Our Man In Canada
August 2nd, 1999
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Lake Superior Streams

By Scott E. Smith

Excerpt from: Ontario, Blue-Ribbon Fly Fishing Guide
Published by: Frank Amato Publications, Inc.
P.O. Box 82112, Portland Oregon 97282 Phone: 503-653-8108,
email Frank Amato Publications

The rivers and streams of the Ontario north-shore of Lake Superior are what I refer to as my home rivers. They are pristine, wild, rugged and mysterious; their tea-stained pools beckon you to work with them with a fly. I am in love with these rivers. To live the perfect life would be to fish every day of the northern season from April to December, plying the many streams of the north-shore; never tiring of the variety of species and places to fish.

The majority of Superior's coastal streams are freestone spate rivers of steep gradient; a product of the terraine through which they traverse being the most rugged portion of the Canadian shield. Giant mesa and questa rock formations tower above Superior, sometimes 1000 feet above the lake. This makes for some spectacular vistas along the Trans-Canada Highway, which skirts the top of Superior, and some very rugged country. The rocky terrain and swift currents of these rivers command respect from all anglers. The spruce bog origins of these tributaries dictate tea-stained, acidic water, reminiscent of Canada's east coast salmon rivers. They are pristine and unpolluted; having a relatively short run between the lake and the first upstream barrier to migratory fish. These tea-stained spate rivers are oligatrophic (non-fertile) in nature: Meaning the acidic water is not fertile enough to support substantial numbers of resident fish; hence reducing the amount of predation on trout and salmon fry. This factor, combined with prevaling gravel bottoms and clean, fast water percolating through the tailout of pools and runs, completes the requirements for ideal nursery habitat for a cornucopia of salmonids. Brook trout, lake trout and whitefish are native to Lake Superior, but since the turn of the twentieth century, rainbow trout (steelhead), coho, Chinook and pink salmon have been successfully introduced and have evolved into self-sustaining populations. Presently no stocking occurs along Superior's Ontario coast. Some larger rivers, such as the Nipigon and the Steel, attract a small number of Atlantic salmon and brown trout that have been introduced elsewhere on the lake, and because of more fertile conditions host good populations of resident trout.

Author fishes a favorite steelhead
 run on the Cypress River (Lake Superior)

A study on steelhead in the 1990s - crafted by Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources biologist Jon George - showed that some of the rivers on the shore hosted steelhead that had spawned up to six times. This relates significantly to a very healthy population of wild steelhead. Interesting data also shows that rivers with the most angling pressure, but also the highest rate of catch and release - such as the Cypress and the Jackpine - have the highest incidence of repeat spawners within the population. Jon George, who has become renowned for his steelhead conservation efforts, maintains that the key to keeping the populations healthly is to keep it wild. In other jurisdictions on the Great Lakes, domestic strains of rainbow trout have been aggressively stocked to augment the wild population, and offset high harvest. The lugubrious result, in some cases, is a population of impure steelhead inadequate for Superior's rugged conditions, eventually leading to a near collapse in the steelhead population in some areas. The key, of course, in keeping the strain wild is minimal harvest. George's study recommended a very low daily limit on steelhead, while maintaining angling opportunities. This strategy differed greatly from strategies in other jurisdictions where seasons or rivers were closed in an act of frantic crisis management.

Ontario Blue-Ribbon Fly Fishing Guide

Coaster brook trout that once thrived in most of the Great Lakes maintain a foothold in Superior's north-shore tributaries. Significantly in the Lake Nipigon-Nipigon River-Nipigon Bay (Lake Superior) continuum, where it is still possible to catch a brook trout of leviathan standing. "Coasters" is the regional name for the migratory brook trout that thrive along Superior's coast most of the year and ascend coastal rivers in late summer and early fall to spawn. Many coasters attain trophy size - over twenty inches and five pounds - and are eager to smash a passing fly. In past centuries the harvest of these magnificent fish was tremendous, if not ludicrous. As recent as the early 1900s, an angler was allowed to possess five brook trout of any size in one day. This translates (and often did) to five coasters totaling an aggregate weight of twenty-five pounds. Persistent lobbying by angling groups such as the Thunder Bay Fly Fishing Club, resulted in the limit on large brook trout being reduced. However, an earlier closing on the season and a liberal limit (5) on coasters under twelve inches still presents a burr-under-the-saddle for the general populace of fly anglers. Hopefully this management strategy is replaced by policies with stronger conservation and angling opportunity orientations.

More on Lake Superior Streams next time! ~ Scott E. Smith

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