Lake Superior Rainbow Trout and their Fishermen are Quite the Resilient Creatures

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Adam Chesney, a senior at UMD, shows off his first Kamloop rainbow trout ever at the McQuade Harbor just north of Duluth on Lake Superior. 

If April doesn’t seem unbearably wintry enough, imagine being stuck out in the icy waters of Lake Superior. Imagine being a fish.

With the north shore rivers still frozen, the lake’s hardy rainbow trout — steelhead and Kamloops — are still waiting to migrate upstream to where they were born and keep the cycle going by laying their own eggs.

Only once the rivers thaw and water temperatures reach 42 degrees will the rivers be flipping and flopping with their speckled silver bodies. But, for now, they’re huddling in harbors and sticking close to shore where the water is warmer.Image

One of Duluth’s most popular steelhead rainbow trout fishing “hotspots” on the mouth of the Lester River is both frozen and blocked off from the lake by a barricade-like delta of small rocks making it impossible for the fish to enter and spawn.

Local fishermen are equally as eager for the rivers to thaw.

Adam Chesney, a UMD senior in the Environmental Health and Safety Masters program, was one among a handful of fishermen at the McQuade Harbor just north of Duluth on Lake Superior, April 14.

The small harbor had a thin layer of ice and a few left over snow-bergs from earlier in the winter.

“I was here last night and there were probably about 30 people,” he said. “The ice wasn’t here either, so more people could fit in here and get their lines out.”

Along with the frozen rivers, lake ice is just another hurdle for fishermen to overcome.Image

To find open water for fishing, Chesney and two of his friends climbed down the boulders that make up the harbor pier and set up their fishing gear near the outlet of the harbor.

The few fishermen that stayed on the inside of the harbor had to break holes in the ice with their fishing nets in order to get their bobbers in the water.

Other fishermen pulled up to the landing of the harbor, saw it was frozen, and then turned back around to where they came from.Image

Matt, a senior at Denfeld High School, casts his bobber into the water at the outlet of McQuade Harbor.

Despite the cold weather and inconvenient fishing location, Chesney, a first-time rainbow trout fishermen, said he was having a blast.

By ten o’clock in the morning he had already reeled in two large Kamloops. Fishermen call them “loopers.”

“I couldn’t feel them hit because of the wind,” he said. “But I just waited to set the hook and then the battle began.”

He used a bobber to float a Looper Bug and Wax Worm off the bottom of the harbor for bait.

“They do a lot of acrobatics: a lot of flipping and flopping around until they come out of the water.”Image

Another worry for Lake Superior rainbow trout fishermen is the after-effects of the June flood on the trout’s spawning abilities.

“The amount of fish that return to each river is dependent on the amount and the quality of its spawning habitat,” Carl Haensel said, the northern Minnesota vice chair for Trout Unlimited.

The flood didn’t so much as destroy the spawning habitat of the rivers as it did move the habitat to different spots within the river beds.

“When anglers come up to fish this spring, they may find that their favorite pool might not be a pool anymore. Instead of being a 3-foot deep pool, it might be a 6-inch riffle,” Josh Blankenheim said, the Lake Superior Anadromous Specialist for the Minnesota DNR.

The habitat that was demolished, however, will most likely restore itself naturally over time. Gravel will settle back into place and deep pools will scour themselves out.

In the meantime, Haensel and Trout Unlimited are working with the DNR to give the rivers a boost.

Currently they are focusing on in-stream restoration of the Sucker River between Duluth and Two Harbors.  

Come May they’ll be planting several thousand coniferous and deciduous trees along the banks of the river to provide shade from the sun in order to keep water temperatures cool.

At 78 degrees, trout die.

“A couple degrees make a big difference,” Haensel said. “If there’s a sunny area next to a stream, plant a tree there.”

Trees not only provide habitat when they’re above the water, but do just as much, if not more, when they’re in the water.

“The more wood and natural things that are in a stream, the better that stream is going to look,” he said. “It’s going to be better for resisting flood impacts in the future and provide better habitat for not only trout, but other reptiles and amphibians … It slows the water. It provides a lot of coverage for the fish and it helps keep the banks from eroding.”Image

A steelhead spawning in the French River just north of Duluth last spring

Haensel wants to make sure that the babies – or fry – of the spawning rainbow trout have a suitable river environment to live in for two years so they can grow to be 8-inches-long before venturing out into the big lake.

“The fish should be able to spawn successfully. Whether their young have places to live after they hatch is a totally different question.”

So far, the number of fry that survived last year’s flood and hot summer isn’t as catastrophic as it could’ve been.

Last fall, Blankenheim and the DNR did electrofishing surveys on 14 different rivers between Duluth and Grand Marais to see how many young steelhead remained.

“Their young weren’t all wiped out,” he said. “We found in each of those streams that we surveyed, young fish that had hatched earlier in the year … In general, I’d say the number of young steelhead we found was average to below average.

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