August 09, 2022
By Mike Gnatkowski
In freshwater fishing, few species are more revered than the Atlantic salmon. It's been called both the "king of fish" and the "fish of kings." Unfortunately, it is a species virtually inaccessible to most Americans.
The best salmon rivers are found in faraway places like New Brunswick, Iceland, Norway and Russia, and many of these fisheries charge beat fees to access rivers, which can be pricey. Our own wild populations have been decimated so much due to dams, pollution and overfishing that angling for purely wild Atlantic salmon is prohibited in the U.S.
Luckily, this does not apply to man-made fisheries supported by stocking. And unbeknownst to many, there is a fantastic one that's much closer to home for Midwest anglers.
ST. MARY’S SALVATION
Separating Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., and Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., the St. Mary's River is the outlet of Lake Superior. This cold, clean river system travels eastward roughly 70 miles to its junction with Lake Huron. Historically known for world-class Pacific salmon and trout fishing, in recent years it's become a burgeoning Atlantic salmon fishery. Ironically, this new opportunity began just as an old one—for non-native Chinook salmon—declined steeply due to a depleted alewife population.
Before this crash, Lake Superior State University’s Aquatic Research Laboratory (ARL) began working on a possible solution. The goal of the ARL's project, led by its head, Roger Greil, was producing a viable population of Atlantic salmon. This would challenge aquaculture students and eventually help fill the gap in the Lake Huron fishery. In 1985, Lake Superior State University, Edison Sault Electric Co. and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) joined forces to begin this project in the St. Mary's River system. The endeavor faced challenges, but the collaborative team persevered. The rest, as they say, is history.
For the past 20-odd years, the ARL has stocked an average of more than 30,000 Atlantic salmon per year, for a total well over 700,000 fish. The result?
A dependable annual run of adult Atlantic salmon each year. And since Edison Sault (now Cloverland Electric) donated its historic building to the university for renovation and expansion of the ARL and its fish hatchery, there’s no telling what other improvements might follow.
FIT FOR A KING
The history of this unique fishery is important, but so too is knowing where to find St. Mary's Atlantic salmon in the summer—and how to catch them once you do.
Atlantics are highly nomadic much of their life, so it's difficult to guess where they’ll spend their time, with one exception: They grow more predictable when returning to their planting site. One place that typically produces a reliable fishery is near Detour Passage from mid-May through July.
Captain Dan Cruchon of Stormy Chinook Charters (stormychinook.com) takes his 28-foot Albemarle to Drummond Island in the spring to target Atlantic salmon. Some years are better than others, but in good seasons he averages six or seven Atlantics per trip.
Cruchon targets the waters near Twin Sister Island, Crab Island Shoal and Frying Pan Island, depending on wind direction and water clarity. When waters are clear, he pulls smaller spoons, like Silver Streaks and Super Slims, in red, orange and Wonder Bread colors off short, two- or three-color lead cores.
He says the Atlantics love sliders, too, and he can't guess how many times a fish has come blasting out of the water behind the boat with a spoon in its jaw though a rod never moved.
Atlantics trickle through the lower St. Mary's River all summer long, but many beeline straight for the Edison facility where they were originally planted. These salmon usually show in June.
Randy Claramunt, the MDNR’s Lake Huron Basin Coordinator, says many anglers target Atlantic salmon right below the power plant after putting in at Osborn Park and running up. He says lots of those boaters fashion hooks out of rebar to link their boat to the wall and hold themselves in place. If you do the same, use hooks designed to permit quick release when you hook up. You might handle a 3- to 5-pound fish without moving, but anything bigger will require detaching to give chase.
Claramunt says salmon nose right up in the boil where it exits the plant, and any offerings need to sink quickly. Fly or spinning gear is fair game. Bead-head flies like Hare's Ears, Pheasant Tail Nymphs, Copper Johns, caddis larva and soft hackles all work. Jigs with wax worms produce, too. Claramunt likes fishing two hooks when targeting Atlantics—one with a bead-head nymph and a second with live bait.
The appearance of the Atlantics also coincides with the Hexagenia limbata mayfly hatch. Claramunt says it's easy to collect these mayflies, which fish slurp down like candy, from under streetlights using a paper bag. Salmon show up at the power plant in late June, and fish remain well into late October and early November when biologists start taking eggs from fish to rear a new batch of Atlantics.
This is the St. Mary's River's most famous Atlantic salmon destination. Getting there requires crossing the International Bridge to a parking lot and a boardwalk that takes you to the Rapids. The walk is scenic but treacherous. You must cross side channels where the water is crystal clear, the rocks are slippery, and a wading staff and a pair of high-traction wading boots are mandatory.
Guide John Giuliani (stmarysrapidsguiding.com) is an authority on St. Mary's River Atlantic salmon. He mainly guides fly anglers, but he's experienced with other techniques, too.
When he meets new clients at the Rapids, he has them practice with a spey or two-handed switch rod. Within 30 minutes, he'll have them making serviceable casts. He prefers these rods because they make accurate long-distance casts (up to 80 or 90 feet) more efficiently than traditional fly rods, which require lots of false casting. However, he notes that spey and switch rods are also capable of short, precise casts, which can be made with a single motion of the rod. The longer rod allows the angler to keep more line out of the water to control the fly, whether swinging or drifting.
At first glance, the Rapids look like a monotonous piece of water. It’s anything but. Light and dark patterns in the crystalline flow identify boulders, runs, depth changes, slots, sandstone ledges, shale benches and pockets that salmon use. The whole stretch is interlaced with pools and riffles that all potentially hold fish.
Giuliani says that Atlantic salmon relate to different locations than other salmonid species like steelhead. He suggests they often prefer holding in the sweet spot just ahead of boulders or right up on a flat shale bench. Various flies, including Muddlers, Bombers, Clouser Minnows and caddis patterns, will interest Atlantics. Most of these salmon are muscular 3-year-old fish weighing between 9 and 15 pounds.
The Rapids fishery remains hot through July and beyond as various salmonids filter in and out of the river. Later in the summer, Giuliani fishes the base of the Rapids from a boat. The Atlantics often herd schools of smelt to the surface at this time.
To catch them, Giuliani relies on several techniques. One is a traditional tactic called harling, with roots in old-school Scottish salmon fishing. Here, streamers are allowed to swing behind the boat while the trolling motor’s GPS anchor feature holds the boat in place. Giuliani will also cast soft plastics like flukes and swim baits when Atlantic salmon are busting smelt.
A BRIGHT FUTURE
Buoyed by LSSU's successful stocking program, the MDNR has also jumped on the Atlantic salmon bandwagon in recent years. The state is now raising Atlantics at its Platte River and Harrietta hatcheries. In 2022, the goal is to raise 100,000 Atlantic salmon yearlings at the Platte River Hatchery (plus 35,000 additional Atlantics for Torch Lake) and another 80,000 yearlings at the Harrietta Hatchery for Lake Huron. The MDNR salmon will be stocked in Torch Lake, in the Au Sable River near Oscoda, in the Thunder Bay River and in Lexington Harbor.
In short, anglers may have even more Atlantic salmon options on Lake Huron in the coming years. Claramunt says the MDNR has been test-planting the salmon in rivers, harbors and bays to determine which planting sites yield the best results. He estimates there are approximately 500,000 Atlantic salmon in Lake Huron, but expects that number to increase in future years. All in all, it’s an exciting time to be a Midwest salmon angler.