ALONG THE KNIFE RIVER - Tom Cawcutt had been on the river only 20 minutes when he tied into a feisty rainbow trout just downstream from the Highway 61 Expressway.

Cawcutt battled the strong fish for a bit and then brought it to the net, a nice, 25-inch looper, with a clipped fin, making it legal to keep.

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That doomed the fish to the dinner plate.

"I'm going to keep this one and give it to my dad. He loves fish, but can't fish anymore," Cawcutt said, noting he had caught a couple of similar-size fish earlier in the week.

Steelhead rainbow trout and their cousins, Kamloops rainbow trout, are running on North Shore streams now - a couple weeks later than usual due to the late river ice and cold temperatures of April.

Tom Cawcutt of Cloquet poses for a photo taken by Ross Korpela of Cromwell with a trout. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com
Tom Cawcutt of Cloquet poses for a photo taken by Ross Korpela of Cromwell with a trout. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com
Anglers described last weekend as "combat fishing,'' or "synchronized drifting,'' nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, wader-clad anglers up and down the fishable stretches of North Shore streams. All the rivers had finally lost their ice, the weather felt like spring and water temperatures had finally risen above that 40-degree mark that gets steelhead and other trout moving upstream to spawn.

Mike Kline and Alex Thelemann, both freshly graduated University of Minnesota Duluth seniors, said the Knife was "a zoo'' last weekend. They liked the extra space afforded on weekday mornings.

"I'm fishing, so you can't really beat that. But I haven't caught anything yet today,'' Thelemann said.

"They're jumping right out there. They're definitely in the river,'' he added.

"Yeah, but getting them to bite is a whole different thing,'' Kline chimed in.

By mid-week, the crowds of anglers had thinned-out to less clustered bunches, but the fish were cooperating. Most anglers were using colorful bits if yarn, or fish eggs, but others used sinking nymph flies with a strike indicator on the surface.

Anglers were hoping rain that fell at midweek will spur more fish to move from Lake Superior into the rivers.

"It's been pretty good. But the water has pretty low. We need this rain,'' said Art McLeod of Duluth, a regular North Shore steelheader for 52 years. "If we get decent water, we can have good (river) fishing for quite a while. I caught more steelhead last year after the walleye opener than I did before."

Gerry Olson of Lake Elmo finishes tying a yarn fly he'll use as bait for trout fishing. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com
Gerry Olson of Lake Elmo finishes tying a yarn fly he'll use as bait for trout fishing. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com
McLeod waxed nostalgic about the old days of the 60s and 70s when it wasn't uncommon for him to land 100 fish each spring on North Shore rivers.

"Last year, I think I got 28 fish total. This year, I have 11 so far - steelhead and loopers,'' McLeod said. "I got a 28-inch looper here yesterday that gave me quite a run all over hell - a big male. But you don't see nearly as many steelhead as you used to."

Dick Adams said he caught his first steelhead in 1964 and then caught his second and third ones Tuesday. No, it wasn't just a long string of bad luck.

"I'm a trout guy, but the cold in the spring made me stop steelheading. My hands couldn't take it so I got out of it entirely,'' Adams said while taking a break along the Knife. "But I thought I'd give it a try again. And I got two this morning... a 5-pounder and maybe a 6-pounder."

Both fish were released.

Cory Goldsworthy, Lake Superior area fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at French River, said this year's run is definitely later than usual, noting North Shore rivers held their ice through much of April. Through Wednesday the DNR's fish trap on the Knife had grabbed 284 wild steelhead, 17 stocked steelhead and 40 Kamloops trout - for a total of 341 fish.

Goldsworthy said he doesn't expect a huge influx still to come and says this year's total count likely will be near the 400-fish average but definitely below the 1,000-fish spawning runs of recent good years.

"It's definitely a late start to the run. But I also don't think we're going to see as many fish this year,'' he said. "If we get more rain we could see a few more fish come in. But I think we're kind of past the peak now."