Best Bets for Lake Superior Fishing
May 31, 2012
Few fisheries offer the options or opportunities of Minnesota's share of mighty Lake Superior and its fish-rich major tributary, the St. Louis River. Afoot or afloat, savvy anglers can find good fishing for a variety of species all month long on this slice of Great Lakes paradise.
To be sure, this rolling, sprawling, inland sea can be intimidating. Its sheer size alone causes more than a few anglers to shy away from its icy waters. That's understandable. Minnesota's portion of Lake Superior is 1.4 million acres, which is a lot for one lake — especially when you consider that the rest of our fishable waters total 3.8 million acres. Superior is big enough to swallow the other Great Lakes with ease — and still have enough room for a trio of Lake Erie-sized fisheries. But the good news is, you can narrow much of it down pretty quickly.
You can start the process by determining which species you're after. If walleyes, northern pike, smallmouth bass or crappies are your quarry, the St. Louis is a great option. Superior gets the nod for a salmonid smorgasbord including lake trout and salmon — namely cohos and kings, but also including pinks — as well as the occasional brown trout, steelhead and kamloops rainbow.
Let's start in Duluth, our gateway to the action. Carved into the rugged cliffs of the Sawtooth Mountain foothills, this historic seaport offers traveling anglers everything to outfit a big-water adventure, including ample accommodations, bait, charters and much more.
On the trout and salmon front, water temperature is a critical factor in finding the fish.
To be sure, cool water is the rule on Superior. Dip your toes into the lake along the shifting beach sands of Park Point and even in July they'll quickly turn blue. But the lake's surface temps and the whims of ever-changing underwater currents vary enough to shuffle salmonids around among largely predictable locations.
Right now, the action is relatively close to shore. Cruise under the iconic aerial lift bridge and out onto the main lake, and you won't have to venture far to find lake trout and salmon. Trollers target lakers and salmon over depths to about 60 feet of water, and because the surface is still chilly, there's no need to dredge bottom. If you're new to the game, there's no need to buy your own tackle store to get started. Go-to presentations include a spread of crankbaits, spoons or treble-rigged smelt towed behind fish-attracting flashers.
"Water temperature is key," says Russ Francisco, owner of Marine General (800-777-8557), a staple supplier of gear and advice for North Shore anglers since the mid-1970s. "Depending on the weather, the Minnesota and Wisconsin shorelines near Duluth are typically very good in June for lake trout and salmon, because the surface water is a bit warmer than out on the main lake or farther up the North Shore."
For example, you might find trout-friendly 42- to 46-degree surface temps near shore in the "corner" of the lake near Duluth and the city of Superior, compared to 36 degrees farther out or near the Knife River.
"Look for temperature breaks," he adds, "these can really be red-hot. Lake Superior doesn't have a lot of fish for its size, but where there are fish, there are a lot of them!"
Francisco favors stickbaits for taking lake trout, which typically run a couple of pounds but can top 20. "Troll a large Rapala X-Rap, Storm ThunderStick or Brad's 57 Chevy (a gaudy, yellow and orange-ladderback bait) at speeds of 1 to 1.2 mph," he says, noting that large baits in bright colors are the rule. "You don't necessarily want to match the hatch; you want your bait to stand out from the crowd."
The strike zone hinges on water temperature, but rarely dips below 30 feet from the surface right now. Delivery options include longlining, adding some type of weight, and running downriggers. Stout mono in the 15-pound class, such as Berkley Big Game or Sufix, are local favorites, he says. If you use a low-stretch super-braid, add a mono or fluorocarbon leader to help avoid spooking the fish.
One of Francisco's favorite trolling grounds is right off Park Point, which is easy enough for small-boat anglers to tackle. "The beauty of a trailerable boat is, when the surface temperature gets too warm here, you can tow the boat a bit farther up the North Shore to one of the public accesses to stay on the action," he says.
To keep abreast of water temperatures, Francisco recommends monitoring Web sites like CoastWatch, from Sea Grant and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which provide temperature trends and other handy data. Watching charter boats is also an option, as the veteran captains collaborate to keep on top of ideal conditions. Speaking of charters, there's no better way to learn the ropes in a hurry that booking a trip with one of the many fine boats running out of Duluth. The Web site www.fishduluth.com offers information and handy links to get you started.
One of Duluth's veteran skippers, Capt. Peter Dahl of Happy Hooker Charters (218-940-9400), offers another tip for trout seekers on the big lake. "Along with changes in water temperature, water clarity breaks can be very important," he says. For example, when a hard rain washes red clay sediments down the Nemadji River and out into the lake via the Superior Entry, a plume of stained water forms that jumpstarts the food chain.
