Fly Fishing The St. Mary’s Rapids by Hazel Freeman
I watched my fly rod arch gently. My first inclination…between the swift current and the rocky bottom, I had yet another snag. Within a second I knew this was no snag. “Let him run with it,” my guide, Dan Donarski, yelled over to me when he saw I had a fish on. He’d seen my frustration earlier as I’d no sooner get a fish on, and then lose it among the rocks and boulders. I knew now why Earnest Hemingway described fishing the challenging waters of the St. Mary’s Rapids as “A wild and nerve-frazzling sport.”
As a novice fly fisherman I was just getting my feet wet, so to speak. I could hardly believe I was knee deep in the rushing waters of Hemingway’s beloved St. Mary’s Rapids which offers up some of the best fly fishing found anywhere. As the only link between northern Lake Huron and the east end of Lake Superior, the St. Mary’s River is a combination of mega-shipping channel, and rough and tumble rapids, creating one of the most unique and challenging fisheries in North America. Thousand foot freighters “lock through,” between the lakes on the Michigan side and smaller boats, including canoes and kayaks pass through the Canadian locks near the rapids.
The Soo Rapids, as they’re referred to, lie directly between the twin cities of Sault Ste. Marie Michigan and Ontario. Native Ojibway Indians counted on their Soo fishing grounds to provide them an abundance of whitefish. The rapids, and a 21-foot drop between the lakes, made the river impassable. Indians, French explorers and fur traders portaged their canoes and cargo around the rapids. With a boom on the Great Lakes of shipping iron ore and other materials the river, and the rapids, had to be tamed.
The power of the river was harnessed for hydroelectric and the Soo Locks system installed to navigate shipping traffic around the rapids and the 21-foot drop.
The rapids are only accessible from the Canadian side. If entering from the states you need a passport, passport card, or enhanced drivers license. Fishing licensees can be purchased online in advance, or you can stop in at the Ontario Visitors Center after crossing the bridge, to pick one up. While at the Visitors Center get directions to the Canadian Locks where parking is available and the rapids are walking distance. Walk across the pedestrian bridge that goes directly over the Canadian Locks and follow one of several paths that lead to the rivers edge.
A cement dike stretches 150 feet from the Canadian shoreline. The dike creates a more safe and wadable stretch of rapids to fish in, although it is still not without its hazards. Compensating gates regulate water flow through the rapids, and along with the protection of the dike, a variety of fish species are afforded a stable spawning environment from March to October. Cold, clear, fast, water cascades down through the rapids over gravel riffles and rocks, and around many boulders. With the slow warm up of the frigid lake waters, peak fishing begins around mid-May and depending on the species of fish, goes to the end of October.
Caution and common sense are the name of the game when fishing the rapids. The water level changes with the amount of water released through the compensating gates so water can be high at times. If new to the rapids you may want to enlist the service of a guide.
“This water remains gin clear all year round,” says Donarski, my guide. Donarski has spent many hours fishing the rapids. “Because the water is so clear, you can see the bottom, but it’s deceiving. You learn to go by the color, the deeper the blue, the deeper the water”. With the strong current, and pools that go from a few feet to several feet deep, Donarski warns, “There are certainly places where you can drink standing up.”
A wading staff is an absolute necessity for testing the depth of the water as you make your way out into the dike. Because of the slippery, rocky bottom, and the swift current, waders with studded felt- bottomed soles are a good idea. Chest waders with a wading belt to prevent flooding if you should fall are recommended. For added protection some fishing the Rapids even suggest wearing a personal flotation device. Inexperienced newcomers like me would find it safest to remain between the shore and the dike wall. You’ll find plenty of fish to be had in this area.
As you look from shore out into the dike you can see the big fish moving under the crystal clear water. It’s hard not to get excited at this point as you see them rolling and rippling the surface. A pair of polarized sunglasses cuts the glare and helps locate fish amid the rocks and boulders.
For those new to fly fishing, Donarski recommends a 6-weight, 8-½ foot rod for more manageability, with matching reel, and line. More experienced anglers will probably prefer an 8 weight setup and longer rod. You should have at least 150-foot of line on the reel with 2X abrasion resistant tippet. “You don’t really need any fancy flies to fish here,” says Donarski, “and for some reason the Pink Salmon prefer pink flies,” he adds.
He explained the dead drift nymphing technique we would use: short casts across, and upstream, keeping the line up off the water, and let the fly drift down and through the pool of deeper water where we could see fish near the bottom. To get the flies down to where the fish are, adding one or two split shot at about 14 – 18 inches above the fly helps immensely.
With the swift, strong, current the cast and drift took only a few seconds to move across the bottom and beyond our target. The quicker you can master a brisk, steady rhythm of dead drift casting the more opportunities you’ll have to catch fish. Detecting strikes is a tricky proposition as they often are not more than a tug that can easily be mistaken for the strong current or a snag along the rocky bottom. Bill Spicer, host of The New Fly Fisher Show, recommends using a yarn indicator placed about 2X the depth of the water you’re fishing, to help detect strikes. For flies, Spicer also recommends a selection of yarn egg flies, wooly worms in size ten, and small hair wing salmon flies in different colors.
Once you have a fish on the line, the challenge is to land it. With the swift current on their side, the fish have an immediate advantage. The fight is on as they head for the rocky bottom, and try to dive in around boulders. “Keep your rod tip up,” Donarski shouted at me as he directed me to begin the precarious race downstream towards a calmer pool of water.
My big Chinook went airborne several times, giving me the thrill of my short fly-fishing lifetime. Like many anglers who fish the rapids, after a good fight the fish won the battle and left me mourning my loss but exhilarated none the less.
The St. Mary’s Rapids is definitely an exciting piece of water to fish. If you find yourself in the Sault Ste. Marie area anytime between spring and fall make sure you have your fishing gear with you and take the time to wet a fly. Just remember to respect the river and stay safe.