Our Man In Canada
December 4th, 2000
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Dry Flies and the St.Mary Cutthroat (Alberta)

By Jeff Mironuck

As the sun stretched out its firely arms and peered over the icy Steeples I could feel the warmth graze my back and gently push me to the river bank. Early July can bring out some of my favorite river fishing and on this particular day something seemed different, almost haunting. As the hair on the back of my neck stood up I tied on an olive Elk Hair Caddis. With only 20 ft of line out and one false cast my fly graced the water. The shadows along the bank began to retreat and a large cutthroat broke surface upstream. I realized there was one less caddis on the river this morning.

St. Mary's Lake The St. Mary River begins its decent in the Purchell Mountains. Ice cold water flows down into St. Mary Lake, all the while gaining size as many smaller streams flow into the river. Meachen Creek, Redding Creek and Dewar Creek are the most notable as they themselves do hold a fair number of trout. From the lake down Hellroaring Creek, Matthew Creek, Luke Creek, Perry Creek and Mark Creek join up with the river. The water found above St. Eugene's Mission is faster flowing with more small log jams and separate side channels. There are many areas open to wading and the fishing is quite good. Road access is poor but the country is hiked easily. Below the mission the river widens and with the more level ground it slows as well. Typically you will find larger fish here but the numbers will be down. As the water deepens and slows Dollies are more frequent along with suckers and squaw fish. The river continues on like this until meeting up with the Kootenay River. The St. Mary has all the makings of quality blue-ribbon stream and it should be recognized as one.

Generally you will find good numbers of cutthroat and Rocky Mountain whitefish with a few rainbows, brooks and Dolly Vardens. Unfortunately you will also find coarse fish. The cutthroat are the most sought after fish in the river by most anglers. Yellowstone cutthroat in general are more willing to take a fly or a spinner, they are also the most abundant fish in the river. They can be distinguished by their bright orange slashes on their throat. They are good fighting fish that take flies willingly. This is the one characteristic that makes them such a good trout for learners. Throughout the river 12 inches is an average size fish with some cutthroat, rainbows and Dolly's reaching the mid 20's. Occasionally you will see a Dolly in the area of 10 to 15 pounds but often you will only be left with a broken line. Large suckers also provide some excitement for anglers. Many times I have seen experienced anglers get excited over a heavy strike only to be disappointed by a "bottom dweller." Although the are not considered a "trophy fish" by most, on the bright side they often provide some great fighting action. Fishing the bottom in slower water will allow you to hook up with these fish as well as the other larger more appealing ones.

In geological terms it is a relatively young stream. The stream bottom is formed in a "V" shape due to the steady flush of water. In spring runoff the heavy snow pack from the surrounding mountains and hills causes the tributaries and the main body of the river to gain water level, speed and also is responsible for the increased amount of debris in the water and the decreased clarity. St. Mary River is closed from April 1st until the middle of June although I would not recommend fishing it until July. The water is dirty and the currents become unpredictable and unsafe early in the season. As it flows and meanders though the drainage it constantly grows in size until reaching the lake. St. Mary Lake is incredibly important to the success and quality of the stream. It acts as a settling pond and in some cases it creates a protected haven for the habitants of the stream.

I concentrate the majority of my fishing below the lake where the river photographs into the perfect blue-ribbon, freestone trout fishery. I have drifted the river and am confident that it can be done in a safe manner through its length. However, I would not recommend that anyone drifts in anything less than a high quality raft or drift boat. Fishing from a raft allows the angler to cover more water and makes those hard to reach areas accessible. Be prepared to get out and lead the boat along in a few sections during periods of high water. This can easily be done by tying a sturdy rope to the stern or bow and guiding it along the rapids.

St.Mary's tributary

From the lake down the river is joined by several other tributaries. The most notable are Perry Creek, Hellroaring Creek, Matthew Creek and the once troubled Mark Creek. For many years Mark Creek dumped heavy pollutants into the river and made it almost completely sterile of any life below its confluence. Mark Creek flows through the small mining town of Kimberly. Until about 1979 it served the town as a convenient moving garbage disposal. Everything from road salt, dead animals and sewage to highly toxic chemicals from the mine flowed down Mark Creek into the river. Some of this is still evident in the old channels of the river today. Things such as old tires and metal drums can be found lying on the permanently yellow stained rocks. The local biologists were aware of the problems by the mine and the government were not prepared to pump out the required funds to clean up the mess. In the early 80's Kimberly and the surrounding communities began the hard work of cleaning. Today we see a pristine river and some of the best fishing and insect hatches are found below Mark Creek. In 1983 a two-fish limit was imposed and the minimum keep size was 12 inches. Unfortunately, many fishers were not informed or just did not care. The river was then changed to fly fishing only below the lake and catch and release is practiced by most anglers now. This has greatly improved the fishing and hopefully it has increased the public awareness when it comes to protecting such a valuable resource.

Concluded next time ~ JM

Excerpt from Angling in the Shadows of the Rockies, available though Frank Amato Publications. We greatly appreciate use permission.

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