FRENCH RIVER, Minn.-The temperature was struggling to rise above zero at mid-morning on Thursday, Feb. 1. A sharp wind whistled down from the north as Dick Hedberg, 72, sat in his car, heater running, surveying Lake Superior near the mouth of the French River.
"I'm scouting," Hedberg said. "This is one of my routes."
He was thinking about doing some shorecasting for coho salmon, which have shown up in good numbers in recent weeks. The action has slowed some, Hedberg said. But the fish showed up earlier this year than in most winters, and hardy North Shore anglers have been there to catch them.
"I've done well," said Hedberg, of French River, Minn. "I caught lots of cohos."
"We seldom see much activity on the shore until February, and we were seeing them around Christmas," said Ross Pearson, a regular North Shore angler.
Despite the cold on Thursday, Hedberg was thinking about fishing.
"I'll fish once the temperature gets above five or six or seven," he said. "On days like today, with a north wind, down on the shore, it's a little warmer."
The shore is mostly in the lee of that wind, and if the day is sunny, it can feel quasi-balmy. Many coho anglers fish with bobbers over artificial lures tipped with some kind of bait. Others prefer to cast spoons or fish a spawn bag off the bottom.
Through the ice
Besides casting into open water for cohos, anglers also fish for them through the ice. But the only relatively reliable ice as of Thursday was within the protecting arms of McQuade Small Craft Harbor. On Thursday morning, two fishing shelters were on the ice there, and Brady Jentoft, 36, of Duluth was in one of them. He was sitting atop six inches of ice, he said. He hadn't caught a fish yet, but he had done well earlier this winter.
"I've got maybe eight all year - nothing crazy," Jentoft said from inside his cozy one-person shelter. "The coho fishing has been earlier than usual this year."
He was using waxworms for bait.
"I got two (cohos) and a 'looper (Kamloops rainbow trout) on Tuesday," he said.
Chasing cohos and Kamloops rainbows has been a challenging proposition at times in recent weeks. Skim ice forms some days on Lake Superior and often is pushed ashore by the wind, preventing anglers from having easy access to the shore. Like Hedberg, anglers scout up and down the shore, hoping to find access to fishable water.
Though Kamloops rainbow trout, a North Shore staple for shorecasters, are a stocked species, coho salmon are all wild. They were last stocked in Minnesota waters in 1974 and last stocked anywhere on Lake Superior (by the state of Michigan) in 2006, said Cory Goldsworthy, Lake Superior area fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at French River.
The cohos that North Shore anglers have been catching are likely from spawning that occurs in Michigan, Ontario or Wisconsin streams, Goldsworthy said. Some years, the cohos tend to run smaller, some years larger. This year's variety seem to be on the small side, Pearson said.
"Dinky," he said. "Fifteens (15-inchers), and if you're lucky, you might get a 16."
In some years, cohos from 17 to 20 inches are plentiful.
Though not as large as the Kamloops rainbows that patrol the shallows of Lake Superior this time of year, cohos have one quality that's highly valued by anglers.
"They're delicious," Goldsworthy said.
Hedberg has often fished for Kamloops rainbows through the years.
"Now I'm more interested in going after cohos because of the eating," he said.
He looked down at the shoreline of Lake Superior. Despite the presence of jumbled ice blown ashore not far away, he could see an opening where he would make some casts.
"It's fishable," he said. "I'll probably go home and get my fishing gear."