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North Shore steelhead run delayed by ice cover on streams

A steelhead -- migratory Lake Superior rainbow trout -- attempts to leap a set of falls on the Knife River. This year, the river is locked in ice, and steelhead haven't begun their spawning runs yet. File photo / Forum News Service

DULUTH — Duluth's Gary Siverson is a bit worried. He loves his steelhead fishing, and in a typical year he would be on the rivers by now. But North Shore streams, including the popular Knife River, remain sealed beneath the ice with little prospect for opening soon.

"I don't know if God's gonna let us do it this year," Siverson said this past week.

While the spring-fed Brule River in Wisconsin is providing decent steelhead action, North Shore anglers will have to be patient, it appears. Forecasts are for daily highs just above freezing and overnight lows below that threshold.

(Many anglers and resort owners are concerned that some inland lakes may not be open by the May 12 Minnesota general fishing opener.)

Fisheries officials with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources won't open the fish trap on the Knife to count and tag steelhead until most of winter's ice has passed downstream.

The average opening date for the trap, since it went into operation in 1996, is April 9, said Josh Blankenheim, large lake specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at French River.

The earliest the trap has opened was March 25, in 2012, Blankenheim said. The latest was April 28 in 2014. Obviously, conditions can vary dramatically year to year.

"It's like waiting for Christmas," Siverson said. "All you can do is wait."

Spawning run

As soon as ice goes out and water flows are high enough, mature steelhead rainbow trout in Lake Superior ascend North Shore streams to spawn. Steelhead move upstream when water temperatures are right and flow levels are sufficient. The fish might swim several miles upstream, then deposit and fertilize their eggs. The adult fish return to Lake Superior, while the young can remain in the river for a couple of summers before migrating down to the big lake.

A late steelhead run isn't necessarily bad for steelhead reproduction, biologists say. It's just hard for anglers to wait so long. Most steelheaders are passionate about their pursuit, waiting all year for another window of opportunity to catch these powerful fish that might weigh 10 pounds or more. (The state record is 16 pounds, 6 ounces, from the Devil Track River near Grand Marais.)

In the last late-run year — 2014 — fisheries officials saw fewer steelhead passing through the Knife River trap, said Nick Peterson, migratory fish specialist with the DNR at French River. The biggest daily run that year occurred May 5, when 70 steelhead were taken at the trap.

By contrast, the most fish taken at the trap in a single day was 196 in 2016, Peterson said.

Fish captured at the trap are tagged if not already tagged, and released just upstream to continue their spawning runs.

In 2014, adult steelhead spent less time than average on their spawning runs, an estimated 19 days for males, 13 for females, Peterson said. The average is 32 days for males, 24 for females, through 2014.

The total steelhead run has been increasing in recent years on the Knife, which is by far Minnesota's most productive steelhead stream. Going back to the trap's inception, the historic average for unclipped (so-called "wild" steelhead) is 435 annually, Peterson said. Recent counts at the trap have been 870 (last year), 1,029 in 2016 and 923 in 2015.

Up the shore

Many other rivers farther up the North Shore take runs of steelhead, too. The run typically begins earlier near the Duluth end of the lake and later up the shore toward the border and into Canada. Shawn Perich of Hovland has to wait longer to fish steelhead near home, and this year is likely to be a longer wait, he said.

"Usually, the fish around here start showing up the third or fourth week of April," Perich said. "Now, there's virtually no open water. And there's no way it's going to turn around soon."

Some years, a late steelhead run can butt up against the Minnesota inland fishing opener in mid-May.

"I can think of a couple of years where (the run) was barely going around here on the fishing opener," Perich said. "I know one year like that I went up to Canada (for steelhead) and had an incredible day toward the end of May. It can set it back that far."

A silver lining of sorts can occur in years when the steelhead run pushes up to the Minnesota fishing opener.

"Once the walleye season opens up here and in Canada, there's nobody fishing steelhead," Perich said. "That's not necessarily a bad thing."

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