When the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) pulled the plug on its French River fish hatchery in 2016, the writing was on the wall for Lake Superior Kamloops — a slacker strain of stocked rainbow trout long suspected to be interbreeding with wild steelhead.
Now it’s clear. In five to seven years, the “Loopers” will be gone. The DNR recently announced that stocking of the species has been dumped after a 42-year run. Given their unsustainable level of natural reproduction, Kamloops are projected to disappear from the North Shore by 2025.
“We’re very happy they are stopping the Kamloops stocking program,” said John Lenczewski of Minnesota Trout Unlimited. “It’s long overdue.”
Ross Pearson, a strong Kamloops advocate who lives in Duluth and has been an adviser to the DNR, said the news was hardly a surprise. Losing the fishery will directly affect more than 5,000 anglers who target Loopers each year. They fish mostly in late winter and almost always from shore.
For the faithful, a good-sized keeper will weigh 4 to 5 pounds. To them, it matters not that the fish reel in without much of a fight.
“Most of the shore fishermen I know are not happy with the decision,” Pearson said.
Yet, he acknowledged that Kamloops die-hards don’t have a scientific argument to keep the program alive.
Genetic testing in 2016 and 2017 by Loren Miller, DNR fisheries research scientist, confirmed that some steelhead sampled in the lower reaches of North Shore trout streams carried clear-cut Kamloops ancestry. Miller said continued crossbreeding would pose a definite threat to the fitness of steelhead, a feisty type of rainbow trout naturalized to Lake Superior.
For one thing, the hybrids produce only a fraction of the offspring born to pure-strain steelhead. In that regard, it’s a waste for steelhead eggs to be fertilized by Loopers. Lenczewski said the crossbreeding could put the population of steelhead in a downward spiral.
“It’s pretty obvious they were having an impact on steelhead abundance,” Lenczewski said.
The DNR introduced Kamloops to the Duluth area of Lake Superior in 1976 to divert local angling pressure from the state’s then-struggling steelhead population. Invasive lamprey and overfishing had taken a toll.
Since then, Loopers have strayed to Michigan and Wisconsin waters while catch-and-release steelhead fishing on the North Shore has surged.
“Guys are having some of the best fishing seasons they’ve ever had,” said Cory Goldsworthy, the DNR’s Lake Superior area fisheries supervisor. “It’s good fishing right now for steelhead.”
Goldsworthy said Minnesota’s neighbors welcomed the Kamloops decision. No other agency stocks the species in the Great Lakes.
“It would be irresponsible for the Minnesota DNR to keep stocking these fish that research has shown negatively impact Lake Superior’s steelhead population,” Goldsworthy said.
Minnesota’s long-range plan for Lake Superior fishing is to further rehabilitate the population of naturalized steelhead to the point where anglers can keep a limited number of the wild fish. Spawning habitat for the fish is scarce along the North Shore — especially compared to Michigan and Wisconsin. But Goldsworthy said natural reproduction is occurring and the DNR will continue to supplement the population with a hatchery stocking regimen based on stripping gametes from pure-strain wild fish.
Moreover, the new rainbow trout stocking effort will include annual production of marked steelhead for harvest. The keepers will be marked by a missing adipose fin, clipped at the hatchery in the same way Loopers were clipped.
Stocking of clipped, baby steelhead begins immediately this spring, Goldsworthy said. In three to four years, anglers will be keeping them for dinner. Unclipped steelhead — covered by a catch-and-release restriction — will continue to be off limits as table fare.
“Right now you can keep a clipped rainbow trout” from Lake Superior, he said. “The regulation doesn’t change and there’s no confusion.”
Pearson, who runs a website for North Shore Kamloops enthusiasts, said the group’s glory days were from 1996 to 2006 when a period of extended rearing times for stocked fish paid off with annual results of thousands of jumbo-sized catches, including some 8- and 9-pounders.
Pearson said the DNR downshifted the stocking program in 2010 by releasing smaller fish. In 2016, when the DNR closed the French River hatchery, the outlook was further dimmed. That’s because French River-raised Loopers were the most viable, he said.
“We’ve been resigned to smaller returns ever since,” Pearson said.
He said genetic proof of crossbreeding was the final nail in the coffin.
“I believe the science,” he said. “I’m not going to argue with it.”
Lenczewski of Trout Unlimited said North Shore steelhead fishing has grown to be “pretty darn good.” Cutting out Kamloops will only improve the fishery, he said, but DNR officials should be careful not to cut North Shore research, stocking or other fish management efforts.
“Leave it on Lake Superior,” he said.