Destination Soo: A Date with Atlantic Salmon

Atlantic Soo

Sault Ste. Marie – It didn’t take long for Rachel Green to catch on to the casting stroke required to fire her flies into the churning raceways behind the Cloverland Electric Power Plant in Sault Ste Marie, MI.  Miss Green – a former college tennis player – is no stranger to nailing a swift backhand towards a target.  The cast really isn’t a cast at all, but rather a low, sweeping motion that carries the presentation beneath the cement wall and into the bubbly water, downstream of the turbines. 

It was only the second time Miss Green had ever been fishing and by any measure, our adventure on the St. Mary’s wasn’t a hard-core endeavor. Under blue skies and balmy temperatures, we didn’t meet our guide Jason Carstens until noon.  After a pleasant boat ride from the launch, up the heart of the river, we tied up to the wall behind the powerhouse.  Freighters chugged up and down the St. Mary’s River, occasionally blasting their horns in cryptic fashion only the captains would understand.  

We had all the ingredients of a fun outing – casting, watching our bobbers, and of course, the view of the powerhouse.  Completed in 1903, the powerhouse is a three-story, quarter-mile long monstrosity that resembles Dracula’s castle because of its tall, imposing presence.  Each block of the powerhouse was mined from the power canal, which circumvents the rapids on the Canadian side of the river and delivers the water that spins the electric turbines inside.   

“Most of the bites will be within five feet of the wall,” Carstens said.  “They’re in there eating the flies that have hatched upstream in Ashmun Bay.”

“They” meaning Atlantic salmon and whitefish – the bread-n-butter attraction for anglers tied up to the wall.  “Flies” were a combination of hex flies or caddis flies in various colors, sizes and patterns.   Green and I had both food groups covered in our presentation.  Our flies were tied to small monofilament droppers, about six and eight feet below the bobber.  The theory behind the practice was to get our flies into the fishes’ wheelhouse, so to speak.       

Carstens was right about where the bites would occur.  Within a few casts, my bobber dipped six or eight inches below the surface.  A quick lift of the rod and the battle was underway.

And what a battle it was.  My salmon peeled line from the reel, then jumped head over heels, three feet out of the water.  Carstens unhooked our anchor line from the boat and we drifted away from the wall, toe-to-toe with the demon buttoned to the fly at the end of my line.  Just when I thought I was making headway on the salmon, the line came shooting back at me, limp and lifeless.  

 Gone. 

My disappointment in losing the fish was eclipsed by the notion that we hadn’t been there very long and we already had one on the line.  Back to the wall we went, where our anchor line reserved our spot for the other fishermen in the area.    

A short while later, Miss Green set the hook into a feisty salmon that fought the same way mine did, only her battle ended with Carstens sliding the net under a gorgeous four pounder, perfect for the grill.

 Atlantic salmon have a sleek, cobalt blue cast, complete with pea sized dots and Xs on their flanks.  Their pointy, streamlined face is noticeably different from their Pacific cousins – chinook and coho – most often found in Lake Michigan.

It’s no wonder the salmon were behind the powerhouse.  They were hatched there, thanks to the fisheries/aquatics personnel who work for Lake Superior State University.  Green and I took a quick tour of the hatchery, and the students we met were more than happy to answer our questions.   

Summer and early fall is a homecoming of sorts for the Atlantics, complete with an insect and baby smelt smorgasbord to fill their bellies.    

The appeal in fishing for Atlantics is that you can use traditional fly fishing equipment and flies sized 12-16.  No downriggers, meat rigs, or cowbells required.  It’s finesse fishing but that’s part of the joy.  Anytime you’re casting, watching a bobber, and enjoying the view of the St. Mary’s River it’s a great day. 

Grilled salmon for the table is a bonus.

SIDEBAR:

Jason Carstens runs True North Guide Service in Sault Ste Marie.  Although the salmon bite will be good throughout the remainder of summer, his favorite time to fish is in the fall – when the salmon are behind the powerhouse, chasing smelt minnows.  “That time of year the salmon have lots of color and are quite feisty,” Carstens said.  “I use streamer patterns on a seven-weight rod and have the whole place to myself.  It’s a blast.”   To book a memorable trip in his 17-foot riverboat, give him a call at: 906.332.0549. 

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