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Casting for cohos: Agate Bay breakwall gives anglers a chance at salmon and more

Tim Aijala of Two Harbors casts for coho salmon from the Agate Bay breakwall in Two Harbors on Tuesday morning. (Bob King / / 5
Jeremy Spurlin of Aurora holds up a coho salmon he caught Wednesday morning while casting into Lake Superior from the Agate Bay breakwall in Two Harbors. (Sam Cook / / 5
Will Larson of Two Harbors shows off a coho salmon he caught from the Agate Bay breakwall in Two Harbors on Wednesday morning. (Sam Cook / / 5
A coho salmon fights after being netted by Joe Skerjance of Aurora on Wednesday morning at the Agate Bay breakwall in Two Harbors. Skerjance netted the fish for Jeremy Spurlin of Aurora. (Sam Cook / / 5
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It’s hard to guess what time Jeremy Spurlin and Joe Skerjance woke up Wednesday morning. The anglers live in Aurora, and by 5 a.m. they were casting spoons into Lake Superior at the Two Harbors breakwall on Agate Bay.

Along with a dozen and a half other anglers, they were tossing flashy spoons into a blue-green chop on Lake Superior hoping to catch a few coho salmon.

The breakwall, which protects Agate Bay for the big vessels that load taconite there, has long been a winter destination for North Shore anglers. Fishing has been slow this winter by most anglers’ accounts, but it improved significantly for Spurlin shortly after 8 a.m. Wednesday. A chunky 16-inch coho slammed his gold Swedish Pimple, and Spurlin set the hook.

Skerjance, fishing just down the pier, grabbed a long-handled landing net and hustled to Spurlin’s side. In moments, Skerjance slipped the net under the thrashing silver fish and swung it onto the pier.

“I’m happy now, Joe,” Spurlin said. “I’m going to try that again.”

He slipped his fish into safekeeping and fired his Pimple into an overcast sky.

Almost simultaneously, two other anglers farther down the pier pulled in cohos, and within three minutes, Spurlin struck again. Skerjance netted him another fat salmon.

“They’re in!” Spurlin said.

Cohos typically range from 15 to 20 inches in length. They don’t grow as large as some other species in the lake, but any angler will testify that they’re the best-tasting fish one can coax from the big lake.

Weather or not

By breakwall standards, it was a nice morning on Wednesday — 32 degrees with just enough northeast wind to ruffle the lake. The previous day, even at 25 degrees, a brisk southwest wind made the morning feel raw. Dave Feste, 44, of Duluth peered out from a slit in his face mask. His headlamp indicated he had been there since before sunrise. Most anglers feel daybreak offers the best chance to catch fish here.

Feste had caught one herring and was happy to have it. No cohos had been caught by the 17 anglers strung out along the breakwall that morning, but Feste had caught one the day before.

“Coho last night, herring tonight,” he said through his mask. “It’s a good diet for a Norwegian.”

Breakwall anglers will brave cold mornings for a chance at these fish.

“I’ve fished down here at 23, 24 below,” said Ken Brassill, 64, of Two Harbors. “Your line comes in like a piece of rope, peeling off the ice.”

The breakwall is a two-tiered concrete arm. Often, the lower apron is too ice-covered for an angler to stand on safely. Even the upper surface is sometimes ice-coated from waves or spray. The anglers who venture out here wear heavy-duty ice cleats over their insulated boots.

“This is really dangerous out here,” said longtime breakwall angler Larry Antonich of Two Harbors.

Antonich often brings a length of rope along to tie off to one of the fence posts that line the pier, just in case he has to go to the lower level to net a bigger fish such as a lake trout. Most anglers don’t use a net to land cohos or herring. Standing on the upper level of the breakwall, they deftly flip the fish to the first apron, then flip it again up to the top. If it flies off the hook — well, it wins.

There’s a story known among those who fish from the breakwall of an angler who fell into Lake Superior one winter day. He was fished out of the lake by several anglers who rushed to his aid. The story serves as a reminder that it’s unwise to make quick moves or take chances on the breakwall.

Beyond the chance to once again feel the tug on a line or catch a good dinner is the expansive experience of fishing on Lake Superior. Granted, an angler isn’t bobbing up and down in a boat — although some do this time of year — but standing on the breakwall with the lake sloshing against the pier is often a fascinating endeavor.

The color of the water hasn’t yet been captured by Crayola. Some days it’s blue, some days green, some days a blend of both. And it gets deep fast out here. It’s completely unlike casting from shore.

Some days are unfishable when drifting ice is pushed against the pier. When the ice is in, the experience is an adventure in pure listening, as the plates and pans grind against each other. In an hour, with a wind shift, the ice can all blow out again.

A few hardy ducks might fly by. After the locks open, the ore boats come and go again — if the mines are up and running.

Gearing up

It’s possible to cast from the pier using typical walleye gear, but most breakwall anglers use long rods — up to 10 feet or more, for longer casts — and 6-pound test line or leaders. Heavy spoons — ⅝-ounce — like Krocodiles are popular. A north wind, coming off shore, helps anglers send their lures farther into the lake.

While cohos are the most common catches, anglers occasionally take herring, Chinook salmon, lake trout, Kamloops rainbows or steelhead (wild Lake Superior rainbow trout).

February is typically the time of year when fishing begins to pick up on the breakwall, but anglers will fish any day of the winter if conditions allow it. No specific set of conditions guarantees when fish will bite.

“Nobody has this figured out,” Antonich said. “If they show up, they show up.”