Friday, January 01, 2016

Cold Water Steelheading with a Trout Mentality

Photo Credit Benjamin Jose
One sure way to improve your early-season steelheading chops is to do a little winter trout fishing. There’s nothing quite like getting a thorough beat-down prior to the steelhead season to make you pay attention to fundamentals. Given the right conditions, a winter butt-kicking can actually be quite enjoyable, and keeps you tuned and ready to go for when the big migratory rainbows once again enter North Shore Tributaries.

First up on the order of business is deciding where to go. Southeast Minnesota is an option, but if you’re looking to get out before the regular Catch and Release opener which doesn’t occur in Minnesota until January, you have other options.

Fortunately for me, Northeastern Iowa isn’t all that much farther away than my favorite SE Minnesota streams. Plus, I can fish any time from the Minnesota September closer all the way through until March. Sometimes conditions are just a bit better south of the border with more moderate stream temps due to spring-fed activity and slightly warmer air temps, not to mention the chance of exploring some new water.

With Minnesota trout closed in December, we decided to head for Iowa. Snow, slick roads and 15-20 mile-per-hour winds blowing directly on-shore up on Gitchee put the brakes on a North Shore trip.

The stream we fished isn’t really necessary to know, all one needs to do is hit the Iowa DNR Website, scroll down, find a stream or two, print out the maps and you’re in business.

Winter trout have quite a bit in common with steelhead as they are both creatures of metabolism. When the water is really cold, they will utilize slower areas of the stream more heavily as it takes much less energy to hold in pools, pockets and seams while allowing food to come to them. That doesn’t mean you won’t find them in faster water, but targeting these other areas first maximizes hookup potential.
Typical Winter Holding Water
The next piece of the puzzle is your approach. Don’t just go charging up to the next likely pool or run, approach carefully from downstream, and scan the water as soon as you are able. Look for fish before you leap, you may have to actually circle back downstream a bit, especially if you didn’t realize that tail-out where all the fish are holding is further down (and closer to you) than it looked. Cold water is typically clear water; there’s nothing worse than getting pegged from 40 feet away and not realizing that every fish in a pool or run is now hunkered down with lock-jaw, or already 100 yards upstream heading for safer pastures until it is too late.

Get low. This applies to any kind of fishing where you can see the fish, but is particularly relevant to trout and steelhead any time they are in the streams. Steelhead and trout see up and out of the water in a 360-degree cone, but there are limitations. I’ll skip all of the light-refraction physics involved, but they are essentially “blind” to anything outside the cone. The rough rule of thumb is that you gain 3 feet in height (from the ground) of blind zone for every 18 feet of distance you are from your fish. For example, a 4-foot tall angler standing 36 feet away from a fish holding in a stream could do jumping-jacks and the fish probably would not see this. But don’t try that either! They may not see it, but all that thumping on the ground will be picked up via their lateral line and they will still boogie. Take the same scenario, but use a just-under 6 foot tall angler. At 36 feet, the taller angler can still stand there observing fish and not be seen, but as soon as he or she raised their arms straight over their heads and penetrated the cone at 6 feet above the ground, the fish sees a couple of disembodied arms waving around and heads for the next county.
Staying Low
As you get closer, you have to scrunch down below the cone so as not to be seen. At 18 feet from the fish, you need to be “hiding” in the blind spot, which at 18 feet away is roughly only 3 feet from the ground to the bottom of the vision cone and what a fish can see. Don’t forget to factor bank-height into this, if you are on a high bank, you need to get low further away from the fish. If you’re a total dork like myself and prefer working out the physics, stay below a ten-degree angle at any fixed distance from the fish and you’ll have mastered invisibility. At least to the fish, I tried this once on my spouse to get out of vacuuming, it doesn’t work and you look really stupid crouching motionless in the middle of the living room.

As was previously mentioned, don’t stomp. Fish have lateral lines and anglers clomping around up and down the stream get the same results from the fish as being spotted, “Buh-bye!”

About Gear and Presentations:

