St. Mary River near
Cranbrook is one of the premier trout streams of the BC Kootenays.
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
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.
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.
& Services in the St. Mary River area
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The St. Mary River contains whitefish, suckers,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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