Edmonton’s river valley has world-class fishing. Seriously.
That’s right, the North Saskatchewan River that carves this city in two isn’t some turgid-brown wasteland. It actually teems with life and offers stellar angling just steps away from the urban core: you can catch walleye, goldeye, lake sturgeon, whitefish, pike, sauger and suckers all in the same morning—but it wasn’t always that way.
“I’ve had several times where I’ve been fishing right under the Whitemud freeway and joggers would make fun of me—they think I’m fishing a toxic slough,” says Robert Clarke, who has been fishing the River Valley since the ’80s. “Then they see me pulling fish out.”
Of course, the big question is: would you eat that fish? City of Edmonton guidelines say you should have a maximum of one fish meal from the North Saskatchewan per week, avoiding the liver and organs. It’s not recommend to eat the fish at all if you are a woman between 15 and 49 years of age; those younger than 15 should avoid eating the fish entirely. The culprit is mercury, which is often credited as naturally occurring. (There is research suggesting that fossil fuels, especially coal-fired power plants, are linked to higher mercury levels in fish—but that is a whole can of bait-worms that would require a separate story.)
So fishing in the river valley is mostly for catch-and-release sport, not dinner. And Clarke, who runs the fly-fishing department at a local Wholesale Sports, says the angling within Edmonton city limits is world class.
“You get walleye over 12 pounds every year—that’s trophy walleye in any book,” he says enthusiastically. “And there’s lake sturgeon that are more than 50 pounds—that’s exciting for any angler. Sometimes the goldeye and the pike can all be going at the same time. It’s incredible.”
The veteran angler says we’re coming up on one of the best times of year to fish the river valley. He says late April to the beginning of June, before the runoff and high water of summer, is a great time to be casting from the banks. Or, if you miss that, the fishing is just as good in the fall from the third week of August to Thanksgiving.
Bucking the cagey stereotype, Clarke is a fisherman who is keen to share his favourite locations. He says to look for where water flows into the river, like an outflow or a creek; deep spots or an eddy under a bridge or by a bend are also a good bet. Whitemud Creek by Fox Drive, Dawson Park and the Keyhole Pool behind the Legends Golf Course are all popular places, Clarke adds. He has had a lot of success fishing from the banks, but knows guys who do well from a boat.
As for how to hook ’em, he says nothing catches more than a pickerel rig: two hooks and a sinker. In the spring, use worms for bait because the river is dirty and high and the fish find the worms easier. In the fall, use minnows because that’s what the fish are hunting for. And he gives the classic tips: go at first light or wait until dusk.
“Although, honestly, the best time to go fishing is any chance you get,” Clarke notes. “The first time I took my son down to the river he caught 29 fish and four different species. That helped him develop a real affinity for the North Saskatchewan.”
But if Clarke had brought his young boy down to the banks back in the ’40s, the only he thing he would have caught was a putrid stench. For decades, Edmonton committed horrible sins when it came to managing the river valley, says Billie Milholland of the North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance.
The North Saskatchewan had always been an important fishery, dating back to pre-colonial times. When the first Europeans came chasing beaver out west centuries ago, the North Saskatchewan was their highway and food source. Birch-bark canoes gave way to York boats then steamboats, which brought supplies and settlers before the railway came to our city in the late 1800s.
As progress came to Edmonton, the river valley took a beating. At the turn of the 20th century, the banks all the way from Big Island to Fort Saskatchewan were turned into a “moonscape” by coal mining, Milholland says. Gold hunters dredged the middle of the stream and dumped mercury into the waters for processing. Citizens dumped garbage, brickyards dug up the mud, tanneries dumped nasty chemicals and meat-packing plants on the shores—Edmonton was once the meat-packing capital of Canada—all made the river valley the last place you’d come for recreation.
“Up until probably [the Second World War], the river valley was pretty ugly,” Milholland says. “It was full of floating poop and fat—it was horrible. Somebody finally thought: ‘This might be a health risk.’ They had an engineer do some testing, and the report was very scary. When the water got to the border with Saskatchewan, it had no oxygen in it. There was nothing living in it: no fish, insects, animals or birds.”
Since that damning report, the North Saskatchewan in Edmonton has been treated with a lot more respect and slowly returned to health. Today, it’s the jewel of the city, and North America’s largest chunk of urban parkland.
“Being down at the river in the summer is very surreal,” Milholland says. “Once you’re down at the river level, the city just about disappears. You start to be aware of all the wilderness around you. You can hear the birds, you feel like you’re hundreds of miles form a city. As urbanites, we feel that we need to go to the mountains for peace and quiet. But it’s right here.”
And the fishing rocks—but you’ve got to do it right. Fish and Wildlife officers regularly patrol the North Saskatchewan to ensure anglers are playing by the rules, says Dan Laville from Alberta’s office of Justice and Solicitor General. And there are possession limits to be aware of—the most important being zero for both walleye and lake sturgeon. Ditto for sauger between April and mid-May, when they’re most vulnerable.
The most famous fish in these waters is the lake sturgeon, a swimming piece of prehistory that looks almost identical to 100-million-year-old fossils. They can live to more than 100 years old, have no scales and can weigh hundreds of pounds. But you’d best just catch and release.
“Sturgeon are considered threatened,” Laville says. “Penalties for retention of sturgeon can be substantial, in the thousands of dollars.”
So now you know there are fish, where to find and catch ’em, that we’re lucky to have them and that you probably shouldn’t eat too many of them. Now all that’s left is to get your line in the water.
“For someone to be able to live right in Edmonton and be on the water in 10 minutes is priceless,” Clarke says. “For anglers, to be able to fish with their families, without driving, literally saves lives in my book. It gets families outside of their box and experiencing nature.”