Sault Ste. Marie has a reputation for a fishing experience that’s second to none.
The rushing water of the St. Mary’s River is the dynamic centerpiece of downtown Sault Ste. Marie and a powerful expression of the city’s “Naturally Gifted” motto. The river’s beauty and abundant fish stocks have always captivated residents and visitors alike—from the native Ojibwa people who gathered on its shores each summer for millennia to stock up on whitefish, to distinguished author and angler Ernest Hemingway, who wrote, “The best rainbow trout fishing in the world is in the rapids of the Canadian Soo.” The St. Mary’s still boasts one of the most diverse and productive fisheries in Canada.
The river forms a connecting channel between Great Lakes Superior and Huron, and tumbles six vertical metres over a one-kilometre stretch beneath the towering arches of the International Bridge. Champagne-clear water cascades over sandstone shoals, whirls around boulders and gushes through chutes. Today, locks on the Canadian and U.S. sides of the river enable pleasure craft and freighters to bypass the wild water. The whitewater straddling the international border, meanwhile, is a dreamscape for anglers, with each season of the year presenting different challenges and a variety of fish species to catch.
Hemingway’s rainbow trout, along with brown trout, steelhead and whitefish, can be caught in the rapids year round. Local guide Brad Hodkinson, the owner of Soo North Fly Shop, gets most excited come summer and fall, when feisty Atlantic, Chinook, Pink and Coho salmon arrive. Hodkinson ties flies, sells tackle and guides anglers throughout Northern Ontario. He says his first time fishing on the St. Mary’s River influenced his decision to relocate to Sault Ste. Marie from Southern Ontario.
“The feeling you get out there is indescribable,” he says. “I’ve fished all over Canada and when I say this is the best place in the country, I mean it. But it’s so much more than just catching fish. You take part in history when you’re out there.”
Hemingway’s rainbow trout, along with brown trout, steelhead and whitefish, can be caught in the rapids year round.
Fishing the rapids is a visceral experience. The moment you step in the river you realize the water has a life of its own. It pulls tirelessly at your legs; right away you’ll recognize the need to read the river—to distinguish places where fish may congregate, and more importantly to identify eddies and pools where it’s safe to cast. This is big water, and it will likely take a few tentative casts to figure out the flow.
Then, when a spirited fish finally rises and strikes your line, the sensory encounter becomes complete: The fish peels the line off your reel, diving for eddies, dashing into the main flow and launching into the air, its sleek skin gleaming in the sun like diamonds. Breathless, you coach yourself to stay calm—keep the rod tip up, play the drag, whoa! let ‘er run!—and pray to Poseidon for strength and balance. Landing this muscled beauty is equal parts ecstasy and satisfaction. With childlike exuberance, all you can think is, I wanna do it again! At this moment, it’s easy to understand why fishing the rapids is so addictive.
But you don’t need to wade into the whitewater to enjoy world-class fishing. The Sault’s scenic boardwalk, which traces the river’s edge downtown, offers the opportunity to cast from the comfort of terra firma. Once you’ve purchased an Ontario fishing license (available online at Ontario.ca), join the locals and tourists who line the boardwalk to the catch migratory salmon that arrive in the St. Mary’s in late summer. In particular, Pink salmon are easy to catch by casting spoons and buzz bomb lures from shore—a great way to introduce children to the joys of fishing.
Most of the time, Hodkinson says he favours the mobility of fishing from a motorboat. He brings his guests to the base of the rapids to catch a “mixed bag” of sportfish ranging from salmon to trout and walleye. He’ll also troll along the waterfront Hub Trail just east of the Canadian Heritage Bushplane Centre, where monster pike and trophy bass lurk in calm, shallow water. Even without a boat, Hodkinson says anglers can target these fish from shore. Upstream from the rapids, where piers guide pleasure boaters into the Sault Ste. Marie Canal, Hodkinson suggests fishing for whitefish year-round. “I’ve fished all my life,” he says, echoing Hemingway, “and I’ve found no place like this.”