By Michael Furtman
Come April, the long northern Minnesota winter finally parts. North Shore streams surge with snowmelt, their dark waters ricocheting downstream. Steelhead trout surge against cold currents, flinging their bodies over waterfalls, struggling to reach their spawning grounds. Long and lean, silver as a new dime when first emerging from Lake Superior, each steelhead seeks just that stream in which it was born, to return to reproduce, to fulfill its destiny.
April sees another migration along these streams. With trees still bare and chill winds off the cold lake, neoprene wader–clad diehard steelhead anglers come seeking one of the most exciting sport fish in the world. With frozen hands and runny noses, steelhead anglers brave raging currents and icy waters for the chance to hook a steelhead—an indomitable spirit that will leave them weak-kneed from the fight.
Where once anglers could bag three per day, today the steelhead fishery is strictly catch and release. Yet steelhead are back from the brink of complete collapse in Minnesota. Thanks to the fish's own incredible survival instincts and to the efforts of anglers and the Department of Natural Resources, steelhead fishing is the best it has been in 25 years.
Steelhead are a variety of rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss). Native to the Pacific Northwest, they spawn in rivers from northern California to Alaska. Although in their native range they can exceed 20 pounds, Lake Superior's steelhead rarely surpass 10 pounds.
Minnesota's steelhead have existed as a largely self-sustaining population in Lake Superior since first being stocked in 1895. The U.S. Fish Commission (predecessor of the National Marine Fisheries Service) brought steelhead here from the McCloud River in northern California. Steelhead were raised to fry stage at the federal fish hatchery, which still stands at the mouth of the Lester River in Duluth, and about 100,000 fry were stocked in Isle Royale's Washington Harbor. This was the first stocking anywhere of steelhead outside of their native range, and it was a success. Steelhead managed to thrive in Lake Superior.
Much like salmon, steelhead spawn in rivers. In Minnesota their offspring normally spend two years in rivers before exiting at a stage called smolt. Minnesota tributaries to Lake Superior provide marginal steelhead habitat, because the rivers are prone to dramatic fluctuations in temperature and water levels, and because so many of the streams have natural barrier falls that block upstream migration to the best spawning and nursery habitat. Of Minnesota's tributaries, only the Knife and Blackhoof rivers offer miles of spawning habitat. Still, for many years the species prospered, and a popular steelhead fishery peaked in the 1960s and '70s before experiencing a deep decline.
If you weren't around for the fabulous fishing of the 1960s and '70s, you might not believe just how numerous these fish once seemed. But plenty of anglers remember the impressive steelhead runs.
"I recall seeing people frequently catch their limit of fish," said Shawn Perich, a steelhead angler who lives in Hovland. "There were those kinds of numbers there. Swarms of fish in the rivers at times." On the Knife, Minnesota's best steelhead river, hundreds of anglers fished elbow to elbow between Highway 61 and the lake, creating a deadly gauntlet through which these spawning fish needed to pass.
"Guys would show up at 3 in the morning, just to get a good spot," said Perich. "There's no way you can continue to take those numbers of fish out of the streams and expect the fishery to maintain itself. But back then, there was the widespread belief, even among biologists, that you only needed a couple of spawning pairs in a stream to keep the population up."
Heavy harvest in the stream wasn't the only factor that played havoc with the steelhead population. A revived trolling fishery was blossoming. Steelhead had previously been virtually safe from harvest when out in the big lake. But due to the stocking of salmon and a rebound in lake trout (following its population crash in the 1950s), anglers again plied Lake Superior all summer long. Lake trout not only lured anglers onto Superior, but lakers themselves also were steelhead predators and competitors for food. Lake trout feed on small, silvery fish—mostly lake herring, lake chubs, and rainbow smelt, but also smolt steelhead. Suddenly, steelhead seemed to be on the menu of lots of fish and humans.
"With all those hungry lake trout waiting off the river mouths, smolt survival dropped off," said Don Schreiner, DNR area fisheries manager at French River. "And overharvest by anglers played an important role in the steelhead's decline too, not just in the rivers, but by the trolling fishery, which some years accounted for a third of the kill."
By the early 1980s, with the steelhead fishery in a near complete collapse, anglers asked that the DNR do something to restore it. Stocking seemed a logical solution, as did a reduction in bag limits. Reluctantly, anglers accepted a one-fish rule with a minimum size limit of 28 inches. In 1997, as attitudes changed, many steelhead anglers supported even more restrictive regulations, and the steelhead rule changed to complete catch and release.
Unlike the related Pacific salmon that die after spawning, steelhead can survive to spawn repeatedly, beginning at 4 years of age. To replace themselves, steelhead need to spawn at least once; therefore, fisheries biologists thought that protecting spawning steelhead from harvest would aid recovery.
In 1981 the DNR began stocking large numbers of steelhead fry, which were the offspring of spawning fish trapped as they swam out of Lake Superior into the French River north of Duluth, as well as from the Little Manistee River in Michigan. The DNR placed these fry upstream above barriers in North Shore tributaries. There the fry could use the cool, fertile nursery habitat otherwise unreachable because of natural waterfalls that blocked adult migration.
But fry stocking didn't appease most anglers. They wanted steelhead stocked at smolt size, about 6 to 8 inches long, because they believed these larger stocked fish would bring the fishery back more quickly. And they didn't care where the fish originated.
