The Kamloops bite is on near Duluth
Bill Wuollet of Cloquet was calling it a morning. After four hours of fishing for Kamloops rainbow trout on Lake Superior, Wuollet had had enough.
"It's getting hard to see my bobber in the glare," he said.
It had been a good morning for Wuollet, who had arrived at the lake near the mouth of the French River about 5:30 a.m. He began catching fish almost immediately. An 8-pound Kamloops rainbow trout lay on the rocks behind him along with two sleek coho salmon. He had taken them on a small white jig, which he fished under a bobber.
"I always use a white jig in the morning, first light," Wuollet said.
Down the shore, his friend Jim Behn of Cloquet had caught a 4-pound Kamloops rainbow, and a few other anglers had harvested fish as well.
"The last couple weeks, it's been pretty good," Wuollet said. "You gotta wait for 'em."
At least 30 anglers had secured spots along the shore of the big lake near French River early Tuesday, and the same number had fished there until sunset in Monday evening's drizzle. A few fish were taken each day.
Last Sunday afternoon, the fished turned on for a two-hour stretch, said Cliff Carey of Duluth. He estimated that 18 to 20 fish were caught in that time and that perhaps 40 had been hooked -- all in a 30 yard stretch of shoreline. Another angler estimated 25 fish were caught that day, and one angler even ventured 50.
"It was fun," Carey said. "It was typical combat fishing. But 98 percent of us have fished for many, many years together. We know what to do."
Which means that when one angler casts his bobber over another, nobody gets worked up about it. If someone gets a fish on, the other guy makes way, reeling up or lifting his line so the angler with the fish hooked can play it. Someone else goes for a nearby long-handled net. It doesn't really matter whose net it is. The important thing is to land the fish.
Many of these Kamloops anglers have been fishing for these big stocked rainbows for 20 or 30 years. They call the shoreline rocks by name. They know precisely where large boulders lurk beneath the lake surface. Above all, they know that Wuollet is right when he says that an angler must "wait for 'em."
"I fished three days in a row, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.," Carey said.
Which is why he was there when the frenzy happened Sunday afternoon. You put in your time, you'll eventually be there when the fish decide to feed. And you'll have spawn bags, marshmallows in mesh, custom-tied 'looper bugs, white jigs, black jigs, night crawlers, wax worms and other offerings too classified to share with a newspaper reporter.
You will have casting bobbers, the weighted bobbers that let you get your bait out to where the fish are. You will have a long-handled net for every four or five anglers. You'll have your two 10- or 12-foot rods, your 4- or 6-pound-test line and your homemade rod holders.
If you are a young, single father such as Justin Melin of Duluth, who was at the French on Monday, you'll also have your daughter along. Five-year-old Devina Melin, dressed in snowsuit and a warm hat, was content to play with the night crawlers as Justin fished.
"The worms are so cute," she said, lifting another one from the container.
All of these Kamloops anglers know that for years they benefited from one of Minnesota's most successful fisheries efforts. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has been stocking these rainbows since the mid-1970s. The fish spend three or four or five years in Lake Superior, then gather off their home river mouths this time of year in preparation for spawning.
By April in most years, they'll begin entering the rivers to spawn, but their spawning alone would not be sufficient to sustain the population. Thus, the annual stocking of about 92,500 hatchery-reared yearlings from the Lester River to the French.
Word came from the DNR in January that, to save money, about two-thirds of the annual supply of Kamloops rainbows will be reared in a hatchery near Remer rather than the French River Hatchery just up the hill from Lake Superior.
That has many anglers concerned about whether the fish will imprint on and return to rivers like the French or the Lester, as they do now.
"They're not going to be zoned in to come back to these rivers," Kamloops angler Fred Schneider of Two Harbors said Monday evening. "That will be a waste of money. They'll scatter. It's the one successful fishery they have, and they're going to mess with it. I can't understand their reasoning."
Kamloops will be stocked earlier than they have been in some years, and will be stocked directly into the Lester and French Rivers so they will imprint to the streams, said Don Schreiner, DNR Lake Superior area fisheries supervisor.
"We'll just have wait and see what the survival is," Schreiner said.
He cautioned anglers about looking for trends too soon.
"We really won't know until 2015 or 2016," he said.
HOPING FOR BETTER TIMES
These hatchery changes come after three years of diminished Kamloops returns to these same North Shore streams. Anglers are hoping this spring will bring better returns. Last year saw some improvement.
The catch rate for Kamloops rainbows last year was up 50 percent from 2008, Schreiner said, although it was still half of the 1992-2008 average.
"I'm kind of optimistic that we've hit a low and that we're going to gradually work our way up," Schreiner said. "But it's going to be a gradual increase. I don't think there will be any spikes to the sky."
No matter what happens, many anglers will be on the shore as long as they have a decent chance of catching a rainbow. The fish are excellent to eat, grilled or smoked. They fight with tenacity. And, frankly, not a lot of other angling opportunities present themselves this time of year.
Looking out over the blue of Lake Superior, listening to small waves caress the cobblestones and watching a bobber is not the worst duty in the world.
"It's a nice way to wind down after a day of work," Fred Schneider said Monday evening.
Or, if you're Bill Wuollet, a nice way to start your morning.