Kamloops rainbow trout anglers on Minnesota's North Shore received the news they didn't want to hear on Thursday. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced it would cease stocking the popular strain of rainbow that has provided a shore fishery for more than four decades.
The stocking program, initiated in 1976, will be ended to protect Lake Superior's population of steelhead, another strain of rainbow trout. Recent advances in genetic testing confirmed that Kamloops interbreed with wild rainbow trout in many North Shore streams, DNR officials said. When that happens, fewer young survive and the overall steelhead population is reduced.
In place of the Kamloops stocking, genetically screened steelhead originating from wild runs in the big lake will be stocked to bolster fishing opportunities near Duluth, fisheries officials said.
Steelhead that the DNR stocks will have an adipose fin clipped off, just as Kamloops rainbows always have. That process, which doesn't harm the fish, allows anglers to easily determine that the fish may be kept. Unclipped, wild steelhead will continue to remain catch-and-release only - as they have been since 1997. Because of this, the same harvest regulations will apply.
The news, though anticipated, was disappointing to Kamloops anglers fishing near the mouth of the French River on Thursday morning.
"(There will be) lots of angry people," said Jake Bong, 38, of Cloquet. "It's fun fishing out here. Without the 'loopers, nobody will come. You used to come down here, and it'd be shoulder-to-shoulder. I'm definitely going to miss it."
Jeff Anderson, 33, and his dad, Joel, both of North Branch, Minn., were fishing near the mouth of the French on Thursday.
"That's nuts," Jeff Anderson said of the news. "We just started doing this the last few years. It's really fun. We've never had this kind of opportunity to catch trophy fish from shore before."
But anglers who prefer steelhead, a strain that was first stocked in Minnesota waters of Lake Superior in 1895 and reproduces on its own, greeted the DNR's announcement with approval.
"Minnesota Trout Unlimited thinks this is great news," said Carl Haensel of Duluth Township, northern Minnesota vice-chair of the Minnesota chapter of Trout Unlimited. "It's certainly an important step in the long road toward restoring wild steelhead populations to a stronger level."
Members of the Duluth-based Lake Superior Steelhead Association also have been concerned with the interbreeding of the two strains of rainbows. But the association believes the DNR's planned stocking of fin-clipped steelhead for harvest "takes away from fish that could be used for further rehabilitation of the steelhead population," said Mike Pitan, president of the group.
Beginning in April, the DNR plans to stock 120,000 of the hatchery-raised steelhead annually in the French and Lester rivers, the same rivers where Kamloops rainbows have been stocked most recently, said Cory Goldsworthy, DNR Lake Superior area fisheries supervisor at French River.
The steelhead, raised at the DNR's Spire Valley Hatchery near Remer, will be stocked at "pre-smolt" sizes, about 5 or 6 inches in length.
"We want them to imprint on the rivers that we stock," Goldsworthy said.
The change from Kamloops to stocking wild-sourced steelhead lets fisheries managers improve fishing opportunities on area streams while continuing the rehabilitation of the wild fish population, DNR officials said.
"We have worked hard to develop a solution that respects what our diverse group of rainbow trout anglers have told us is important to them - harvest opportunities in both the stream and the boat fishery, as well as high quality catch-and-release opportunities for wild steelhead," Goldsworthy said.
It's unknown whether the fin-clipped steelhead will provide the same kind of shorecasting fishery that Kamloops rainbows and coho salmon have. Steelhead are more commonly caught after they enter North Shore streams.
"The shore fishery for Kamloops will essentially end in five or six years," Goldsworthy said. "The coho (salmon) fishery will still be around. How much of a shore fishery will there be for steelhead in front of the French and Lester? Probably less than what the Kamloops could provide."