Fishing the Soo
The scenic St. Marys River offers amazing fishing virtually year-round, but May and June are top times to sample the iconic waterway’s multi-species fishery. From walleyes and whitefish to salmon and smallmouth bass, there’s something for everyone in this fish-rich border water.
“Early May is a great time for whitefish,” says Harold Bailey, of Blue Heron Fishing Charters. “They’re overlooked, but a lot of fun to catch.” While the anglers who do target whitefish often focus on the upper river, above the International Bridge, Bailey says that hard-fighting whities averaging one to four pounds can be caught throughout the river. He recommends using waxworms on ice-fishing teardrops close to bottom in 25 feet of water off the edges of the main channel, adding that chumming with rice helps attract schools of hungry whitefish.
Jumbo yellow perch of up to 16 inches are also on the bite in early May, when they’re drawn shallow to feed and spawn. “From ice-out through most of May, there’s great perch fishing on minnows in depths of as little as three to six feet,” says Dave Atkinson, of Wild Bill’s Bait and Tackle. Top areas include Lake George and Baie de Wasai, but any shallow bay with food and spawning habitat is fair game for serious perching.
Walleye season opens in mid-May (May 15 for the 2013 season), offering anglers exciting action for marble-eyed beauties from eating-size to trophy proportions. In May, Atkinson recommends trolling nightcrawlers and spinner rigs in 2- to 8-foot depths just off the weed edge in Brimley Bay. “Crankbaits like the size 4 Salmo Hornet are hot, too,” he notes. “Run them on a three-foot lead behind a planer board.” Lake George is another perennial producer, but Atkinson encourages anglers to experiment with “virtually any shallow bays where the water warms up fast.”
As the season progresses, walleyes move deeper, though Lake George holds fish throughout the summer months. “In the main river, the shipping channel edges turn on toward the end of June,” Atkinson says. “A slow death-style spinner rig with half a ‘crawler is my favorite bait, in depths down to 28 feet.”
Smallmouth bass season also fires up in May. Atkinson advises bronzeback fans to target weedlines in Lake George and rock piles in Munuscong Bay, though the river offers numerous other bass hotspots. A variety of classic bass presentations work wonders, including crankbaits, tubes and jigs, along with live nightcrawlers.
“May into early June is prime time for Atlantic salmon, too,” says Bailey, noting that a variety of tactics take salmon averaging five or six pounds, with trophies in the teens possible. “You can catch them trolling or casting,” he says. “Stickbaits that imitate small smelt, which are a favorite food of the salmon, are hard to beat—just be sure to reel fast, because Atlantics can really move.”
A bit farther downstream, where the St. Marys empties into sprawling Lake Huron, anglers can also find Atlantics, along with a mix of coho and king salmon, plus lake trout. It’s a serious trolling bite, with downriggers and planer boards used with spoons, crankbaits and cut-bait presentations. “It can be a lot of fun, because you never know what you’re going to catch next,” Bailey says.
The St. Marys also holds toothy northern pike and muskies. “There’s big numbers of pike topping 10 pounds, plus trophy muskies to 30 pounds or more,” says Atkinson. For muskies, he likes throwing beefy Bull Dawg soft-plastics and noisy topwater baits around the weedbeds and rock humps in Munuscong Bay. “Pike hit big crankbaits, like flashy-colored Reef Runners,” he says, noting that most any shallow, weedy bay holds these green-and-white torpedoes.
Add it all together, and you have two action-packed months of fine fishing, all within a short cast of the historic—and fisherman-friendly—city of Sault Ste. Marie.
While many lakes and rivers across the country suffer a lull in fishing action during the “dog days” of summer, anglers on the mighty St. Marys River enjoy banner catches throughout July and August for walleyes, smallmouth bass, salmon and more.
According to Bailey, one of the more remarkable midsummer bites occurs during the first weeks of July, when schools of ravenous lake herring feast on hatching mayflies. “The herring bite is amazing,” he says. “You can catch them on ice-fishing teardrops tipped with waxworms. Most people use fly rods or long, limber cane poles. They have quite a fight on their hands when they hook a herring, because pound for pound, they’re one of the hardest-fighting fish around.”
Herring typically move upriver from the DeTour Passage toward Sault Ste. Marie. As with any type of fishing, checking with local guides and baithops can help you zero in on the fastest action. “Twenty feet is a common depth, with the fish suspended about 13 feet or so,” he says. “The best action usually runs from the first of July to the middle of the month. It’s a short window of opportunity, but sure is fun while it’s happening.”
July also ushers in stellar fishing for lake sturgeon. A catch-and-release season for these prehistoric giants opens in mid-July (always check state and local regulations), and Baily reports that 40- to 60-pound fish are relatively common catches, with behemoths topping 100 pounds possible. “Bottom fishing with worms or stinkbait is best,” he advises.
On the trout and salmon scene, silver-sided Chinooks—also called king salmon—begin flooding upriver in late July into August, and the fishing improves as the summer wears on. Early in the run, the mouth of the Garden River is a popular fishing area, but by August salmon are spread all the way up to the Soo Locks. “Trolling spoons or J-plugs on downriggers is a great way to get them,” says Bailey. However, shorefishing a variety of lures also produces salmon for bank-bound anglers. In fact, during the riverfront dedication of William Gregory Launch at Sault Ste. Marie in August of 2011, a young shore angler hooked and landed a nice king to the delight of the crowd, nearly stealing the show from the mayor and other dignitaries assembled for the ceremony.
Walleyes are perennial favorites of St. Marys fishermen, and the summer bite is no exception as great catches are common along the edges of the main shipping channel. Veteran river rat Dave Atkinson, of Wild Bill’s Bait and Tackle, recommends trolling nightcrawlers on spinner harnesses or slow-death-style bait rigs. “The entire channel, from the Sugar Island Ferry down to Neebish Island, is good this time of year,” he says.
Atkinson recommends scanning depths of 20 to 30 feet along the channel edge with sonar. “When you mark fish, they’re typically biters,” he grins. “And once you find fish at a certain depth in one location, they’ll probably be at that same depth elsewhere on the channel.” He notes that weedlines in Lake George and Munuscong Bay, as well as rock humps near the channel split below Sault Ste. Marie, are also good bets for summer walleyes. As August draws to a close, hungry walleyes also gather at the mouth of the Garden River to feed on migrating juvenile lamprey eels.
Northern pike, muskies, smallmouth bass and yellow perch are also on tap in July and August. A number of bays offer excellent odds for these species. Atkinson recommends Munuscong for pike, bass and muskies, Baie de Wasai for perch and pike, Lake George for pike, and notes that the Neebish Island area is a smallmouth hotspot. All of these great fishing options, and more, make the mighty St. Marys the perfect place to forget all about the dog days of summer.