SAUGEEN STEELHEAD... THE GREATEST FISH STORY EVER TOLD - by Darryl Choronzey

SAUGEEN STEELHEAD... THE GREATEST FISH STORY EVER TOLD - by Darryl Choronzey

This river really is the premier steelhead system east of the Rocky Mountains and the finest on the Great Lakes.

The Saugeen River. Miles and miles of world class angling. Parts of the river are open to fishing the entire year.

 

The clear bodied Black Bird Phantom float was just passing over the tailout when the bobber hesitated and dimpled ever so slightly. My 13-foot wand snapped back in that big bend configuration that acknowledged another fish was surprised and the battle was on.

You just have to love steelhead fishing and the excitement that goes with it. Especially when an angler never knows how an enraged silver sided trout is going to react at the bite from a micro number 8 bait hook piggy-backing a couple of perfectly cured single eggs.

Many fish pull back and head straight for open water but when the hook struck deep into its jaw, this big steelhead exploded up out of the river and carried out two perfect high-flying aerobatic head over tail somersaults before crashing back into the water. Then the big boy tried ripping loose the annoying hook with a series of head shaking charges deep in the bottom of the pool.

Unlike most of the nearby anglers with their center pin float reels, I had my little Revo Premier baitcaster firmly locked down on the top seat of my long rod. As the trout thrashed around in the pool the 6-pound Maxima Chameleon monofilament peeled smoothly off the spool. When the steelhead decided it had enough of tug of war, turned and shot down the river it was another matter. The taut mono began to melt off that now sizzling reel. 

It became obvious the fish knew where he wanted to go. I had no choice but to climb out of the river and run the shallows after him. To some it might have been a funny sight. Here I was an old man with creaking knees attempting to act like a youngster.

Age be damned. Twenty minutes after setting the hook, I found myself kneeling in the shallows, carefully admiring a chrome, silver steelhead buck that would weigh close to 12 pounds. Both the fish and the fisherman required oxygen. The fisherman just might need a few puffs of nitroglycerin.

As the fish sucked in the cold oxygen rich water I took the time to peer both downstream and upriver. Obviously I was not the only angler tasting success. Anglers in all directions were fighting fish. Some had steelhead tied to their stringers. Most important, Ontario’s Saugeen River was definitely living up to its reputation. The mighty Saugeen definitely had been trans-formed into one of the finest, if not the finest steelhead river on the entire Great Lakes.

I could feel muscle and nerves begin to pulse through the body of the fish as I continued to hold his face up into the cur-rent. One strong protest with the tail and I recognized that he was ready for release. As the majestic creature finned slowly off into the depths of the pool, I knew full well a dedicated group of anglers had created a true miracle. The Saugeen was the destination to enjoy one of the finest forms of angling. The sport of steelheading….steelheading at its finest! 

Dating back as far as the mid-1960’s the Saugeen always provided better than average fishing for migratory Great Lakes steelhead. During the mid-1970’s the big river’s steelhead production could even be rated as excellent as thousands of Michi-gan stocked rainbow trout strayed across from the Wolverine state. By the turn of the century steelhead runs declined whether due to Michigan changing their stocking practices, a changing Lake Huron environment or a combination of both. 

Just as the runs of steelhead had dipped to their lowest, a few concerned individuals, two clubs, the Ontario Steel-headers and the Lake Huron Fishing Club approached Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources with plans to restore the Saugeen back to its former prominence. 

 

The Lake Huron Fishing Club’s perfect volunteer hatchery.

 

Ontario steelhead  member Johnny Campbell and the reason for success... Prime, wild-strain steelhead smolt—perfect imprinting 50 miles upriver.

 

Ontario Steelheaders and the Lake Huron Fishing Club team up to collect "wild" eggs for their successful hatchery program.

 

The Ontario Steelheaders had been carrying out steelhead restoration work for years on the Saugeen but realized they needed more assistance in the form of bodies, as well as funding to kick start the program into high gear. A little more than a decade ago meetings were held with the Lake Huron Fishing Club and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. The LHFC signed on as a full partner and the OMNR assisted with consultation and approval. 

