skyscrapers drift past, then "buffalo jump" cliffs, which show the bleached bones of animals driven to their deaths by Blackfoot Indians in the 19th Century, and now the mud nests of swallows under the overhangs.
Merganser ducklings skitter across the surface, unable to fly but determined to flee from the intruders. A great blue heron flaps ponderously away.
White knows his river, which averages about 400 feet in width and has the individual features of some of the famous Montana fly streams.
White said: "It has runs with the riffles and rocks of the Madison, and other places that are slow and flat, with a uniform depth and lots of grass, like the Henry's Fork, and others with steady flows and pockets of fish, like the Bighorn."
The best stretch--the part worked by the guides--is the 41 miles of the lower Bow south of Calgary. North of the city, anglers may use live bait and keep two fish of any size, but the swifter water makes the fish difficult to catch.
South of town, angling is restricted to artificial lures, and only two fish smaller than 40 centimeters (15 3/4 inches) may be kept. That assures that the larger, breeding-age fish are kept in the river.
Beyond that, White exercises his own restrictions.
Considering that the fish live in a river that has just flowed through a city of 670,000, he said, "I wouldn't recommend eating any of them, or else you might glow in the dark."
Also, he said, "I fish barbless hooks all the time and my customers think I'm a hell of a nice guy. Actually, it's for self-preservation."
Inevitably, especially when working with novices, as he is this day, his floppy hat will catch a back-cast or two.
A river guide has been described as a combination of fisherman, teacher, comedian, philosopher, historian and, when circumstances demand, marriage counselor.
Because it's a competitive business, some would prefer not to deal with novices because it requires considerable patience and the catch counts are nothing to advertise. White seems not to care.
"The fishing is as intense as the fishermen want to make it," he says. "Today I'm doing a lot of teaching, so it's kind of laid back."
A mix of terrific fishing and his teaching soon pays off.
"Fish the 'nervous' water," White advises. "It's blue, where the currents converge. The nervous water offers more protection. See that brown water? That's shallow, with a gravel bottom, (where the fish are) more vulnerable to bag-billed critters."
White means the white pelicans, a rival to anglers on most Western waters.
The party shoves off from a roadside beach launch at 10 a.m. White has the novice's wife fishing a Brooks stonefly, the novice a Marabou leech pattern near the grassy bank. White, sitting in the middle, guides the boat downstream with the oars.
"This is called nymph fishing from a boat," White says, "the laziest way you can do it."
The action beneath the surface is slow.
At 10:45 he notices hatching caddis flies buzzing around the banks and switches the lures to dry flies, for surface fishing.