Points North: Not fishing on the opener and other musings

Poplar River
Poplar River

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Most Minnesota anglers celebrated the May 14 fishing opener by going after walleyes, but a friend and I headed for alternative waters. We spent opening weekend fishing for steelhead near Grand Marais. We weren’t alone. Other anglers were enjoying the fishing in North Shore streams. We met anglers who had traveled to Grand Marais from Duluth and the Twin Cities.

Saturday afternoon we ate lunch in Grand Marais. The streets were busy with folks who were enjoying a warm, sunny day. Many were young urban couples who clearly hadn’t come to Grand Marais for the fishing. After lunch, we headed for a river access that shares a parking lot with the Superior Hiking Trail. There were eight vehicles in the lot when we pulled in, leading me to fret the river was crowded with anglers. Not to worry. All of the vehicles belonged to hikers.

No doubt plenty of people enjoyed the fishing opener on dozens of lakes near Grand Marais. But I was struck by how many people were spending time outdoors on the opener and not fishing. I don’t think this in any way threatens the fishing future, but instead illustrates there are many ways to enjoy the outdoors.

Poplar River

Legislation allowing the Lutsen ski area to withdraw water from the Poplar River, a designated trout stream, for its ski-making operations was entering a conference committee at this writing. In Minnesota, water withdrawals from trout streams are forbidden, but Lutsen ski area was doing so prior to passage of the law in 1977 and was grandfathered in, although its use of water has exceeded its existing permit for the past decade. The pending legislation would allow the ski area to take more water than it presently uses to allow for expansion.

By doing so, does the Legislature set a precedent—lowering the bar for protection of trout streams—that might allow other appropriations to occur? For example, could we someday see an ethanol plant taking water from southeastern Minnesota’s Whitewater River? Probably not, say some knowledgeable folks to whom I asked those questions. The Lutsen situation is unique because it precedes the existing law.

From another angle, the legislation fits a troubling pattern in politics where lawmakers change or sidestep an environmental law to suit the needs of a special interest. An example in the current Legislative session was changing the sulphate standard for wild rice waters, which benefits mining interests. The recent removal of wolves in the northern Rockies from the Endangered Species List by Congress is another example.

In each case, one can advance sound reasons for why lawmakers chose to change the law. But the bottom line is political expediency won out over science. When that occurs, one can only hope lawmakers craft legislation in such a way that science is not wholly overlooked. That was the nut of the Lutsen issue as the bill entered conference committee. Resource professionals were hopeful that language establishing a minimum flow level for the river and placing a sunset on the ski area’s appropriation permit. Officials want the ski area to eventually find a way to draw water from Lake Superior, rather than the trout stream.

Last week, I received an email from retired fisheries biologist Mel Haugstad, who did some research on North Shore trout streams nearly 50 years ago. He writes:

“All of those North Shore streams are water poor in the wintertime. It takes every bit of flow you have there to keep many of those streams from freezing to the stream bed in the coldest part of the winter. And if that happens, the fish there will die. Certainly, there is none there to spare in the wintertime. Streams there that are raging rivers after the snow melt are merely trickles come fall and the big freeze. There is plenty of water to spare in them in May and June but that is not when the snowmakers need water.

Back in the 1960's when I was a fisheries biologist assigned to doing some projects on the North Shore, one of them was to document the first spawning run of pink salmon from Lake Superior. Two years earlier some of these fish had entered the big lake from a Canadian stream that was inadvertently stocked with those fish and they were known to spawn in two year cycles. After an intensive search of the lower ends of many of those Cook and Lake county streams, I found a small school of pink salmon spawning in the Poplar River. I also captured two of them to document their arrival in Minnesota.”

Pink salmon still spawn in the Poplar River. Although Lake Superior trout and salmon can only swim about 100 yards upstream before being stopped by a barrier waterfall, the river attracts spring-spawning steelhead and fall-spawning salmon and brook trout. With a number of lakes in its headwaters, the Poplar typically maintains a better flow during low water periods in late summer and midwinter than some other North Shore streams. So far, this flow has provided water enough to support trout and ski hill snow-making machines. We can only hope new legislation will provide more than minimal protection of trout habitat and encourage the ski hill to seek ways to convert its water source from the river to Lake Superior.

Airdate: May 20, 2011

Photo courtesy of Tim Schleicher via Flickr.

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