Honestly, I could and would love to write a book on what these guys have accomplished over the last decade on the Saugeen River. They truly have created a fishing miracle. 

The Saugeen is a massive river flowing into Lake Huron. It has a total mainstream and tributary distribution of more than 800 miles. Thanks to the efforts of all three par-ties working together, steelhead can now journey upstream more than 100 miles. The main river all the way upstream from Lake Huron to Walkerton, Ontario offers world-class fishing opportunities. Return-ing steelhead can successfully reproduce in this entire stretch, but the finest cold, clear spawning waters are found upstream above Walkerton, where the adult fish have access to another tributary known as the Beatty Saugeen. The Beatty is a 50-mile spring fed stretch of water that is classed as some of the finest spawning and rearing habitat found anywhere in Canada. 

For decades Ontario Steelhead members have been transporting and distributing 750 pre-spawn adults annually through-out the Beatty. Members from both clubs trapped returning adults at Denny’s Dam located near the mouth of the Saugeen and then with the aid of oxygenated trailers, the Steelhead members trucked the big fish 50 to 70 miles to the fabled tributary. Those numbers would be increased upwards to 500 fall run rainbow in October of each year. In the spring prior to actual spawning an additional 1,000 adults would be trailered to the Beatty Saugeen’s nursery waters. 

At the first meeting it was also emphasized how important it was to consider three factors in the creation of a world-class fishery for the Saugeen. The three partners had agreed to immediately establish a steelhead stocking program. Proper genetics, growing the smolts to the proper size to sustain maximum survival and proper imprinting of the young fish to achieve maximum returns to the river are mandatory to achieving success. 

 

The author enjoying solitude and plenty of  action 40 miles up the Saugeen.

 

The Lake Huron Fishing Club already operated a state-of-the-art fish hatchery down the road at Kincardine, Ontario. The club also had a second facility just a few miles from the river at Port Elgin, Ontario. 

Genetics were a simple matter. Eggs were obtained from returning wild fish already utilizing the Saugeen system at the time. The Saugeen fish that developed over the years were believed to be a Chamber’s Creek strain that were introduced to Lake Huron by the State of Michigan. Widely used for introduction into the Great Lakes, Chambers Creek genetics produce big fish, strong fighting abilities and have a habit of providing a river sport fishery from early September to April. 

Growing the fish to adequate size has proved no problem for the boys from the Lake Huron Fishing Club. As I’ve noted they have a state-of-the-art operation. Ap-proximately 100,000 eggs and sperm are taken from wild fish every spring. Twelve months later 55,000 robust smolt measuring from 8 to 9 inches are ready to be stocked.

As for proper imprinting the solutions was simple. The Saugeen is a massive river system as already noted. All yearling smolt are stocked 50 miles upriver at Walkerton, Ontario. Minutes after pouring out of the tanker trailers, the fish turn tail and head for the lake, feeding on aquatic life as they go. During that 50 mile swim downstream the young steelhead are also absorbing the smells and characteristics of the river, as well as fully imprinting to a system that would will call them home as they return as spawning adults. 

Besides the transporting of adults and raising fish, the volunteers modified two existing fishways on the river. The two clubs, again with Ministry of Natural Resources approval have constructed two fishways on dams that delayed or hindered steelhead migration a decade ago. Today, returning fish can migrate more than a hundred miles up the Saugeen to pristine spawning and rearing habitat. 

 

Joshua Choronzey with just a sample of Canada’s best steelhead fishery... the Saugeen River.

 

Remember, this is all accomplished by volunteers. When that first meeting took place a little more than a decade ago it was estimated that the Saugeen experienced a run of approximately 2,000 to 3,000 adult steelhead. Today, that run is estimated to have climbed to between 40,000 to 50,000 fish. There are many, many days in both the spring and autumn when 300 to 500 fish are captured in the Denny’s Dam small fishway trap cage after only being set for an hour or two. When the seasonal runs are in full swing thousands of fish pour through the fish ladder daily. Remember, these fish can now utilize more than 100 miles of the river system.  On any given day from early October til April it’s possible to witness more than 100 to 200 steelhead caught below Denny’s Dam. The three-mile stretch from dam to Lake Huron offers up easy access and non-stop fishing results. A vibrant drift boat fishery has also been established in the 50 miles of river from Denny’s dam upstream to the town of Walkerton. 

