By Shawn Perich
On recent evenings I’ve gone walking with the dog on a frozen river near my home. The deep snow is dense and glacial, so you can walk upon it without sinking in. Trout season may have opened last Saturday, but you could walk, ski or snowshoe the length of this stream from its headwaters in the hills to its mouth at Lake Superior without getting wet.
Prior to the opener, I scrolled through a mental list of beaver ponds on brook trout creeks where I could go ice-fishing on opening day just to say I did it. Then another foot of snow fell and I thought better of it. On Sunday, I caught a small steelhead–my first open water fish of 2013–in one of the only North Shore creeks with open water anywhere north of Duluth. While playing the fish, I had to clamber down a snow-covered rock ledge to get near the water. Then I slid the trout up on some shelf ice, where it lay immobilized in the snow. I removed the hook and pushed the fish back into the water. It disappeared with a thrust of its tail.
Old Man Winter, reinforced by a series of April snow storms, has been reluctant to retreat from Minnesota. Here on the North Shore, where spring always arrives later than everywhere else, snowy Aprils are not unusual. Often it is nearly May before the winter snow pack melts away. Occasionally, you can find lingering snow and ice in shady places during June.
As an angler, I enjoy late springs, because they always lead to good fishing. The water runs high and cold as the deep snows melt, filling the lakes and bogs. For weeks afterward, the melt water spills into a myriad of creeks and streams. High water is like money in the bank for a trout fisherman like me. North Shore streams are run-off dependent, so high water ensure the rivers will be full and fishable for many weeks.
Making fishing predictions is risky business, but I’ll go out on a limb and say the last week of April will offer good steelhead fishing along the North Shore. This is perhaps a week later than average for the Duluth area, but nearly normal for Grand Marais. I don’t know if I want to inch further out on the limb and make predictions for the May fishing opener, but I have talked with folks who are wondering if northern lakes will be free of ice by then. If you enjoy fishing for lake trout or brook trout in the canoe country, this will be a great year. Shoreline shallows will remain comfortably cold and thus attractive to hungry trout throughout May and perhaps into June.
Just how the actual fishing conditions play out is unpredictable. A few sunny days could devastate the snow pack and super-charge river flows. A few rainy days may do the same thing; the difference being the rivers could become exceptionally high and dirty. If Old Man Winter continues to slug it out, a prolonged snow melt may occur.
That’s what happened back in the spring of 1996, following a winter that set records for cold temperatures, horrific blizzards and total snow depths. Instead of making our usual early May trip to Ontario, our trout fishing group stayed at my place and fished Minnesota instead. We trudged through snow and stood on shelf ice while seeking steelhead from cold, strong-flowing creeks. Despite challenging conditions, we caught chrome-bright steelhead as they entered rivers from Lake Superior on their spring spawning run. What I remember best was one that got away, a massive silver slab that threw the hook as it wallowed among midstream boulders. It was one of the largest steelhead I’ve seen in a lifetime of North Shore fishing.
In other years, the high water seems to last forever. The first time I ventured north of the border, back in the late 80s, was one of those years. When we arrived, the major rivers were running high and cold. The mood among anglers was glum, because steelhead catches were few and far between. We decided our five days were best spent exploring, so we tried to fish just about every tributary along 150 miles of shoreline. It was a fun adventure. Nearly every day, we managed to stumble into good fishing and thus discover a new fishing hole.
Another spring, our Canada excursion coincided with an unusual spate of hot weather, which triggered stream temperatures to rise a few degrees. This in turn triggered a terrific steelhead run. The fishing was so good we went a little crazy, dashing from one river to the next as we pursued the silver horde of steelhead. Wearing waders, we hoofed a mile or more into remote creeks and clambered up and down steep hills to reach the best spots. We finished each day how, sweaty and exhausted, but boy did we catch fish.
Many anglers find high water intimidating. It’s difficult to“read” a trout stream when it’s running high, so you might think the fish could be just about anywhere. Instead, they are most likely in the best holding water. On a large river, look for places where the water is flowing over gravel or cobble substrate at about walking speed. On the North Shore’s many small creeks, the fishing is best when high water provides more flow and concealment for large trout. A simple, but effective strategy is to think small when the water is very high. You can try the larger streams in a day or two as the waters recede.
High water will benefit Minnesota’s few remaining brook trout anglers by providing more places to fish in tiny creeks and improving fish survival. Brook trout can live in a cold trickle, provided the trickle continues to flow during drought. Spring melt water recharges the black spruce bogs, which ooze cold water into trout streams throughout the summer. The spring run-off also allows the trout streams to run full during May and June, the prime months for brook trout fishing.
Walking along a frozen river with the dog, I like to think about the trout fishing soon to come. Sure, like everyone else, I’m impatient for spring to arrive. But I’m willing to wait for Old Man Winter to exit the stage, knowing his reluctant departure will only make good fishing better. Once spring arrives, it will be worth the wait.