Sunday, February 5th, 2023
Sunday, February 5th, 2023

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A first-rate day at a second-rate fishing hole

After running errands in Thunder Bay, we were footloose with the
better part of a Sunday remaining. I had fishing gear in the truck
and the steelhead were running. Vikki had a good book. We decided
to go a-roaming with no destination in mind. We pointed the truck
north, following the shore of Lake Superior.

We live near the Ontario border, so what would be a dream
vacation for most folks can be a day trip for us. As a result, we
know lots of places in Canada within two or three hours of home
’Ķ’ÄÇespecially fishing holes. My thought was that we’Äôd go just
far enough to find some solitude, which is just as important to us
as catching fish. I named off a couple of fishing holes not far
from Thunder Bay.

’ÄúGo wherever you like,’Äù Vikki said.

This was an open-ended reply, but I knew it had been awhile
since Vikki had traveled this way, and the farther you go, the
better the scenery. This was a get-away day, not a fishing
expedition, so without saying anything more I decided to take a
drive.

We crossed a couple of rivers outside Thunder Bay, where the
vehicles of anglers were parked near the bridges. Agreeing these
spots were crowded, we kept going, crossing rivers that surely held
steelhead. There were first-rate fishing holes ahead.

Over the years, I’Äôve wet a line in nearly every North Shore
river between Duluth and the Soo. On many, I know every twist in
the angler paths along the bank and most of the pools and pockets
where steelhead lie. I’Äôve spent countless days on the first-rate
fishing rivers that attract the most anglers. I’Äôm not entirely
sure why some rivers attract more anglers than others, though I
suspect it is because they are easier to fish and (at least in the
minds of anglers) attract larger runs of steelhead.

But first-rate rivers are best fished during the week, when most
anglers are at work. This was Sunday, at the peak of the run.
Finding solitude along the banks of a first-rate stream was
unlikely. Near some bridges, so many vehicles were parked it looked
like a fishing convention. We kept going.

As we moved north, spring retreated. Huge sheets of ice hung
from high cliffs, and piles of ice remained on Superior’Äôs shore.
Only the barest hint of green was visible in the aspens and
birches. Still, the weather wasn’Äôt all that bad. The temperature
was in the low 50s ’Äì shirtsleeve weather for the north country in
May.

We passed over a couple of dream rivers without stopping. I had
a second-rate destination in mind. For all the time I’Äôve spent on
first-rate streams, some of my favorite spots are second-rate
fishing holes. That’Äôs where you get away from the crowds.

I turned off the highway, slipped the truck into
four-wheel-drive, and followed a rough road into the woods.
Branches of alders and jackpines brushed the side of the truck as
we bumped along the wet and muddy trail. Finally, we came to the
end of the road. The second-rate river was in the valley below. We
had no company.

Slipping into my waders, I told Vikki that I planned to fish
upstream to the waterfalls. She knew the place.

’ÄúI’Äôll just stay here,’Äù she said. ’ÄúMaybe I’Äôll come and
see you later.’Äù

The river was a little high, which is the way I like it. No
spawning suckers were visible in the eddies along the bank, a good
sign. The suckers typically show up a week or so behind the
steelhead.

I started working my way upstream, drifting a yard fly through
likely spots behind rocks that slowed the rolling current. In a
long pocket on a ledge rock shelf I connected with the first fish,
which struck hard and took off on a run before I could react. So I
just hung on and listened to the drag on my fly reel sing.

Heading downstream in the tumbling flows, the steelhead didn’Äôt
pause until it reached a quiet pocket more than 100 feet
downstream. Whenever it tried to make another run, I managed to
stop it. But I couldn’Äôt reel it back upstream to my position. If
the steelie and I were to meet, I’Äôd have to chase it. Keeping a
tight line, I started picking my way among the slippery boulders
and overhanging alders along the river’Äôs edge. It got a little
dicey where swift flows slipped off the ledge rock, but I
negotiated the hip-deep water without a hitch. It wasn’Äôt the
first time I’Äôd passed this way. Soon I slipped my hand around a
silver trout of about five pounds. Removing the hook, I gently
released her.

As a friend once said, any day you catch a steelhead is a good
day, so in that respect my day was complete. But I kept fishing. A
day when you catch two steelhead is even better.

The next one didn’Äôt come quickly, but they rarely do. I fished
for more than an hour before I hooked another steelhead hiding in a
rocky pocket at the base of the falls. This one was a crackerjack,
punctuating its runs with high leaps. Eventually, I brought to hand
a male steelhead just a little smaller than the first fish. I heard
a whistle and looked up. Vikki gave me a thumbs up from where she
stood at the top of the waterfall.

Taking a break, I climbed up to join her and enjoy the view. We
were in a place of extraordinary beauty and we had it all to
ourselves. Perhaps I might have caught a couple more fish on
another, first-rate river, but that alone wouldn’Äôt have improved
the day. It was better to be at a river everyone else considered
second rate, because by all measures, we had a first-rate day.

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