North Shore streams, and their steelhead trout, are running

13 April 2024

KNIFE RIVER, Minn. — Two feet of snow melting fast, coupled with a half-inch of rain Monday, were just the ticket to finally loosen the last ice on North Shore streams, sending water tumbling down into Lake Superior and sending fish upstream.

Todd Boche, of Bloomington, Minn., casts a spawn bag for steelhead trout on the Knife River along the North Shore of Lake Superior on Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Boche was hoping recent rain and snowmelt would draw the migratory trout out of Lake Superior to spawn upstream. (John Myers / Duluth Media Group)

Streams closer to Duluth opened the first week in April, while streams farther up the shore opened this week, said Cory Goldsworthy, Lake Superior fisheries manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

DNR crews captured their first spawning steelhead rainbow trout of the season in a North Shore river fish trap Monday. Many more will follow soon.

“They’re in the river. It’s started,” Goldsworthy said.

The rush of water — the first this spring — was also enough to blow gravel bars out of the mouths of several North Shore rivers, like the Lester, where the rocks had been blocking fish passage upstream.

While the first few days of open water usually see rivers run fast and dirty, that period is passing quickly this spring because the streams and their headwaters were so low before the late-March snowstorm and because the ground was so dry and able to soak up much of the moisture.

The Knife River skyrocketed from frozen just over a week ago to 1,600 cubic feet per second during Monday’s rain but then dropped back quickly to a fishable 800 CFS by Tuesday afternoon.

“Conditions are just about perfect right now. The water is high, but it’s normal-high for spring runoff,” Goldsworthy said. “We haven’t had normal for a few years.”

As air temperatures reach the 50s and water temperatures into the 40s, and with ample flow but no flooding, steelhead will begin moving out of Lake Superior and upstream to spawn, starting on streams closest to Duluth at first, then, later, farther up the North Shore.

“It still needs to warm up a little more,” Goldsworthy said Tuesday. “The magic water temperature is 40 degrees for it to really get going. We were at 36.5 degrees today. But the forecast looks good. … When I was growing up, we always said if the temperature outside is in the 50s and we get a little rain, grab your fishing pole and go.”

A little rain every few days helps keep the rivers at the right level.

The next two weeks in April could be the peak of the steelhead run, Goldsworthy said. That’s very different from last year, when deep snow on the ground lasted into May in some areas and the spawning run was a month later than usual.

On Tuesday, after the rain ended, eager anglers were already showing up on the Stewart and Knife rivers.

“It’s early, I know, and it’s still pretty high,” said Todd Boche of Bloomington, who was trying his hand for steelhead on the Knife River on Tuesday morning. “But my wife and I needed to get out of the Cities for a few days. … And there’s a chance one or two fish will be moving up. So why not try?”

You can keep these, eventually

DNR crews this week are stocking 140,000 clipped-fin, hatchery-raised steelhead trout in the Lester and French rivers that came from the eggs of wild Lake Superior steelhead caught in DNR fish traps in recent years.

Those 2-year-old stocked trout were about 6 inches long and will be legal to keep when they get bigger, probably in two more years. Those fish must be 16 inches to keep, and some of the fish from the stocking program, which began in 2018, should be returning to rivers to spawn now and should be big enough to keep this spring.

It is illegal to keep any wild, unclipped steelhead in Minnesota.

Smelt? Not yet, but soon

The very first reports of smelt beginning to show up along the South Shore of Lake Superior were filtering in early this week, but both the big lake and tributary stream temperatures are still too cold for a major run near the Twin Ports.

“When we hear that they are hitting over in Ashland, and we haven’t seen much of that yet, then it’s usually about a week or two until they start showing up over here,” near the Twin Ports, Goldsworthy said.

It won’t be long until net-dippers are out in force on the Lester River in Duluth hoping to land bucket loads of smelt, like these anglers in 2023. The annual spawning run should begin any day now as waters warm in mid-April 2024. The beaches at Minnesota Point and Wisconsin Point are also popular places for seining smelt. (Clint Austin / Duluth Media Group)

North Shore streams are popular destinations for smelters with dip nets while the waters off Wisconsin Point and Minnesota Pont sand beaches can be a good place for large hauls using seines.

The smelt show up in earnest when the water temperature hits 40 degrees. “And we aren’t there yet,” Goldsworthy said.

Lake ice-out still ahead of normal

The recent precipitation provided a needed spurt of energy not just for the streams and their fish but also to help finish opening up northern Minnesota lakes.

Most lakes in the southern two-thirds of Minnesota opened a month or more earlier than average and most of those set all-time records for early ice out, topping even 2012, which had held many records until now.

Island Lake Reservoir just north of Duluth lost its ice on March 17, a record-early date and five weeks ahead of the April 17 median date, according to data from the Minnesota DNR’s State Climatology Office.

Lake Osakis in western Minnesota, which has 157 years of records — among the longest in the state — dating back to 1867, set a record early ice-out date of March 8. That’s nearly six weeks ahead of the median date of April 19 and more than two months earlier than the latest ice-out of May 14 in 1950.

Big Sandy Lake north of McGregor set a record early ice-out on March 16, exactly one month earlier than the April 16 median date in the 94 years since records have been kept, starting in 1930.

As is usual, lakes in far Northeastern Minnesota are losing their ice later, where thicker ice, a bit more snow and colder temperatures hung on longer. Little Jessie Lake in Itasca County lost its ice on April 8, another record but only 16 days ahead of its median date.

Fewer records will likely be set in the Arrowhead region, unable to match the non-winter and warm spring of 2012. But even Arrowhead lakes are still expected to lose their ice a couple of weeks earlier than normal this year, especially with temperatures into the 60s in the forecast.

Large swathes of Lake Vermilion were open as of Wednesday but, with some ice still floating around, official ice-out hadn’t been declared. The big lake won’t set a record — that was March 28, 2012 — but will beat its median ice-out date of April 30. The latest Vermilion has lost its ice was May 23, 1960.

Greenwood Lake in Cook County is, on average, the last lake in Minnesota to lose its ice, with a median date of May 9. It has happened as late as May 24 (2014) and as early as April 10 (2012).

The latest ice-out on record in Minnesota is for Gunflint Lake, on the Ontario border, which didn’t lose its ice until June 3 in 1936.

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