"You have nutrients washing in that feed plankton, which attracts baitfish and predators," he explains. Trolling stickbaits such as Rapalas and Bombers near the surface in and around the plumes can produce big catches. Always willing to help budding big-water fans learn the ropes, Dahl offers a variety of valuable tips on his Web site: www.alakesuperiorfishingcharter.com.
On the warmwater front, the St. Louis River estuary is an amazing fishery in its own right. It covers about 11,500 acres stretching from the Fond du Lac Dam to the Wisconsin Entry on Minnesota Point, offering plenty of places to fish for a variety of species from muskies and smallmouth bass to crappies.
Walleyes are among the most popular, thanks to a resurgence in fish numbers and sizes following water-quality improvements dating back to the 1970s. The fishery offers a mix of resident river fish and lake-run walleyes, with the percentages of each fluctuating with seasonal migrations tied to spawning and forage opportunities.
Few anglers know the fishery as well as Capt. Charlie Nelson (218-628-1681, www.stlouisriverguy.com). A full-time guide and avid tournament competitor, Nelson approaches the river's walleyes with the same analytical eye that served him well during a career piloting F-16 fighters for the Minnesota Air National Guard.
Though the river's options abound, walleyes are Nelson's favorite. "In early June the fish are still shallow and up on the flats," he begins. "We troll crawler harnesses and shallow-running crankbaits in 2 1/2 to 5 feet of water." Prime lies include shallows from the harbor upriver, though Arrowhead Flats and Spirit Lake are hard to beat.
"Look for pockets of new weed growth popping back up," Nelson advises. "That's where walleyes feed on shiners, perch and other baitfish."
Whether guiding clients or fishing tournaments with a partner, Nelson's go-to strategy involves multiple trolling rods. In the stern of the boat, standard planer-board tactics apply: boards set 20 to 50 feet from the boat, with 30 to 40 feet of line between the board and spinner rig or shallow-running crank.
"If you add a size 7 split shot, you can cut the letback to 25 to 30 feet," he notes. "The key is running your lines across the top of the weeds."
At the bow of the boat, Nelson deviates from conventional walleye wisdom, running spinners and nightcrawlers 24 to 30 inches behind 1- to 2-ounce bottom bouncers. These shortline rigs are set perpendicular to the bow on 8 1/2-foot rods.
"People talk about the bow wake spooking fish off to the side in shallow water, but I've caught plenty of walleyes on these bottom-bouncer rigs next to the boat," he says. "Once, when my boat got in a little shallow — so shallow, the bowmount sonar read 1.7 feet deep — I actually watched a walleye strike the spinner."
With such short amounts of line to work with, Nelson says a light drag setting is critical. "When a 25- to 28-inch walleye hits the rig in 3 feet of water, it has nowhere to go but out away from the boat, and these fish take off just like muskies. If your drag is set tight, they'll break off."
Another fun bite in early June is linked to the crappie spawn. The St. Louis estuary holds a surprising population of slab-sized crappies, and right now is prime time to catch them. "Crappies move into 1 1/2 to 2 feet of water to spawn, especially around any kind of woody cover," says Nelson. "A simple bobber rig with a minnow on a plain hook is all it takes. Nothing fancy, but it sure is a blast."
All too soon, the crappies disperse across the flats and back into deeper areas. As the water warms in late June and on into July, Nelson focuses on walleyes holding along the main channel.
"You have to forget about the top 5 feet or so of water and visualize the winding river channel below it," he advises.
Classic river scenarios such as channel bends and eddies hold more than their share of fish. Deep holes on the outside bend are among his favorite spots to fish.
Nelson targets these fish with spinner rigs and 3- to 4-ounce bottom bouncers. "Big, diving crankbaits work, too," he adds.
Early in the channel bite, a large Reef Runner or Rapala Husky Jerk gets the nod. Later, a bit smaller fare shines. Nelson likes Lindy's size 5 Shadling, along with the company's new River Rocker. The latter was designed specifically for flowing water, and holds its action no matter how strong the current.
He uses 1- to 3-ounce snapweights to get the cranks into the strike zone, spreading his lines with planer boards, as he does with spinner rigs.
While many anglers view spring and fall as top trophy times on the St. Louis, Nelson says the summertime channel bite produces some of his biggest fish of the year. "I've had trips where clients get 20 fish in a morning, and 7 are over 25 inches, with the biggest topping 28 inches," he says.
Not a bad way to spend a late-June morning! But then again, Lake Superior and the lower St. Louis River offer so many options, the hardest part of any trip might just be deciding which fish you want to catch.