Everyone goes through a process or evolution as anglers, and not everyone progresses at the same rate. Some have such a great time doing one thing they say the hell with graduation. Some master one technique and move on, but keep using previously acquired gear and techniques whenever the situation dictates. Others continue on in their angling evolution until you don’t even realize what they are doing is fishing. I ran into a guy once on the upper Brule who was wearing nothing but rainbow suspenders and tighty-whities made out of puff-ball fungus. No rod of any kind in sight, but darned if that guy wasn’t catching fish. He’d just sort of stand there knee-deep in the run, meditating, and the fish would jump right into his arms; sublime… Point is, we at Minnesota Steelheader don’t care where you are at in your journey: support the fishery, respect the fish and your fellow anglers, and it all works out in the end. There are however a couple things to remember about cold water:
  • It’s cold: The fish will utilize slower areas of the stream, look for those: Pools, Pockets and Seams. Remember too that the current speed at the bottom will be moving slower than what things appear to be doing on the surface. You may have a depression or pocket in the stream bed below fast moving water, and the fish may just be hiding there.
  • It’s usually clear: From a presentation standpoint, this ordinarily means using longer, lighter leaders and/or tippet material. It doesn’t fundamentally matter whether you are spinning, pinning, flying or plunking, but using longer, lighter leaders/tippet does. If it’s ridiculously low and clear, and you’re down to 2lb. test, frog hair, or a string of oxygen atoms with a size 32 midge bonded to the end through willpower alone, remember that using a longer rod will allow you to fish much lighter. Longer rods help take strain off the business-end of your rig, and you can catch some ridiculously large fish on ridiculously light terminal line. A 10’ rod sounds stupid in some circles, but it’s a good starting point for clear and cold. It’s also far less likely the fish will see your line because you can get stupid light.
  • It’s cold and clear: Trout and steelhead holding in slow, clear water have a loooooooong time to scrutinize whatever it is you are throwing at them. I’ve watched both trout and steelhead break from a lane and lazily follow a fly for 10-15 feet, only to turn their noses up at last second and reject my offering as bogus. Whatever you show the fish in these conditions, it has to look like food. Better yet if it also smells like food. Some days it’s just best if it really is food. A good rule of thumb on the North Shore seems to be watching for “Magic 40”. Below 40 degrees, bait or scented yarn really produces well. Above 40 degrees, flies really shine. Again, we don’t particularly care which side of the “Tastes Great!”, “Less Filling!” debate you are personally on, we’ve just made the Magic 40 observation through many years of hard-won experience and catch-logging. Since for this particular trip we were fly-fishing, running through the nymph box was the order of the day. Turns out that size 14 and 16 caddis pupa with a gray body were the ticket. Most cold-water days, you just have to experiment a lot: size, color and shape. Adding scent is up to you.

Other considerations:

On this day, I started out with 3 feet of 2lb. tippet, a small caddis fly and nothing else. I was fishing the gut of a pool and only had one missed fish to show for an hours-worth of labor. Ordinarily I’m watching my leader loop and using it as a strike indicator. Basically this is just a piece of highly-visible 25lb. red amnesia shooting line nail-knotted to the end of the fly line, and finished with a perfection loop. Any hesitation, twitch or odd motion of the loop gets a hook-set, just as in steelheading. Problem was I was getting nothing out of it despite knowing there were fish in the pool. So, I switched to a tiny Palsa indicator and a bead-head caddis, and that made all the difference.
A Rainbow Duped by the Caddis

Sure there are fish that will hammer the business-end in cold water making your loop/line stop, race up, down or sideways, but most of the fish I hooked took the fly with an almost imperceptible sip. The Palsa indicator would just do one all-but invisible “plip”, and that would be it, no movement of the line whatsoever.
One of several Brown Trout
The same can be true while steelheading in cold water. If you know there are fish in, make all the other normal adjustments to shot weight, leader length and leader/tippet weight first. If you’re already fishing long, light, small and smelly, but not getting results with a bobber for instance, try downsizing the bobber. Or indicator. Or keeping a tighter line. Whatever you do, watch your rig like a hawk and set that hook on anything that is out of the ordinary in the way of line movement.     

In the end, the greatest gift winter trout fishing imparts is confidence. If you can sneak up on winter trout in skinny, clear and cold conditions, then read the water, figure out what they want and fool them into biting, you’ve gone a long way towards ensuring your next early steelhead trip will be successful. But unless you’re a Zen-Fishing master, I don’t recommend winter fishing in only puffball undies and rainbow suspenders. Try working your way up…

Regards and All the Best in 2016-

Minnesota Steelheader

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Pom Pom fly - your alternative to a yarn fly

If you are new to North Shore steelhead fishing, you will soon find out that yarn is a popular and effective "fly" for our migratory steelhead, trout, and salmon.  

Many anglers simply snell a hook and place a chunk of their favorite colored yarn inside the main loop, pull the snell tight, trim up the yarn, and you are off fishing. These anglers often have several colors of yarn tucked away in their vest along with a few hook sizes for easy access.

For those anglers yet to learn how to snell a hook, there are two alternatives.  You can visit your local fly shop and purchase some, or you can make your own.

There are several ways to tie your own yarn flies, but if you want to try a simple alternative to a more traditional yarn fly tying pattern, give pom-poms a try.  

You can find pom-poms at most craft stores.  They come in all sorts of sizes and colors, but look at the variety packs for starters.  When selecting a size, keep it to a size smaller than a dime or a pinky fingernail.  The yellow fly with a blood dot (sharpie marker) pictured above is a good size for low and clear water.  Go a bit larger for the high water spring conditions.

