ON THE NORTH SHORE — On Wednesday between Duluth and Grand Marais, the tempestuous first day of May was as cruel as any 24 hours April has ever mustered. In places a foot of snow masked the ground, and streams from the Lester to the Gooseberry, and farther north to the Poplar and Cascade, spilled and tumbled toward Lake Superior, whose breakers crashed spectacularly against ancient rock.
This would be no day for seeking walleyes, nor northern pike nor the most delectable of Minnesota finned species, the bluegill. It was marginal even for our quarry of choice, steelhead, given that the delayed spring has kept North Shore streams so frigid these migratory rainbows have been hesitant to swim upriver to reproduce.
“Thirty-five degrees,’’ a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) creel survey technician reported when Dave Zentner and I bumped into him Wednesday afternoon and inquired about stream temperatures. “That’s cold.’’
Inclement conditions notwithstanding, including voluminous rivers stained mahogany by the rush of melting snow, Dave and I planned an honest stab at steelheading, a sport whose spring season often is endured during some of the Minnesota’s wickedest weather.
Angling north from Duluth, revisiting once again Hwy. 61, Dave and I saw no anglers working the Lester, a southernmost North Shore stream, and scant few on the Knife, which in late April and early May often flows like a steelhead ATM, in which anglers insert brightly colored yarn flies and receive in return big, beautiful, fighting fish.
“If there were steelhead in those rivers, more fishermen would be fishing them,’’ said Dave, who lives in Duluth.
A graduate many years ago of the University of Minnesota Duluth, where in more recent times administrators have hung signs throughout campus warning students not to clean smelt in dormitory bathrooms, Dave, it can be fairly said, is no less a part of this state’s northeastern quadrant than its eagles, wolves, moose, deer and fish — the last group including, perhaps especially, his beloved steelhead.
Yet while we drove north, Dave icould envision steelhead not in the streams we crossed, enjoying ideal spawning temperatures of about 40 degrees, but instead hanging just off shore, beneath Lake Superior’s choppy surface, their gills flaring as they bided their time, waiting for warmer water.
Compounding the challenge we faced — and all steelheaders face — when these fish finally do enter their birth streams, they aren’t much interested in eating during their runs upstream. Nor are they very hungry after they spawn, while slipping back toward the lake, oftentimes tail first.
But if an angler is enjoying a bit of luck, and presents his or her fly just so, a steelhead sometimes will succumb to temptation, and bite.
“We’re here, so let’s give it a try,’’ Dave said Wednesday afternoon.
The wind hadn’t yet abated, nor the cold nor rain. Yet as Dave accurately noted, we were on site, and soon enough, we pulled on heavy clothing and waders.
If water temperatures had been higher, we might have hiked upstream, anticipating the fish we targeted were well on their way to a barrier falls, beyond which they could travel no farther.
But on this day, if any steelhead were in our chosen river, which cascaded nearby through steep canyons, they would be gathered at its mouth. There, at the juncture of fast-moving water from opposite directions — the lake and the stream — any steelhead present likely would be hens, which often trickle into narrow waterways ahead of their male spawning partners.
Standing on the river’s edge, the winter ended. Dave was again a fisherman.
“It’s good to be back,’’ he said.
Certainly the day was un-springlike. But the long graphite rod Dave cradled in his left hand and the yellow yarn fly that was snelled to the end of his monofilament line were proof enough a new season had begun.
Making one cast into a run he had fished many times, he took a step downstream and cast again, watching his line sweep in a broad arch among foamy currents.
On his third cast, made nearly to the same water, Dave’s fly, weighted by two split shots, hesitated. As quickly, tightening his line, he sensed resistance and set the hook, bowing his rod immediately into a nearly perfect upside-down horseshoe.
On some days, rocketing from the Air National Guard base in Duluth, fighter jets scream low over the North Shore, destined for training runs near or far.
On this day, only a gull was airborne, and among the birches on the opposite shore, a raven, both struggling for purchase in the minor gale.
Minutes passed, and the fish was in hand.
It was, as Dave said, good to be back.