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Waiting for bites, North Shore Kamloops anglers ponder the future

Anglers near the mouth of the French River north of Duluth, including Duluth's Natalie Stone (foreground), fish for Kamloops rainbow trout on a brisk March afternoon. Sam Cook / Forum News Service1 / 7
Mark McDonell of Duluth holds a Kamloops rainbow trout he caught March 2, 2018, near the mouth of the French River north of Duluth. Sam Cook / Forum News Service2 / 7
Byron Carlson of Duluth casts for Kamloops rainbow trout and coho salmon while fishing near Stony Point on March 2, 2018. Sam Cook / Forum News Service3 / 7
Alex Orr of Hugo, Minn., makes a cast while fishing for Kamloops rainbow trout near the mouth of the French River north of Duluth on March 2, 2018. Orr and friend Maggie Novak of St. Paul had come up for a day of fishing on the North Shore. Sam Cook / Forum News Service4 / 7
Maggie Novak (left) of St. Paul and Alex Orr of Hugo, Minn., fish for Kamloops rainbow trout on Lake Superior near the mouth of the French River north of Duluth on March 2, 2018. Sam Cook / Forum News Service5 / 7
Natalie Stone of Duluth stays bundled against the cold while fishing for Kamloops rainbow trout on Lake Superior north of Duluth. Sam Cook / Forum News Service6 / 7
Kamloops rainbow trout anglers (from left) Mike Clark of Carlton, Mark McDonell of Duluth and Natalie Stone of Duluth chat while waiting for Kamloops rainbow trout to bite on March 2, 2018, near the mouth of the French River north of Duluth. Sam Cook / Forum News Service7 / 7

DULUTH — A biting east wind whipped across Lake Superior on this March afternoon. A half-dozen hardy Kamloops rainbow trout anglers, bundled against the cold, stood on shore near the mouth of the French River and watched their rod tips for the telltale sign of a bite.

Small waves rolled against the cobblestone and bedrock shoreline. Hundreds of domino-sized shards of ice sloshed in each incoming wave.

Mark McDonell of Duluth had been fishing since sunrise, he said. He had caught one Kamloops rainbow. Another angler passed him, headed for his car.

"Not a bump all day," the angler told McDonell.

The Kamloops rainbow bite has been tough this spring, McDonell said.

"I've only got five fish so far this year," he said. "Last year, I got 65. The year isn't over yet. But it's a slower year than usual."

That morning, McDonell had to do some icebreaking to fish. A layer of freshly formed skim ice clung to the shoreline when he arrived, he said. He had walked along shore, breaking the ice with his boots. Then he had used his boots to push the sheet of ice away from shore. Finally, it drifted away far enough that he found an opening for a cast.

Helpful hints

Now McDonell and Natalie Stone of Duluth were chatting as they watched their rods. Stone is something of anomaly among North Shore Kamloops anglers.

"I'm one of the only girls that come here on a regular basis," she said. "I think the guys like to see that. They were really helpful."

Stone first began fishing for Kamloops rainbows at the French River about five years ago.

"I don't have a boat," she said. "I came down and started talking to the local guys. They gave me some tips and pointers."

Stone was fishing with waxworms, floated just off the bottom. Her line was held on the bottom by a stout sinker.

"I come here as often as I can," Stone said. "I'm pretty serious. I really like to catch them. Catch, eat, repeat."

She has caught a "handful" of Kamloops rainbows — called 'loopers by most anglers — this spring, she said, along with a few coho salmon.

"The 'loopers come in during the week, when I'm working," Stone said with a laugh.

'Species hunters'

Just down the shore, Alex Orr, 32, of Hugo, Minn., and Maggie Novak, 29, of St. Paul stood side-by-side, watching their rods.

"We come up here a lot," Orr said. "Three times in the past month."

"We're species hunters," Novak said. "We keep a list and a photo album of all the species we catch."

Orr and Novak are like birders who keep "life lists" of species they've seen. She gestured a gloved hand toward Orr.

"He needs a coho," Novak said. "I got one this morning. I have 116 species now."

Orr is at 387 species now, he said.

"But I've lived in Florida, the Pacific Northwest, Appalachia, all over the Midwest," he said.

Kamloops concerns

Down the shore, Stone lifted her fishing rod from its rod holder and set the hook. False alarm. She had thought she might have a bite, but she felt no additional weight on her line. She reeled up, checked her bait and cast her rig out again.

Like many Kamloops anglers, Stone believes the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources intends to quit stocking these rainbows in favor of Lake Superior's other strain of rainbow trout, called steelhead. An announcement about the agency's future rainbow trout management is expected soon. DNR fisheries officials are concerned about the recently documented interbreeding of Kamloops and steelhead rainbow trout, because their offspring do not survive as well as pure steelhead offspring do.

For the first time in decades, fisheries officials say they plan no stocking of Kamloops rainbows this spring in Lake Superior. Though Kamloops rainbow eggs were taken at the French River last spring, no Kamloops were reared in state hatcheries for Lake Superior stocking, only for inland waters, said Cory Goldsworthy, DNR Lake Superior area fisheries supervisor at French River.

The DNR has stocked Kamloops rainbows in Lake Superior since 1976, originally to give anglers another option at a time when the steelhead population was in decline. Many Kamloops anglers feel the end of the program is in sight.

"It's sad they're cutting the program," Stone said. "When it gets cut, I don't know what I'll do."