Dennis Anderson
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Snow piled by tempestuous winds earlier this week along Minnesota's North Shore compounded challenges faced there this difficult winter by deer, among other wildlife.

But the storm was good news for steelhead, or migratory rainbow trout.

Last year's drought nearly drained some North Shore streams, and in certain cases reduced to puddles the deep pools that welcome steelhead during their springtime spawning runs from Lake Superior into their birth rivers.

This winter's deep snow from Duluth to Grand Portage ensures the Shore's 60-odd steelhead rivers will have sufficient water in spring.

Though Minnesota has untold millions of bluegills, walleyes and northern pike, none of these abundant species is more spectacularly wild than steelhead, whose Lake Superior origins date to 1883, when a sampling of steelhead was transplanted into the Canadian side of Otchipwe-kitchi-gami.

In the intervening 140 years, Lake Superior steelhead have thrived, and at other times barely survived. Nemeses have varied, from sea lampreys to anglers' overharvests.

But steelhead were perhaps never so threatened as in the last quarter-century, when another, more milquetoast variety of rainbow trout — Kamloops — was confirmed through genetic testing to be interbreeding with steelhead.

The fear, over time, was that the wild steelhead's unique inheritances would be diluted, reducing its reproductive capabilities.

When in 2016 the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) demolished the agency's storied French River fish hatchery, it ended as well the Kamloops rainbow trout stocking program, soon to be replaced by an accelerated wild-steelhead stocking plan.

The decision was considered necessary, but cheering was muted, especially among anglers who regularly pursued the 4- to 5-pound Kamloops in late winter and early spring. Kamloops, or Loopers as they were called, had provided a keen North Shore fishery, accessible to nearly anyone, for about 40 years.

Enter soon thereafter a hiccup: In 2020, COVID-19 suspended the DNR's steelhead egg-taking operations.

The eggs and the wild-strain steelhead they produce are needed not only for stocking in Lake Superior, but to bolster the DNR's steelhead brood stock housed at the agency's Crystal Springs Hatchery in Altura, Minn.

The brood stock represents a randomized cross-section of Lake Superior's wild steelhead, from which 120,000 young steelhead are produced annually for eventual stocking.

The DNR's COVID-19 work rules were relaxed somewhat in 2021, allowing two-person crews into the field.

"Last year those crews captured 47 female steelhead and 21 males in the Knife River, and we used fertilized eggs from those fish to supplement our brood stock and to provide yearling fish for stocking this spring,'' said Cory Goldsworthy, DNR Lake Superior fisheries supervisor.

The 68 captured fish — 66 of which were returned to the Knife — represented about 10% of the Knife River steelhead run last spring, Goldsworthy said.

The now year-old steelhead will be released in about a month in the French and Lester rivers — about 60,000 yearling fish in each.

Most of these fish will stay in the streams for a year before undergoing physiological changes called smoltification. This process imprints them to their birth streams, to which they will return to spawn beginning at age 4, while also preparing them for life in Lake Superior.

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Success of the wild-strain steelhead program hinges on keeping brood stock that is representative of Lake Superior steelhead of different migratory tendencies. The brood stock also should vary in age, requiring their ranks to be supplemented each year with young fish.

"Whether we can recreate the angling experience that Kamloops provided with wild-strain steelhead, we're not sure,'' Goldsworthy said. "To catch wild-strain steelhead, anglers might have to change when they fish or perhaps where they fish. Perhaps with steelhead there will even be more opportunity for anglers. We don't know yet.''

Anglers could distinguish Kamloops — which are expected to disappear entirely from Lake Superior within a few years —from wild steelhead because the DNR clipped the adipose fins (behind the dorsal) of Kamloops before releasing them.

Hatchery produced wild-strain steelhead also will have their adipose fins removed. Anglers fishing Minnesota waters of Lake Superior can keep up to three clipped-fin fish.

Unclipped rainbows, meanwhile, must be released.

Though North Shore anglers generally support ending Kamloops stocking, some pushback is likely regarding the accelerated wild-strain steelhead program when in two years the DNR develops a new Lake Superior fisheries plan.

Some anglers, for example, worry that steelhead numbers have declined in some North Shore streams in recent years, prompted, they say, by the ending of fry stocking by the DNR.

John Lenczewski, executive director of Minnesota Trout Unlimited, said his group supported the end of Kamloops stocking.

"But there's some desire still among anglers to have fry stocking of wild-strain steelhead occur up the Shore, because the perception is there have been fewer fish in those rivers recently,'' Lenczewski said.

Davin Brandt, president of the group Minnesota Steelheader, said North Shore anglers have "a lot'' of different opinions about steelhead.

"But we feel the DNR is generally on track with its steelhead management,'' Brandt said.

Still more changes to the program are likely, Goldsworthy said.

"Our short-term goal has been to replace with wild-strain steelhead the harvest fishery that went away with the Kamloops, which were always stocked in the Lester and the French — which is why we're stocking wild-strain steelhead in those rivers.

"But we're interested also in looking farther up the Shore for possible stocking in rivers where we're not seeing good natural reproduction. We'll look closely at those and other opportunities as we develop the new management plan.''