From its rugged and remote upper reaches to its meandering path to join the South Saskatchewan River, the Oldman River watershed is known for its stunning natural beauty.
In the alpine tundra and old-growth spruce and fir forests of the Beehive Natural Area, three creeks (Hidden, Dutch and Racehorse creeks) converge at Three Rivers Gap to form the Oldman River. The river runs from southwest to northeast, with a dip south across the border into Glacier National Park.
Numerous campgrounds and parks along the river’s route provide access for fishing, rafting, canoeing, nature watching and… rock skipping.
Fishing – The Oldman River and its tributaries are popular sport fisheries. They are highly regulated to prevent the spread of whirling disease and to protect vulnerable native species.
Sportfish species vary from cold-water to cool-water species and include Mountain Whitefish, Rainbow Trout, Cutthroat Trout, Bull Trout, Brown Trout, Walleye, Northern Pike, Lake Sturgeon, Goldeye, Mooneye, and Burbot. Other fish found in these waters include White Sucker, Longnose Sucker, Quillback, Shorthead Redhorse, Silver Redhorse, Longnose Dace, Lake Chub, Brook Stickleback, Emerald Shiner, River Shiner, Spottail Shiner, Trout-perch, and Spoonhead Sculpin. Restrictions are in place for several sportfish species; please refer to Alberta’s Guide to Sportfishing Regulations for regulations specific to your planned fishing locations.
History – The Oldman River’s history is deeply tied to Southern Alberta’s coal industry. In 1874, Nicholas Sheran, who traded whisky, established the first ferry crossing across what was then known as the Belly River.
The indigenous peoples called coal ‘sik-ooh-kotoks’ or black rocks. Sheran began mining and selling coal to locals and to the RCMP forts for heat.
The boats that shipped coal from Lethbridge to Medicine Hat often bottomed out along the route, so the government allowed the ‘Turkey Trail’ railway line to be built in 1885. Coal from Lethbridge was shipped all over Western Canada for heating, electric power generation, and railway steam engines. Coal mining boomed, and in 1885 the community around the mine was officially named Lethbridge after the first president of the North West Coal and Navigation Company (NWCNC). Lethbridge was incorporated as a town in 1890.
In 1906, the High Level Bridge across the Oldman River at Lethbridge – a so-called “wonder of the world” – opened. The bridge is seen today as a unique reminder of the diverse past of southern Alberta.
The river has been used for irrigation since 1887, when John Card, a Latter Day Saint from Utah, began drawing water for the religious agrarian settlement that eventually became Cardston. In 1890, as economic times improved, several more irrigation projects came to fruition. The first large-scale irrigation projects were started by Galt and the NWCNC.
“The Oldman River is a beautiful riverine system that flows through very diverse landscapes from high mountain meadows to dry prairies. This diversity is reflected in the fish calling the Oldman River home, ranging from Westslope Cutthroat Trout and Bull Trout in the headwaters of the Eastern Slopes to the ancient Lake Sturgeon found in the lower reaches. This species diversity provides a multitude of recreation and fishing opportunities, both in the Oldman River and its tributaries, and in the many irrigation reservoirs in the Oldman River basin. Over the centuries, the river has provided for many people and their communities. It is our objective to manage the fisheries for long term sustainability for all to enjoy.”
Management – Alberta Environment and Parks has three Fisheries Management Objectives for Oldman River:
- Indigenous Management Objective – Honour subsistence, heritage and ceremonial fishery uses through responsible management of fish populations
- Recreational Management Objective – Sportfish species in the Oldman River and tributaries have a variety of Recreational Management Objectives for example Preservation and Sustainable Harvest. The Management Objectives are dependent on several factors, for example, the status of the fish stock and the section of river or tributary. Please consult Alberta’s Guide to Sportfishing Regulations for regulations specific to the river or tributary you plan to fish and the sportfish species you intend to catch.
- Habitat Management Objective – Maintain a low level of risk to sustainability with regards to water quality and quantity, and aquatic habitat fragmentation.
Geography – The Oldman River flows eastward from the southern Rocky Mountains through east slope foothills, prairie and rangeland, to irrigated agricultural plains. The tributaries of the Oldman River are Livingstone, Crowsnest, Castle, Belly, St. Mary, and Little Bow rivers, and Pincher, Beaver, and Willow creeks. The river collects water along its 360-kilometre course from tributaries in its 26,000 km2 drainage area.
Indigenous people – The name ‘Oldman’ is a translation of the Nitsitapi (Blackfoot) word ‘Napi’ which was the name of a wise, mythical character that possessed supernatural attributes and lived in the headwaters of the river.
Evidence suggests buffalo formed the first prairie economy. Pemmican was produced in this region and traded over a large area.
The first contact with European settlers came in the late 1700s. American traders were not highly regarded by the Blackfoot. As the American presence grew in the Upper Missouri River region, Blackfoot migrated to the Canadian side of the border.
Issues during the 1870s in southern Alberta (at that time part of the North West Territories) included illegal whisky trade by Americans to Indigenous peoples for furs and other goods, and America claiming ownership of a piece of southern Alberta. In 1873, Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald established a battalion of 500 mounted policemen that put an end to the whisky trade. In 1874, forts Whoop-up and Fort Macleod were established; these were the first permanent Canadian settlements in the area.