Rich Patterson believed Lake Superior was devoid of fish. After all, he’d spent two days fruitlessly casting into the lake near is campsite at the mouth of the Cross River in Schroeder. Aside from soaking up some sunshine and Superior scenery, Patterson had nothing to show for his efforts.
“There are no fish in Lake Superior,” he told me.
My job was to prove him wrong. Patterson and his wife, Marion, are members of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, as am I. They’d travelled to the North Shore from their home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to escape the summer heat. Although we’d never met, we connected through a mutual friend and I offered to take them fishing. While I never guarantee fish, I was pretty sure they’d enjoy the boat ride.
We launched from the Horseshoe Bay access in Hovland. I hadn’t been on the water for nearly a week, but the empty parking lot at the launch wasn’t a good sign. As we set out, the surface water temperature was in the mid 50s, which is good for fishing. However, as soon as we got beyond the sheltered bay, the temp plummeted to a bone-chilling 43 degrees. This was not so good.
When you troll for trout and salmon on Lake Superior, the surface water temperature is more important to your fishing than the depth or structure beneath you. Generally, trout and salmon are most active when the surface water is around or above 50 degrees. In every other Minnesota lake, this would be considered cold water. On Superior, such temperatures are called warm. The lake is so deep and vast it remains very cold year round. The summer sun warms shallow areas. Because water becomes less dense as it warms, a layer of warm water forms at the surface, essentially floating like plate over the perpetually cold depths.
At Hovland, offshore winds push the plate of warm water further out in the lake, allowing the cold water to upwell from the depths even during the summer. While upwelling is a natural function of the lake’s hydrology, the cold water makes for slow fishing. I’m not sure if the trout and salmon follow the warmer surface waters offshore or if they just stop biting. Either way, cold-water trolling is tough.
The lake was stirred by a southwest breeze with an underlying swell. I ran into the wind, explaining to the Pattersons that we would start fishing when we reached the shelter of a point a couple of miles away. Going into the wind is always a good idea, because turning around and riding with the waves makes for a smooth run back to the launch. The water temperature, never waivered, holding at 43 degrees.
If the Iowans were seeking relief from the heat, they’d come to the right place. We were in shirt sleeves on shore and now were wearing jackets. We set out the lines and followed the shoreline westward. I hoped we would find a pocket of warm water. Even if we didn’t, it felt good to be on the lake. The Pattersons were good company. Rich is the director of the Indian Creek Nature Center and Marion has a curiosity for all aspects of the natural world. We talked about many different things while we waited for a strike.
About a mile into our troll, one of the downrigger lines tripped, though there wasn’t a fish attached to it. Perhaps a fish had struck the spoon and got away. I hoped the next fish, if there was one, wouldn’t be so lucky.
And it wasn’t. We didn’t go far before we had another strike and the fish was hooked. Rich took the rod and reeled it to the boat. It was small, perhaps a couple of pounds, and twisted free of the hook before I could reach it with the landing net. I was unable to identify the species, but now Rich knew the lake contained at least one fish. Some fish get caught and others get away. It’s all part of fishing. However, when the water is so cold you feel lucky to get a bite, you’d rather they didn’t get away.
Fingers crossed for luck, we kept trolling. The breeze died as evening approached, making for a smoother and less chilly boat ride. We were now nearly four miles from the launch, fishless and still optimistic. That was good, because when you get right down to it, optimism will catch more fish than the best bait.
The downrigger tripped and again Rich took the rod. Whatever was on the other end was fighting back. With the outboard in neutral, we slowed to allow him to enjoy the battle. Soon the fish was in view in the clear water. I slipped the landing net beneath it and lifted it into the boat. Rich had caught his first Lake Superior fish. It was a sleek, wild lake trout of about four pounds—a fine specimen. Marion took our picture.
Then we got the lines back in the water, ever-optimistic that we might catch another. We became even more hopeful when the surface water temperature suddenly rose from 43 degrees to 50. Trout and salmon sometimes congregate near abrupt temperature changes. On this day, we didn’t find them there.
As the sun slipped toward the ridges of the Sawtooth Mountains, we reeled in the lines and throttled up for the ride back to the launch. As we clipped along, Marion gave Rich a thumbs up. Even though the fishing was slow, the Pattersons had a enjoyable outing on Lake Superior. And that was good enough for me.