In this most unusual of springs, the change of seasons progressed at such a rapid pace it’s been difficult to keep up. Nearly two feet of snow melted in a matter of days. Ice-out soon followed, occurring weeks ahead of normal, even along the Canadian border.
The winter snow drought and fast melt mean tough conditions for spring-spawning fish. Most fish species can adapt to a quick-paced spring, but they need high water conditions for successful spawning. This is most certainly true for Lake Superior's wild rainbow trout, which run up the tributary rivers shortly after ice-out to spawn on gravel beds washed by cold currents.
The big rainbows—known to anglers as steelhead—started running up the rivers in March, at least that’s what the calendar said. Down along the river, it looked more like the latter half of April. The only difference was the water flow was maybe one-half of normal spring flows. Unless April showers deliver a deluge, the North Shore’s runoff will soon be a trickle. The trout will have a tough time spawning. And fishing in nearly dry creeks won’t be fun.
But for now, there is enough water for fish and fishing. My favorite steelhead fishing hole is the Brule River, which flows through Judge C. R. Magney State Park near my home. The Brule is larger than most of the creeks and streams on Minnesota’s North Shore. Steelhead are big, brawling trout, so a big river is better suited to them, as well as being more challenging and thus more interesting to fish.
I’ve fished the Brule (not to be confused with the Wisconsin river of the same name) for more than two decades. In most years, I first visit the river shortly after ice-out in early April, when four-foot walls of shelf ice line the banks and deep snow blankets the ground. As the snow slowly melts, rising waters eventually sweep away the shelf ice. That didn’t happen this year. When I first walked down to the river, all of the snow and ice were gone.
In a normal year, it takes weeks for the water temperature to rise from a degree or two above freezing to a chilly 40 degrees. Even though it is only a few-degree difference, the rising water temperature is enough to trigger steelhead to enter the river from Lake Superior. This year, my first fishing trip was on a cold day. Already the water temperature was starting to rise. I didn’t catch anything, but fishing conditions were promising. I returned on a warm morning a couple of days later.
When you’ve fished a river for a long time, you come to know the exact places where steelhead are most likely to be. On the Brule, I know several such spots and the best ways to fish them. Usually, I step to the river’s edge just upstream of the steelhead lie and drift my fly or bait into it. This technique, which trout anglers call across and down, allows your offering to drift naturally with the current as you keep a tight line and wait for a strike. If I don’t get a strike after a few drifts, I take a couple of steps downstream and do it again.
On this morning, the conditions seemed especially fishy, so I was surprised to fish halfway through a long pool without getting a strike. But I didn’t become frustrated or impatient, because steelhead often lurk at the downstream tail of the pool. I just kept stepping down two steps and making another drift.
I wasn’t surprised when the first fish struck. It immediately broke the surface and surged downstream as I set the hook. I kept a tight line but didn’t apply any pressure to the trout, which would give it the leverage necessary to pull free. When fighting a good-sized trout, “easy does it” is usually the best strategy. We tussled for a few minutes before I was able to draw the steelhead to hand. Sleek and silver-bright, its beauty was marred only by a couple of scars on its flank where parasitic sea lampreys had attached themselves like leeches. Fortunately, the trout survived their predations and mine. I let it go to proceed on its journey to the spawning grounds.
Before resuming fishing, I checked my line to see if it frayed during the fight. The line was fine, but the point of my hook was bent. I sharpened the hook with a small file, even though changing to a fresh hook was a better idea. A few minutes later, I paid the price for laziness when the line broke on a hard strike. Obviously, the line was weakened while fighting the first fish.
I continued to methodically work my way through the pool, but didn’t find any more fish. However, a friend once told me any day you catch a steelhead is a good day, so I reeled up headed to work satisfied. Spring, though early, was now officially here. The Brule and its trout would be there when I returned.
Airdate: April 6, 2012
Photo courtesy of ensteele via Flickr.