Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Lake Superior’s
North Shore Steelhead
Each spring and fall a glut of steelhead move into Ontario’s array of wild rivers.
By Gord Ellis

When it comes to beauty, few fish can compete with the shimmer of a steelhead. (Cohen Lewis)

The Canadian north shore of Lake Superior is one of the most beautiful and rugged places in Canada. Superior itself is an inland sea, deep, cold and expansive. The lake is fed by hundreds of rivers and creeks. These rivers run that gamut from fast flowing freestone creeks to huge, deep rivers, to tiny spring fed rivulets. While all these tributaries are different, they share something in common—they host runs of migratory rainbow trout each spring and fall. These Lake Superior steelhead are some of the most beautiful and hardiest rainbow trout on the planet. Here is a look at the angling opportunity they provide.

An average size Northern Superior Steelhead, caught by the author. (Gord Ellis)

The Fish
Steelhead are not native to Lake Superior. The fish were introduced to the lake near Thunder Bay in the early 1900s. Other jurisdictions on the American side of the lake have also stocked various rainbow trout including the Kamloops and Donaldson strains. Over time, this melting pot of rainbows has naturalized and become a wild, naturally reproducing population of Lake Superior steelhead. And make no mistake, Lake Superior’s north shore is one of the coldest and harshest environments steelhead live in, anywhere in the world. This makes them tough, ornery and relatively longer lived than some other strains. Lake Superior steelhead are not as large on average as West Coast fish or even those found in the other Great Lakes, but they can get close. In 2011, I caught and released a fish that measured 33 inches long. However, the average Superior steelhead is about 25 inches long and weighs between five and six pounds. A 30-inch fish is generally considered an exceptional one and will weigh close to 10 pounds. Many of these larger steelhead have made a spawning run up to seven or eight times.

Lake Superior steelhead also vary widely in shape and coloration. Fresh fish just in from Superior can be nearly solid nickel, with almost no red blush. Then there are fish so dark they are nearly black. Most Superior steelhead are racy, with longer bodies and wide tails built for rushing up rapids and leaping falls. However, there is also the occasional supertanker that is round and fat. Superior steelhead generally fight hard and, if the water is not too cold, leap and tear out of pools at breakneck speed. They are an awesome fish.

The Water
From the border between Minnesota and Ontario, to Sault Ste. Marie, there are literally hundreds of gorgeous places to fish steelhead. Most fly-fishers will be attracted to the midsized and larger rivers that offer a bit more backcast room and water to work.

These north shore rivers and streams are wild, challenging, beautiful and pristine. Cedars and pine trees line many of them, while others are open and rocky. Few (outside of Thunder Bay) have more than a handful of cottages or homes on their banks. Many have limited access to the upper reaches outside of small game trails. On the most remote rivers east of the town of Nipigon, you may not see an angler for days, or at all. It is a place of wild fish and wild water.

Some of the better rivers for numbers of fish are found within the city of Thunder Bay. The McIntyre, a medium size freestone river, snakes through the center of the city and has enough greens space (public lands) to allow a lot of angler access. Several thousand steelhead run the Mac—a large number by Lake Superior standards. Easy access and numbers of fish attract anglers, however, so being alone on the river is rare. Still, there are enough riffles, pools and runs to keep most anglers busy. Above the fishway at Lakehead University the river is much more lightly fished.

The other urban streams in Thunder Bay also see large numbers of anglers, particularly the Neebing River, which is heavily fished below a weir in the center of town. The Current River, on the east side of the city, is a large, fast-moving river that has a smaller run of steelhead, but much more elbow room. Most of the fishing is done in the pockets and pools below the Boulevard Lake fishway, with the lion’s share of fish being caught at the base of the rapids near Lake Superior.

The Jackpine, Cypress and Gravel rivers, located east of Nipigon, are standout destinations. All are accessed off the highway, and the easily reached water is quite busy during the main run. However, a little exploration upstream on these classic rivers reveals a lot of unfished water. Prepare for some rough trails and uneven walking, but the reward can be worth the effort. Some anglers pack their waders and hike well upstream, then fish their way down. A scan with Google Earth reveals many of the less easily accessed pools and runs.

