St. Mary River, BC. Fishing the St. Mary River, British Columbia

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St. Mary River

by Ian Forbes

The St. Mary River near Cranbrook is one of the premier trout streams of the BC Kootenays.

It begins high in the Purcell Mountains and flows eastward until it empties into Kootenay River. West of St. Marys Lake the stream is small and intimate. In this crystalline water, westslope cutthroat trout can be seen suspended over the golden sand. The trout will take a well presented fly, but they are shy of a blundering approach. Below St. Mary Lake the river is joined by several tributaries and each adds significantly to the St. Mary's flow. Many tributaries contain a few resident trout and also act as spawning streams for the trout in the St. Mary.

In the 1970's, the St. Mary was severely polluted below the mining town of Kimberley . From 1976 onward the mine tailings were diverted and the city of Kimberley worked hard to improve the water-quality. The few pollutants today actually help the river. They add to the river's nutrients which in turn increase the insect productivity. More insect life has improved the St. Mary River fishery. Today, the St. Mary River has a huge population of stoneflies, lots of caddis and fishable hatches of mayflies.

The St. Mary, a short distance above Mark Creek, is narrower and faster than the rest of the river. In anything but a kayak some of the rapids should be portaged. The fishable pools are obvious but vehicle access is limited. However, the country is relatively open and easy for hiking. Below Marysville the river loses some velocity and becomes a series of runs and pools. There are only a few rock gardens and gentle rapids that require tricky manoeuvering, and none are dangerous. A qualified canoeist would have no trouble. Only during low water conditions is it possible to wade across the river. Downstream from the St Eugene's Mission Bridge, the St. Mary River becomes more braided, with many gravel bars.

Lodging & Services in the St. Mary River area

The St. Mary River contains whitefish, suckers, burbot , dolly varden and yellowstone cutthroat trout. The burbot (freshwater ling cod) provide limited sport and the dollies were over-fished, but the cutthroat are numerous and quite easy to catch. Cutthroat everywhere have always been easy prey for anglers. They're seldom selective and will dine on whatever is most available. They don't become shy until hooked several times. This gullible nature was their undoing until they were protected by restrictions.

In the 1960's, when I fished the St. Mary River above Mark Creek, we seldom caught cutthroats over 12 inches long, and nine inch trout were about average. The only bonus was the odd big dolly varden which could weigh up to five or six pounds. About 1981 this section was closed to fishing for two years. When the upper river was opened again the trout had increased in size by several inches. Unfortunately, anglers quickly caught off the larger trout. In 1983 a limit was set of two fish with a minimum size of 12 inches. This allowed cutthroats to reach maturity and spawn once before being killed, but that didn't stop the ill informed or the poachers. The river was changed to only flyfishing below the lake, with catch and release between Mark Creek and the crossing at McPhee Bridge. These regulations have had excellent results, with an increase in both size and numbers of fish. Many anglers are now voluntarily releasing trout caught elsewhere and are urging others to do also.

It's interesting to note that when my son and I first drifted the river in the late summer of 1987, we caught dozens of trout from eight to 13 inches, but only a few were close to 15 inches. Trout were noticeably fewer in the pools close to bridges. Each year since then we've caught more cutthroats over 16 inches, and the last few seasons I got a few over 20 inches. From the late summer through to early spring, char over 10 pounds are caught in the St. Mary River. These char (Dolly Varden or bull trout) come up from the Kootenay River and down from St. Mary Lake on their spawning run. At this time the char can be caught on fly, either on egg patterns or a minnow imitation, but they all have to be released unharmed. The fishing is similar to steelheading with a fly rod.

For most of the season a light fly rod is appropriate for the St. Mary. On our last trip Matthew used a four weight rod and I stayed with my delicate two weight Sage. Except in the winter, a floating line is all you need. Most of the time we stayed with size 10 to 14 deer-hair caddis patterns and the trout would rise through four feet of water to take them. The cutthroat trout weren't too selective to pattern, and any combination of green, olive, brown or grey seemed to work. Whenever we missed a nice fish or just pricked it they wouldn't come back to the same fly. So I changed to a small mayfly pattern and tried dancing it on the surface. A few moments of that and the trout couldn't stand it. They would come rushing to the top and take the fly into the air.

For the few times trout wouldn't rise to our dry flies, we changed toweighted or bead head nymphs. Upstream casts were made with weightedstonefly nymphs into deep pockets behind boulders. We found the mosteffective nymphs were a size 12 hairs ear, or a size 6, 2XL stonefly with ayellow belly and brown back.

The cutthroat trout in the St. Mary stay in slightly different locations than rainbow trout in other rivers. Except during spawning season they are more common at the head of the pools, and close to shore along the outside bend in the river. Any place where a boulder slows the current slightly is an excellent location.

Large burbot might be the cause for lack of trout in the main body of the pools. We've seen lots of these big predators in the St. Mary. Prior to the flyfishing only regulations we caught burbot up to 15 pounds on strips of sucker meat. After trying to fillet a few of these slimy creatures I gave up fishing for them. Huge suckers also frequent the St. Mary but they prefer the slower water. They are more common in the Lower portion of the St. Mary, below St Eugene's Mission. Suckers often take our deep sunk nymphs and give momentary excitement until we discover what they are.

Whenever delicate sipping rises are seen in the tailout of a pool they're usually caused by rocky mountain whitefish. The St. Mary River has great schools of these fish, and they provide steady action for anyone interested. Whitefish seem to prefer shallower water than trout, and can be surprisingly selective to small flies.

The best dry fly fishing on the St. Mary is after spring run-off, when the river starts to warm up. Aquatic insects prefer water temperature close to 50 degrees (10 Celsius) before they start to hatch. There's often great stonefly hatches early in the season and the action can be spectacular. Mid summer can be scorching hot in Cranbrook and it affects the fishing a little, but it's usually cooler along the river. I've had good success with a dry fly in late summer and early fall when the St. Mary is low and clear.

In a good days fishing it's not unusual to catch 20 or 30 cutthroat. The average trout will be from 10 to 16 inches. St. Mary River is a treasure that needs to be protected and maintained in its present state.

The St. Mary River has limited access and much of the land surrounding it is private. There are six crossings: Mission Bridge (farthest downstream), highway 95A bridge, Wycliffe bridge and the railway bridge just below it, the logging bridge just below St. Marys Lake and the Gray Creek Pass bridge. It's possible to walk the shore and wade the river in low water years like 1998. But, in 1999 the St. Mary has stayed high right into fall, and streamside access is difficult. It's more practical to drift the river in rafts and cover all the side channels that are otherwise unavailable to the shore bound angler. Local guides have obtained access to the few egress points and pay for the privilege to launch their boats.

A word of caution; drifting rivers can be very dangerous to the uninitiated. Just the simple mistake of not positioning the raft correctly when going into a corner may result in being swept into a log jamb. The St. Mary has many log jambs and sweepers, especially in the upper river above St. Marys Lake, and lower river below the Mission Bridge. In high water it is very difficult to stop, and being swept into a jamb could prove fatal. A moment of distraction or lack of concentration can be disastrous. The river changes every high-water season. Unless you've drifted the river before it makes sense to hire a guide. Guides know the river and its access. Drifting the river frequently teaches them all the honey holes and micro pockets. They know where to concentrate their efforts. Clients can enjoy their fishing and not worry about log jambs, finding access or searching for the best spots.

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St. Mary River, BC. Fishing the St. Mary River, British Columbia