Fishing the North Shore

Do you go stir-crazy in winter because your favorite North Shore trout stream is locked in ice?

If so, it may be time to try something new: fishing Lake Superior from shore.

Shore anglers can catch steelhead, coho salmon, lake trout, pink salmon, coaster brook trout and Kamloops, the latter increasingly less likely as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has stopped stocking this species in Lake Superior. Quality shore fishing opportunities start in fall and continue into spring when the steelhead run begins. Good fishing can be found from Canal Park in Duluth all the way up the North Shore into Canada.

Where to fish

If you can reach a public section of shoreline, throw in a line!  Some of the best areas to fish are near river mouths and from break walls. Just make sure you are wetting a line early or late in the day. Most catching occurs during dawn and dusk.

Do keep an eye on the weather. Lake Superior can go from clear and calm to muddy and wild within a few hours. If the wind is or has been blowing hard the resulting waves can make it difficult to drift a bobber or bottom rig. Dead calm days can be problematic too. That is because they make for unnatural presentations when bobber fishing. In the dead of winter, a lack of wind can cause the shore to freeze over making fishing from shore a frustrating task. But there are plenty of other days when fishing conditions are great. So give it a shot.

Photograph of angler standing on Shore of Lake Superior at sunrise holding a rod and reel.

Fall fishing

Fall is a great time to catch rainbow trout and lake trout. The fish seem to be more active and eager to chase. This is a good time of year to cast spoons. Early fall is a great time, in particular, to catch pink salmon.

Once winter hits you can still catch fish on spoons but casting bobbers with looper bugs hanging below will likely produce the most fish. If the water is muddy or the waves are high you should consider using a large black or purple looper bug. If the water is clear and calm try downsizing to a Superior X-legs or a similar stonefly. Coho salmon are a common catch in the middle of winter when fishing from shore.

Photograph off angler standing on shore displaying a Lake Superior steelhead.

Winter fishing through the ice

It is possible that Lake Superior will freeze. If it does, catching lake trout and coho through the ice is real exciting. If you want to learn how to catch lake trout through the ice check out additional content at

Spring fishing

Trout stage at river mouths when North Shore rivers start to melt. This pre-spawn time can be a fantastic time to fish. The most popular way to target these fish is to tie smaller flies or spawn under a casting bobber. Once the rivers open up it is best to follow the fish up the rivers.

Selecting a rod

You can use nearly any type of fishing rod for shore fishing. However, if you want to increase your chances of catching and landing a fish it is best to buy a dedicated shore rod. A great all-purpose rod is a medium power, moderate fast action, 10- to 12-foot rod. A long rod will allow you to cast further and make better hooksets. Also, make sure the rod has large line guides that are less likely to freeze up in winter. When shopping in a store or online, a good place to start is by exploring salmon and steelhead rods in these longer lengths.

You will also want to give some thought to grip design when purchasing a rod. If you intend to spend more time casting than bobber fishing it is better to have a rod with a longer rear grip and short foregrip. Conversely, if you intend to spend more time bobber fishing than casting you will want a rod with a longer foregrip. A longer foregrip is good for bobber fishing because it will allow you to balance the rod horizontally so you can make a quick hookset when your bobber goes down.

Photograph of a long casting rod.

Selecting a reel

You will want to pair your shore rod with a spinning reel that has a large arbor, large line capacity and a smooth drag. You can use any 200-size spinning reel but the larger 300 to 400 sizes are ideal because they often have a better drag and hold more line. Typically larger reels are cheaper and have a better drag, so you can typically find inexpensive reels that are very high in quality for as low as $30.

Photograph of spinning reel.

Selecting line

The majority of shore fisherman use 4-to 8-pound monofilament. Monofilament is cheap, it floats (which is ideal for bobber fishing), and has enough stretch to soften some of the violent head shakes and rolls of the bigger fish you will catch. It is a good idea to tie on a swivel and fluorocarbon leader because the water is extremely clear.

