By Shawn Perich
Years ago, the Minnesota DNR held a public meeting to discuss what to do about the declining numbers of steelhead along Lake Superior’s North Shore. As I recall, the agency was proposing dropping the bag limit on steelhead from three rainbow trout to one fish over 28 inches in length. This was a radical move in a part of the state where nearly everyone believed the point of going fish was to catch a fresh fish dinner.
But even more radical was another part of the DNR’s proposal. The agency wanted to limit the stocking of Kamloops rainbow trout from the 150-mile length of the Shore to a few locations in the vicinity of Duluth. The kicker was the hatchery-raised trout, all marked with a clipped fin, could still be kept for a three-fish limit. At the time, clipped-fin “loopers,” as they were and still are known, probably made up 50 percent of the average North Shore stream and shoreline angler’s catch. Cutting back on stocking meant lots of anglers would go home hungry.
The public spoke. There were impassioned pleas for a pure wild steelhead fishery and equally vibrant soliloquies favoring hatchery rainbows. The wild guys believed the stocked fish would crossbreed with wild rainbows and pollute their genetics. The hatchery crowd believed a fish was a fish and that stocking would create a nirvana of abundance where everyone went home with a limit.
But one man’s view was especially poignant. He stood up and spoke in a dialect only heard in the part of the state where taconite grows.
“We need da fish for da peoples,” he said.
His point is well taken. Fishing is egalitarian, available to anyone who chooses to buy a state fishing license. When you get right down to it, all you really need is a stick, a hank of line and baited hook to go fishing. In a purely democratic sense, if the simplest of anglers are lucky enough to catch a fish, they ought to be allowed to take it home and eat it.
Ah, but democracy is a messy thing. The wild steelhead became a catch-and-release fish, while the looper, stocked near Duluth, had a bag limit of three. The compromise wasn’t perfect, but it satisfied most anglers. Fishing along the shoreline near Duluth, lots of anglers caught loopers throughout the winter and spring. River anglers caught increasing numbers of wild steelhead and, from Duluth to Grand Marais, enough loopers that everyone could enjoy an occasional fish dinner.
For a couple of decades, this balance between releasing wild steelhead and harvesting hatchery loopers seemed to satisfy most everybody. During that time the wild steelhead population recovered and increased in abundance. Shoreline fishing for loopers attracted a loyal following among a cadre of anglers living within a couple of hours drive from Duluth. During the spring spawning runs in North Shore rivers, stream anglers could count on catching a looper or two to eat.
Biologists had concerns that interbreeding between loopers and wild steelhead might weaken the wild stocks. Judging by the present abundance of wild fish, the stocks appear to be in good shape. Loopers are less vigorous than steelhead when swimming up rugged North Shore rivers, with most pausing just a short distance upstream from the lake. Spawning steelhead ascend the rivers as far as possible until they are blocked from going further by an impassable waterfall.
The biggest change has occurred more recently. Shoreline anglers say the fishing for loopers has been very poor the past two years. In a story in last week’s Outdoor News, one angler said the poor fishing seems to be related to a changing in the annual stocking regime. Previously, loopers were raised on the North Shore at the French River Hatchery. Now they are raised elsewhere in the state and being released into Superior at a smaller size. It is possible the smaller fish have poor survival in the big lake.
The DNR is considering closing the French River Cold Water Hatchery. The facility needs extensive repairs. Also, the hatchery draws water from the icy depths of Lake Superior, which then must be heated to a temperature suitable for raising trout. Most cold water hatcheries rely on spring water, which has consistent, trout-friendly temps. Heating the water at French River is an additional expense.
North Shore anglers interviewed in Outdoor News, as well as some I’ve spoken with during the past year, view the possible closing of the French River Hatchery with trepidation. They are cognizant of the high costs associated with refurbishing and operating the facility. Their concern is that throughout its existence, the primary use for French River was producing fish for Lake Superior. If the hatchery closes, will it affect the future of Lake Superior fishing?
A case can be made that Lake Superior’s populations of lake trout, Chinook and Coho salmon, steelhead, brook trout and herring are now self-sustaining. Provided suitable protection of fisheries habitat, the lake’s fish should do just fine on their own. In that scenario, a hatchery isn’t really needed.
The looper fishery poses a dilemma. It is popular with anglers and wholly dependent on hatchery production. And, as some anglers point out, loopers are about the only trout or salmon readily available to rank-and-file anglers that they can take home and eat. Steelhead and brook trout are both catch-and-release fisheries. Lake trout and salmon aren’t consistently caught by anglers fishing from shore.
Should we keep the French River Hatchery going just to raise loopers? Probably not, but perhaps we should consider keeping a hatchery in the Lake Superior watershed based upon fishery history and future predictions. The collapse of Lake Superior’s fish due to the invasion of sea lampreys, overfishing and pollution hasn’t faded from memory. Looking forward, new invasive species continue arriving in the lake. Climate change predictions warn that in the not-too-distant future, some North Shore tributaries will become too warm to support spawning trout. In addition, the risk of spreading fish diseases from other watersheds already makes fisheries biologists wary of transferring fish.
Continuing the French River Hatchery is an expensive proposition. Perhaps we should give some thought to relocating the hatchery somewhere in the Lake Superior watershed where a good source of ground water is available. Or perhaps new technology, such as solar heat, can help reduce the operating costs at French River. Hopefully, the DNR and Lake Superior fishing organizations, will consider all aspects of the fishery when deciding the French River Hatchery’s future.