Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

The Early Angler Catches the Fish (Eventually)

Eighteen inches of snow at the end of March does something to your psyche. The North Shore was slapped by the sloppy tail of the blizzard that wreaked havoc across the Dakotas last week. The snowing and blowing didn’t let up for two days. When it was over, any modest progress we’d previously made toward spring was buried beneath new snow.

But snow or no, the show that is spring must go on. So, too, must those of us who participate in this crazy, mixed-up season. A couple of days after the storm ended, I went trout fishing. I trudged through knee-deep snow to reach the river, which was low, lined with three-foot-thick shelf ice and partially ice-covered.

The odds of catching a trout were less than even, but still good enough to justify going fishing. A couple of years ago, I caught a three-pound steelhead on my third drift of the year. In most years, I go fishing several times before I catch one. These are not marathon sessions, mind you, but an hour or two before work in the morning or stolen during the day. The advantage of living near trout streams is that you can fish this way.

While it is commonly thought the ice breaks up in rivers with a dramatic flood of melt water, on a good trout stream change occurs with less drama. First the river opens in a few rapids and pools. The spring thaw, at least up here where the winter’s snow accumulation is measured in feet, starts slowly. Most years, the water slowly rises from a low level over a couple of weeks. Then, triggered by a warm rain or unseasonably warm sunny days, the water comes in a gush.

The gush subsequently triggers steelhead to make their spawning run from Lake Superior, but I enjoy fishing before the waters rise to spring highs. A few steelhead start showing up in the streams before the run begins in earnest—enough for a persistent angler to attempt to catch. Catching an early steelhead is always a memorable experience.

Years ago, I made an excuse to sneak out for a couple of hours on a Friday afternoon. It was a damp, overcast day. Ice covered most of the river, but I found an opening in a favorite pool. I drifted a spawn sack beneath the ice and promptly had a strike. I set the hook and was connected to a heavy fish.

The battle was not so different than ice fishing, except I was holding a fly rod. The trout stayed beneath the sheet of ice covering most of the pool. I was careful to prevent my line from catching or becoming frayed on the edge of the ice. Patiently, I worked the fish to the open portion of the pool and finally gained some control over the tired fish. Now I was in a pickle, because I was standing on a rock ledge four feet above the water with no way to clamber down over the ice- and snow-covered rocks.

Just then, a fellow with two small children walked up on me. He was a fisherman (who else would show up in such a place) and immediately saw my predicament. Without hesitation he said “Watch the kids,” grabbed my landing net, made his way to the water’s edge and netted my fish. It was a trophy-sized, 30-inch hen steelhead, still shiny bright from her recent migration from Superior. I’m still grateful for his assistance.

I like to go fishing on Fridays, partly for TGIF and partly because no one else is on the river. Since I was a kid, I’ve often gone steelhead fishing on Good Friday. Although the date of Good Friday may vary by weeks from year to year, for whatever reason it usually proves to be a good fishing day.

I once spent a soggy Good Friday afternoon on the lower Devil Track, just east of Grand Marais. A mix of rain and snow was coming down and the river was on the rise. The water temperature was cold, perhaps 36 degrees, but it wasn’t stopping steelhead from heading upstream. However, the chilly water caused them to rest in quiet pockets along the current edge.

I found a couple of perfect pockets, located about 50 yards apart. I knew they were perfect, because they were occuppied by migrating steelhead. All it took was a drift or two to hook up with a fish. Then I would try the other pocket. Despite snow, sleet and rain, this little milk run kept me busy for a couple of hours. No other anglers were around.

Days such as this are what diehard steelheaders seek—to be there when the run is on. I like to get a jump start on things, because if you show up early, you have a better chance of being there when it happens. (Those who know me may note this is about the only time I ever arrive early.) Every spring, persistence eventually pays of with an hour or two or great fishing for bright chrome-colored steelhead that have just entered the river from Lake Superior.

Once, in Canada, a friend and I fished a small creek flowing strong and clear with the spring freshet. The water temperature was just a couple of degrees above freezing, but each day it warmed by one degree. We caught nothing, but knew it was just a matter of time before the run came in. On the final morning of our trip, we started fishing in the creek at daybreak. I caught a dark, sluggish fish in the pool beneath the barrier falls—perhaps 200 yards from the lake—but nothing else for a couple of hours.

Then it happened. I hooked eight fish in eight consecutive drifts, with each strike coming from the same spot. Apparently, a large school of steelhead had entered the creek. For an hour and a half, my friend and I enjoyed fast action, even though we were out of view from one another. Then it was over as quickly as it had begun. Two happy anglers climbed into the truck and relived the fine morning all the way home.

Now, many springs later, I head down to the river each morning and wait for a repeat occurrence. Sooner or later this spring, it will happen. It does every year. And I’ll do my best to be on the river when the run begins.

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