Last rites for loyal Lake Superior 'loopers
The popular Kamloops rainbow trout stocking program on Minnesota's North Shore has been discontinued, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officials announced about 10 days ago. The fishery provided dependable angling for a few thousand devoted anglers, most of whom stood on shore and made casts into Lake Superior. You'd see them at the mouth of the French and Lester rivers, at a spot called Bluebird Landing, sometimes at Stony Point or the Two Harbors breakwall.
The fishery was almost completely dependent upon DNR stocking. About 92,500 young Kamloops rainbows were stocked each spring in the Lester and French rivers. They spent two or three years in Lake Superior before gathering near stream mouths where anglers could catch them.
Anglers had anticipated that the stocking might end, but they're a persistent and patient bunch. They'll continue to fish until returns from the last stocking in 2017 fade away.
The program, initiated in 1976, was ended when DNR researchers learned that Kamloops rainbows were interbreeding with steelhead, another strain of Lake Superior rainbow trout. It's not a native, either, having been introduced in Minnesota waters of the big lake in 1895. But steelhead are built to ascend North Shore streams — and rivers such as Wisconsin's Brule River — to reach spawning grounds miles upriver. The trouble is, when they interbreed with the stocked Kamloops strain, the offspring do not survive at high rates. Essentially, the interbreeding dilutes the steelhead numbers, and restoring the steelhead population to its highs of the 1960s and 1970s is the DNR's stated priority.
I understand the DNR's decision. But it's a sad day for Kamloops anglers, and I feel for them. Many days, looking for a Kamloops story, I would head for the French or the Lester or McQuade Small Craft Harbor to visit with anglers fishing open water or through the ice. When the ice allowed anglers to fish offshore, they would peer down through their holes and watch the 6-, 7- and 8-pound rainbows cruising the clear water, inspecting the anglers' offerings. It was a kick. In its heyday, you'd see people lying all over the ice, old blankets or sleeping bags thrown over their heads so they could better watch — and catch — the fish.
When fishing the open water from shore, anglers would toss out bobbers or fish off the bottom. Anglers would sit or stand on the shoreline rocks, watching bobbers or rod tips, telling stories or discussing the issues of the day. They knew each other mostly by first names, or by a familiar parka — or not at all. They would offer tips if a rookie Kamloops angler asked. They would net fish for each other.
A few hardy Kamloops anglers would patrol in small boats just offshore, cruising back and forth off the river mouths as they trolled for the fish everyone called 'loopers.
Winters and reluctant springs can be long here in the North. The Kamloops program provided a nice niche fishery for anglers who wanted a chance to take home a trophy fish for smoking instead of cleaning a batch of inland-lake crappies.
Yes, the DNR will stock about 120,000 fin-clipped, pure-strain steelhead that anglers may keep, to make up for the Kamloops rainbows no longer stocked. But most anglers — and DNR officials as well — don't expect these fish to stage offshore for months at a time as Kamloops rainbows do. They will most likely be caught once they enter North Shore streams.
Kamloops anglers owe a debt of gratitude to Duluth's Ross Pearson, who co-founded a group called Kamloops Advocates. Pearson lobbied tirelessly to the end in support of the fishery he loved and still loves. He invented and sold the casting bobbers that allow anglers to cast farther into Lake Superior. He took excellent photos of anglers in action and posted them — and their catches — on his website kamloopsadvocates.org. He kept website readers up to speed on the latest developments in the battle to preserve the Kamloops program.
Pearson understood the math behind the Kamloops stocking program — costs, rearing statistics, survival and return rates. DNR officials respected his opinions, and they knew he knew his stuff.
I have always felt that there were benefits to the Kamloops program beyond the chance to harvest a thumpin' big rainbow — that you could keep. (Steelhead fishing has been a no-kill proposition since 1997.) It seemed to me that watching sunrises over Lake Superior and listening to the rushing of a nearby river or the slapping of incoming waves was good medicine for an angler's soul. Watching ducks or geese or herons winging by helped mark the seasons. Seeing — and listening to — the infinite variations of ice was endlessly fascinating, if sometimes frustrating for fishing.
I can't speak for the anglers, but it seems to me that it would be hard to stand on that shore for a few hours without gaining some sense of humility or reverence for the natural world.
Also, smoked trout tastes really good.
By Sam Cook
Source, image, credits & more information: BrainerdDispatch