Fishing North Shore Steelhead

May 10, 2010 by  

By Nick Simonson

If you’ve ever laid eyes on a steelhead, you know the color they bring to a spring fishing trip. The hens are a glistening chrome with a faded pink stripe down their sides and a light green top. The bucks turn a deep pink – almost purple – throughout their sides with greenish backs highlighted by a silver tinge as spring arrives. They bring the color to the tributaries of the Great Lakes at a time when the world is still cloaked in browns, beiges and whites.

From March to May, these lake-run rainbow trout make their annual spawning runs up the tributaries of the North Shore of Lake Superior, bringing the fishing season to life and drawing thousands of anglers to the gushing meltwater flows from Duluth to Grand Marais. Clad in camouflage coats, brown and green waders and ready to take on below freezing to t-shirt temperatures, the anglers offer up some of the same color in pursuit of these fish, which can boast of a catch rate of about one-tenth of a fish per angler hour. Stories of the fish that come to hand, and the powerful ones that got away are traded among the communities of transient anglers that follow these chrome monsters up the shoreline throughout the spring with a variety of their favorite flies in tow.

There’s the staple egg and yarn patterns, tied up on fly hooks weeks in advance or snelled streamside to accommodate what the fish are keying in on. From common colors like pink, orange and chartreuse to McRoe, Wisconsin cheese, and champagne, a variety of unique hues populate the boxes and bags stashed in each angler’s fishing vest. Those patterns are supplemented by egg-sucking leeches with bright accents, flashy woolly buggers, and spring’s wigglers tied with a variety of chenille colors.

Between the fish, the flies, the red mud, the black rocks, the rushing tannin waters and the greening leaves of spring, my journeys on the north shore for the end of the spawning run drained the color from my fly boxes, and painted a few more pages in my memory book. And despite a few smaller specimens that I landed, the most colorful part of the trip might have been the air in the immediate area around my head on a pool somewhere between the barrier and the mouth of the Baptism River.

On the morning of the second-to-last day of my trip, I soon forgot the gray skies, the gusting winds and the chilling rains when a heavy fish took my cerise glo bug in the back of a pool. As it did, two other fish exploded out of the water and bolted downstream as the hooked steelhead entered the first throes of the battle. Twisting, turning and bolting up against the current I caught a glance of the bright pink stripe down his side and the unclipped adipose fin near his tail. As I was fishing alone, I planned on tiring the beast out and bringing him into the shallows where he could be landed.
Four, five, six times he charged headlong into the run ahead of the pool, driving his way against the reduced flows of late April with the greatest of ease. It was a wonder he didn’t spool me en route to the gushing barrier a ways upstream. But the battle tilted back and forth and the pool served as our dueling ground as I allowed the fly reel to spin, whirring its disapproval as I wrenched the rod against the fish to keep him in the arena.

As we entered the tenth round, the fish flopped about on the surface making half-hearted runs back into the pool. It was then I was able to get a good look at the buck steelhead’s size. Even with its tail worn down from spawning in the weeks before, it was huge. The fly was stuck cleanly and tightly in the corner of the fish’s gapng mouth, dwarfed by the size of the greenish blue head of the beast. I backed him into the shallows and he submitted.
I began to bend down to land the trout as he swished, exhausted in the puddle attached to the pool. As I did, the fish gave up, and turned over on his side. A few beams of sunlight streaked through the gray clouds above and set the rainbow alive. Silver skin tinted pink, blue and aquamarine twinkled as the fish rolled over.

Perhaps the wily steelhead’s concession was his final attempt at escape, learned from multiple years of running up and down the river of his birth; for as he did, the fly dislodged from the corner of his mouth due to the unexpected change in angle. The split shot above the fly zinged back in my face and the glo bug dangled around my neck. I blinked. The fish blinked. And before I could even think about making a desperate grab for him, he was gone into the rusty waters of the Baptism.

Dumbfounded, I cursed the laws of physics, the rules of trigonometry and the caginess of the time-tested fish that had bested me. I alternated between laughing, swearing and pulling on my rain matted hair as the thirty inches of fish took off into the pool joined several others as just another colorful memory of the one that got away…in our outdoors.


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