Steelhead Management

The Emergence of a Unique Wild Fishery

Minnesota’s North Shore is a rugged, harsh environment where only the fittest wild fish can

manage to survive. The portions of tributary streams below barrier waterfalls, which are

accessible to lake run fish such as steelhead, nearly freeze solid during some winters and

become extremely low and warm each July and August. Despite these extremes, Minnesota’s

wild steelhead populations have survived, and at times thrived, adapting to these harsh

conditions over nearly 25 generations in Lake Superior. From modest initial stockings on the

Canadian shore in the late 1800s, naturally reproducing steelhead spread throughout the Lake

Superior basin and quickly established self-sustaining populations. Minnesota’s wild fishery

became legendary by the mid-1900s.

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Decline and Rebound

However, a rather dramatic decline of the North Shore’s storied steelhead fishery occurred

from the late 1970s through mid-1990s. This was due to many factors, including overharvest,

altered hydrology and stream habitat and changes in Lake Superior’s forage base. Recent

research suggests a misguided put-and- take hatchery program begun in the 1970s may also

have undercut steelhead reproduction. Since the 1980s the DNR and nonprofits have worked

hard to stop the decline of the wild steelhead fishery and slowly rebuild it. We have been

making good progress, and steelhead fishing is very good. Nevertheless we have a considerable

ways to go to fully recover this amazing, popular fishery.

A North Shore Steelhead Plan was developed in 1992 with a goal of stopping the decline of

adult steelhead and gathering the necessary information to rehabilitate wild steelhead stocks.

The wild steelhead harvest was dropped to one fish, 28” or longer. This change was too little

too late to produce a measurable improvement by 1996, when the Plan was revised and rolled

into the Lake Superior management plan. North Shore anglers then pushed the DNR to move

to a catch and release regulation for wild steelhead, and this went into effect in 1997. The

steelhead fishery has rebounded slowly and steelhead catch rates are now very good.

 

A Counterproductive Stocking Program

The DNR’s stated goal in the 1996 and 2006 Lake Superior Management Plans is to rehabilitate

naturalized (wild) steelhead stocks to achieve a level that will allow limited angler harvest

supported by naturally reproducing populations. This is a very good, appropriate goal which

MNTU has consistently supported and actively worked with DNR and other partners to help

achieve. Unfortunately, the DNR has also chose to continue what MNTU cautioned was a

counterproductive and dangerous stocking strategy to appease a segment of harvest anglers

unwilling to wait for steelhead recovery. To provide uninterrupted harvest, the DNR continued

stocking a domesticated hatchery strain of rainbow trout known as “kamloops”, despite the

fact that numerous scientific studies indicated these domesticated fish would interfere with

wild steelhead reproduction. Genetic testing methods in the 1990s were not sophisticated

enough to identify unique “kamloops” genes and lacking clear proof to the contrary the DNR

was willing to tell North Shore anglers that they could have their cake and eat it too.

 

2016 Genetic Study Finds Hybridization

Recent advances in genetic testing methods have at last enabled DNR to get hard data to

answer tough questions. Myths that domesticated kamloops might not be spawning with

steelhead and even if they were, no hybrids could survive have now been debunked. The first

year of a genetics study uncovered some alarming result. At last the DNR has hard data proving

that kamloops are hybridizing with wild steelhead and doing so in rivers from Canada to the

Nemadji basin south of Duluth.