By Shawn Perich
Newly released trout fishing data collected by volunteer anglers a half-century ago provides at fascinating glimpse of what the fishing was like in dozens of Minnesota streams and lakes. The “Large Scale Compendium of Previously Unreported Trout Angling Data, 1958-1963” was compiled by retired fisheries biologist Mel Haugstad of Preston, with the assistance of Vaughn Snook, DNR assistant area fisheries supervisor in Lanesboro.
The statewide data set languished in a file for decades. The original study occurred between 1958 and 1963 and was devised by trout and salmon research supervisor Robert E. Schumacher of the Minnesota Division of Game and Fish. When Schumacher’s position was terminated, the study was left incomplete and no one finished it. Haugstad, at the urging of University of Minnesota professor emeritus George Spangler, recently completed its summarization, further analyzed the data and published the results.
While the information is old, it is nonetheless interesting not only to fisheries managers, but also trout anglers. The report fills an information gap in for the era following the 1944 publication of “A Biological Survey and Fishery Management Plan for the Streams of the Lake Superior North Shore Watershed” Lloyd L. Smith Jr. and John B. Moyle—a copy of which resides on my bookshelf. Smith and Moyle completed painstaking surveys of North Shore streams, noting the deep holding water, cold water inlets, fish species living there and more then used that data to suggest stream-specific management strategies. Much of the work they did remains relevant today.
The 1950s and ‘60s were the heyday of North Shore stream trout fishing, especially for brook trout. It was a pastime of the common man, because all you really needed was a fishing rod, a can of worms and an urge to explore. The road network in the Superior National forest was far more primitive than it is today, which meant favorite fishing waters were often a long walk off the beaten path. Most of the brook trout were 10 inches or less in length, although some streams were known to produce whoppers measuring 12 inches or more. The locations of these whopper waters were closely guarded secrets. Finding them, even if someone gave you directions, was nearly always an adventure.
Beginning in the 1930s with the Civilian Conservation Corps, stream habitat was improved or restored with projects intended to create protective cover and deep water refuge for trout. Often these improvements repaired damage done to streams by log drives in the pioneer logging era. The upper reaches of North Shore trout streams were stocked with brook trout, and occasionally browns and rainbows. Many anglers, including some of the old-timers still fishing today, got their start swatting mosquitos and battling the alder brush along North Shore creeks.
At the time of Schumacher’s study, trout fishing was beginning to change. The state was stocking stream trout—rainbows, brooks and browns—into small, cold lakes. The lakes offered trout the room and food base to grow, allowing them to reach larger sizes than the trout found in streams. Fish managers were also learning many northern trout streams had naturally reproducing brook trout populations, negating the need for stocking. The study includes data from dozens of stocked stream trout lakes that remain popular today.
For the study, Schumacher successfully recruited 120 anglers who reported their fishing success in 329 trout waters throughout Minnesota. Of these, 83 fisheries received at least 40 hours of fishing pressure, which was enough to make some determination about quality of the fishery. The anglers reported catching 14,014 trout of five species during 14,529 hours of angling. About half of the anglers recorded the lengths of their fish.
Working with volunteer anglers to collect data was a departure from the norm for Minnesota fish managers, who typically hire employees to hang around fishing access sites and interview anglers, a method known as the creel census. The census method works well for collecting specific information about specific waters, but would be impractical and prohibitively expensive to collect information on the scale of Schumacher’s study. The volunteer anglers turned in 3,621 fishing reports for 104 lakes and 225 streams.
Paging through the data, it is interesting to learn where folks were fishing 50 years ago and what they caught. For instance, the study lists 15 Itasca County trout streams, all populated with brook trout. The best of the bunch was Shine Brook, where anglers reported catching 113 brookies. Another Itasca County hotspot was Smith Creek, where 89 brook trout were caught. There were four trout streams within what is now the Twin Cities metropolitan area—Eagle Creek in Scott County, Kenaley’s Creek in Dakota County, and Big Marine and Brown’s creeks in Washington County. The fishing was good in the latter two streams, with Big Marine producing 52 brook trout and Brown’s giving up 70 brown trout.
Central and northwestern Minnesota had a couple of dozen trout streams, most of which contained small brook trout. Hubbard County’s Straight River was a notable exception, producing brown and rainbow trout up to 21 inches in length. At the end of the report a special note was made of a 1962 fishing trip to Auganash Creek in Clearwater County, where a party of four anglers caught 39 brook trout, including 10 weighing 1 ½ pounds. The authors of the report speculate the trout were caught from a beaver pond where the fish had adequate food to grow to larger sizes.
Southeastern Minnesota’s fertile spring creeks had an abundance of brown trout—and far fewer brookies than today—as well as the largest average-sized fish. The famous Whitewater system was a top producer. Bee Creek in Houston County, where one volunteer fished 95 times over five years, was a standout for both size and numbers of brown trout. The best brook trout water in the Southeast was East Beaver Creek.
North Shore streams were divided into the lower reaches, accessible to spawning runs of Lake Superior steelhead, and the brook trout-dominated upper reaches. For the steelhead waters, the Knife River, located less than 20 miles from Duluth, was the most popular and had the largest catch. Other popular steelhead rivers along the Shore were the Stewart, Gooseberry, Split Rock, Cascade, Devil Track, Kadunce and Arrowhead (Brule.) The longest steelhead reported was 28 inches.
The North Shore’s brook trout creeks reported the most abundant trout numbers, although most of the fish were less than eight inches in length. Standout streams were the Sucker, Baptism, Manitou and Cascade rivers. Less than two dozen trout exceeded 12 inches, with the largest a 17-incher from the Baptism. Separate data was kept for tributary creeks. Topping the list was Wanless Creek, a tributary of the Cross River that produced 15 brook trout greater than 12 inches.
Stocked trout lakes produced larger, average-sized trout, primarily rainbows. Standouts were Kimball, Pancore and Ram lakes in Cook County, and Mirror and Olson lakes in St. Louis County near Duluth. Remote Vale Lake in Cook County produced the biggest brook trout, topping out at 19 inches. Not surprisingly, the largest trout overall came from lakes containing lake trout, which typically are bigger than brook, brown or rainbow trout.
While 50-year-old fishing secrets are unlikely to contribute to anyone’s fishing success today, it was interesting to note that most of the best places back then still offer good fishing today. Fish management has changed over time, with a greater reliance today on healthy streams and wild trout rather than hatcheries and regular stocking. By and large, Minnesota still provides a wealth of good fishing for moderate-sized trout, along with some first-class trophy waters. It may not be Montana, but Minnesota has plenty of places where anyone with a fishing rod, a can of worms and a sense of adventure can some fun.