High water, high hopes for steelheadSteelhead fisherman Brady Wehrman drifted a piece of yarn and a bag of spawn through a piece of slack water on the Sucker River early last Tuesday morning. Something was different about the river that morning.
Steelhead fisherman Brady Wehrman drifted a piece of yarn and a bag of spawn through a piece of slack water on the Sucker River early last Tuesday morning. Something was different about the river that morning.
It was full of water again.
North Shore streams have been woefully low on that commodity for the past few weeks. The water has been clear and cold, inhibiting fish movement and making fishing tough.
“Today, there’s mystery again,” said Wehrman, 33, of Cloquet. “Before, the water was so low you could see the fish. … They’d just be sitting there.”
You’d think that would have made fishing easier, but most steelheaders don’t like to fish for steelhead they can see. Fish are spookier and tend to be less active when rivers are low and clear. Beyond that, the big rainbows coming into streams this time of year from Lake Superior are less likely to move upstream during low flows.
Al Wolf of Carlton made his repetitive drifts with a yarn fly downstream from Wehrman Tuesday morning.
“I hope we never have another spring like this,” Wolf said. “You’d hit one good day, and then the next week, it’s horrible.”
But after two inches of rain fell on Sunday and Monday and a bit more fell during the week, streams are dancing again. How much of the steelhead and Kamloops rainbow trout run remains to come still is unknown, but anglers are hoping more fish will be entering rivers.
Dave Anderson of Cloquet was among 10 anglers working the final stretch of the Sucker River on Tuesday morning before the river delivered its newfound payload of current to Lake Superior. Anderson, 44, had a 4-pound hen Kamloops rainbow tethered to a tree root at the river’s edge. He had caught the fish on his fourth or fifth drift with a yarn fly.
“A lot of fish were hauled out of here earlier in the year,” Anderson said. “I’m thinking the big run is over.”
Those early fish came in with the snowmelt runoff in March. Anglers had done well in that initial flurry of water. Anderson has done well since, too.
“I’ve probably taken 30 to 40 fish,” he said between drifts. “Both steelhead and ’loopers. The good old days are back on some rivers.”
Steelhead fishing on the North Shore has been improving in recent years. Catch rates are up, even though anglers must immediately release all wild rainbows. They may keep so-called “clipped” fish, those that have an adipose fin clip indicating they were stocked.
“We’re hooking fish again,” Anderson said. “You’re able to come out and hook some fish.”
Everyone on the river seemed happy to have water in the river again. Anglers shouted back and forth across the river over the rush of the current. Old men with walking sticks stepped gingerly into the current. Young guys in hooded sweatshirts made their drifts.
By mid-morning, the sun found the river, painting gold on the cedars and spruces. Anglers hoped the sun would warm the river, which had been running at 33 to 34 degrees that morning. Maybe that would help trigger a run of new fish.
Up and down the river, reports from a dozen or so anglers revealed that only about five fish had been landed by mid-morning.
Aaron Benney, 28, of Proctor had hooked two fish, he said, his first ever. His father-in-law, Edlin Gaalswyk, 68, of Duluth was introducing Benney to steelheading.
“Once you get the taste of it, it’s hard to spit it out,” Gaalswyk said.
Although he hadn’t landed a fish, Benney got a thrill from his morning’s hook-ups.
“It was pretty exciting,” he said. “I thought it was a snag, and then the snag moved up the river. It definitely made my heart beat.”
Steelheading is an intense and demanding pursuit. Some might call it an addiction. An angler feels compelled to be on the rivers as much as possible, because one never knows when a run of fish might happen. Anglers rise in the middle of the night to get to the river and nail down a good drift.
Anderson, like many steelheaders, started fishing rivers early in life. At 44, he’s been steelheading for 30 years.
“I can’t get enough of it,” he said.
Brady Wehrman had started at age 12, he said, growing up in Silver Bay, fishing the Beaver River.
“The first steelhead I caught was when I was fishing for suckers,” Wehrman said. “I thought, ‘Hey, this one’s pretty.’ ”
He’s been fishing Lake Superior’s big rainbows ever since.
On Tuesday, anglers tried other rivers, too. Anderson had stopped first at the Talmadge but found the river too crowded with anglers. A handful of anglers was working the Knife, but it was still high and turbid from the rains.
Fishing was likely to improve through the week as stream levels dropped and the water cleared a bit.
Meanwhile, anglers near the mouth of the Sucker on Tuesday morning made the best of things, probing pockets of quiet water where the clear bubbles of foam swirled in slow circles. Their long fly rods looked like elongated wands as they glinted in the morning light. Backlit wisps of monofilament line resembled loose strands of a spider’s web dangling across the river.
The anglers stood in close ranks, timing their drifts so they wouldn’t cross someone else’s line. An older man with a gray beard arrived in his neoprene waders and a well-stocked fishing vest. He stood on the bank and assessed the situation.
He may not have been happy to see so many anglers already in the river. But he must have been happy to see the river full of water again.
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