North Shore Steelhead Initiation

February 4, 2009 by  

Our Outdoors
Nick Simonson


There were some great opportunities with the camera on my visit to the North Shore for steelhead.

There were some great opportunities with the camera on my visit to the North Shore for steelhead.

Though the weather is an element that is always out of my control, I try not to let it dampen the spirits of a fishing trip; particularly when that trip is my first of the season and my first to a new place. Despite highs in the forties, rain and cold swollen streams, the weather did not detract from the first in what will be many trips to the tributary streams of Lake Superior’s north shore.

After work on Friday, and a scenic drive to the small town of Knife River, MN, I met up with the group of experienced north shore anglers that I had been corresponding with all winter. After settling into our cabins, we traded war stories over dinner, and for the first time in quite a while, I found myself doing most of the listening. They talked of salmon runs through the middle of Milwaukee and rare coaster brook trout near Grand Marais and tried to recall what rivers between Duluth and Tofte they had not caught fish on.

Neil, the organizer of the event, broke down his daily scouting report of the area. River temperatures were cold and were not conducive to fly fishing, but like me, most of those around the table were there for that purpose and refused to abandon it.

When we assembled in the morning, we were met with moderate rain, cool temps and calm air, conditions which would fall short of the previous day’s forecast. From the front porch of my cabin, in the dim gray morning light, I could make out a chocolate colored sediment plume cutting from the mouth of the Knife River into the gray-blue waters of Lake Superior. Neil sent me with Matt, a former fly fishing guide from Chicago who spent his free weekends scouring the shores of the Great Lakes year round in search of fresh runs of migratory salmon and trout. Matt suggested we try the nearby Sucker River.

As we slid our way down the embankment, Matt advised that every morning was a race to the mouth in the spring on the north shore. If we were to catch any fish on this cold day, they would most likely be making scouting runs into the first pool. Whipping his leader and tippet through a nail-knot tool, he showed me the art of the dropper rig. I clumsily followed suit with a blood knot, making several attempts to get the tag ends long enough to knot and add split shot. It was hard to look graceful roll-casting the rig, but I was beginning to learn there was little grace involved with spring fishing on the north shore, as muddied anglers in mismatched camo waders and jackets continued to line both sides of the stream.

We bumped our offerings of egg-sucking leeches and glo bugs along the rocky bottom of the tinted river, hoping to bonk an opportunistic trout on the nose and trigger a strike. We saw one fish caught by an angler on the opposite side just before Brendan, another member of our group, arrived. Matt felt a fish in the muddied water, either running his line across it or getting an actual strike, but other than that it was quiet.

My hands were cold, red and nearly numb by the time we ventured down to the mouth of the river to view the lake shore and streak a few streamers through the rapids leading to the lake. We decided breakfast and a warm-up was in order and headed back to the cabins. There we met with Jesse, the youngest of the group, and the four of us planned to head north through Two Harbors in search of fish.

Again at breakfast, the talk was of big fish, historic trips and my barrage of questions regarding this fishing that seemed so foreign to me. I rode with Jesse the rest of the day, and he provided me with insight on each stream we passed over in his red GMC pickup.

Many of the rivers we crossed warranted only a viewing from a bridge or scenic overlook, as the melting of recent snowfall had significantly increased their flows and made them turbid. Passing over the Stewart and the Encampment Rivers we made our way north in search of clearer waters.

We visited Gooseberry Falls, the flow of which exploded from a normally peaceful waterfall. It was there I learned that Jesse was a coyote hunting buddy of my law school roommates. We talked of his adventures with the Brandborg brothers, and related some funny stories, marveling at what a small world it was. From the park we headed to the Split Rock River and after a quick look over the sides of the Highway 61 Bridge, we kept moving north to the Baptism River.

Running high, the Baptism lacked the sediment of the other rivers we had passed. The tannin colored water was clear, and it churned beneath the wooden footbridge. We trekked to the mouth of the flow, and the hike was a short one through a pine and birch forest trail, which every fifty yards allowed a vantage point where I could look upon sheer lichen-covered cliff faces which formed the banks of the river. Pines grew out from the tiniest rock outcroppings, and the continued rainfall gave the area the feeling of timelessness, as rain once again became runoff, and runoff pooled in the ancient glacial lake.

