ALONG THE KNIFE RIVER — Leo Marcatoma sat with his legs crossed on a big boulder in the river, one big step out from shore.
It was mid-Sunday morning and sunshine was pouring down on him as he cast a bit of worm downstream, hoping for a steelhead rainbow trout to bite.
A few days earlier he had caught three “keeper” clipped-fin rainbows on the Lester River using this method and he was hoping for some of the same luck on the Knife.
"I’ve been here since 6:30," said Marcatoma. "But nothing."
Still, the Minneapolis angler was smiling. It was worth the trip just to be here on a nice day with the river all to himself — not another angler in sight.
"It’s still fun to try," Marcatoma said.
Upstream and around a bend in the river, Jay Walker of Duluth was having the same luck and was just as unconcerned.
"The water temps are good, right at 41, 42 degrees. … But I haven’t seen a trout yet," said Walker, who, when he’s not fishing, is taking care of fish as executive director of the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth.
And yes, he now expects to get razzed a bit when he can’t produce on hook and line.
"I’m a fisheries biologist. That doesn’t make me a great fisherman," Walker said with a laugh. “I study the fish. I don't study fishing.”
Timing your fishing forays to the rivers of Lake Superior’s North Shore is an art and a science any year, but has been even harder this year with this spring coming in waves, interspersed with winterlike days. Some people think of the North Shore steelhead run as a short and sweet season of a week or so. But the spawning run can come in fits and spurts, often dependent on rainfall, river flows and water temperatures. One veteran river angler once said he has, in some years, caught more North Shore steelhead after the mid-May walleye opener than before. The run is later the farther up the North Shore you go.
At the Knife River fish trap "we had a fast start back about April 1 even though the flows were down. And then we had 2 inches of rain and everything sort of shut down for a while," said Cory Goldsworthy, Lake Superior area fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "Then it started up again, maybe a little slower in the cold weather."
“It’s going to be strung-out this year,’’ Goldsworthy said of the annual run of steelhead out of Lake Superior.
Nick Peterson, migratory fish specialist for the DNR for Lake Superior streams, said more female trout have been showing up lately at the Knife River fish trap, a sign the peak run on the lower North Shore is here, or just past. But he said it's been a very good season, with 582 adult steelhead counted as of Tuesday, more than the median 429 steelhead for an entire season over the last 24 years.
"And that's going to go up some, so it's been a very good run so far," Peterson said.
The number of spawning adult steelhead caught in the Knife trap has varied from just 86 in 1996, the first year, to a high of 1,029 in 2016.
Stocked 'wild' steelhead showing up
Minnesota’s North Shore steelhead fishing has been catch-and-release only since 1997 to protect what had been a dwindling population of the popular rainbow trout. But Marcatoma’s earlier catch on the Lester River should bring a smile to some North Shore angler’s faces.
His fish likely were among the first migration of stocked "wild" steelhead rainbow trout that the DNR has been putting in the Lester and French rivers since 2018 that are now getting big enough to get the urge to spawn up streams. And some are legal to keep and eat, if you want. (Only rainbow trout over 16 inches long with a clipped adipose fin can be kept.)
After the DNR ended its popular Kamloops rainbow trout stocking program in 2017, the agency replaced it in 2018 with a program intended to bolster the wild strain of local steelhead rainbows. Those first stocked "wild" fish are now about 18-20 inches long. Some of the 2019 stocked fish also could be 16 inches and larger.
"It’s good to see them coming back," Goldsworthy said.
The Kamloops stocking program was dropped in part because of the cost but also because research showed the fish were occasionally reproducing with and changing the genetics of local wild steelhead rainbows. The recently stocked steelhead are offspring of wild North Shore fish so are genetically identical to wild steelhead.
"They are as wild as we can get," Goldsworthy noted, adding that the clipped-fin steelhead will mostly show up in the Lester and French rivers where they were stocked but also will disperse into the Knife and other local streams.
Meanwhile, anglers will still be catching a few of the last stocked Kamloops trout, which now are getting to be fairly big — upwards of 25 inches in many cases — and have clipped adipose fins, making them legal to keep.
That’s probably what Nelson Carlson of Apple Valley caught last week on the Knife.
"I kept it," Carlson said. “It was a really nice fish. … Probably 26 inches.”
Because the newly stocked, clipped-fin steelhead can successfully spawn with wild fish, some North Shore steelheaders have suggested that anglers release clipped steelhead as well. But Goldsworthy said that decision is entirely up to the individual.
“If some groups or individuals want to promote catch-and-release (of clipped rainbows) that’s fine," Goldsworthy said. “But when we ended the harvest fishery for Kamloops the intent of our stocked steelhead program was to allow some harvest to make up for that.”
The DNR’s official long-term management goal is to eventually allow some harvest of unclipped, wild steelhead, but only after their numbers rebound to higher levels. Goldsworthy said a recent survey found a 50-50 split among anglers on whether they would eventually like to keep a North Shore steelhead for eating.
Fishing for steelhead rainbow trout on Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior is strictly catch-and-release unless the fish has a clipped adipose fin. Clipped steelhead and their cousins, clipped Kamloops rainbow trout, are legal to keep if they are 16 inches or larger. The daily limit is three. The total combined limit of brook trout, splake, brown trout and rainbow trout is five. The season runs year-round. A Minnesota fishing license and trout stamp are required.
Steelhead Association turns 50
The Lake Superior Steelhead Association is celebrating its 50th birthday this year.
The association was formed in 1971 “to protect our rivers and fish; to help preserve Lake Superior and its bounty; to learn more about the resources we enjoy and foster discussion, research, and sound fisheries management practices; to educate anglers and the public about all these things.”
Annual membership to the group is $20 for adults and $5 for kids under 16.
The association’s fishing annual, the "Lake Superior Angler," is hot off the press and is sent free to all members. Nonmembers can order it by sending a check for $8.25 for each copy, along with your return address, to: Lake Superior Steelhead Association, P.O. Box 16034, Duluth, MN 55816-0034.
For more information or to join go to steelheaders.org.