Along the North Shore, wild brook trout return to native waters

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend some time with a
Minnesota DNR Fisheries electroshocking crew as they surveyed a
small North Shore creek. The crew started where the creek entered
Lake Superior and worked upstream to the first significant
waterfall. They were looking for brook trout, which enter creeks to
spawn in the fall. The fall brook trout survey of North Shore
streams now occurs every five years.

That the survey occurs is something of a minor miracle. Not so
many years ago, the DNR took the position that native brook trout
had largely vanished from the Minnesota waters of Lake Superior and
recovery efforts would prove futile. Not all anglers, including
this columnist, agreed with that position. Collectively, we
maintained pressure on fisheries agencies until a lake wide brook
trout restoration effort was begun.

We’ve come a long way during the last decade. While they are no
means abundant, brook trout are now common along the Minnesota
North Shore and a healthy fishery has been restored in Ontario
waters. Historically, Lake Superior once had a world-renowned brook
trout fishery that collapsed as the region was settled in the early
1900s. Only vicinity of Ontario’s Nipigon River and on remote Isle
Royale did viable brook trout populations persist into the late
20th Century.

Lake Superior brook trout, often called “coasters” because they
frequent shoreline areas, can grow to enormous sizes. In Ontario,
it is possible to catch brookies weighing five pounds or more. On
most areas of Lake Superior, including Minnesota waters, anglers
are required to release brook trout less than 20 inches long in
order to allow these tasty fish to reach their full potential.
Judging from the results of the electro-fishing survey, the
restoration efforts holds significant promise, but we still have a
ways to go until we start seeing trophies.

The crew collected more than a dozen brookies from a reach of
the creek less than 300 yards in length. The trout ranged in size
from fingerlings to fat 12-inchers. While they may have come
downstream from above the barrier waterfall, it is more likely they
spend part of the year in Lake Superior and entered the tributary
to spawn. Matt Ward of DNR Fisheries says shocking crews haven’t
observed spawning activity, but they’ve captured pre-spawn to
post-spawn female brook trout.

“They are certainly coming into the streams to spawn,” he
said.

The DNR crew collected scale and fin tissue samples from each
brookie for aging and genetic testing. The genetic tests can
determine the origin of the fish. While it is possible some brook
trout may have originated from Isle Royale strain brook trout
stocked at the Grand Portage Reservation, previous tests have found
a genetically diverse, wild brook trout population inhabits
Minnesota’s North Shore.

Last October, the crew sampled nine larger streams where high
water had prevented them from working in 2007. Catching a river at
the right level for electro-fishing is a tricky proposition. A
little rainfall is necessary to raise the water level and stimulate
fish to enter the stream from Lake Superior. However, if it rains
too much, there is too much flow for successful
electro-fishing.

Anglers have a saying that big waters produce big fish. To a
certain degree, his seems to be true for brook trout streams. Ward
says the crew catches coasters in the 15- to 17-inch range. The
biggest fish captured in 2008 were 18.5 inches-a mighty fine brook
trout in anyone’s book. And, as in all fishing, Ward says some of
the big ones get away. The electric current temporarily stuns the
fish so it floats to the surface, where it is scooped up with a
capture net. The bigger fish quickly recover and often avoid the
net.

In most streams, electro-shocking turns up less than 15 brook
trout, but numbers recovered from the same stream differ from one
day to the next. Ward said the brook trout appear to move in and
out from Lake Superior during the spawn. This may be at least
partially due to fluctuating water levels. Also, brook trout take
on a silvery sheen in the clear waters of Lake Superior. Fish
captured in the surveys range from silvery to rich spawning
colors.

Interestingly, brook trout have been discovered in all but two
North Shore streams, including some tiny, almost unknown creeks.
This is encouraging. Less encouraging is angler compliance with the
special regulations that allow the recovery to occur. Simply put,
brook trout are good to eat and fish managers suspect some anglers
take coasters home for dinner. During the 2007 fall survey, the
fisheries crew encountered anglers on several streams who said they
were fishing for brook trout, even though the season had closed
September 1. However, the fishing season is open year-round on the
lower reaches of North Shore streams for all other species of trout
and salmon.

While the fisheries crews are seeking brook trout, they find
other fish in the streams, ranging from creek chubs to coho salmon.
Especially numerous are one- and two-year-old fingerling rainbow
trout, which will migrate to Lake Superior and return in a year or
two as spawning steelhead. Chinook salmon and adult steelhead are
occasionally encountered, too. Wild populations of various trout
and salmon coexist along the North Shore.

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