When selecting hooks, don't use those no-name bargain hooks.  Purchase a tried and true brand... another reason to visit your local fly shop.  A good all around style and size is an egg style hook in a size 6.  Other styles and sizes also work, but this is a good place to start.  Now you simply poke the hook through the center of the pom-pom and slide it up the hook.  

The pom-pom will need to be secured to the hook or it will slide around.  To be most effective, the pom-pom needs to be secured right behind the hook eye. A great way to do this is with some tying thread.  With the pom-pom slid up agains the hook eye, you only need a bit of thread on the hook shank at the rear of the pom-pom. This bit of thread is all you need to keep it from sliding to the rear of the hook.  

If fly tying is not your thing, back the pom-pom down the hook shank a bit.  Place a drop of super glue on the hook rear of the hook eye.  Slide the pom-pom up and over the glue.  When it drys, you can place a drop behind the fly if the pom-pom slides a bit, just be carful not to get glue all over the pom-pom.  When all dry you are on your way to a simple yet effective north shore fly pattern.


Monday, December 14, 2015

Lake Superior tributary clean up gets notice.

Be part of the solution.
Join the Adopt-a-River program.

Since 1989, volunteers have removed over 6.5 million pounds of trash from thousands of miles of shoreline on Minnesota’s lakes, rivers and ponds. Minnesota Steelheader, a non-profit conservation group is one such volunteer group.

We sure are! We (Minnesota Steelheader) have been part of the program since 2011, pulling hundreds of pounds of garbage and debris from the Sucker River over the years.

The year 2014 was a memorable clean up year.  The weather was terrific.  It was a cool clear morning as the sun was gently rising in the southeasterly sky over Lake Superior.  One of those picture perfect mornings that made you just want to sit back and enjoy the scenic splendors the North Shore offers.

We had an eager group of volunteers show up to help with our efforts that September morning.  We also had our staff photographer along to capture the day.  After some basic instructions and trash bag distribution, our glove wearing, wader and boot laden group, ventured out.  Volunteers hit the ditches along HWY 61 at the Sucker River overpass, a few attack the high visitor traffic at the scenic route parking lot, and the rest worked in the river itself, the banks, and the surround woods for anything that does not belong.

We found over 100lbs. of items that day.  Most notable was capture by our photographer and pictured in the previous post.  That picture is also being proudly used by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as their featured header image on the Adopt_A-River webpage.  It is nice to be noticed for our efforts!
Here is the link:

Joining the program is easy and FREE!  You do not have to be a non-profit to do this, anyone can set up a clean up program.  Reach out the MN DNR at the above link for more information.  Or contact us if you wish to be part of our 2016 clean up crew, we welcome anyone willing to volunteer a little fishing time.

Thursday, September 10, 2015


Annual Adopt-a-River Clean up is Saturday, Sept. 19th 8:00am.

Please join us for our annual Sucker River Clean up event. This is open to anyone, no need to sign up, just show up! 

What to Bring: work gloves, warm clothing, rain gear, waders are optional. We will supply trash bag and a few extra gloves.

We are meeting at the scenic HWY 61 parking lot at 8:00am. We hope to have a good turn out to help speed things up and head out later for a day of fishing. No worries if you are running late, just grab a trash bag and join in. 

This is not only a perfect opportunity for you to give back a little time to the fishery you enjoy, but also a great opportunity to meet some of our staff! We will be on hand to answer questions, give advice, share tips and offer guidance about our fall fishery. We will also be providing the most current fishing report to those planning a weekend on the water!

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Our fall streamside clinic is finally scheduled and registration has begun.  If you are interested in participating we recommend you sign up ASAP as angler space is limited.

Date: Saturday, September 19th, 2015
Time: 9:45am to 12:45pm - after our adopt-a-river clean-up
Location: an awesome middle shore river*

How do you register?

What is the Streamside clinic?
We developed this clinic in 2011 as way to teach beginners and intermediate steelhead anglers the fundamentals of fishing our North Shore streams and rivers.  Timing the clinic in the fall was easy.  The pink salmon migration is in full swing,  the weather conditions are fairly stable and the rivers are running lower than the levels during the spring steelhead migration making them much more manageable.  Pinks also utilize some of the same migration and spawning waters as our steelhead and most north shore steelie flies can catch pinks.

What will you learn?
Our all volunteer staff of seasoned anglers will teach you all about pink salmon; how they got here, why they were able to naturalize, and how their habitat/life-cycle is similar to steelhead.

• We teach a little on how geology and limnology impact steelhead and pink salmon.

• We review fishing equipment that is suitable for both steelhead and pinks including: rods, reels, line, knots, flies, and misc extras.

• We give a brief summary on all the trout and salmon that swim our waters.

• We also go into detail on how to read water and the terminology for the different types of water/current within our rivers and streams.