Other anglers, though, and DNR biologists were wary of stocking steelhead from other locales, not only because of the possibility of introducing disease, but also because the North Shore's steelhead had survived there through a hundred years of natural selection. The DNR decided if smolts were stocked they would only come from the eggs of steelhead that swam in Lake Superior and swam up North Shore streams.
As the DNR waded into more intensive stocking programs for steelhead, the agency needed better information about the success or failure of these efforts. Biologists use fish traps constructed on two North Shore Rivers for research, as well as to obtain eggs and sperm for rearing fry. "Traps allow us to compare the number of adults returning to spawn with the number of smolts going downstream," Schreiner said. On the French River, a trap catches adult steelhead as they migrate upstream in spring. These spawning steelhead are taken into a DNR fish hatchery on the riverbank. There they are held until ripe and then stripped of their eggs and sperm. The adults are returned to the lake, and the offspring are stocked in the French and other rivers when excess fry are available. Another trap on the French River captures juvenile steelhead moving downstream to assess fry-to-smolt survival.
A pair of traps on the Knife River captures adult and juvenile steelhead. There, steelhead are measured, weighed, and tagged (after a scale sample is taken for aging) to identify them when they return. All are released to reproduce naturally.
The trap data showed that the experimental smolt-stocking program, which began in 1990 and ended in 2007, was not worth the cost. Raising steelhead smolts proved to be expensive, with production costs averaging between $2.50 and $3.00 per fish. The return rate of adults derived from stocked steelhead smolts was disappointing, averaging about 1 percent.
Fifteen years of data from the French River traps has shown that steelhead smolts derived from fry stocked in the wild are 10 times more likely to survive to adulthood than hatchery-reared steelhead smolts. "Growing up under natural conditions produces a smolt that is much more fit for the rigors of Lake Superior than those reared in hatchery tanks," Schreiner said.
Given the expense of, and low return from, raising and stocking smolts, the DNR is again putting more emphasis on fry stocking. Now, however, they only use fry of Minnesota origin. From the Knife River trap, hatchery personnel undertook the difficult task of creating a captive brood stock from naturally spawned steelhead. Although wild steelhead are notoriously difficult to maintain in a hatchery, because they are wary and do not feed aggressively on dry food, the DNR has overcome these challenges and successfully raised them to spawning age. Thanks to this effort, about 500,000 fry are being stocked annually in rivers with barriers close to the mouth.
Beyond stocking, the DNR is also removing beaver dams that impede steelhead migration on the major North Shore spawning streams. From fall 2007 through summer 2008, DNR Fisheries staff removed 99 beaver dams from the Knife River watershed.
"I've little doubt that the most effective management tool we've used is to reduce angler harvest," said Schreiner. "Because of the no-kill policy, we're seeing many return spawners at the traps. If the year class that is supposed to return doesn't materialize, we'll still have enough returning adults from other years to have decent natural reproduction."
Although steelhead are unlikely to ever return to the numbers anglers enjoyed in the 1960s, spring fishing along North Shore rivers is improving.
"Last year was one of the better years I've ever had," said Darrell Spencer of Duluth. "I feel like the fishery is coming back. Although it doesn't always happen, I go out with the expectation of hooking at least one [steelhead], and more often than not, it happens."
Spencer isn't alone in reporting the best steelhead fishing in a quarter of a century.
"It is rewarding," said Schreiner, "to see this fishery come back, and to see that our plans and work and the sacrifices by anglers have paid off. We've gone from the point where we had anglers angry and complaining, to where people are happy about their success. We'll even be having discussions about whether or not to allow some limited harvest. It will be interesting to see if anglers even want that now. Attitudes have changed."
No, they're not native, but Minnesota's naturalized steelhead have proven to be as resilient as they are beautiful. Their success is a testament to their own wildness and fitness, as well as to the work of those who care about their future.
In 1976, at the same time the steelhead fishery started to decline, the DNR began a put-grow-and-take fishery in an attempt to provide a similar fishery that would take the pressure off the naturalized steelhead. For this program they chose a different strain of rainbow trout called Kamloops. In general, these hatchery trout have shown good return rates to anglers and received an adipose fin clip so that anglers could identify and harvest them.
Because many anglers want to keep fish for the table, the DNR continues its Kamloops stocking program. Stocked as yearlings, Kamloops gather in late winter off river mouths, where anglers await them. Skilled or lucky anglers can catch and keep three fish measuring 16 inches or greater per day.
Although the same species as steelhead, Kamloops are typically darker and stockier.
According to DNR biologist Molly Negus, research has shown Kamloops–steelhead hybrid offspring are less fit to survive in the wild. So to avoid hindering wild steelhead restoration, the DNR limits stocking of Kamloops to three streams (Lester, Talmadge, and French) near Duluth.
"The streams in which we stock Kamloops provide almost no spawning habitat," said Negus. "That minimizes the risk of hybridization, and still provides Kamloops for this very popular fishery."
For decades the DNR has conducted a spring creel survey on 17 North Shore streams accessible to rainbow trout. The survey measures angler success.
The average number of angler hours over the past two decades is nearly 30,000 annually, showing just how popular this fishery is. The angler catch rate for unclipped (wild) steelhead for 2009 was 0.12 fish/angler hour (8.7 hours per fish caught), a better rate than years past. The rate for clipped fish (Kamloops) was 0.06 fish/angler hour (15.6 hours per fish caught), down from years past.
The DNR estimated that the catch of steelhead in 2009 was 4,974—the highest in 25 years and about twice the annual average of the last decade, boding well for the steelhead's recovery.