Points North: On The North Shore, A Ripple Of Discontent Begins

Knife River, Minnesota
Knife River, Minnesota

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The next best thing to spending a fine April afternoon fishing a trout stream is to go for a walk beside one. And so homeward bound on Easter Sunday I made a half-mile hike to the Knife River's second falls. The yellow dog joined me while Vikki waited at the truck with the old dog.

Decades had passed since the last time I'd followed this muddy path. Why? Living more than 100 miles further up North Shore Highway 61, I have a dozen enticing rivers much closer to home. Still, the Knife is the North Shore's best known trout stream. Nearly all North Shore rivers have a high waterfall less than a mile upstream from where they enter Lake Superior, which blocks the spawning runs of the lake's trout and salmon. On the Knife, trout make it over two waterfalls and can ascend all the way to the river's cold headwaters, where they spawn.

During the 1960s and 70s, the Knife gained a national reputation as a destination for spring steelhead fishing. Anglers stood shoulder to shoulder in the cold flows to catch the big, Lake Superior rainbow trout as they made their spawning run. Jim's Bait in Duluth was the gathering place for serious steelhead anglers. Those diehards, many of whom considered the Knife their home river, formed the Lake Superior Steelhead Association (LSSA) during this era.

In the 1980s, anglers began catching fewer steelhead during the spring run. LSSA members were among the first to call attention to the decline and ask for lower bag limits to protect the fish. During the next decade, the Knife became the centerpiece of an effort to rehabilitate the North Shore's steelhead population. At the first waterfall, just downstream from the Highway 61 Expressway, the DNR built a concrete fish trap in order to capture, count and examine nearly every fish swimming up or down the river. First on the Knife, then on all other North Shore tributaries and Lake Superior, the steelhead bag limit was reduced to zero to protect the population.

Not surprisingly, the no-kill regulation improved steelhead fishing along the North Shore. On the Knife, this is largely because catch-and-release fishing means anglers have the opportunity to catch the same trout more than once. The DNR counts just a few hundred steelhead running the river each spring. Unlike many trout streams where catch-and-release occurs, the fish population has not significantly increased in abundance.

But I digress. I was walking up to the second falls for a look-see, because it is the source of a bitter dispute between the DNR and LSSA. Years ago, the DNR used dynamite to blast the falls and make it easier to trout and salmon to ascend. Fisheries crews built a concrete structure to create a pool beneath the falls that is essentially a launch pad for leaping fish. A few years ago, the structure washed away and anglers say fish have trouble leaping the falls at some river levels. The DNR tried to recreate the pool using boulders, which washed away the first spring freshet. It then tried to dig a pool beneath the falls using a backhoe.

The LSSA says the new pool isn't effective and estimates up to a third of the spring run is unable to leap the falls and reach the spawning grounds. The LSSA will pay to replace the concrete structure, which it believes will cost less than $10,000. The DNR refuses to give the club the go-ahead to do the work, saying the falls is adequate as it is.

I followed the dog on a path that led from the high ridge down to the river, which was running high but had been fishing well for more than a week. I was struck by the beauty of the place. The upper Knife has the gradient and character of a mountain river, tumbling around boulders and over ledge rock as it flows through a deep ravine lined with towering white and red pines. The river path petered out, so I scrambled back up the ridge to the main trail. There I ran into Duluth angler/conservationist Dave Zentner, who was out for an Easter afternoon hike with his son, Eric.

“We saw a few fish jump the falls,” Dave said, “or we saw the same fish try to jump the falls a few times.”

We parted ways and I continued on. The trail went along the crest of the ravine, forming a divider between the pine-clad river corridor and a recent timber harvest on the high ground. Eventually, I could hear the rumble of the waterfalls ahead. The second falls is less dramatic than many North Shore cataracts, but scenic nonetheless. When I reached the falls, I paused for awhile to admire the view. I didn't see any steelhead try to leap the barrier while I was there, but it appeared passable with the high flow.

Of course, I was there for just a couple of minutes during the six-week-long spawning run. I started back for the truck well aware that I don't know the river in the same intimate way as the anglers who fish there every spring. I have no doubt their concerns regarding fish passage are justified. And, having seen the falls in high water, I can understand why DNR bureaucrats would say the present conditions are adequate to allow fish passage.

Still, it is difficult to look at this dispute and not be troubled by the rift between the DNR and the anglers the agency serves. The LSSA has been at the forefront of North Shore fisheries conservation for decades and has invested its own money into the resource for habitat work and steelhead rearing at the DNR's French River Hatchery. According to the club, its Knife River expenditures over the years total about $750,000.

The DNR is heavily invested in the river as well. The construction of the fish trap at the first falls during the 1990s was almost certainly the most expensive single project ever on a Minnesota trout stream. The daily operation of the trap by fisheries staff is labor intensive. Stocking programs on the Knife, focused on hatchery rearing the progeny of wild steelhead, haven't been cheap, either.

During the dispute, the LSSA found it necessary to file a Freedom of Information request with the DNR in order to get data from the agency regarding the second falls. When an conservation group is driven to that extreme, something is amiss. The club really isn't asking for anything more than a replacement of a previous habitat improvement and such projects ought to be routine fisheries work. Moreover, the LSSA is one of the DNR's few conservation partners on the North Shore. In an era when public/private partnerships are the norm in resource management, a dispute such as this represents a backward step—one that may create a widening ripple of negative consequences for fishing and fish management.

Currently, the DNR rallying support for fishing and hunting license fee increases to meet an approaching shortfall in the Game and Fish Fund. The LSSA says since the DNR has pronounced the second falls is “good enough” to allow some fish passage, the present license fees are “good enough” to fund the agency. They are unwilling to support a license fee increase. Their position and the situation which brought it about has come to the attention of state conservation leaders and may give a face to a broader undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the DNR's fish and wildlife leadership. Thus the ripples widen.

Airdate: April 29, 2011

Photo courtesy of pirate johnny via Flickr.

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