ON THE NORTH SHORE — On Thursday Tim Pearson and I were driving north, passing closed campgrounds and lake cabins still boarded for the winter. Patchy snow bracketed Highway 61 and deer fed on bare spots, happy that winter appeared soon over. In the back seat were a couple of fly rods -- 12-foot, two-handed spey rods -- and we were talking fish, steelhead in particular.

Alongside us, Lake Superior lay flat and blue all the way to the horizon, with car-sized chunks of ice undulating in the freezing water near shore.

Pearson, 28, was trained as a wildlife biologist, graduating from the University of Minnesota Duluth, just down the road. For a while he worked in Alaska, along the Arctic Ocean, banding eiders and long-tailed ducks for the U.S. Geological Survey. "It was good,'' Pearson said, "but I'm not sure the biology end of it is what I want to do.''

By "it,'' Pearson presumably means the natural world, all of it good in his eyes, but none quite so good, specifically, as fish and fishing.

Narrowing it down still further, as if looking through a telescope backward, Pearson wants really only to fish with fly rods, wants also only to fish with flies he has tied (and to tie them artistically) and wants most of all to fish steelhead -- wild, migratory rainbow trout that exist almost solely in wild places.

In concert with these, Pearson wants also to paint, employing as his muse the waters and fish of Alaska, where he is a fishing guide in summer and fall, and those of Lake Superior, where he lives (in Silver Bay) and where -- when he's not in Alaska -- he also guides.

Acknowledging all of this as we motor along, Pearson finally blurts out what could pass for an epiphany; a primal scream from a shrink's couch.

"I guess I'm a steelhead junkie,'' he said.

Which you would have to be to cast for these fish along Minnesota's North Shore on a still-chilly March day.

It is true that near Duluth on Thursday, at the mouth of the Lester River, a few other fishermen had parked their cars and wandered to the lake shore. But these were anglers who sought the more readily accessible and consummately more pedantic Kamloops; meat fish by comparison to steelhead -- sporting enough, but in a different class.

"A 'looper' is just not the same fish as a steelhead,'' Pearson said. "A steelhead fights.''

Pearson and I were quite a bit farther north than the Lester, through Lutsen and beyond.

When we reached the Cascade River, a ribbon of water that flows beneath the highway before spilling into Lake Superior, we pulled over.

The sight wasn't pretty.

Nearly as far as the eye could see, ice had blown into shore. The Cascade, spilling freely through its rocky undergirding, had melted only a narrow, crooked stream of open water extending 50 yards or so from shore.

"I haven't been up here in a while this winter,'' Pearson said, pacing the shoreline. "I thought it would be more open.''

Another visitor to the same spot might see only ice. Pearson by contrast sees a complex mosaic of which the lake and the ice are two parts; the Cascade another; and the pending spring with its higher sun another still.

It's in spring that the Cascade and other North Shore rivers are awash in rain and snow melt, when river temperatures rise, and when steelhead -- however few their relative numbers in Lake Superior -- roll and gather along the shore preparing to return upstream, to places where, for them, life began.

Pearson seems to absorb all of this intuitively, as if he were no less a part of the process than the melting ice, warming waters and migrating fish. Like many other Minnesotans before him, he is drawn to it, the son of a state that perhaps incubates this type of person more so than any other.

Which is not necessarily a positive contributor to the GDP. Flying beneath society's radar as they often do, true anglers can be attuned more to the rhythms of seasons and movements of fish than the monotony of work, eat, sleep, repeat -- a graveyard shift if there ever were one.

Having passed much of his winter painting, Pearson said: "I paint what inspires me, and fish inspire me. Steelhead particularly.''

Working in pen and watercolor, he fashions artwork that seems as wild as his subjects. These aren't so much literal renditions of fish out of water as they are sensory amalgams of, say, September days on Alaska's Copper River, fly rod in hand, throwing big, colorful streamers across currents, hoping for a strike.

"Sometimes they just nibble on it,'' he said, "and sometimes they whack it.''

• • •

South along the Shore an hour or more from the Cascade we find open water.

Stringing his long rod, Pearson loops onto its end a heavy shooting head that will allow his fly to sink quickly toward the bottom before being retrieved.

Then he steps into the water, ice encircling his boots, a flowing river emptying into the lake nearby.

Rhythmically he back-casts, both hands on the rod butt, laying his line flat behind him before smoothly zinging it ahead, toward the lake and its fish and the mysteries manifest in both.

In a moment his leader settles onto and then into the cold lake carrying a fly adorned with marabou and tinsel.

Pearson's visceral bonds to the fish he seeks have been long cemented in his paintings and flies.

Now with his rod and line, leader and fly, he hopes for a more direct connection, a hookup however brief -- like a spark jumping a gap.

One life to another.

Casting and retrieving, he picks up his line and casts again.

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com