• The above might seem time consuming, but we run through it pretty quick and give each of you a nice written outline jammed with everything we teach... now we fish!

• After some general overview our staff of male and female instructors will split the group in two - guys and gals.  Each group will have some hands on instruction on locating fish, fly selection, and presentation.  Note this is not a casting class, but some assistance can be provided.

What is new for the 2015 clinic?
Steelheading is pretty much the same these days, but the anglers are changing. We are noticing more and more diversity on the water these days so to help the momentum we are encourage parents and children to sign up for the event this year. We are also encouraging husbands to bring their wives, or wives to bring their husbands. Couples are encourage to participate, but this is for individuals too!

What will you need to bring?
First and foremost bring a positive attitude.  You will also need to supply yourself with your own fishing equipment (rod, real, line, flies, waders, rain gear, etc.). We also strongly suggest polarized glassed and a camera. 

What will MS provide?
We will have some water and a snack on hand but feel free to bring your own as well.  We will also be providing a clinic outline packed full of valuable information, a basics to fly fishing guide, and a north shore river map booklet.

Who can attend?
This clinic is open to all who are able to freely maneuver the root covered dirt and rock trails along the banks of the river.  The trails are the easy part, it is the walking on rocks and light wading that requires a good sense of balance.  Note too that we focus on entry level wading - no crazy deep water, most is less that knee high.
We strongly encourage kids to participate in the clinic, but they must register with an adult.

What does the clinic cost?
Cost:     15 and under - open donation
     Students - $15.00 min. donation requested
       - $25 min. donation requested

Visit our donations page to learn how to support us!

* river location to be determined.  All participants will be updated on river and meeting location.

Friday, June 26, 2015

2015 Creel Project - FINAL

    One of the other big questions we are trying to answer with the Creel Project is, "Is there a "Normal", "Standard" or "Typical" run picture?" In other words, what if anything, is common to the runs across the North Shore with respect to steelhead, and what does that look like?
    That picture is beginning to resolve itself in a big way; but the key has been figuring out whether there is a common denominator and how to apply it.
    We have to go back to one of the things that frustrated us initially. That is to say, conventional wisdom at the time was that flow was the be-all, end-all in steelhead fishing: Flow goes up, fish move, flow goes down, movement changes and or decreases. Turns out that what we are learning is while this still holds true, it really depends on for lack of a better description, what stage of the run we are in, and the key factor appears to be stream temperatures early in the season.
    So lets jump into the Way-Back machine for a second. Again, even before we started this project, flow was the thing. Where we started scratching our heads was that we observed a number of runs in which early in the season and just after ice-out, flows were ideal, but you could not buy a fish to save your life. Based on conventional wisdom, we should have been lousy with fish. After logging several runs like this. We began looking closely at the data, but we still didn't have a clue as to why this might be happening.
    It was only after a chance-encounter with one of the Minnesota DNR's technical papers that the light-bulb went on. There was a single reference to initial up-bound migration being influenced by temperature, and this was what sparked the whole Initiation Threshold idea, which by the way is our term for that larger concept, not a technical term.
    From there we dug into all of the Trap data we could find which seemed to confirm the idea, we just needed to plot our own course and start analyzing our own data in the context of the threshold provided in the technical papers.       
    Roughly 10 years and 6 years of specific data later, we think we have validated the concept, and we think it's also important to understand from a steelhead fishing planning perspective.
    If you take all of the creel data, it turns out that we can pinpoint within a roughly 72-hour window the year to year calendar date when each region hit the threshold. From there, we simply shifted the data so that independent of the actual date, May 2nd vs. April 10th for example, the 7-day period of the weekly format aligns around the so-called Initiation Threshold. We call this the "Zero Week".
    Next we plot all of the reported creel catch. The numbers and the dates are not important, we are trying to get a signature. We also calculate how many fish were reported to creel in the weeks prior to the threshold being met vs. how many were reported post-threshold. Pre are all the "negative" weeks prior to Zero Week, Post are all the weeks Post initiation threshold.
    Once we had that, we observed some important things. We also seem to have data which is validated by what we know, based on DNR technical literature, about both steelhead and kamloops.  

    Here we see lower shore returns plotted against the threshold. 7% of the total were reported as caught prior to the initiation threshold being met, while 93% were reported caught post-initiation threshold; these include both steelhead and kamloops. Ignore the "Magic 40" point for now, that is more for a discussion about presentations and a rule-of-thumb.
    When you look at plots of individual years' data, the picture is virtually identical: Typically less than 9% of fish are reported pre-threshold, with the highest numbers reported in the immediate 10-14 days post-threshold. Overall run periods lasting roughly 5 weeks are most common. The only thing we really see changing are the amplitude and length of run. Amplitude is affected by a number of factors such as recruitment, average age of the spawning population, composition and/or ratios of steelhead to Kamloops etc. The length of the run seems to be most affected by the rate at which streams warm. It appears that rapidly increasing average temperatures over time compress or shorten the overall length of time of the run, while more moderate increases lengthen the period of the runs. This is one of the primary reasons we are interested in looking at when creel reports cease as a function of average temperatures.   

