FRENCH RIVER, Minn. — Against the pink wash of the pre-dawn sky, an angler stood motionless near the mouth of the French River on Monday. Wearing waders, he was ankle deep in Lake Superior. He held a long fishing rod in one hand.
The Lake Superior surf, pushed by modest southwest winds, rolled breakers ashore catching the angler at mid-calf. They did not budge him. His eyes were fixed on his bobber riding far out in the waves.
The angler was Caleb Utyro of Superior, who had driven around the western tip of Lake Superior to fish for Kamloops rainbow trout here on the North Shore. Behind him, on shore, sat his red cooler, a Thermos and a small folding chair. He was prepared to be here for a while.
Up the shore beyond him, another dozen or more anglers spaced at comfortable intervals kept watch over their rods and bobbers.
Like Utyro, all of them were hoping to fool a chunky Kamloops rainbow, or maybe a diminutive but tasty coho salmon. The cohos had been hungry for a couple weeks, but most agreed the coho bite had tapered off.
The morning was temperate by ’Looper-fishing standards — 26 degrees. By 7:15 a.m., the sun cleared the low serrations of the distant Wisconsin shoreline.
Don Dandrea of Duluth was surprised to see so many anglers so early in the morning.
“I got here at 6:25, and there were 10 cars up there already,” said Dandrea, 72.
Already, though, he had scored. A silvery coho lay on a bare rock behind him.
For Dandrea, a morning of fishing at the French represents more than the chance to secure a good meal.
“It breaks up the winter nice,” he said.
It is difficult to overestimate the pleasure of standing along the shore of this greatest lake, watching a brilliant new day unfold and listening to Superior’s surf kiss ancient cobblestones. That and two coho fillets will reframe your perspective on a northern winter.
As usual, this morning’s ’Looper clan was a varied bunch. There were graybeards and 20-somethings. Some fished spawn bags off the bottom. Some dangled hand-tied ’Looper bugs beneath bobbers. Some sat. Some stood. Some were regulars. Some were there for the first time. Most were locals. Some had made road trips.
Rob Einarson, up from Rogers, Minn., stood on a lump of basalt watching his rod tip for the telltale quiver of a rainbow’s bite. Already, he had a gorgeous 27-inch Kamloops rainbow lying on the shore behind him.
“And it’s a female,” Einarson said. “I’ve got more spawn now.”
Anglers harvest spawn from hen rainbows. They make spawn bags. The spawn bags catch more rainbows. It’s sort of the circle of life, except for the part about the fish dying.
The appeal of this ’Looper fishing is clear to Einarson.
“It’s one of the best-fighting fish around,” he said. “I like the meat, too. But it’s one of the funnest fish to catch I’ve ever caught.”
Although Kamloops anglers fish in relatively close quarters, they are rarely territorial. Line tangles are sorted out amicably. If one angler latches onto a fish, the next closest angler comes hustling over with a net. Many in this small fraternity of shorecasters recognize each other by their coats or waders but never learn each other’s names.
In the two hours after sunrise, several of the fishermen hooked fish. Jason Swingen of Duluth caught a coho on a fly he had tied himself, a Superior X-Legs fished under a bobber.
Einarson caught another ’Looper, this one about a 5-pounder. Nolan Tokar of Lake Nebagamon scooped it out of the surf for him.
Greg Bartley of Minnetonka, Minn., reeled in a 5-pound rainbow. It took a night crawler fished off the bottom. His son, Pete Bartley of Lutsen, netted it for him.
Things were hoppin’ at the French.
Another angler went trundling up the hill to his truck while the sun was still low in the east. Poor guy. Had to go to work.
Then again, look at it this way. Which is better: A day when you get up and hustle off to your job, or a day when you rise early, watch the sun climb over Wisconsin and catch yourself a fat ’Looper before work?
Kamloops stocking changes coming
Kamloops rainbows can be caught by shore anglers from fall through spring between Duluth and Two Harbors.
Most of the action occurs near the French River. In late winter, Kamloops rainbows begin staging near shore before entering the river. These rainbows don’t spawn as successfully in the wild as wild steelhead, so biologists with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources take spawn from the fish when they enter the French River and rear the young rainbows for about a year in hatcheries.
With the phased-in closure of the French River Coldwater Hatchery announced in November, however, many Kamloops anglers are concerned that the fishery will ultimately decline. The fish will be raised at another DNR hatchery and will be stocked into the Lester and French rivers miles upstream from Lake Superior. The fish will be stocked at smaller sizes (4 inches) than in previous years (7 to 10 inches) to allow them to better “imprint” to the river where they are stocked and, hopefully, will return at equal or higher rates than in recent years.
However, if the fish leave the rivers shortly after they are stocked, they will be more vulnerable to larger predators in Lake Superior such as lake trout and salmon, anglers contend. The DNR will evaluate the new program over the next few years.