ON THE NORTH SHORE – As I pulled on my waders here Wednesday morning, watching the rushing river far below that I would fish, I thought again how just how wacky spring’s biological clock has turned the past couple of years.
For the next eight hours, I would chase steelhead with my son, Trevor, 21, who was home from Montana for a couple of weeks, and I was hoping at this late date — May 28 —we could still find a fish or two that would take a yarn fly.
In most years, such an effort wouldn’t be worthwhile.
Steelheading is a long-shot game in any event, pursued, oftentimes, in April’s bitterly cold rain and sleet, with North Shore stream banks still covered in snow. Ditto those along Wisconsin’s Lake Superior shoreline not far away.
But fish, like other wildlife, and also people, respond to weather variations in ways large and small; some so minute as to be barely perceptible.
Steelhead that enter North Shore streams and rivers in spring to spawn, for instance, behave differently than many of those that spawn in Wisconsin rivers that empty into Lake Superior. And not just because Wisconsin rivers are farther south, and warm more quickly.
Wisconsin’s Brule River (Minnesota’s North Shore also has a Brule River, north of Grand Marais) receives its biggest runs of steelhead in fall; fish that overwinter in the river before spawning in spring and slipping back downstream, sometimes tail-first, to Lake Superior.
But the same fish that enter Minnesota’s North Shore streams do so in spring, before returning again days or weeks later to Lake Superior. These fish have little choice: Unlike watersheds drained by the Wisconsin rivers, those emptied by Minnesota rivers and streams into Lake Superior are fairly small, and once they’ve deflated the region’s snowmelt, and spring’s heavy rains, their levels drop precipitously. And their temperatures rise.
Neither of which is good for steelhead, which prefer cold water, and also favor rivers pockmarked with deep pools capable of providing protective cover from various predators, including eagles and ospreys.
Many anglers consider steelhead (migratory rainbow trout) among the world’s strongest and most beautiful freshwater fin-bearing critters, and they start looking for these fish along the North Shore when stream temperatures nudge 40 degrees. It’s then that mature (3- or 4-year-old, or older) steelhead begin to filter into the region’s rock-strewn rivers.
For anglers, the trick is to locate spots where the fish “hold,’’ while running upstream. Springs that unfold fairly slowly, with river temperatures rising only gradually, and water levels remaining fairly high, usually provide the most consistent fishing, and the greatest number of days steelhead can be found in North Shore rivers.
Consider now this spring, which arrived late, especially in northern Minnesota, and, when temperatures finally did rise, produced peaks of incredibly raucous river flows north to south, along the North Shore.
Steelhead can fight their way up raging rivers. But anglers can’t fish these waters very well, efficiently or safely.
So this spring, steelheading got a late start. Which is the bad news. The good news is steelhead have been around in some North Shore streams in reasonable numbers much later into May than is usually the case.
Proving the point, Trevor, along with Dave Zentner and Mark Kilen of Duluth, on Tuesday hooked eight steelhead. Four were landed, an admirable percentage.