    Mid-shore shows a remarkably similar signature although the peak is a little more compressed. It's still to early to draw any kind of conclusion about that with respect to the mid shore.

    Upper shore is also a little different, but the overall signature again is remarkably similar. We do still need more data to flesh out the later stages of the run however, reports from that time-frame are still thin on the ground.

    One thing to note is the lower percentage of fish reported pre-initiation threshold. What we think is going on there has to do with the ratio of Kamloops to steelhead in the creel. Recall that kamloops have a slightly lower run and spawning temperature threshold than steelhead. Since kamloops make up such a small percentage of upper shore creel, it would make sense that less fish are moving pre-threshold on the upper shore in comparison to both the lower and middle shore where the ratio of kamloops to steelhead reported is much greater.

    What we believe it all boils down to is this: The runs have a pretty typical progression regardless of which region of the shore you happen to fish, and this progression is most affected by temperature early in the run. Once the initiation threshold is attained, you can expect a roughly 10-14 day period of heavy up-bound migration. For the remainder of the run, the primary influence on subsequent up-bound movement appears to be increases in flow, which are driven by precipitation events. This is evident when we look at our daily charts and compare daily average flows with creel reports.

    Once the streams reach an average temperature of roughly 55-60 degrees, the fish appear to wrap it up for the year and leave the system, although there's always the chance of catching a few non-conformists after that point; seems like there's a weirdo in every family...

    From a planning perspective, this information is gold. For those of us who don't have the opportunity to fish frequently or have to travel long distances, knowing the point when the streams hit the threshold, then understanding what the typical run picture looks like along with watching the weather, allows you to afford yourself the greatest chance of catching one of these spectacular fish.

Regards and Good Fishing-
Minnesota Steelheader   

Monday, June 22, 2015

Low Cost Idea of the Week

    Seems like steelheaders always have more gear than they have pocket-space to carry it in, so being able to organize effectively is always a good thing.
    A couple weeks ago, my wife was in the bathroom organizing and putting jewelry into these neat little boxes. So I just had to ask because when I saw all the little compartments, the light-bulb went off....

    Turns out they were just pill organizers. Couple nice things about them: You can get them with varying numbers of compartments, you can remove the entire divider making for one big compartment, they are very low profile which means they fit well in smaller pockets and can be stacked, and the lids close pretty securely. But best of all, they are a dollar or less depending on size and are available from most pharmacies, Walgreens, Target, Wal-Mart etc.

    These boxes make for great yarn boxes, hook organizers, spare fly boxes, sinker holders, bead boxes and indicator boxes. Take the divider out on the smaller square boxes and they make great leader boxes. I think for fly or hook boxes, I might just pop a couple holes in the top with a drill and a small bit to help prevent rust. You can also remove the divider, cut out some foam to fit and use for a fly box that way, or just buy an insert and fit it for way cheaper than a new bona-fide fly box.

    Last but not least they are bright red, so the chances of leaving them on a bank somewhere are slightly less. At least if you do, they'll be easier to spot than a clear box. That and if they go in the drink they should be easier to see, whether on the bottom, or as you make the mad dash downstream trying to net it. C'mon, we've ALL made that sprint...  

    I bought 5 just to test them out and I was able to pack the same amount of stuff in my vest using less space due to the skinnier profile, and for far less cost than most of my other boxes. Time will tell if they hold up, but they do seem pretty durable. Usually hinges or clasps are the first thing to go anyway on most boxes, but at a dollar or less a pop, what the heck? 


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

2015 Creel Project Results

A Little bit about the Creel Project and how we prepare the data:
    Each year since 2010, Minnesota Steelheader has asked anglers for voluntary catch reporting of Steelhead, Kamloops, and what are presumed to be Coaster Brook Trout, caught in the tributaries during the Spring migration. We collect those reports along with daily flow, temperature and other open-source data, then run them through an app we created. The results are subsequently plotted in Daily, Weekly and Historical formats in what we hope are intuitive and easy to use charts.

    This is not a scientific creel by definition, but we do try to use and present as much of the available scientific literature as we can in the context of the charts with the goal of better understanding these various species. The information is presented to you for your consideration in the hope you'll find it useful.