A beautiful fall specimen caught by the author, on the Steel River. Note the bead hanging out of the fish’s mouth. While some purists consider them cheating, they are extremely effective, and less likely to be swallowed by the fish. (Gord Ellis)

The Steel River produces the largest fish on the north shore. The Steel, which is located near Terrace Bay, is a classic trout river in every way and pulls a substantial run of fish. In many ways it reminds me of a West Coast river. It has some huge, deep pools that hold steelhead all winter. There are long riffles and some deep runs. It is most easily fished with a fly in the early and late seasons, generally the first two weeks of April and last two weeks of May. Unlike most north shore streams, you can fish a spey rod here and not feel overarmed. Steelhead start running here early and keep coming well into June. There is accessible water off the highway, but the adventurous angler finds lesser fished areas by taking the trail up from the highway.

Anglers use boats to fish several of the north shore’s largest rivers. That does not mean you can’t fish them from shore. You just have to find your spot and work it carefully and thoroughly. The Nipigon and Michipicoten are the two largest rivers and have steelhead runs as well as resident rainbows. These larger rivers can also cough up some larger than average fish. Both these rivers are great for the spey enthusiast. Other beautiful rivers include the Mackenzie, Wolf, Black Sturgeon, Whitesand, Deadhorse, Prairie, Pancake, Baldhead and Sand.

There are also literally hundreds of smaller creeks on the north shore, nearly all of them with good runs of steelhead.

The Fishing
Many of these rivers—and the ones fly fishers gravitate to—run swift, with deep pools, runs and riffles that hold steelhead on the move. During spring, mornings are cold and the steelhead hold up in deeper pools and runs. Fishing sink-tips and egg patterns (cactus fly, yarn fly) or colored beads are the favored techniques.

Another go-to is the black Woolly Bugger in size-8 or 10. A peacock Woolly Worm with a red tail is another local favorite. In heavily pressured water, or in ultra-clear streams, a size-10 chironomid works well. Most anglers use a floating line and add some weight to the leader to get the fly down. Generally, only the largest rivers, including the Nipigon and the Michipicoten, require a sink-tip.

As the water warms and steelhead begin moving, the tailouts of pools and the heads of runs hold the most active fish. Swinging streamers, such as an Egg-Sucking Leech, Strip Leech or a nymph pattern, can be deadly. As the run winds down and the steelhead begin to drop back, anglers can really cash in. After the spawn the steelhead are extra-aggressive and lower water makes it easier to reach them with a fly. Best of all, the water is warmer at that time and these steelhead are acrobatic. A 7 or 8-weight rod covers most north shore situations.

No crowds here. Though easily accessible, you rarely encounter other anglers while fishing the North Superior tributaries. (Gord Ellis)

Timing
Timing the spring run on Superior is not difficult. As a rule, fishing the first week of May all but guarantees there will be steelhead in a river. However, the runs have been trending earlier over the past decade with the last week of April seeing the peak of the run. The spring run is about a week earlier in Thunder Bay and close to Sault Ste. Marie than on the most northern edge of coastal Superior. Early season anglers in mid-to later April find lower rivers and a lot of snow, but some very bright fish. From mid-to late May, the spawned out “drop-back” trout tend to hole up in the deeper pools and runs. In late May the coastal rivers are generally devoid of anglers and the fish are plentiful. There may be a few blackflies and mosquitoes around, but the fishing will be worth the annoyance. As a bonus, the coastal rivers may produce brook trout, including resident fish and the larger “coaster” brookies that move up from Superior to eat steelhead and sucker eggs. Not a bad incidental catch.

Thunderbay local, Cohen Lewis with a beautiful spring fish. (Cowen Lewis)

Regulations
Lake Superior steelhead populations are managed in a conservative way. The fishery is open year-round, so there is plenty of opportunity. Most anglers practice catch-and-release and it has helped the fishery immeasurably. However, there is some harvest. For the northwest coastal streams of Lake Superior, which flow from about Wawa to the Minnesota border, it’s a one-fish limit. The only variation is found on two rivers within Thunder Bay (the McIntyre and Neebing) that also have a size limit of one fish over 27 inches. On the northeast coast of Superior, east of the Pic River, the limit is two steelhead any size. There are also closures on small creeks in the northeast, and these are generally signed. You need to check the Ontario regulations whenever you fish new waters. One other thing to be aware of is some streams have weirs and falls with no fishing areas beneath them. Again, these are generally signed and marked, but a check of the regulations is always a good plan.

Gord Ellis
Gord Ellis is a writer, broadcaster, journalist, photographer and fly fishing guide from Thunder Bay, Ontario. Gord has been working as an outdoor writer since the mid-1980s, and has written several thousand features, columns, web pieces and news stories. In 2018, Gord was inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, in Hayward, Wisconsin.