The Saugeen is open to steelhead fishing for more than 50 miles from Lake Huron upstream to the town of Walker-ton from the end of April until the 31st of December. As a special bonus, anglers can wade or bank fish from the cement abutments downstream of Denny’s Dam to the river mouth and this stretch is wide open the entire year. This gives visiting anglers almost 3 miles of some of the most desirable waters on the river to fish. Very little illegal methods take place in what is the busiest stretch of river of the system. It’s difficult to sight fish, but it’s wide and one of the finest long drifts found anywhere on the continent.

 

 

The final one mile at the river mouth also offers phenomenal small boat trolling for trout. Very, very little angling pressure, but thousands of sassy rainbow will winter over and rest before heading up to the spawning grounds. Always refer to the MNR Fisheries Summary to be certain you are in the right waters at the right time. 

Center pin float fishing is the successful method for the majority of anglers visiting the Saugeen. Micro spawn sacs, single eggs, beads and spawn flies all have their days. The same can be said for bottom bouncing.

Casting a 3-inch spoon dressed out in gold, yellow, orange or brass will often result in the same success. Favorite choices are the Williams’ Nipigon and Yukon, Ep-pinger 5 of Diamonds, B.C. spoons, Gibb Kit-A-Mat and Ironhead and the Lucky Strike Gem and North River. It’s amazing how a number 3 Mepps Aglia or Comet can do the trick just before the sun goes down.  Just how good is the Saugeen you ask? For starters, you could say it has always been good. Fifty years ago without any stocking assistance by Ontario, the biggest flow on Huron always attracted massive numbers of steelhead stocked by the State of Michigan. The wolverine state has always had a problem imprinting the rainbow they stocked in Lake Huron. When the mighty Saugeen called, Yankee bows were tempted into her.

 

The author and a pair of beautiful steelhead. Cold weather means little pressure.

 

Then a lot of hard work by a dedicated group of old boys began creating this additional fantastic sport fishery a little more than 15 years ago. Without a doubt they’ve proved that with the proper genetics, raising the proper sized smolts and proper imprinting is all-important for success. I like to refer to this success as the “Miracle on the Saugeen.” A recent Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources study on just the lower 2 miles of the river from Denny’s Dam to Lake Huron between the autumn of 2015 and the late spring of 2016 revealed that the exploding sport fishery produced 84,000 angling rod hours and a harvest of more than 7,000 steelhead. Now take in to account the fact that the Denny’s Dam fishway is open throughout the year, steelhead are pouring 24 hours a day unimpeded through 50 more miles of prime fishing water right up until New Years Eve!!!!! Remember, too many anglers do not realize that those estimated 40,000 to 50,000 fish are holding over from early autumn through until that New Year’s Eve closure. That 50 miles stretch of prime fish-ing water for the most part is tree lined, offers solitude and presently is almost undiscovered by most visiting anglers. 

Excellent accommodations can be had in the towns of Southampton, Port Elgin, Sauble Beach, Kincardine and Walkerton. 

The drive from Port Huron to Southampton takes 3 hours. Add one hour if you are coming from Detroit. New York anglers crossing over at the Peace Bridge can ex-pect a 3 ½ to 4-hour drive to the Saugeen. 

The Saugeen is one big, beauty ex-ample of perfect river steelhead water. If you hear stories of 30 fish days, don’t scoff; it’s not a fish story. Limits are the norm on the Saugeen. If you know your techniques, so are 10, 20, and 30 fish days of steelhead fishing success.

Ontario Steelheaders: http://www.ontari-osteelheaders.ca/

Lake Huron Fishing Club: http://64.177.125.54/LHFC/index.html

Southampton/Port Elgin region: http://www.saugeenshores.ca/

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