Soo, Ontario’s St. Marys river, where the Atlantic salmon fishing may be the world’s best.
It was barely perceptible; a momentary hesitation of my line and strike indicator in the current. But it became extremely perceptible once I pulled the tip up in the shallow rapids on the Ontario side of the St. Mary’s River, and watched a bright steelhead rocket out of the white water and head straight for Lake Huron.
I was hearing my reel sing on my seven-weight fly rod as line played out to a fish that I hoped was a legendary Atlantic salmon on that early July morning, on the mile-wide tumbling rapids. I was fishing where more than three centuries ago, European explorers like Brule and Jacques Marquette first met Native Americans also fishing here. They saw the rapids in full-run, then called St. Marys Falls, and I was walking where water used to flow several feet deep, making things simple by comparison.
The Native Americans in the 1670s were relying on their own knowledge of the river to catch whitefish and trout. I was relying on the knowledge of a great guide, Canadian Brad Hodkinson.
Between fish, we bobbled along over rocks and precariously hopped over three-foot spillways one misstep away from the fast-flowing river along a two-foot-wide wall to reach what would be the first of several great mid-summer steelhead—unfortunately no Atlantics–on these rapids that by nearly all accounts holds the best publicly accessible Atlantic salmon fishing in North America, and most likely on the planet.
Hodkinson, one of the original, and best steelhead and salmon guides, who also owns the Soo North Fly Shop in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, has been leading anglers to fish here for the last 20 years.
Hooking an Atlantic is not guaranteed, Hodkinson said. As with all fishing, there are innumerable variables in play. This summer, after my visit, the International Joint Commission, a U.S./Canadian committee which decides how much water should flow from Superior to the rest of the Great Lakes, opened six of the many compensating gates stretching across the St. Marys, making the entire river unfishable in August and September. In October, four were open, making wading very, very tough, if not also impossible.
With those gates closed, much of the rapids where the fish congregate are accessible. With them open, the areas we walked in July were under water. So Hodkinson and other guides were forced to cancel every trip in August through October 2013.
But, on that early July day, it was magical, when ghost fish hidden against the golden rocky bottom emerged to take our flies. It was also when I also learned to “walk the wall,” stop worrying and love the rapids–to paraphrase the subtitle of the movie Dr. Strangelove–flowing only feet below me, where one false move would have sent me 60 miles to Lake Huron.
“There is no better Atlantic salmon fishing than here,” Hodkinson said. “I definitely stand behind that 100 percent.”
That’s all thanks to a unique program run by Michigan’s Lake Superior State University’s Aquatic Research Laboratory. It’s located in a small part of the quarter-mile-long sandstone Edison Soo Electric Company structure on the American side. Since 1987 it’s been stocking 40,000 yearling Atlantics annually in cooperation with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. A planned tripling of its size will hopefully result in more fish being available for the St. Marys and streams in northeast Lower Michigan.
Do they spawn here? Hodkinson said he’s only seen a few beds. “But that doesn’t mean they’re spawning. If you see only two, the number won’t justify me saying they are. That being said, there are some tributaries that had quite a few in them last fall. That could be abnormal because of all the rain we had. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen any there.”
But right now, the place to hook one is on the St. Marys. And on that July morning, Hodkinson took fellow Michigan outdoor writer Jeff Nedwick and me to some of the best spots.
One happened to be close to the end of the path we walked to get there, near a scenic observation platform. The hole? The Platform Hole, of course, which is where I landed that first beautiful steelie. “The Platform Hole is one that most people bypass it because it’s small and the path didn’t come here to start,” Hodkinson said, as he worked with Jeff to find fish.
Preferred flies are hexagenia imitators. We cast double-fly rigs, a hex, with a caddis imitation dropper. While the rapids are too fast to support hexes, the slow water above the normally closed gates silted up over the years, perfect hex accommodations. The water allowed to flow flushes enough hexes through so the fish key on both them and the naturally occurring caddis, Hodkinson said. While that might change this summer, he was right in 2013.
After hooking and releasing the first steelie, I moved a few yards downstream, and promptly attracted the attention of two more, which came to shore with appropriate protest before I released them. Jeff, meanwhile, was not having much luck.
Other anglers dotted the water near the Canadian and American holes, about a quarter-mile away. As they’re mid-river, they’re much tougher to get to. They and the other spots make up “Atlantic Alley,” Hodkinson said. “They’re down near the islands; it’s not everybody who can get there.”
Then it was time to walk the plank. Or rather, the wall, a concrete berm separating the shallower but fast main stream from this faster-moving “runway” that Hodkinson said was built to deter spawning lamprey who prefer slow current, In fact, at intervals, were markers painted on rocks denoting monitored lamprey spawning sites. The berm canal also provides increased water to promote fish spawning in the river.
We (I) cautiously strolled towards the control gates to cast in the fast-moving water coming from underneath, even more cautiously jumping over the three-foot-wide spillways that occasionally cracked open the berm. I finally reached the spot where Hodkinson said to start, and casting several times, then walking a few steps down the berm, began searching for Atlantics or steelhead, as well as resident rainbows.
It wasn’t too long before my strike indicator stopped two more times in mid-float and I set the hook on two beautiful ruby-striped rainbows/steelhead. They weren’t the Atlantics I’d hoped for, but beggars can’t be choosers.
By about 11 a.m., the sun was on the water and it was time to call it a day. Becoming more adept and less scared of those spillways, I jumped over the last two, and followed Hodkinson across the rocks, and back across lock gates on the Canadian side to shore.
You never know when you’ll find those silver rockets present, or even whether water conditions will let you try, but I’ll guarantee you’ll have a fantastic experience trying, and want to return.
When you go you’ll need a Canadian fishing license, available online, waders and other equipment. A wading staff is almost a must. For more information contact Brad Hodkinson at
firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 705-987-1745.