DULUTH – Connor Suliin reached for a brass bell as soon as he iced the first fish caught on a recent troll through the southernmost waters near the North Shore.
“Kala, Kala, Kala!” the first mate said as he rang the charter boat’s good luck charm.
In the language of his Finnish ancestors, the 15-year-old deckhand was saying, “Fish, fish, fish.”
The salmon and trout foraging for food in the top five feet of water heeded his call.
On a recent sun-splashed Thursday afternoon, three of us reeled in nine coho salmon, two lake trout and one wild steelhead — an above-average catch from a thriving resource that’s like a cherry on top of Minnesota’s fishing scene.
To borrow the pet phrase of a charter boat captain from nearby Superior, Wis., it’s as easy and sweet as picking cotton candy.
Lake Superior Area Fisheries Supervisor Cory Goldsworthy said North Shore coho salmon, in particular, might be at the top of their cycle this summer in terms of catch rates. Together with Superior’s healthy lake trout population and smaller pockets of chinook, or king, salmon, and a few brown trout, anglers fishing this year in the Minnesota waters of Lake Superior are expected to catch some 40,000 trout and salmon. About a third of those will be caught aboard charter boats.
“The number of licensed charter boat captains [49 this year] is fairly steady,” Goldsworthy said.
According to a recent charter fishing report written by Keith Reeves of the Department of Natural Resources, the fleet is as busy as it’s ever been.
Fishing pressure from charter boats in 2018 was measured at 60,000 hours, only a titch lower than the highest level ever recorded in 2017. The number of anglers (11,000) and charter trips (2,148) were close to the highest on record, the report said.
Based on monthly counts provided to the DNR by charter captains, the report said last year’s catch rate was slightly better than in 2017. A similar experience appears to be playing out again this year, Goldsworthy said.
In search of ‘mud’
Captain Peter Dahl steadied his 32-foot Marinette cruiser at 3 mph as he zigzagged near shore between Canal Park and Glensheen Mansion. He and Suliin set out an assortment of lines using planer boards, Dipsy Divers and downriggers, but all the bites came on stick baits suspended just below the surface.
The average charter party size in 2018 was five anglers. The average total catch per trip was seven fish. July and August are the busiest and the fishing moves up the shore as far as Grand Marais as the surface water warms up.
Our party was made up of Scott Ward of Inver Grove Heights and David Whitescarver of Golden Valley, and we pride ourselves on unguided fishing trips. But the charter experience — available for about $100 per angler in an average-sized party — had its charms.
For four hours we took turns reeling in fish that typically surfaced about 50 yards behind the boat. Suliin usually was the first to notice a bite. He would remove the rod from its holder, break up our conservations and hand it to the next man up.
The silvery cohos were surprisingly small — between 18 and 24 inches — but mouthwatering. No one hooked a king salmon, but Scott and David each reeled in a lake trout and Scott easily handled the biggest catch of the day — a wild steelhead rainbow trout that we quickly photographed and released.
Watching water hues, skyline
Dahl and his family have been fishing Lake Superior for decades. They operate Happy Hooker based in Duluth and quizzing him about his techniques and knowledge of Gitchi-Gami was a highlight of the trip.
Like other captains, he closely monitors lake temperatures and looks for hues in the water. Patches of green water provided the most action for us, especially if the boat was following a “mud line” — the border where currents of brown water meet patches of green or blue water.
The blue water was the coldest, and the optimum water temperature for catching fish that day was 49 to 51 degrees. Baitfish in those locations were attracting the trout and salmon.
But even if the fish weren’t biting, motoring out beyond the Aerial Lift Bridge and admiring Duluth’s skyline and hillsides would have been a treat. In calm water, the fishing can be duplicated by small boats and charter fishing, as a fraction of the North Shore’s total recreational fishery, has declined by 7% since 2017. The DNR report attributed the shift to increased private sport fishing.
It’s true that Lake Michigan holds bigger salmon than Lake Superior. Goldsworthy said Michigan’s waters are warmer and richer in nutrients, especially alewives. Where a five-pound Lake Superior salmon would be considered large, Lake Michigan king salmon can top out at more than 30 pounds.
“It’s because Superior is 240 feet deep and cold,” Goldsworthy said. “The size of our fish are system-limited.”
But like Superior’s hearty lake trout population, North Shore salmon are self-sustaining. Minnesota stopped stocking cohos in the mid-1970s and it’s been more than a decade since the DNR stocked king salmon.
“Anything we stock has a good chance of getting eaten by trout,” Goldsworthy said.