I can still remember the excitement rising up alongside the morning sun as I pedaled my homemade bicycle, affectionately nicknamed “the swampcycle”, over the loose gravel concession road to where it ended at the Maitland River for a morning fish. In the last couple of decades I’ve been blessed enough to have found many rivers throughout Ontario that have captured a piece of my heart, but the Maitland will always be weighted with significance. The Maitland River was my introduction to river fishing; a bi-weekly escape for a city boy longing to be a country boy.
The Maitland River is a large, meandering river that changes faces a number of times throughout its entirety. From the almost stagnant frog waters near Gorrie and Wroxeter, to the swift shoots and runs carving their way through bedrock and over freestone from the town of Auburn, all the way to “ Ontario’s West Coast”, the Maitland could keep a curious angler occupied indefinitely.
The main target on the Maitland is the spring and fall Steelhead runs, with the added bonus in the fall of a healthy Chinook Salmon run. This river remains dam-free from the mouth all the way to the town of Wingham , at which point the river branches off to form the Little Maitland River and the Middle Maitland River. These upper stretches have seen Brown Trout stockings over the years and fishing where cold creeks flow into the river can yield some nice little trout in the 10 to 14 inch range. This is always a pleasant surprise in mid-summer when most would set their sights on warm water species.
The fact that this river runs uninhibited for such a vast stretch allows migratory fish to move upstream with ease, providing water levels are sufficient. In these conditions it’s not uncommon to find Chinook Salmon almost 10 kilometers upstream that are still fresh looking and willing to take a fly if you play your cards right. The same attribute of this river that helps the Trout and Salmon can hinder the fly fisherman. Keeping track of Steelhead pods as they charge upstream in ideal conditions can be a daunting , if not just plain impossible task. Some of the prime holding water on the Maitland will certainly leave you scratching your head at times with its “here today, gone tomorrow” scenarios. For this reason, a local guide would be strongly suggested for anyone who wants to see their Steelhead dreams come to fruition on this big river.
For those of you with more time and patience, simply paying your dues on the Maitland will become rewarding. Eventually you’ll learn which sweet spots are worth the effort amidst the plethora of likely looking holding water, and the river will no longer seem so overwhelming. In the meantime, most of us will just enjoy the beauty of the surroundings, not to mention the room for a back cast.
Accessing the Maitland is not a problem. A quick look at a map will reveal at least two dozen bridges just from Wingham to the town of Goderich. Some of the better known access points to start your search would be near the mouth at the town of Goderich. The stretch from Highway 21 to Lake Huron is open for fishing all year round and has some very productive runs that can be fished with anything from nymphs to spey flies. This stretch fishes very well in the early spring using stoneflies trailing a single egg pattern. The most epic stonefly hatches I have ever witnessed have been on the Maitland River during those first sunny spring days that allow you to shed your coat. Black stoneflies tied in sizes 10-14 not only dupe fresh Rainbows but countless incidental Suckers. As much as some of us might grimace at the thought of this, it makes for a good training ground for someone learning how to high stick nymph. The initial hook-up of a 4lb sucker in heavy spring waters can still get the heart pumping after a long winter of tying flies.
The next of my favourite haunts on the Maitland would be just upstream of the small town of Saltford. Turn right just after the highway 21 bridge heading North out of Goderich and follow Rd 31 through Saltford. Look for a cemetery on the right-hand side on a left-hand bend. A narrow lane just past the cemetery entrance will provide parking and access to a pretty downhill trail leading to what I’ve always called Pipers Dam, but most locals call “The Black Hole”. This dark mysterious hole could keep your anticipation levels at an all time high anytime of the year, and the scenery is pretty much a hallmark of the lower Maitland Valley. A fifteen minute walk downstream (water permitting) will bring you to another productive hole that locals call “Salmon Alley”. This starts as a fast narrow chute on the right-hand side heading downstream, forming a nice undercut in the gentle left-hand bend. This stretch then ambles through a deep widening trough before hastening again over a shallow riffle, making it an ideal place for weary migratory fish to catch their breath. Don’t ignore the knee-deep stretch of water just before this transformation takes place. I’m embarrassed to admit the number of Steelhead I’ve spooked from under the grassy banks of this stretch as I’ve thunderfooted my way downstream towards Salmon Alley. For this reason I would almost suggest moving carefully down the midstream and casting toward shore whenever you notice these conditions.
From here upstream remains a fly fishing paradise all the way to the Benmiller Falls. This is a popular spot for both campers and every breed of angler you can imagine. “The Falls” is the first major obstacle fish encounter on their journey upstream, and for this reason it can become quite a spectacle. In the fall when the Chinook are making their mad dash, the banks at The Falls can be line with fisherman as well as spectators that can make your experience feel like that of a three-ring circus rather than a pleasant day on the water. The hole created here does stack up with fish, but the number of other lines in the water makes fly fishing difficult at times. Just downstream, however, where the hole tapers out you can have good success tumbling nymphs and egg patterns. This particular spot is less crowded in the summer when wooly buggers and crayfish patterns can yield very large Smallmouth Bass.
From here upstream is where it becomes increasingly harder to keep tabs on migratory fish runs, but that’s not to take anything away from the intrigue of this stretch of water. I’ve spent countless evenings in the summer catching trophy bass in almost any portion of the Maitland you choose. As mentioned earlier, you can still find some trout in the summer if you probe creek mouths such as The Belgrave Creek, Blyth Brook, Sharpes and St. Augustine creeks just to name a few. For the less fussy, the lower portion of the river can provide great fly fishing for Sheephead in the summer, who you can actually witness chasing down slowly stripped wooly buggers in the gin clear water. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.
Probably one of the best ways to learn the Maitland and all it has to offer is a canoe ride. I was astonished the first time I did this at how much fishable water I’d always missed in between the spots I thought I knew well. So much of this river meanders through the back of sprawling farms and bush lots, and probably receives little pressure. A canoe ride in early summer– when the water is just high enough to spare the bottom of your craft, but just low and clear enough to scout for fall Steelhead hangouts– is well worth it. The Maitland has an extended fall season for Rainbow and Brown Trout all the way to the town of Wingham, so some summer scouting with the bonus of exceptional Bass fishing only seems right.
The Maitland also happens to be located within 20 minutes of some beautiful tourist destinations. Goderich and Bayfield are both pretty towns with accommodations, restaurants and shops to explore. Well known campsites are minutes away and the famous Lake Huron sunsets are with you every evening.
See you there.