Our Man In Canada
August 30th, 1999
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Fishing Lake Superior Streams


By Scott E. Smith

Beginning in April, and like everywhere varying from year to year due to prevailing weather conditions, steelhead begin to run north-shore streams. In the beginning they mill around the mouths of their nursery rivers, and slowly filter into the lower pools. The season's length is dependent generally by water volume and temperature. The ideal spring is a slow, gradual melt, interspersed with spring rains, which keeps the rivers fairly high and cool. In low-water years the run can be short-lived, especially if there is a sudden warm spell that brings the water temperatures near the fifty-degree mark. As described to me by one of the most ardent steelheaders on the shore, the peak of the run culminates at the point in time where no more snow exists in the high country. Once this happens the water temperature in the streams increases markedly; nature reminds the steelhead there is little time left before the rivers drop to their summer levels. On some streams, such as the Jackpine, an increase in water levels by ten-fold is not uncommon during the height of spring runoff.

This factor presents a dilemma for the fervent steelheader: to be present at the peak of the run, but not during flood conditions. During the spring of 1996, the north-shore received an incredible runoff due to record snow levels and relentless rain. When most rivers should have been receiving the peak of the steelhead run, they were brown and torrid, sweeping over their banks through the woods and washing out bridges and highways. A scant week later they were fishing perfectly.

Steelhead may spawn six times here

Generally the run begins to come into fruition in mid-April. Beginning first with the tributaries in the lower latitudes at both ends of the lake near Thunder Bay at the west end, and near Sault Ste. Marie at the east end. As you move north from these points in either direction along the coast you move north in latitude. The run's peak is naturally delayed accordingly as you move north. This provides a fairly lengthy window of opportunity for the angler who begins with the earliest rivers and follows the runs as they move north, even though the run is generally less then one month long in any given stream. In normal years the fishing lasts right into June, with the Steel River being the final river to peak.

After the spawning run is complete, anglers should focus on larger rivers such as the Steel, Nipigon and Michipicoten, which hold a decent number of resident trout and steelhead due to their size and biological profile. River mouths are much overlooked by fly anglers in this region. Lake trout, brook trout, salmon and steelhead are attracted to the mouths of larger rivers and take advantage of the inscects and baitfish that are being delivered to them nicely by the river currents, particularly after a good rain. Surf-casting (or flats fishing) is a viable method of working river mouths, but by far float-tubing gives you the most mobility. As Murphy's Law dictates, the fish are always out ten feet farther than you can cast; this problem is eliminated with the employment of a float tube. Needless to say, you must be wary of windy days on Superior.

Beginning in mid-August - dependent on water levels - coaster brook trout move into their nursery streams, holding in lower pools and estuaries. Although during any period of high water throughout the summer, fishing reasonably sized streams will produce both coasters and steelhead. Pink salmon are the next species to enter streams in late August. Pinks are most prolific during odd years (i.e. 97, 99), but also are found in respectable numbers during even years in larger rivers. Coho salmon, which average about four pounds in Superior streams, are encountered in rivers as early as September 1, peaking somewhere around the end of that month. These fish provide great sport on a fly rod and are generally underutilized by anglers. Lake trout also enter streams during late September. Look for lakers in slow pools in lower sections of rivers. Chinook are found in many of the larger rivers and are becoming more and more popular with fly anglers as specialized techniques and fly patterns are developed for these beasts. The operative month for Chinook is October for most rivers. Accompanied by any of these runs of fish are steelhead. Fall steelhead on Superior's north coast are usually smaller than the steelhead found during the spring run, but these chrome dynamos fight like a spring fish of twice their size. I have literally chased after five-pound steelhead as they rocketed their way downstream after feeling the steel, zipping from one holding pool to another trying to escape the stumbling fool who has interrupted their autumn voyage. These battles have left me gasping for breath, but pumped. The embrace of a chrome fall steelhead makes for a glorious "Kodak moment" set against the red and yellow foliage of autumn.

The best steelhead rivers are those that are large enough to provide an over-wintering environment for steelhead. Many rivers receive false runs of two-year-old steelhead that feed on nymphs and salmon eggs, but the larger tributaries receive runs of fish that hold through the winter in deep pools and spawn very early in the spring. A prime example of this type of situation is the Steel River. The best timing for steelheading on these hold-over rivers is in November, after the salmon and trout have finished spawning. Although a six-pound fall steelhead is considered a large fish during this period, some as large as ten or eleven pounds are reported annually.

Freeze-up is usually late November or early December, depending on the size of the river and the onset of winter-like temperatures. The Nipigon River is one of the few rivers that does not freeze over completely during the severity of January's cold spell. Subsequently, winter fishing is only feasible during mid-winter thaws on the Nipigon and a number of select spring creeks in the area.

Fly Patterns Next time! ~ 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

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