Points North: On a Cold River, A Newcomer Pays His Dues

Steelhead
Steelhead

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Soft rain sprinkles came to an end at bedtime. During the night, a strong wind blew in from the north. A dusting of snow and clear skies greeted us at daybreak. The north wind and below-freezing temperatures put a bite in the air. In other words, it was a not-so-fine day for fishing.

We were going fishing anyway. Rob Drieslein, editor of Minnesota Outdoor News, had come north to learn about steelhead fishing. With a challenging job and four kids, it’s hard for him to get away. The weather was out of our control, but I was determined to show him a good time. At the very least, we’d explore wild rivers and see spectacular scenery. Maybe we’d even catch a steelhead.

High-pressure cold fronts are the bugaboo of anglers. Fishing may be excellent prior to a front’s arrival, but once the wind shifts to the north, it’s as if someone flipped an off switch. Once, a friend and I had a terrific day on an unfamiliar river. We came back the next morning expecting a repeat performance. Instead, we confronted cold front conditions. Fishing the same water where we’d found great success the previous day, we caught just one fish.

While anglers generally agree cold fronts chill the action for a variety of freshwater species, no one seems to know why. Surfing fishing sites on the Web, I found lots of conjecture about why fish don’t bite during cold fronts, but little science to back it up. What does seem to be known is the change in atmospheric pressure--rather than the change in weather--alters fish behavior. When the pressure is high, the weight of the atmosphere pushes down on the water. Anyone who owns a glass barometer has seen how changing pressure makes the water in the barometer go up and down. High pressure apparently affects the swim bladder of fish, which functions similarly to our inner ear. For reasons not completely understood, fish respond by becoming inactive.

Our first stop was at a river where steelhead often can be seen on shallow gravel beds where they spawn. No trout were visible on the gravel and none were biting in nearby deep water. The cold wind blowing down the river valley made fishing there an endurance test. We soon reeled in, hiked back to the truck and moved on.

Since the skies were clear, sunshine would soon overcome the chilly temps. I was hopeful our luck would improve, too. Sometimes, you can stumble upon a wind-sheltered pool or riffle, where the sun creates a warm microclimate and spurs fish activity. Our next stop, though a long walk from the truck, was a river where I had good fishing a few days previous. Surely, the fish would still be there. But could we catch them?

When we reached the river, Rob began fishing a run and I waded upstream toward the next pool. On the way there, I happened upon a couple of trout holding in a sunny, shallow riffle along the bank. Maybe our luck was changing. Usually, catching steelhead you can see is akin to shooting fish in a barrel. Make a good presentation with a yarn fly and they nearly always strike. These trout were finicky. I made drift after drift before one struck. I shouted to Rob over the sound of the stream so he knew I had a fish on.

It didn’t take long to land the 20-inch trout. Rob took pictures while I unhooked and released the fish. Then he tried to catch the other trout, which was still on the gravel. Unfortunately, this trout refused to strike. Eventually, it became aware of us and disappeared into deeper water.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “We’ll find more of them.”

Famous last words. We continued fishing upstream. I sounded like a tour guide, pointing out the places where I’d hooked fish a few days earlier. While I was certain there were plenty of steelhead in the river, they were neither biting nor lying out on the open gravel bars. After a couple of fruitless hours, I decided it was time to head somewhere else to finish our day. So we hoofed it back to the truck.

Our last stop was another favorite river. (Actually, it’s a rare trout stream that doesn’t rate as a favorite for me.) Here, the upstream spawning migration of steelhead from Lake Superior is blocked by a huge waterfall. I told Rob that a good strategy when fishing on North Shore rivers is to start at the barrier waterfall. Very often you’ll hook a fish or two in the pool beneath the falls.

Drifting my yarn fly through a quiet pocket behind a rock, I found one. It zipped around the pool while I did my best to prevent it from going farther downstream. It surfaced once and flashed bright chrome—the colors of a fresh arrival from the big lake. The trout was strong and feisty, repeatedly running out into the strong currents to get away from me. Soon we were battling down the river, with the trout leading the way. Camera in hand, Rob followed.

I managed to keep the trout from taking refuge beneath a midstream log jam, but I couldn’t keep it out of the current. Every time I was able to bring it near, it made another run. Eventually, we reached a place where overhanging cedars prevented me from going further downstream. Making a stand, I applied a little more pressure to stop the fish. The battle came to an abrupt end. The trout won.

“That’s typical steelhead fishing,” I told Rob.

We continued fishing long enough for Rob to land a small brook trout—the only fish he caught all day. Then it was time to begin the long drive home. Since it had taken years to coax him out on the rivers, I was disappointed, but only a little bit. After all, you have spend some time on the water to earn your first steelhead. Rob just began paying his dues. Hopefully, it won’t be years before he finds time to make his next payment.

Airdate: May 4, 2012

Photo courtesy of Nils Rinaldi via Flickr.

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