Cast towards that rock on the far side of the run. Once your fly starts to swing, fish it through the tail of the pool and let it hang on the inside. They’re the money spots.
Those words were hardly out of guide John Giuliani’s mouth when a feisty rainbow started a run that made my fly reel sing.
I’d flown that morning from Toronto to Sault Ste. Marie with So Fly fly-fishing podcast member, professional photographer, and hell of a great guy Aidas Rygelis. Minutes past noon, we were waist deep in the St. Marys River, joined by passionate angler Lindsey Ackland from Tourism Sault Ste. Marie.
After a few quick photos, we released the resident rainbow. Two casts later, I hooked a steelhead from one of Giuliani’s “money spots.” Despite strong winds from a cold front that made June seem like March, I was trying to catch three prized species that reside in the river at that time of year. I had already landed two: a brightly coloured and heavily spotted resident rainbow trout, that Giuliani says stay in the river year-round and can grow to more than 10 pounds; and a migratory steelhead that had ventured up from Lake Huron. The third species was a Great Lakes Atlantic salmon, a fish that had been on my bucket list for some time. It was the very start of the salmon run and only a few had been spotted, but I had three days to make it happen. Game on.
Fly fishing St. Marys River
I’ve fished for Atlantics, or, as Giuliani calls them, ’Tics on Canada’s East Coast, and steelhead on the West, but the St. Marys River offers the rare opportunity to catch both, sometimes in the same pool. As “The Soo” is a border town, stocking from the US and natural reproduction in the river has made this a go-to angling destination for them.
The rapids section of the river, where wade angling occurs, is only accessible from the Canadian side and offers one of the most unique river set-ups I’ve experienced. Strong currents drop approximately 20 feet over a 11/2 mile stretch, at roughly a 2,000-foot width. This is a serious river.
From the shore of Whitefish Island, a man-made concrete remedial dyke bisects the Canadian portion of the river. The “berm,” as it’s generally referred to, was constructed in the ‘80s to create a nursery for spawning fish along the Canadian shore. It has been excellent for natural reproduction and offers a vantage point and travel route for anglers. The berm puts much more of the river into fly fishing play. Instead of having wade access to one bank of a very large river, anglers have access to the main riverbank and both sides of the berm water.
A river guide’s expertise
The river runs clear and has a reputation of being a dicey wade. “Watch out for the blue ones,” Giuliani said. I’m no geologist, but agree the blue boulders seemed the greasiest. These rapids shouldn’t be taken lightly. A wading staff and boots with felt soles, studs or aluminum tracks, are highly recommended — I’d say a necessity.
So is hiring a guide like Giuliani. He’s fished the river his whole life, sat in the boat as a five-year-old while his dad, Bert, fished large bucktail streamers for big rainbows and steelhead. He has been guiding on it for over 35 years. You don’t get a great reputation and that longevity as a guide without knowing your stuff. Although he specializes in fly fishing, he guides with conventional tackle, too. Giuliani learned the river fishing with spoons, spinners, and three-way rigged muddler minnows with pencil lead, a tactic taught to him by Lindo Magetti, a local guide during the ‘50s to ‘70s.
We fished the remainder of the first day and landed a few more steelhead and ‘bows. A northwest wind was howling and we could see the waves of Lake Superior. With Gordon Lightfoot singing “The big lake they called Gitche Gumee” in my head, Rygelis snapping photos and making the dreams of my Milan modelling career a reality, and Giuliani standing waist deep beside me doing his best Ken Dryden impersonation leaning on his long-handled landing net and regaling me with stories of epic catches, we laughed like schoolboys playing hooky. Any remaining worldly stresses flowed downstream with the current. Life was perfect.
On a quest
On day two, we made our way back to the rapids. Giuliani’s insights were invaluable; he knows the good fish-holding water as well as the not-so-obvious holding water, along with the safest wading lines.
We lost fish, landed fish, learned where fish hold in high water and where they hold in low, waded down river, waded up river, had the grand tour, fished where Giuliani landed a 203/4-pound ’Tic in 2018, a record for the rapids (my knees were shaking with anticipation),learned how to tie my favourite new loop knot, talked about places we’d fished and wanted to, fly patterns and gear, angling friends we had in common, as well as some of the river-rat characters we know — the ones that bring colour to it all. Fishing, I’ve come to learn, is just a beautiful excuse to justify putting on waders and make new friends.
New fly fishing plans
That afternoon, Giuliani wanted to show us his full guide program, and took us out, along with Alana Kenopic from Tourism Sault Ste. Marie (who was tied up the previous day chasing muskie — what a life), on his 19-foot tiller, harling for salmon. That’s a fly-fishing term for trolling on moving water. With lines and flies dangling behind, you sweep back and forth across the river while dropping downstream.
We saw ‘Tics busting baitfish on the surface, which really got the heart pumping, but conditions weren’t ideal, and nobody wanted to play.
On our third morning, we planned to hit the top spots as effectively and quickly as we could, because we needed to be off the water by 11 a.m. to catch our flight home.
We followed the plan to a tee. I want to say the story ends with a leaping bar of silver and a checkmark on my bucket list, but the ‘Tics of The Soo eluded me, this time. I’ll be back.
What I did catch was a love for the rapids, a place I’ve wanted to fish for so long, and a friendship with John Giuliani. Life doesn’t get much better than standing waist deep in a river, swinging a fly, and laughing like schoolboys with someone who shares your passion.
Guide: John Giuliani
Tourism Sault Ste. Marie: www.saulttourism.com
Algoma Country: www.algomacountry.com
Destination Ontario: www.gofishinontario.com
When to visit
Although Giuliani’s main guiding season covers April to December, the strong flows and cold-water from Lake Superior make the rapids a year-round fishery — not freezing over in the winter and staying cold and favourable to trout and salmon in the summer. The resident rainbows are, as the name describes, always in the river. Expect steelhead in the system from late summer to early June, Atlantic salmon from late June to fall, and Pacific salmon runs of pink, coho, and chinook from late summer through fall.
What to bring
The endless dive-bombing terns and seagulls taking baitfish, fry, and caddis should give you a good starting point of fly patterns to try. Giuliani says natural-looking bug and baitfish flies and both modern (intruder style) and traditional (hair wing) salmon and steelhead patterns produce.
I fished all three days with an 11′, 6′′ 8-weight switch rod and didn’t feel under-gunned. If you just want to focus on the main river, a longer Spey rod to cover more water is a good option, but you can also fish with a single-hand rod.
Where to stay
We stayed at the Quality Inn & Suites in downtown Sault Ste. Marie. The accommodations were perfect. It’s a great location with an easy walk to the rapids and restaurants. From $105 per night.
Originally Published in the 2022 Fishing Annual.
Ray Blades is the Editor of Ontario OUT of DOORS. He is a lover of wild places and the life-giving magic of hot black coffee.
Reach Ray at: email@example.com; Twitter: @rayOODMAG; Instagram: @ray.blades
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