    A long time ago, we began with the premise of Informing, Educating, Entertaining and Inspiring both veterans and new-comers alike. The Creel Project looks to answer some of the most basic questions we receive year after year:
  • When do the fish run?
  • How long does the run last?
  • When is the "best" time to go and how might I plan, particularly if I have to travel long distances and only get one or two opportunities to get out and fish each year?
  • Are there differences between the various regions of the North Shore?
  • How does flow and temperature affect overall fishing and presentations?
  • What is the overall picture of runs across the North Shore?  
    Keeping those types of questions in mind, we present the data in several ways:
  • Daily reported creel is plotted against both flow and temperatures to help visualize some of the more granular interactions between fish and the various environmental factors
  • The daily numbers are then plotted in a weekly format which removes a lot of the noise, and helps to visualize the overall progression of the current-year's run
  • The weekly numbers are finally nested within all of the previous year's of data we have to create a unified historical picture 
    The following chart illustrates the concept: Current year Upper Shore data (in green) is plotted in its own chart. It is then nested within all previous year's regional data to create the Upper Shore historical picture (in blue). This in turn is nested within Lower and Mid-Shore regional data (in red) to create a unified shore-wide historical picture.Given enough data, the historicals are NOT a prediction of what WILL happen in any subsequent year, but they do provide a framework in which you can use what has been learned. Very generally we can see the time-period in which the runs will probably happen from year to year; from there we can use any current year's temperature and flow data to establish some very clear benchmarks as to what is, or is about to happen.

2015 Creel Project Results

Lower Shore

    I think one of the things which struck us about this year's run was that we had fish around for a significant length of time. We still need to run some prior-year comparisons, but we had good reports on the lower shore for in excess of 40 days. Not only that but the overall numbers of steelhead reported made this a run to remember.

    As with virtually all previous creel regions and years, initial upstream migrations occurred at the point the average stream temperatures reached what we call the initiation threshold. DNR literature for the north shore discusses this concept (although they don't use this term), and while it's slightly more complicated than what we present, the basic threshold occurs when average daily water temperatures reach and maintain 38° F. This year it was a little tougher to nail down because our normal temperature index stream isn't transmitting. Our fallback package is on a very small stream which tends to hit the threshold several days up to a week prior to larger streams such as the Knife. This is the primary reason you see a nearly five day delay between posted init threshold temps, and strong initial returns reported in the creel. 

    Other items of note in the daily here are the drop in trend corresponding to the high flows between the 10th and 12th of May. We know based on the literature that up-bound migration effectively ceases when flow reaches certain thresholds. This is of course different on each stream, but we also know from the literature that this threshold on the Knife falls roughly in the 500cfs range. Because Knife flow is an indicator of what other streams are doing with respect to flow, flows exceeding 500cfs likely mean that other streams closely located geographically are also close to, or above their own thresholds. While this doesn't mean there are no fish to be had, it does change their behavior, and how you need to approach steelheading e.g.: Fishing smaller streams, fishing sheltered locations, fishing big bright, or big dark and smelly presentations.

    We are also beginning to pay attention to daily average stream temperatures on the tail end of the run. While we can't say for sure, the developing picture seems to be that once those average temps reach somewhere in the 55-56° F range, the fish seem to raise the white flag and call it quits for the year, even when we get a good bump in flow subsequent to that point. Ordinarily, once the daily average temps hit and maintain the threshold and initial up-bound migration begins, flow appears to take over as the primary influence on subsequent returns and up-bound migration. Don't however confuse this with how daily temperatures affect where already-present fish are locating in the stream, and how active they are on a day to day basis. That's a different concept and covered in other blog articles.        

    The weekly illustrates how the lower shore run progressed over time. This is a very typical picture we see year after year: Heavy initial migration subsequent to the threshold being attained lasting for roughly 10-12 days, followed by decreasing catch over a several week period. While the daily chart only illustrates overall catch trends and not actual numbers caught, the weekly shows the actual catch numbers reported for both species in a weekly format.

    If you compare the weekly catch for steelhead against the daily chart flow, you can see how high flows towards the end of the week of May 7th decreased steelhead catch. The reason kamloops catch doesn't seem to be consistent with that is that when we looked at the data, reported catch virtually ceased until the 12th when flows were dropping back into the 240-380cfs range. So many kamloops were caught on day 7 of that week that it affected the data-point, appearing to give you a peak during that May 7th week.

    We now have enough annual data to begin putting together a pretty good picture of the lower shore run. The lower shore historical means illustrate the average numbers of rainbows reported by week for all years in the Creel Project. Over time, this picture will become clearer, but even now you can see a definite average peak developing. Generally speaking we are reporting an average of 70 rainbows the week of April 16th over the 6 years of the Creel Project. This closely agrees with, and is supported by DNR trap numbers. Currently the date with the greatest numbers of rainbows sampled over time at the trap has been April 18th. The practical application then is that if you are trying to plan a trip for any given year, April 16th through the 22nd becomes your starting point. If you were a bookie, that would be your money-week, but we all know that year to year fluctuations in weather, flow and temps means that understanding where the initiation threshold falls allows you to dial in even tighter.

