The Greatest Lake

Nothing embodies the rough spirit of Lake Superior like the steelhead of its north shore.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Up north on the Canadian shore of Superior all the rivers are impatient to reach the lake. Not much farther north every stream flows the other way, to James Bay and Hudson Bay. But here, the rivers are brief and furious and leap over waterfalls in their eagerness to meet the largest lake on earth. In spring, steelhead from Lake Superior move into the rivers; in the fall come steelhead, salmon, brook trout, and lake trout. The fish come and go quickly and the weather changes hourly-but if your timing is right, the fishing can be very good.

In May of 2004, my timing was perfect. I drove north from my home in northern Michigan, picked up Trans-Canada Highway 17 in Sault Ste. Marie, and followed it toward the top of the lake. Here towns are sparse, traffic is light, and the greatest road hazards are the moose that walk on the highway at night. Mountainous overlooks provide spectacular views of Superior: horizon lines sharp as razors, whalebacks of granite rising near shore, whitecapped blue combers rolling in on beaches of cobblestone. Those who have never seen Superior tend to underestimate it. At 350 miles long and 160 miles wide, covering 31,699 square miles, it is nearly as big as Maine. It is bigger than Scotland.

A week of rain had turned the rivers to mud and sent most anglers home. But when I arrived at the town of Nipigon, at the northernmost point of Superior, the sky had broken open and the rivers were clearing. Ahead were three days of bluebird weather with temperatures in the 70s.

In Nipigon I met Bill Boote, the 47-year-old owner of River's Edge Fly Shop in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and a senior constable for the Thunder Bay Police Department. When he's not manning his shop, guiding anglers, or enforcing the law, Boote does volunteer conservation work. He's been fishing Lake Superior and its tributaries for nearly 25 years. I asked him how the fishing had been and he said, "Fair." But he was being coy. The high water had brought a surge of fish up from the lake.

Boote drove us out of town and pulled off onto a two-track that led bumpily uphill between forested ridges. He took a fork to the right and then another fork and finally parked. He asked if I would be discreet about our destination. Not a problem. First, I was lost. Second, I understood that discretion is necessary because most of the north-shore rivers are small and can't bear much pressure. Also, and most important, the steelhead we were after are an entirely self-sustaining population-a rarity in the Great Lakes. Most of the more than 100 rivers along the Canadian north shore support steelhead runs, as do hundreds of others in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. But the populations in U.S. waters are supplemented with regular plantings, while the Ontario rivers have not been tinkered with since the first West Coast steelhead were released in 1883. Some biologists think that the steelhead of northern Lake Superior are among the most genetically pure in North America. We put on our waders and took up our rods and stepped onto a path through the woods-black spruce and balsam, their branches draped with goat's beards of moss. Twenty minutes later we stood above a tumbling whitewater river snaking through wide beds of gravel. The water was tea-colored, as are nearly all Superior tributaries, tinted dark with tannin. At the outside of every bend were heaps of gravel that could have been shoved there by bulldozers. Beside the main channel were gravel troughs suggestive of highways under construction, where the river had flowed in previous years. Everywhere were piles of woody debris, including entire uprooted trees that had washed down the valley during floods. Boote explained that clear-cutting in the headwaters had caused the flooding. "What once were 100-year floods now occur once or twice a year," he said.

We hiked upstream to where the river bent tight to the woods and formed a deep pool, dark beneh the evergreens. At the tailout we forded the river, using beaver sticks for staffs against a powerful current. Once across, we hiked to the top of the hole.

Above us, the river descended in steep rapids before plunging into the pool. Boote waded to the edge of the deep water and made his first cast with his fly rod. He was using a two-fly rig consisting of a yarn egg and a small nymph, weighted with a "slinky"-a nylon sleeve packed with lead shot. His line was monofilament, which he pulled off his reel in coils, casting with a smooth underhanded flip. In Michigan we call this "chucking and ducking." It's an effective way to get a fly deep in pocket pools and fast water. On his second cast Boote hooked a steelhead. It breached the surface, ran, and jumped entirely out of the river. He fought it in and tailed it. It was a male, almost black in color, that had most likely been here since the early runs in March or April. It was probably a drop-back, a male that had finished spawning and was making its way back to the big lake. Drop-backs, especially males, are ravenous. It weighed maybe 5 pounds, about average for Superior steelhead. Boote revived it gently and released it.

