Lake Superior Salmon and Trout
Thousands of spawning fish will soon ascend North Shore Rivers!
by Erich Hartmann
Now that September is here our rivers and streams will soon come to life with salmon and trout. The anadromous (lake-run) fish have already begun to enter some area rivers, namely Wisconsin's Bois Brule. The North Shore rivers will also host three kinds of salmon and a few trout by the end of September.
Beginning in late July, lake-run brown trout and chinook salmon-the largest salmon-ascend the Brule River to spawn in its spring-fed water. Steelhead and coho salmon follow in August through November. Steelhead, or migratory rainbow trout, are the most prolific of these fall spawners. All told, over ten thousand fish may enter the Brule River during the fall fishing season.
The North Shore's freestone streams support a slightly different fall fishery. Few coho and chinook salmon reproduce successfully on Minnesota's North Shore. However, the DNR maintains a put-grow-take chinook stocking program; fingerlings are stocked and grow into enormous adults, which are caught by boaters and stream anglers. Spotty runs of chinook and fewer cohos, which are only planted by the Michigan DNR, enter our streams to spawn in the fall-but most just go through the motions.
Steelhead and kamloops rainbow trout (known locally as loopers) sometimes follow the salmon to eat their eggs. Steelhead are considered "naturalized" since they have been reproducing in our rivers since the early 1900's when they were stocked from their western North American origin. Loopers are planted as another put-grow-take opportunity to supplement-and relieve pressure from-the steelhead fishery.
The only self-sustained salmon on the North Shore is the pink salmon. The smallest of the Pacific salmon, the pink only attains a few pounds (the state record is 4.5 pounds) by the time it spawns at two years of age. There is no stocking program for the pink salmon.
The story of the pink salmon's introduction to Lake Superior takes place in 1956. The tale varies but most accounts cite an accident (spilled barrel of salmon, overflowed hatchery, fish dumped into sewer!) as the genesis of this well-suited fishery. However they got here, after peaking in the 1970's and 80's the pink salmon population seems to have found a stable niche in the North Shore's rocky, sterile streams.
Pinks spawn in September and are usually most prolific up the shore near Tofte. When they enter the river their stomachs disintegrate to create room for eggs and milt. This initiates a decomposition process that ends with dozens of fish carcasses lining the river. Due to the rapid physical decline, pink salmon are not considered good table fare when harvested from the river. In the lake (or ocean) their meat is firmer and more desirable.
HOW DO I CATCH THEM?
From a fishing standpoint it is generally best to target lake-run fish just after they enter the river. Because they refrain from eating while spawning, your best bet is to elicit an instinctive strike reflex by presenting a natural offering to a fresh run of fish. The strike reflex weakens with time spent in the river.
Although low precipitation and a hot July have left our rivers low and warm, there should be some fish activity in the Brule by now. Lake-run brown trout are certainly lurking in the deepest, wood-flanked pools. The best time to catch them is early morning or in the last hours of evening when the light is low. On the fly rod, small egg flies work well, as do flashy streamers (which imitate baitfish) and even mouse flies plopped next to a cut-bank at night. Rapalas, nightcrawlers and spawn bags also work well with spinning gear.
Any day now, approximately seven or eight thousand steelhead will begin to ascend the Brule River's long corridor. The above methods will work, but you might substitute egg sucking leech flies for the mouse pattern and trout spinners for the Rapalas.
Finding the silvery migrants is another challenge. Sometimes fish concentrate in certain holding spots before ascending a series of cascades. Other times they shoot right up to their spawning grounds upstream. It usually depends on the river conditions so if there is a heavy rain you can be sure some fish are moving in. With our dry conditions any substantial rainfall will trigger a run and should trigger the serious trout and salmon angler to grab a rod and hit the river. If a fresh run is suspected you will want to focus your efforts in the lower third of the Brule.
On the North Shore the streams are very short so the holding places are quite limited. Many rivers have less than a quarter mile of spawning grounds before the barrier waterfall blocks upstream migration. When the water is low and clear like it is now fish are easy to see, especially if you use a pair of polarized sunglasses-a must for fly fishing. Remember that intentionally snagging fish is illegal; even though salmon die after spawning, it is still bad sportsmanship to deny them that opportunity.
A DAY ON THE WATER
One late September day last year I fished the lower Brule with a friend named Steve. We covered nearly a half mile of fast water, fishing the holding pools since there were no visible fish in the pocket water (the breaks behind rocks in rapids). I lost a bright chromer, the steelhead tapped purposefully and as I raised my rod it came to the surface. With the fish only a few feet in front of me, I raised my rod and tried to reel up the slack. Alas, a reel malfunction left me holding onto a slack line and the reverie of a steelhead's spirited-albeit short-fight.
That was the only fish of the morning so Steve suggested that we head up the North Shore in search of salmon. The Baptism, Cascade and Temperance Rivers are likely hideouts for salmon, as is the Lester River in Duluth. We fished in one of the above and found a pod of pinks holding among the boulders at the tail of a deep pool. Sight-fishing for salmon is one of stream fishing's greatest pleasures-if they are biting.
Almost shaking with anticipation, we rigged up black ghosts, wooly buggers and egg sucking leech streamers on our 7-weight fly rods. A 4- or 5-weight rod is better suited for the relatively small salmon, but we were rigged for steelhead. Nonetheless, when Steve's dead-drifted fly was inhaled by a kype-jawed pink salmon, his rod bent deeply as it leveraged its humpbacked form against the current. They were biting!
Pink salmon develop a distinctive shape that often earns them the name "humpies." As mentioned, male pinks develop a pronounced jaw kype, or hook, which all salmon species exhibit and is part of their name Oncorhynchus: literally "hook nose." A most dramatic body morph is seen in the male pink salmon, which develops a large hump between its head and dorsal fin. The fish leverage this hump against the current, which creates a sail-like effect similar to a sunfish.
None of the aforementioned fish are native to Lake Superior. In fact, our only native salmonids, brook trout and lake trout, are not trout at all but char. Lake trout spawn on reefs and rarely enter rivers, except to feed. Shore anglers casting spoons often catch them in the spring and fall but boats trolling the big lake land the most lake trout.
A remnant stock of the extirpated coaster brook trout spawns at Isle Royale. Fishery managers around Lake Superior are trying to bring the oversized brook trout back to its native range. A few can be found in the up-shore rivers and anglers lucky enough to embrace this lost beauty are reminded of its tenuous existence and encouraged (by 20-inch size minimums, if not their conscience) to release them safely.
There are almost too many fish to mention, let alone go out and catch. Autumn comes and goes quickly, but those comfortable days on the water will warm your spirit until the spring steelhead run is upon us.
Keep your hook in the water.
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