    The All-Time chart also shows you the overall picture for lower shore. The difference here being that we plot the total number of fish creel-reported by week. The overall sample size (N=1959) means the sample size is 1,959 rainbows total in the creel.

    Generally we see that the earliest ever reported fish came the week of March 12th, with the latest fish reported coming the week of June 4th, so this becomes your baseline for when the lower shore run potentially happens in any given year. That week of March 26th by the way was one of our earliest recorded runs, and is still playing havoc with the data. Anecdotal information also places it as an absurdly early run by anyone's recollection. Otherwise we see that strongly defined peak the week of April 16th, and a couple sub-peaks which will probably disappear with more data.

Trap Results

    Finally we have lower shore trap results. This chart illustrates the publicly-reported numbers of both steelhead and kamloops from both the Knife and French River Traps. We also plotted average temps and the actual average flow for Knife River by week. 

    The item of note here illustrates the slight differences in steelhead and kamloops. Kamloops exhibit a slightly lower run and spawning temperature than steelhead. Generally, you can treat the initiation temps as the same for fishing purposes because we aren't as concerned with the finer biological distinctions between the species when we are out there flinging spawn-bags, waxies or flies around. Just be aware that the differences are there because this can mean all the difference between fishing and catching, especially in cold water on the front-end of the runs.

    All-Time Knife Trap numbers. There are a couple oddities here which don't really warrant going into. We do plot the long-term flow averages for Knife River for your consideration along with total numbers of fish sampled by week. Total sample size is 13,462 rainbows trapped.

    All-Time French Trap numbers. Also a couple oddities here which don't really warrant going into. We plot the long-term flow averages for Sucker River (Gage now disabled) for your consideration along with total numbers of fish sampled by week. Total sample size is 24,077 rainbows trapped.

Mid Shore

    This one is a bit of a cipher. We see the initiation threshold reached on the 14th with creel trend increasing almost immediately, but then we took the temperature dipsy-doodle. However once we re-attained and maintained the threshold, trend immediately took off again. The other thing is that the mid shore launched at virtually the same time as lower shore. Looking at historical data, it's been about a 50/50 proposition as to whether the mid shore kicks off at the same time as lower shore. We think that much of this (seeming) lack of variation has to do with the fact that most fish-able mid shore tribs are marginally smaller than their lower shore counterparts, and tend to warm a little faster putting them roughly on the same schedule more often than not. It would be interesting to study just the Baptism in this context, but our Creel Project isn't set up this way.

    All lower shore/mid shore migration start date arguments aside, we do see a definite difference in the creel peaks between the two regions of roughly a week. Same end-of-run picture emerging regarding things winding down when average stream temps reach that 55-56° F range.

    Once again, the historical mid shore means are, odd... Data is still all over the place but with time we should develop a pretty solid picture of what the mid shore tends to do from year to year.

    Mid shore All Time, same comments as the means...

Upper Shore

    Very little difference here with the initiation threshold, roughly two-days difference between mid shore on the 14th and upper shore on the 16th. After the threshold is reached, creel trend increases almost immediately, but here again we took the temperature dipsy-doodle. On re-attaining and maintaining the threshold, trend immediately takes off again.

    Here we have a bit of an extended peak in creel. Fishing on the upper shore was very good during that roughly two-week period.

    Still trying to figure out what the overall upper shore picture looks like. One of our biggest problems is lack of good data on the back-side of the upper shore run. The chart might lead you to believe that fishing drops off precipitously during the first week of June. The problem is we just don't have enough data to have any meaningful insight into how long things last on the upper shore. It one of the reasons we consistently request reports for that region and time period specifically year after year.

    Same concept here: lower weekly all-time numbers by week due to less people fishing the upper shore along with lack of data on the back-end.

Shore-wide Historical Creel Survey

       The Shore-Wide Historical represents the unified picture for all regions of the shore: Start, peaks, end and average numbers of fish reported by week. It's the "big picture" chart.

    Same concept here representing the unified picture for all regions of the shore: Start, peaks and end. The difference between this and the preceding chart being it contains total numbers of fish reported by week. Again, a "big picture" chart.

Coasters and Steelhead

    This is an interesting little by-product of the creel project. We were curious about brook trout (presumed to be coasters) reported during the spring creel. We know that coho for instance, are frequently taken close to shore in the spring, and the prevailing thought is that they are there feeding on smelt which are staging for their own runs.We also observe the same apparent type of behavior in the brook trout during fall. Historical accounts of "Rock Trout" staging near-shore and being caught by anglers as early as July were frequent, but this was during the pre-pink salmon era. Contemporary reports frequently associate presumed coasters with pink runs. We think the fish are taking advantage of an abundance of free-drifting eggs from spawning pinks as a food source. This is probably a good strategy given the rigors of spawning taking place later in the fall among coasters. Pack on the pounds, get fat and healthy to better survive spawning, that kind of thing.