Bobber fishing

Bobber fishing is one of the most common ways to catch salmon and steelhead from shore. Heavily weighted bobbers allow you to launch your fly out to where the fish are feeding. Casting bobbers come in different sizes. You may have to experiment with different sizes to determine which one work best with your rod. Rigging for bobber fishing is fairly simple. Just peg your casting bobber onto your line two to four feet from the end of your line and tie on a fly or looper bug. Just like trout fishing on a river, you need to be quick with your hookset. Since the bobbers you will be using on Lake Superior are bigger than a typical trout fishing strike indicator they don’t always drop completely below the water. If you notice any odd wobble or erratic movement of your bobber, set the hook!

Photograph of a slip bobber.

Looper bugs

Looper Bugs are a great fly to use when fishing for coho salmon, steelhead and Kamloops (looper) rainbow trout. You can buy them in many North Shore tackle local shops but they are also very easy to tie. All you only need is a jig hook and a couple of different materials including marabou, flashabou, dubbing, and rubber legs. If you can tie a wooly bugger, you can tie a looper bug. Many anglers prefer dark colors such as black, brown or purple (especially in muddy or wavy water). Midwinter and muddy water conditions are the best times to bobber fish with looper bugs.

Loopers and steelhead will often take a plain looper bug but if you are trying to catch a coho it is best to tip your fly with some meat (such as a waxworm or butterworm).

Photograph of looper bugs in a fly box.

Traditional flies

If you fly fish or tie your own flies you can use your standard trout flies to fish from shore. Stoneflies and nymphs, including the prince nymph and pheasant tail nymph, are go-to flies in almost any body of water, including Lake Superior. These flies in sizes 6 to 16 can produce fish. As the spring starts warming the water, or if the water is fairly clear, you will want to fish with a fly rather than a looper bug.

Casting spoons

Catching trout and salmon by casting spoon lures is fun because you feel the fish hit the lure. Once you cast, count down a couple of seconds, then start to reel with a fairly quick and constant retrieve (one to two revolutions per second).

Start your fishing by casting one-fourth to three-fourth ounce spoons colored in orange/gold or blue/silver. Spoons are a great lure for catching fish in fall, winter or spring. Spoons are good for catching lake trout and steelhead in fall, coho in the winter and loopers in the spring.

Photograph of a casting spoon.

Bottom rigging

When bottom rigging, you can use a standard sinker or you can try the popular slinky rig (a sinker built out of parachute cord and split-shot). You can buy sinkers and slinky rigs at North Shore tackle stores or make your own slinky rig by following instructions on the Minnesota Steelheader website.

Most anglers using bottom fishing equipment use spawn bags as bait but you can also catch fish with a simple worm. If you fish with a worm, you will need a worm blower to make the worm float. Alternately, you can add a small float to your leader. After you cast, place your rod in a rod holder (which you can easily make by attaching a length of PVC pipe to a metal rod with duct tape). After your weight sinks to the bottom, slowly reel in the slack until your rod begins to bend. Late winter and spring are typically the best times to fish with bottom rigs.

Fishing with spawn

You can buy spawn, but if you catch and keep a female looper you can cure the eggs and make your own spawn sacks. There are many ways to cure eggs. You can find out how to do it by doing a Google search.

Fishing with worms

You can fish with worms just like you would fish with spawn but you will want the worm to float to float above the bottom. You can do this by buying a worm blower and adding air into the worm or adding a small float near your hook.

When rigging your bottom rigs remember that catching bigger fish doesn't correlate with using a bigger hook. Trout are notoriously picky. A giant hook can and will deter fish. So, using small hooks (sizes 2 through 8) can increase your catch rate significantly.

Miscellaneous equipment

  • Here is a list of other items that may be helpful when fishing the North Shore from shore.
  • Headlamp
  • Warm clothes (some of the best fishing occurs on cold winter mornings.)
  • Rod holders
  • Ice cleats
  • Waterproof boots
  • Sunglasses
  • Long-handled net
  • Pliers

Adapted from JS-Outdoors, Duluth, Minn. To view the complete article go to

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