We fished for an hour in the cold water. A silent older angler joined us and he worked a spawn bag down the river, hooking into a 21-inch jack steelhead. Upon release, the fish beelined down the stream toward me and beached itself on the gravel bar where I stood. I set my rod down and righted the fish, inspected the unclipped adipose fin indicative of a north shore steelhead, and not a hatchery-raised Kamloops strain rainbow trout, and watched it swim downstream toward the lake.

From there, we headed to the tiny Cross River. My first cast snagged and I broke off at the dropper – time to retie for the tenth time. As I climbed on the shoreline ice shelf to find a seat, I heard Jesse shout.

“I’ve got one,” he yelled.

I turned and saw a massive rainbow trout break the surface of the bend pool. It was at least 28 inches, maybe 30, decked in silver and a shade of purple-pink that reminded me of a November sunset on the plains. It was bigger than any trout I had laid eyes on, including the monsters in the aquarium at the East Grand Forks Cabela’s store.

I scrambled up the embankment to find the other half of our party and the landing net, but they were gone. As I hurried back down, I saw the fish one more time, struggling mightily in the cold water to free itself from the peach glo bug in the top of its mouth. As I was about to set foot in the water to hand land the fish, the hook popped loose, and Jesse let out a sigh of defeat. The fish immediately reversed direction with a flip and headed for the lake.

“That was the biggest I’ve ever had on,” Jesse said, “I deserved it though, I was already taking the picture in my head, I just horsed her too much trying to beach her in the shallows.”

“That was the biggest I’ve ever seen,” I responded, “and though it didn’t end right, just seeing that fish made my day,” I continued in consolation.

That fish convinced me that the place to find monster trout was the north shore. As we examined a few other rivers and creeks on our way to the turning point of the Cascade River and its majestic falls which spilled out of the rock streamed at the barrier, I had caught nothing, froze my hands and toes, and enjoyed every moment of it thoroughly. I was assured by my guides that night that there were many successful trips in my future. From pink salmon and coaster brook trout in the fall, to a shot at steelhead and kamlooper rainbow trout when things settle down in a couple of weeks, the north shore held great fishing and a shot at some true trophies whenever I should venture back again.

I am certain I will later this spring. Hopefully then, I will find more idyllic conditions to tangle with a trout of my own. But as for now, the memory of the scenery, my introduction to the north shore and my hopes for future success will linger in my thoughts of this unique area… in our outdoors.


3 Comments on "North Shore Steelhead Initiation"

  1. John on Sat, 8th May 2010 8:48 pm 

    For the first time I fished the north shore during the beginning of May 2010. I have been missing out. I am familiar with nymph fishing on western streams, but when I moved back to MN I could shure use some input. When using a split shot, slip bobber and a spawn bag what distance do you recommend between each? What size hook? What weight shot, and the distance between the line and the shot? Thanks for the nice articles and I sure would appreciate the advice.

  2. Nick on Sun, 9th May 2010 7:30 am 

    John –

    I fish with a drift rig, either slinkies or split shot, using egg flies or yarn on a fly rod. I haven’t fished spawn bags in my three seasons on the shore, so I’m afraid I’m not much help in that department.

    What I have seen is folks fishing them on center pin fly reels or on drift rods, and they generally adjust their presentation (depth, length between hook and shot and size of offering) based on the conditions of the water. There are a good number of spawn anglers early on, when fish are just coming into the rivers and making that first charge in the cold water – Mid-March (this year) through Mid-April.

    I wish I could be of more assistance than that. But there’s a lot of great local advice up and down the shore. Marine General in Duluth has a good staff, as does the local Gander Mtn. Beaver Bay Sports is also a good stop along the 61 corridor, if you’re in those areas stop in and find out what people have been using and chat with the folks, they’re friendly and helpful and can give you suggestions and what presentations are working on the rivers in their immediate areas.

    Best of luck!

  3. DP on Wed, 26th May 2010 11:53 am 

    Hey, I’m a walleye, northern, panfish angler from southwestern minnesota whose never tried to catch any cold water fish. Do you have any tips in regards to shore fishing or maybe how I might try going after anything with non-fly gear? I’ll be there about a week in mid june. I’m not particular to any specific species- would be fun to catch anything. Thanks!

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