My fishing line drifted quickly through a deep, tannin-stained pool, nearly as fast as I could cast it back upstream. Snow melt on the north shore of Lake Superior had swollen the normally small stream into a raging torrent.
As the line neared the end of a drift, I lowered my rod tip slightly. Just then, a sharp tug on the end of the line signaled a strike.
I set the hook and played a very lively steelhead toward shore, where Mike was waiting with a landing net.
Grinning like a kid in a candy store, I unhooked the silvery fish and posed for pictures before slipping it back into the dark water. Then, with a swipe of its tail, it darted back into the pool.
Although I have caught fish from one end of Minnesota to the other, this was my first north shore steelhead — and I was a bit mesmerized by the experience.
Revered by anglers and biologists alike, steelhead are rainbow trout that spend much of their life in big waters such as the Great Lakes before moving into the tributaries to spawn. Fishing for them in Minnesota is mostly limited to catch and release.
When Mike and I arrived in Duluth the afternoon before, we stopped to pick up my son Jason at his apartment and then drove up the north shore to look for likely streams to try out. I’d spent many hours studying online maps, aerial photos, and steelhead fishing blogs. But there’s nothing like actually being there to understand how to fish a stream.
By sunrise the next morning, we were on the water, casting spawn sacks and yarn flies, hoping to catch a steelhead migrating upstream. At first we caught nothing but rocks. Huge boulders lined the bottom of the stream, making perfect crevices for a hook or sinker to catch.
A DNR technician named Trevor stopped by to do a creel census and a quick survey. We talked at length before we realized that we’d chatted online previously about steelhead fishing. He lingered for a bit longer to give me some tips.
According to Trevor, the water temperature was 38 degrees, and it would go up later in the day. From what I’d read, 40 degrees is the lucky number when it comes to steelhead fishing. As the water temperature increases, the fish leave Lake Superior and swim upstream, covering several hundred yards in only a few hours.
As Trevor left to find other fishermen, he turned to give me a prophetic comment, “The water will warm up by mid-day, and you’ll get into the fish.”
It was less than two hours later when Jason yelled out. I looked over to see his fishing rod bent deeply, with a big steelhead on the end of the line.
I grabbed the net and met him at the edge of the water. The burly steelhead avoided the net the first time it passed by. But I caught up with it on the second pass.
The three of us hovered over the net for a moment, admiring the colors of a pretty spectacular fish. Despite their origin as a rainbow trout, steelhead coloration can vary from nearly silver to a deep bluish-pink hue. This one was the latter.
We quickly took some pictures and then watched as Jason slid the fish back into the stream.
That afternoon, we drove along the scenic north shore and stopped to fish a few more streams, each with a little different character. Some raged on, much like the stream we fished early in the day.
One stream was tame compared to the rest, with quiet pools and gentle riffles that reminded me of Trout Run, a stream in southern Minnesota where I’ve spent countless hours since I was a youngster.
By the end of the day, we’d hooked several steelhead and even landed a couple. That’s not too bad for some steelhead first-timers.
But then, the fishing is always great in the northwoods—and sometimes the catching is too.