On a soupy March morning, the anglers of the long-rod legion have come again to the mouth of the French River on Lake Superior. It’s a Monday morning, and the weekend crowds are gone, back to work or the Twin Cities or wherever. There’s still room in the little parking lot along Scenic Highway 61.
Hefty Kamloops rainbow trout should be staging just offshore, preparing for their spawning runs up the river. The hatchery-reared fish, after three or four years cruising Lake Superior, come home as 5- to 8-pound specimens available to patient anglers. At few other places around the 1,800-mile shoreline of this great lake can one stand on shore, fling a bag of spawn or an artificial fly into the water and hope to catch such a porky rainbow — and keep it.
Soon, when river temperatures rise toward 40 degrees, Lake Superior’s so-called “wild” steelhead — another kind of rainbow trout — will enter streams. Those fish are big, too, but anglers must practice catch-and-release fishing for them. For now, the shore belongs to those seeking Kamloops rainbows.
On the fly
At 9 a.m., Rick Nurmi of Two Harbors is heading for home and perhaps breakfast. He has been standing in the lake for a couple of hours, casting a tiny stonefly imitation into the turbid chop. Some anglers soak mesh bags of spawn for these hefty trout. Some throw weighted insect imitations called “‘looper bugs.” Nurmi, 69, throws only these diminutive flies on his 7-weight switch rod. The flies are smaller than a housefly. Nurmi ties them on a No. 12 or 14 hook. River stoneflies grow much larger. Not these Lake Superior specimens.
Nurmi’s faith in the flies comes from his examination of the stomach contents of Lake Superior’s Kamloops rainbow trout.
“They’re filled with tiny bugs,” he says.
The white plastic bag that Nurmi is carrying bulges with the curve of a 5-pound rainbow — 24 inches of fish.
“I’m going to can this one,” Nurmi says.
He casts his stoneflies as far as he can. He retrieves them as slowly as he can. Sometimes a rainbow inhales one. In addition to the fish Nurmi has caught on this morning, he has lost another. Not a bad day in this so-far below-par year on the shore.
There are plenty of Kamloops rainbows nearby but unavailable to anglers. All winter, some 100 to 150 Kamloops rainbows have passed their time in a pool just upstream from the river mouth in the French, says Cory Goldsworthy, Lake Superior area fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. His office is just across the highway. He can see the fish on his way into work. They probably enter the river because its waters are warmer than those of Lake Superior during the winter, Goldsworthy says. But the river itself is off-limits to anglers.
Perhaps some of those fish will drop back into the lake and make themselves available to anglers before they ascend the river again.
One of the fringe benefits for anglers hoping to catch a Kamloops rainbow is the chance to monitor the emergence of spring in the north. They can observe the 33-degree snowmelt of the river tumbling into the surf of the world’s most expansive body of fresh water.
Lake Superior itself, still riding out the previous day’s brisk nor’easter, comes hissing ashore in regular curls of white froth. Together, the lake and the river seem like long-lost friends hurrying to greet each other.
Meanwhile, gazing into the murk of a March morning, the waiting angler can scan the skies for Canada geese on scouting flights, checking inland waters for nesting sites. Strewn along the shore, misshapen globes of remnant ice bear witness to a season on the run.
While the payoff of catching a plump rainbow is high, the interval between bites can stretch for hours. Patience — and showing up often — are the Kamloops angler’s most valued attributes.
Worth a trip
Some anglers have come a long way for this chance at big rainbows. Scott Pfluger has come from Cumberland, Wis. It’s just his fourth time fishing for Kamloops rainbows with a friend.
“We’ve had zero luck,” he says.
He had one on briefly a day before, though.
Brett Blackstock of Chisago City, Minn., north of the Twin Cities, has come up with a couple of friends to fish. He says he gets up to the North Shore once a week. His party had caught two fish a week earlier. This past Monday, Blackstock is leaving with a 5-pound rainbow that he has taken with a spawn bag. It’s worth the drive, he says.
“This is the only place you can come to catch fish like this from shore and be able to keep ’em,” he says.
Just down the shore, Forrest Overby of Duluth watches his line from atop a rock at the water’s edge. He prefers fishing for Kamloops rainbows through the ice from his one-person fishing shelter, often at nearby McQuade Small Craft Harbor. Overby likes watching the fish through the ice in Lake Superior’s clear water. But he’s happy to cast for them when the ice is gone.
Two days before, he says, he caught three rainbows and lost two more — a banner day. The next day, he says, “I didn’t see, feel or touch a fish.”
He’s been ‘looper fishing for eight years. He remembers better years of the not-so-distant past.
“There’d be hundreds of fish, rolling to beat the band,” he says.
“Rolling” describes fish that make themselves visible as they rise to break the surface.
“The best guys — the regulars — were getting 100 to 200 fish a season,” Overby says. “I don’t expect that. These recent years, there are a lot more people and less fish.”
This season, so far, appears to be down in numbers, Overby says. But he knows there’s still time.
“It remains to be seen how it it turns out,” he says.
Many Kamloops anglers are concerned that if the DNR decides not to refurbish the nearby French River Cold Water Hatchery — at a price tag of more than $7 million — the future of the Kamloops stocking program will be in jeopardy. Overby is willing to do his part, if things work out, he says.
“I dream of winning the Powerball,” he says. “If I win, I’d say (to DNR officials), ‘Here’s $10 million. Fix it up.'”
Meanwhile, Overby is gambling on his next cast.