Fishing for steelhead on the North Shore is anything but a relaxing day in a calm pool. But if you like a challenge ...
ON THE NORTH SHORE – A friend, Bob Nasby of St. Paul, thinks fly anglers who fish trout do so because they can’t cast. He means small trout in small streams and creeks, places he doesn’t often visit, the settings to him seeming unworthy of the effort; too effete.
Bob instead prefers big rugged water and the wild fish they hold, animals in places worthy of long rods and, as necessary, longer casts. Here he refers mostly to steelhead, migratory rainbow trout that in spring run up various North Shore streams, some of which, back in the day, Bob descended into on zip lines from steep canyon walls, fly rod strapped to his back.
Long ago I introduced my sons to Bob. In the years since, when possible, they parade to his home to mess with fly lines and flies and rods and in general sit at the feet of the master. Bob’s life is all about fly fishing, and the world might be a better place if more people followed his lead. Anyway, the older son, Trevor, is home from Montana for a couple of weeks before returning there for the summer to guide, and upon his arrival here made a pilgrimage to Bob’s place to ruminate about big fish in wild places.
Frenzied inspiration followed, and on Tuesday last week, Trevor and I headed north, talking steelhead, including as well among our banter the appeal of narrow wooded hiking trails and the catharsis that accompanies passing time in beautiful places.
Both, after all, are integral to steelhead fishing, as is the mesmerizing effect of moving water, confirmation of which can be found along any North Shore river trail, not least the path that follows the Brule River to Devil’s Kettle, where a massive volcanic rock divides the river, plunging it 50 feet into a pool below.
But Trevor and I didn’t fish the Brule.
Instead we chose a North Shore river that over the years has become a favorite, whether we catch fish there or not.
“It feels different being up here so late in the year,” Trevor said. “Usually we fish steelhead in April.”
But why not attempt to fool a fat rainbow late in this tardy spring, which has thrown everything askew?
Some bass still aren’t bedded. Tom turkeys gobbled late. And at least some steelhead, we knew from various friends, had not yet fallen back into Lake Superior after spawning, their declensions tail-first, noses into the current.
Parking our truck, we strung our rods, packed a couple bottles of water and found a winding river trail, prepared to fish until near dark.
• • •
A few hundred casts, and Trevor struck a steelhead that drew his 9-foot rod into a broad arch, then nearly straightened it.
Rocketing downstream, the fish peeled line from Trevor’s reel, which spun backward wildly, slowed only by the palm of his left hand.
Had Trevor tightened the drag, the fish could have used the current or sharp rocks to strain the line to breaking.
Instead he used his palming hand to determine how much line he fed the fish, and when he would attempt to stop it.
Already the steelhead had put 60 feet of rocky, fast water between itself and Trevor.
This was probably a big hen, spawned out. Or possibly a buck, maybe with a hooked jaw, a real prize.
The run where the fish picked up Trevor’s yarn fly was only a small sliver of relatively quiet water amid the river’s wide torrent. Into this faster, deeper water, rod held high, Trevor ran and stumbled downstream, hoping to find a broad eddy slack enough to skid the fish to a stop.
Until then he needed to keep it free of the river’s many deadfalls and boulders.
Born in this river, and passing its early life here, the hooked fish had spent two or three years maturing in Lake Superior before returning to its birthplace.
Surface fed, Minnesota’s North Shore steelhead streams empty out nearly as quickly as they fill up.
Consequently, they often don’t carry enough water to overwinter steelhead. Fish here instead spawn and leave, mystery enshrouding their every movement, and really all they do.
Trevor came and went past me as if pulled by a freight train.
Freezing the mayhem, I snapped a few photos.
It’s a metaphor, this fish fighting, a friend once said.
The angler in the end will hoist the fish in victory.
Or lose it in defeat.
Either way, both are fleeting.
Just like in life.
“In time, it’s the struggle you learn to appreciate,” my friend said.
Downstream now, Trevor dug in his heels, but found only trouble.
His leader broke and the fish disappeared.
Our friend Dave Zentner of Duluth would also fish the next day, and there would be more hookups, with a few fish coming to hand.
But for now, overlooking the river, Trevor and I found the narrow wooded trail that led both upstream toward more fishing and downstream toward everything we had left behind.
Framed by steep canyon walls, the river flowing below seemed inevitable and unending, cascading in foamy braids toward Lake Superior.