Spring Steelhead Fishing

November 10, 2009 by  

By Nick Simonson

As my offering drifted around in the pool eddy, I hoped that my brother would see a fish caught – if not by me, then by another angler, or maybe himself – and he would experience the finned allure of the north shore of Lake Superior beyond the lichen-covered bluffs and pine-shaded streams that add to its aesthetics. Being a greenhorn to steelhead fishing myself, I made no promises, other than that we’d try a few rivers, talk to a few people, watch how its done and take some good pictures. The weather was somewhat sketchy, with partly cloudy skies and a northwest wind ripping out onto the water of the big lake, but it was tropical compared to the trout opener two weeks before.

Steelheads are a true prize in the fly circles up north

Steelheads are a true prize in the fly circles up north

As we neared the streamside, a dark gray cloud began spitting tiny chunks of ice at us and sleet fell for several minutes. My brother remarked that it must be some sort of sign. We descended down the steep bank to a pool below a small set of ledges and watched for a few moments. I thought at one point I saw a shadow move in and out of the foam line, and then decided to drift my offering through the pool. The rushing of the falls, the squawking of a kingfisher and the rustling branches of an old cedar tree that had grown out from the canyon’s side reminded me that fish would always be a bonus in a place like this. For a few minutes, as the sun peaked back out, I soaked it all in and my mind wandered.

My rod tip bumped once and brought me back to the moment. I pulled up on the slack in the pool. The eight-pound line tightened in the guides of my fly rod as whatever it was on the other end realized there is no such thing as a free lunch. The rod bent into a full arch and the reel spun backward against the palm of my hand as the fish dug for the main current.

‘Fish On!’ I hollered over to my brother, who was just getting his feet wet in terms of north shore fishing. Despite my reminders, he had forgotten to bring waders and was stuck in the shallows in my old calf-high rubber boots. He bounded across the rock ledge to the gravel shore I was standing on and readied himself to grab the fish, whenever it chose to come close enough to land. On the trip over his feet went from being figuratively wet to literally soaked, as his third step put him knee-deep in the chilly meltwater of the stream. It wouldn’t be the only time this fish would baptize him in the waters of spring trout fishing.

My mind began to spin, my voice cracked and I shouted when I talked. I could tell the fish was big, even though I could not see it. My knees began to weaken and each touch of the reel was softened by the anxiety of the fish – potentially my first north shore trout – breaking me off. I let the knob spin around several times as I lost more and more line with each run. Finally the fish turned sideways near the surface, a bright purple streak with a creamy-green back and a clipped adipose fin signaled a large feisty kamlooper – a variety of rainbow trout stocked into the tributaries of Lake Superior to supplement the Steelhead population and for put-and-take fishing. Shortly after being identified, the 25-inch fish ran an end around that would take my brother and I 100 yards downstream.

As I tried to guide the fish into the shallows of the pool where my brother could make a landing attempt, it quickly spun the opposite direction and bolted over the small ledge. I turned and pointed the rod tip downstream as the reel spun out of control. I expected the green backing to follow suit as yards and yards of the clear line peeled off as if I had hooked into the last car on a freight train.

Without instruction, my brother gave chase. Each step into the smaller downstream pools put more icy water in his galoshes. The fish squirted through his hands in the second or third hole down and then made for the lake. My line was wrapped around the buds on the end of a birch branch hanging over the stream, and we struggled to free it, even as the fish took more and more of it down the flow. I thought the ‘looper was lost for sure, but as I reeled up the slack from the tree, I felt the weight of the fish, though it could have just as easily been a rock. As I ran downstream, I found the fish with its nose buried deep behind a small boulder that broke the current in the middle of the riffles.

“He’s right there,” I hollered to my brother, pointing with my arched rod tip at the mid-stream boulder. Ben reached down to grab it, and as he did, the fish darted away. I felt the electricity in my fishing rod falter and heard my brother curse. With a turn revealing a flash of pink, the kamlooper bolted toward the lake, leaving the hook in my brother’s hand and both of us bewildered and out of breath, shaking with the after effects of adrenaline.

After a minute or two, Ben apologized, but I told him it wasn’t necessary. That was the longest I had any fish on the line in my trips to the north shore. I had seen it, felt it and ran the steeplechase after it on the small stream and that was memorable enough. Besides, if that was the first half-hour on the water, I was certain we could find something in the rest of the afternoon which would provide a silver lining on this trip.