    At any rate, since these fish are making their living in and around near-shore habitat, it would make sense for them from a survival-strategy standpoint, if they took advantage of other species in a similar fashion, and we are beginning to think steelhead offer them just such an opportunity.

    When we looked at our coaster data, we saw a signature in that creel data which looked awfully familiar:  

    So we plotted the coaster data against the shore-wide historical rainbow data, and while we don't get an exact match, it does get more interesting.

   When we looked at the specific historical peaks for each region, and then plotted the coaster peaks in reported catch as a function of date, that pretty much was an exact match. We also know that prevalence of coasters in the creel is much higher for the mid and upper shore which may (or may not) lend some insight into coaster populations and densities.

    One quick note about that "early" peak depicted below. For the year in question, pretty much the entire shore launched at the same time, and catch rates were relatively high for all species, including coasters.

    The last item to note is that we are not using this coaster data for fishing purposes. It has however become a way to use a seemingly unrelated type of data to understand more about the steelhead. If the premise holds true, and coasters are taking advantage of free-drifting steelhead eggs as just another high-value food source, it would make sense that coaster catch might correlate with peaks in steelhead returns. Or maybe it's just a fluke, only time will tell.

MS Creel Project Raw Numbers by Year

    And last but not least, our raw creel numbers for each species by year.

    We at Minnesota Steelheader hope you find something in this information useful. So from all of us, a great, BIG thank you! Without your participation, none of this is possible.

Best Regards-
Minnesota Steelheader 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

2015 Trap Summary - FINAL

DATE: 05/18/2015Knife River Flow: 213 CFS
French RiverSteelheadKamloops
Number Captured743
Total Captured117774
DATE: 05/18/2015Index River Temp: 50.31°F
Knife RiverSteelheadKamloops
Number Captured343
Total Captured70813
DATE: 05/11/2015Knife River Flow: 560 CFS
French RiverSteelheadKamloops
Number Captured212
Total Captured110731
DATE: 05/11/2015Index River Temp: 42.78 °F
Knife RiverSteelheadKamloops
Number Captured161
Total Captured67410
DATE: 05/08/2015Knife River Flow: 145 CFS
French RiverSteelheadKamloops
Number Captured515
Total Captured108719
DATE: 05/08/2015Index River Temp: 52.1°F
Knife RiverSteelheadKamloops
Number Captured390
Total Captured6589
DATE: 05/04/2015Knife River Flow: 41 CFS
French RiverSteelheadKamloops
Number Captured229
Total Captured103704
DATE: 05/04/2015Index River Temp: 52.74°F
Knife RiverSteelheadKamloops
Number Captured222
Total Captured6199
DATE: 05/01/2015Knife River Flow: 41 CFS
French RiverSteelheadKamloops
Number Captured1049
Total Captured101675
DATE: 05/01/2015Index River Temp: 50.94°F
Knife RiverSteelheadKamloops
Number Captured832
Total Captured5977
DATE: 04/27/2015Knife River Flow: 48 CFS
French RiverSteelheadKamloops
Number Captured1683
Total Captured91626
DATE: 04/27/2015Index River Temp: UNK °F
Knife RiverSteelheadKamloops
Number Captured682
Total Captured5145
DATE: 04/24/2015Knife River Flow: 76 CFS
French RiverSteelheadKamloops
Number Captured936
Total Captured75543
DATE: 04/24/2015Index River Temp: UNK°F
Knife RiverSteelheadKamloops
Number Captured330
Total Captured4463
DATE: 04/20/2015Knife River Flow: 406 CFS
French RiverSteelheadKamloops
Number Captured1045
Total Captured68507
DATE: 04/20/2015Index River Temp: 41.3°F
Knife RiverSteelheadKamloops
Number Captured2553
Total Captured4133
DATE: 04/17/2015Knife River Flow: 69 CFS
French RiverSteelheadKamloops
Number Captured41273
Total Captured56462
DATE: 04/17/2015Index River Temp: 46.3°F
Knife RiverSteelheadKamloops
Number Captured1580
Total Captured1580
DATE: 04/13/2015Knife River Flow: 206 CFS
French RiverSteelheadKamloops
Number Captured15189
Total Captured15189
DATE: 04/13/2015Index River Temp: 44.0°F
Knife RiverSteelheadKamloops
Number Captured00
Total Captured00
DATE: 04/10/2015Knife River Flow: 70 CFS
French Trap OpenSteelheadKamloops
Number Captured00
Total Captured00
DATE: 04/10/2015Index River Temp: 39.1°F
Knife Trap Open SteelheadKamloops
Number Captured00
Total Captured00