Debate is on over keeping some steelheadA catch-and-release regulation in place for more than a decade has allowed steelhead numbers to rebound on North Shore streams. The question is whether the population has recovered enough to allow anglers to begin keeping steelhead again.
By: Sam Cook, Forum Newspapers, Lake County News Chronicle
A catch-and-release regulation in place for more than a decade has allowed steelhead numbers to rebound on North Shore streams. The question is whether the population has recovered enough to allow anglers to begin keeping steelhead again.
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officials discussed the issue last week with the Rainbow Trout Advisory Group in Duluth. The agency had said it would open the discussion about harvesting steelhead once the catch rate for steelhead reached a specific threshold for three consecutive years.
That threshold is a catch rate of 0.10 or more, meaning that it takes the average angler about 10 hours to catch a steelhead. That level was met in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009, said Don Schreiner, DNR Lake Superior area fisheries supervisor at French River.
According to DNR estimates, more than twice as many steelhead were caught on the North Shore last year as the average from 1995 to 2008.
“This is a good thing,” Schreiner said. “We’re at the point where we’ve reached some relatively stringent criteria that we think represent a good steelhead fishery. We know the numbers are there because of the catch-and-release regulation.”
That regulation has been in effect since 1997 in Minnesota waters. The DNR is not proposing a limited harvest on steelhead, merely accepting comments on the issue.
Many anglers think the no-kill regulation should prevail for North Shore steelhead.
“We’re not for opening the season to even a limited kill,” said Craig Wilson, president of the Lake Superior Steelhead Association. “Our position is that this [no-kill provision] is what’s brought the fishing back, and it’s still not near what the peak was.”
Longtime steelhead angler Michael Furtman of Duluth has mixed feelings about the regulation.
“The first priority is to maintain a healthy fishery,” Furtman said. “I could live forever with a no-kill regulation if that’s what it takes to keep the fishery healthy.”
But he’s somewhat conflicted.
“I have long missed being able to keep an 18- to 22-inch fish,” he said. “They are a wonderful eating fish.”
He knows the DNR is unlikely to allow fish of that size to be kept. If any harvest is allowed, it probably would be one fish over 28 inches or one over 29 inches, Schreiner said.
“Our data, based on catch at the Knife River trap, shows that with a one-over-26-inch regulation, about 37 percent of the females would be vulnerable to harvest,” Schreiner said.
But Lake Superior charter fishing captains, who catch a few steelhead by accident while trolling each summer, would like to see a one-fish limit with a 26-inch minimum size, said Dexter Nelson, president of the Duluth Charter Captains Association.
Because of the way trollers fish, steelhead often are injured or dying by the time they reach the boat. Under current rules, those fish must be thrown back.
“It would be a good deal to keep them because customers don’t understand why you can’t keep them,” Nelson said.
Some anglers have suggested a tag system in which each angler would receive a single harvest tag for an entire year.
“But if we have 2,000 fishermen, we’re in trouble,” Schreiner said.
DNR officials will wait to get the advisory group’s written responses on the steelhead regulation issue before making any decision, Schreiner said. At this point, the DNR has no position on whether to end the no-kill provision.
“If we get a consensus that people are happy with the status quo, then we probably won’t pursue it any further until the Lake Superior Management Plan comes up for review in 2015,” Schreiner said.
Steelhead first were stocked in Lake Superior in 1895 and reached their peak runs in the 1960s and 1970s. Populations declined through the 1980s and 1990s.
For many years, the limit was five fish per day, with only three over 16 inches. From 1992 to 1997, the limit was one steelhead over 28 inches.
Wisconsin regulations allow anglers to keep one steelhead over 26 inches on its Lake Superior tributaries and the lake itself.