-PART II
downstreamHaving swallowed hard on the agony of defeat after watching my first fish of the day bolt down toward the waters of Gitche Gumee, my brother and I moved up the shore in search of more excitement. His first trip had started off much like my early adventures on the north shore had – full of wind, sleet, and lost fish.

We relocated beneath a set of falls to work a run and a deeper pool. The sun shone more frequently and we approached the area with renewed confidence. I waded to the far side and my brother, with a change of socks and drier boots, worked a drift setup on his spinning rod through the foam line on the near side. I flipped my offering out into the run, guided it behind the red and gray boulders and into the little pockets I hoped would hold fish.

The pines on the bank, some sixty feet in height, swayed with the gusts of wind overhead. Their bases of thick branches spared us the chill and allowed us to soak up the sunlight beaming down from directly overhead. We drifted the run for half an hour with no luck and then moved up toward the deep pool.

Having never used a fly rod, my brother asked if he could try mine. Explaining to him that it wasn’t a typical fly-fishing set up, I showed him how to present the monofilament drift rig. There was no traditional ten-to-two cast, but rather a flip of the rod-tip with a roll cast into the current, and a following of the split shot as it bumped around in the flow. It had taken all of last spring for me to get used to it.

Giving him the rod, I waded back to the far side of the river with the camera to take some pictures. The sun shone down on the clear water and my brother was lost in the observation of his drifting line. I snapped a few photographs of him methodically working the seams as if hexd done it all his life. I closed the camera lens and walked back down the bank. As I did, I saw the rod bounce and bow in my brother’s hands.

“I’ve got one,” he shouted from across the stream.

Of course I should have expected it, knowing my brother’s luck. On his first cast with the fly rod, he had hooked into a north shore trout, which quickly realized it was in trouble and dug deep into the pool. I entered the role of coach and net man, minus the net I had forgotten back home, and began formulating a plan to direct the fish into shallow waters and execute a hand landing. I instructed Ben to back into the shallows, where the fish could be landed with a carefully timed grab. The fish rolled to the surface, beaming silver with the slightest hint of pink and then bulldogged back into the depths.

As the fish made run after run, I instructed my brother to let the old fly reel spin and to keep tension with the palm of his hand. For a novice, he executed the battle perfectly. His rod tip stayed high, as did the tension in the line. After withstanding five minutes of powerful charges, my brother was able to direct the fish toward the pool’s edge. Wetting my hands, I reached down into the shallows and the fish lazily rolled into my grasp. I readied the camera and snapped pictures of the Simonson family’s first steelhead.

High-fiving after a successful release, I pointed out that what he had done was something that still eluded me and seemed that only those with years of experience did regularly. We stood in the trickle of water, replayed the fight and estimated the size of the fish at around 22 inches. Handing over my fly rod, he enlightened me on the finer points of steelhead fishing, laughed, and went back to his spinning rod.

As the afternoon progressed, my brother hooked into three more fish, landing one of them, a 17-inch kamlooper. Not only had he caught his first steelhead, but also his first ‘looper, giving him the two main spring species anglers look for on the north shore. I chalked it up to beginner’s luck combined with my brother’s mojo.

The sun peaked through the pines and leafless spring aspens as it made its trek toward the evening skies. I prepared to end my day fishless on the north shore as usual, but happy that my brother had met with such success. I flipped my offering into the water one final time and traced the movement with my rod tip. Suddenly, I didn’t feel the rig, only the sensation of dead weight.

-I pulled up on the rod and it buckled hard. The knob on the whirring fly reel hit my knuckles as the fish ran. I could tell it was big, and from his vantage point, my brother confirmed it was the biggest trout he had ever seen – even bigger than my lost kamlooper. As the minutes wore on, the fish made countless runs, never tiring, never losing the advantage of the swift river around it. Over and over again, it would come shallow, in a streak of silver and metallic pink, as if to wink at me, and then teasingly charge back into the flow. As the runs subsided, the fish seemed to voluntarily swim to-and-fro just a few feet in front of me, as if to say, “Alright, I’ll let you win this one.”

My brother gently clasped the fish around the tail and under its belly and lifted it to me. And there it was, beaming in the late afternoon sunlight, my first steelhead.

Five trips to these tributaries spread out over two springs filled with snow, wind, rain, sleet, numb toes and frozen fingers culminated in this one fish, born of the very water I stood in. And for the first time in my adventures along the north shore, the sunlit scales of a steelhead became my silver lining’in our outdoors.


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