Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Points North: North Shore Steelheaders Wait for a Run

By Shawn Perich

On the North Shore last weekend, steelhead anglers were wondering: Is it spring yet? Lake Superior’s tributary streams were running high and cold. Fishing conditions resembled the middle of April rather than the middle of May. The talk along the rivers was that the big run is yet to come.
My friend Alan Lutkevich and I are not sure we share that riverside optimism. It is, after all, the latter half of May. Most years, the steelhead run is winding down by now. But we can’t offer any evidence to the contrary. Last weekend–two weeks after we’d nixed a Canadian steelhead trip due to the delayed spring–we fished the rivers near Grand Marais, more than 100 miles south of our initial Canadian destination. The occasional patch of snow or ice lingered in the woods.
We expected to have good, possibly great, fishing. After raging with spring runoff, the rivers were finally starting to drop and clear, a situation which usually triggers the steelhead spawning run. While the run may last two weeks or more, if you happen to be on the river when the first steelhead school surges upstream, it can seem as though there is a fish behind every rock. That’s the sort of fishing we hoped to find.
When the water is high, a good strategy is to fish small streams, where high water often improves, rather than hinders, the fishing. We started out Saturday morning on a creek that we often fished near the highway, but hadn’t fully explored. As it turned out, we hadn’t known what we’d been missing. The creek was running high, but at a perfect level fishing.

We caught a couple of steelhead right away, which inspired us to keep exploring. Leap-frogging one another from one pool to the next for a half mile, we found only one more trout. But we weren’t discouraged. It’s a lovely creek. Maybe next time we’ll find more fish.

A river that is often very good to me was our next stop. Again we fished hard for little reward. Al caught one in the first pool, but over the next three hours, neither of us had another bite. It was hard to complain about the slow action, because we were alone on the river and enjoying a warm, sunny afternoon. It was great just to be there.

Saturday evening I talked with a couple of friends who had been fishing elsewhere and no better luck than we did. Steelhead were few and far between. Nearly all of fish anglers were catching were small (a couple of pounds) males. According to steelheader lore, the males are the first to run the rivers, which is why everyone thinks the run is yet to come.

On Sunday, we tried a slightly different strategy, starting the morning on a favorite creek. The water was high and cold, of course, but we caught enough steelhead to keep the morning interesting. Better still, we encountered no other anglers. Along the way, I landed and released my largest steelhead so far this year—a 24-inch male that likely weighed less than five pounds. In the realm of Lake Superior steelhead fishing, a fish this size is by no means a lunker. Most years, I’ll land a fish or two measuring 28 inches and weighing perhaps eight pounds. But it’s been a long time since I’ve caught or have seen someone catch a steelhead much bigger than that.

Every year I hear stories about bigger fish. Somewhere along a river, I’ll meet an angler who claims to have caught and released “a 32-incher” earlier in the day or last week. The funny thing is I never see pictures of these supposed monsters. Years ago, when native lake trout were scarce and Lake Superior was stuffed with an overabundance of smelt, steelhead weighing eight pounds or more were caught more frequently. But these days, with far fewer smelt and far more lake trout and Pacific salmon in Superior, steelhead likely have a different diet and face more competition for available forage. They may grow to a smaller average size as a result. Of course, the anglers who are catching all of those 32-inch fish are free to disagree with me.

I’d like to report that Sunday afternoon we hit a motherlode of fresh-run steelies or that we capped off the weekend by landing a couple of 32-inchers. But such a report would be no more than a fish story. The unvarnished truth is that we caught no more fish, even though the water temperature warm to 46 degrees and (in theory, anyway) should have triggered steelhead activity. Maybe someone who was fishing on another river tangled with a school of 32-inchers.

Al and I have spent as much time roaming the North Shore as just about any angler. We thought the fishing was pretty good last weekend. I suspect many other steelhead bums would agree. After a cold, frustrating spring, it was great to be outside in the sunshine with a fly rod in hand. Catching a fish or two was simply frosting on the cake.

I’m curious to see if the “big run” shows up sometime between now and the end of the month, but I’m not holding my breath. A biologist friend of mine from Ontario says the majority of the run occurred on rivers near Thunder Bay during the high flows. The steelhead were there, but fishing conditions were poor. Maybe the same thing happened in Minnesota rivers. At any rate, I intend to keep fishing as long as the rivers are running full with spring runoff. If the “big run” does arrive, I don’t want to miss it.

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