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A River Too Far

by Matt Straw   |  April 24th, 2013 0

This shot was taken about 24 hours ago, as I write this on April 24. We ventured up to the South Shore of Superior intending to visit three different rivers. The weather had different plans for us.

After getting a foot of snow last Friday, the area was blasted with another 11 inches Monday night while Mary and I slept in our motel room (which we affectionately refer to as Steelhead Cave North).

We peeked out the window before dawn and couldn’t tell by looking it was our truck parked in front of the room. Too much of it was buried in snow. So we went back to bed, knowing our plans to visit three rivers on backcountry roads was wildly optimistic.

By 11 am, just fishing one river seemed like asking too much. Snow was so deep in the parking areas we passed several of them by. Then got stuck trying to enter a third. Twenty minutes later we were back on the road, feeling like sparrows over the Atlantic, looking for a safe place to light.

We finally settled on an area I’m not very familiar with because it had a snow-free parking spot. Soon we were trudging through knee- to hip-deep snow, finding buried logs with our feet and ankles, leaning on our wading staffs to keep from planting our faces in the snow.

The “road holes” were well populated, but anywhere farther than 100 yards from the road, no trails were broken. Even the deer were reluctant to move.

Ducks of every species went whizzing by, making a considerable racket, spooking fish every time we appeared out of the frozen background to their scene of exile. They’re crowding to the rivers because they have no other options. Not only lakes but small ponds that usually open by now remain frozen. Surprised herons and egrets went flopping past. We saw at least one gray owl, which should be far to the north by now.

Steelhead were still camping out in the widest, slowest pools, the females fat, healthy, and bulging with eggs. All but one. Mary banked one hen that was spawned out. Hmm. Water temperatures haven’t exceeded 35°F since the season opened on the last Saturday in March, but after seeing that skinny hen I labored upriver through heavy snow to find some spawning gravel. The water was up, cloudy, and ice cold from the previous night’s heavy snowfall, but I finally spotted a pair of ghosts working the gravel. I watched, but otherwise left them alone to augment our fishing a few years from now.

Most biologists will tell you steelhead spawn in water temperatures of 41°F or so. And, all things being perfect, that’s when spawning activity will peak. But when nature throws them a serious knuckleball, like this protracted winter scenario we’re dealing with, day length comes into play. Survivors pass on their genes. Those that spawn too late in the game, calendar wise, may not have any progeny survive the following winter.

Steelhead need to be born within a certain window of time, long enough after winter passes so that the chances of anchor ice forming and killing the eggs or hatchlings are slim, but not too late. When steelhead spawn late, chances for problems increase. The young-of-the-year might be too small when the next winter arrives.

Studies indicate that steelhead mark time with “day length.” As daylight increases each day in spring, the period between sunrise and sunset eventually reaches a point that triggers the need to spawn. Where steelhead are native to a system, and their internal clocks are tuned in to the diurnal rhythms of that latitude, researchers  have noted that parr smolt on the same calendar dates every year.

Nature provides steelhead with other dictums, too. Such as, “Don’t put all your eggs in the same basket.” The spawn is spread out over time, so disasters like floods or eruptions (see Mount St. Helens) are less likely to wipe out entire year classes.

The fish might be getting antsy, some of them pushing their normal boundaries in this abnormal weather pattern. But what a wonderfully wacky spring for us fishermen. With each thaw, another squadron of silver fish slips upstream. And with each new snow event and cold front, those fish settle into pools to wait for us to come trudging through the snow to a river too far, but well worth it.












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