Minnesota Spring Steelhead: Two Ways to Win

“Fish on!” came the welcome shout from my buddy Lane, although the high-pitched whine of his buzzing spinning reel drag seconds before had already clued me in. The two of us had been standing maybe 30 feet apart on a narrow rocky point, casting shiny spoons near a river mouth emptying into Lake Superior; now we were hoping to see the first fish of what had been a challenging trip.

Ten full minutes and a half-dozen long runs later, I was squinting through the waves to identify the tired fish, which at first appeared to be a very strong spring Chinook. But a king salmon it was not. Seconds later I stooped to slip two fingers into the gill plate of a monster, salmon-sized steelhead, and the celebration began. Neither Lane nor I could believe the size of the thick-bodied hen, easily 12-13 pounds and 32 inches, and likely a few more. But we’ll never know for sure. During the ensuing photo session the fish gave a huge kick and Lane lost his gentle grasp; the fish—which had always been targeted for release—catapulted deftly from Lane’s hands and back into the gin-clear lake. We laughed and high-fived—awestruck.

The impressive rainbow that made our recent trip so memorable was landed for one main reason: Lane and I had come prepared, complete with proper gear, to make the most of what is one of the most-unpredictable bites of the angling calendar. We had smartly packed both fly and spinning gear, allowing us the option of fishing both the area’s rivers and creeks, as well as the rivermouths. We had begun our adventure traversing up and down rivers with fly gear, and when unexpected snow runoff (caused by a mid-April heatwave) quickly rendered most rivers too high and muddy for good angling, we fell back on casting spoons at the rivermouths. Carrying both types of gear is smart for anyone traveling any distance to fish this famous area, and its legendary spring steelhead run.

Unquestionably wild and unique, Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior does indeed offer the avid steelheader a virtual playground full of angling possibilities. It’s almost hard to believe that an area filled with stunning rock cliffs, fast-flowing rivers and picturesque forests studded with century-old white pines could deliver even more visual gifts for adventurous anglers. But the area’s crown jewels are more stunning still. Those would be the silvery, lake-run rainbows that make spawning runs up the many state streams and creeks, along the roughly 100-mile stretch of lake shore stretching between Duluth and Grand Marais.

Most years steelhead can be found in the area streams from April through early May, while angling in the lake proper, near the river mouths, can produce a wild variety of fish that include Lake trout, brook trout, silver and king salmon, or Kamloops rainbows.

Fly anglers will want to pack chest-high waders and good boots—I prefer studded-sole models—that offer the best traction in the sometimes-slick riverbeds, which seem to be 99-percent solid rock.

North Shore steelhead will hit a variety of standard steelhead flies; in my experience you can’t go wrong with bright glow bugs, especially shades of orange and chartreuse, and it’s always wise to have a few darker flies such as small black stonefly nymphs, or black/brown/olive woolly buggers/wooly worms. As an avid fly tyer I tend to get a bit more creative with my fly selection but a time-honored North Shore killer is a simple yarn fly made by looping fluorescent glow bug yarn into a snelled hook. And if you don’t tie your own, the economical yarn rig will save you some serious money. As for flyrods, I prefer a 9-foot 8-weight, loaded with a weight-forward floating line that should handle most all you need to get done on North Shore rivers; if you have an extra reel spool fill it with a sinking-tip line that might be useful on larger rivers such as the Baptism. For more info log on to www.minnesotasteelheader.com

A wide variety of spinning gear is useful for fishing the river mouths, but you’ll see longer-casting, and fish-fighting benefits from using longer medium-action rods measuring 7.5 to 9.5 feet, paired with medium-sized reels able to hold 200-250 yards of 8-pound-test line. This is a good combination for casting relatively light spoons (1/4  to ¾ ounce) and soaking bottom rigs baited with spawn sacs. For spoons I prefer Little Cleos, Kastmasters, and Krocodiles, which seem to closely imitate one of the primary lake forage species, smelt, which also happen to be making spawning runs up area rivers, and along lakeshore areas.

In the end, taking a versatile “two-pronged” approach to Minnesota’s North Shore steelheading will not only give you more chances for success, but can also “save the day,” when either the rivers, or an angry lake, are unfishable. And as my buddy Lane found out, carrying an extra rig can also lead you to something even more special: a fish of a lifetime.

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