November 26, 2011
By Matt Straw
Snow clings to the shadowed northern slopes. Ice shelves build on the eddies. Winter's first caress stills the autumn wind. Song birds fled for warmer climes. Hunters, too, for the most part. Absolute silence is broken only by the restless musings of the river rising through the bare trees. I stop to listen for them. Not far, now.
New rivers. Found them this summer, skirting Gitcheegoomie. Looking for runs of wild fish, scouting for trails and winter pools on streams that don't close. Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Ontario are blessed with hundreds of them. Wild places. Unlikely to see people this time of year, with the wet breath of Superior piecing its way through early winter woods. The rivers I'm exploring now, mostly on the South Shore, have difficult to non-existant trails. The walking is hard.
Little rain up here this fall. Better fishing elsewhere. Steelhead came pounding up the tributaries of Lake Michigan this year, with all the rain experienced south. Big fish. A friend of mine caught and released one over 20 pounds in a Lower Peninsula stream this fall. That's a beast anywhere. We sampled it. Blogged about it last week. Always worth doing. Bigger fish. More people. Funny how irritating it can be to have a man step off the trail and slip into your pool a long cast below you. Up here, if you see another angler, he slips past like a phantom, not wanting to share the water with you any more than you want to share it with him.
Wild fish, born in the river through natural means (not native, but born here — like us pale folks). Smaller, yes. It's colder here than anywhere within the native range of steelhead on the West Coast. Average daily temperatures are colder, anyway, than those surrounding the coastal rivers of Alaska where earth's northernmost steelhead dwell. You may believe water can't get any colder than 32°F without freezing, but that's not always true in a river. The number of days with anchor ice, that "white death" that hugs a river's floor, determine precisely how many parr will survive until spring.
It's a harsh life up here for a steelhead. But they persist. Wild steelhead have created strong populations in many of these rivers despite the obstacles of climate, and have maintained them, now, for over 120 years. And many rivers have fall runs. Like the silver fish in the photo, they often ram upriver late in November, undaunted by the chill of 36°F water.
I've been to every state, every province, and every territory in North America. Superior country is unique. Wild. And beautiful. Like the fish. We carefully release them all. I've never harvested a steelhead from a Lake Superior trib.
This isn't farm country. And it isn't flat. Hills, high banks, and rocky bluffs to climb or skirt. After a long hike, we sit and rest. Listening to the wet noise. Watching four deer cross the river. They stop to stare at us before moving on. No hurry. The fish aren't going anywhere. Nobody's likely to slip into our pool.
The rivers have poetic names. Firesteel. Two Hearted. Cedar. Old Woman. Montreal. Baptism. Phantom. The steelhead are beautiful. They average 5 pounds in a lot of rivers. Less in some, more in others. No fin clips. No tags. No mercy. They fly like birds, and often leave pools, forcing you to chase in colder flows than stocked fish to the south.
Can't boat these rivers. Can't canoe them. Well, not unless you want to portage the canoe all the way back to the starting point on your back. Down by the shore of the big lake, there will be no road in most cases. No place to spot a truck. Just endless miles of forest, stretching off in two directions. And 500 miles of lake in another.