I flipped my own egg-and-nymph rig into the head of the pool and followed the line downstream with the tip of my rod. As the slinky tapped its way down the bed, I could feel every rock. There came a pause. Often sinkers or a fly will lodge between rocks and halt. But this pause was slower than that, softer. I raised the tip of my rod and felt a throb of life and set the hook. All the loose line in my hand flew through the guides. When it came up tight to the reel, a chrome-bright steelhead launched into the air. This one had probably entered the river during the previous week's rain. It was so fresh that it still carried some of the blue of the lake on its back. Its gill plates were tinted with a faint blush of pink, but its sides had not yet taken on the characteristic red stripe. Steelhead this bright are called chromers.

That day, for the first time in the 35 years that I've been fishing for steelhead, I lost count of how many I caught. I'm guessing a dozen, give or take a few. I hooked twice as many, but often they ran for the rapids and broke off in the heavy water. They were as wild and powerful as the lake.

Superior is an uncivilizing force, untamed and untamable, a wilderness in the full sense of the word: wild, mostly uninhabited, and potentially lethal. Around its shore live timber wolves, moose, and black bears, as if the lake were casting a wilderness shadow over the land.

Cartographers named it Lac Superieur because it was the most northerly of the Great Lakes and therefore topmost on maps, but the name fits perfectly. The lake exceeds all others in surface area. Only Russia's Baikal, because it is so deep, has greater volume. Nonetheless, Superior, with an average depth of nearly 500 feet, contains 2,934 cubic miles of water. It is so immense that it creates its own weather systems. Autumn storms intensify when they encounter the lake's latent energy, and winter squalls turn to blizzards, burying the windward shores beneath lake-effect snow. In the winter of 1978¿¿¿79, for instance, 321/2 feet of snow fell on Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula.

Most of the way around the lake you're on your own. Tourist boosters in every village try to promote the region as a four-season playground, but away from major population areas the harsh climate and lean economy make it a hard sell. If you require fine restaurants and deluxe accommodations, go to Duluth, Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, and Marquette-the only sizable cities along nearly 3,000 miles of shoreline-and stay right there. Elsewhere are truck-stop food and mom-and-pop motels so widely spaced that savvy travelers carry sleeping bags in their cars. But if you fish or hunt: heaven.

Because Superior is cold, clear, and relatively sterile-oligotrophic-its fish are scattered. Most anglers go to the bays, channels, and river mouths, places where fish tend to concentrate. One very good spot much of the year is at the outlet of the lake, at Sault Ste. Marie. The "Soo" is two cities, the smaller in Michigan, the larger in Ontario. Here is where Lake Superior's water tumbles toward Lake Huron and ultimately to the St. Lawrence to the Atlantic. For centuries the rapids at the Soo was a meeting place for many tribes of Native Americans and later for the French explorers, voyageurs, and missionaries who were the first Europeans here. The rapids must have been an awe-inspiring sight: Lake Superior funneled into a spigot and roaring through a mile-long maelstrom. For centuries Indian fishermen had speared and netted whitefish in the rapids, a fishery that so enchanted European settlers that they promptly decimated it. The Lake Superior whitefish is regarded as among the tastiest of fish and remains a popular headliner in restaurants throughout the region.

Although most of the water that once ran through the rapids has been diverted to canals that feed the Soo Locks, allowing oceangoing freighters to enter Lake Superior, the St. Marys River remains a vital fishery. Sport anglers enjoy a seasonal march of glamour species, from steelhead in the spring, to Atlantic salmon in the summer, to pink, coho, and chinook salmon in the fall. Steelhead also return in the fall, often spending the winter. There's hardly a day of the year when something big and silvery can't be caught from the rapids.

Unlike most of Superior, however, the Soo is an urban fishery. To sample the wilder side of the lake, all you have to do is head west or north. If you have the time-better plan on two weeks-a circle tour is a fine way to encounter a variety of fishing opportunities. Everywhere around the lake you can fish river mouths and bays for coho, chinook, and pink salmon, as well as steelhead, lake trout, pike, muskies, walleyes, smallmouth bass, whitefish, perch-the list goes on.

Charter boats operate out of most ports and offer deep-water trolling for lake trout and salmon. This is primarily a summer fishery, for good reasons. Ask locals how to fish Superior, and they'll invariably say, "Very carefully." It's not water that you can just jump into with a small boat. Nor, for that matter, with a big boat. The ship immortalized by the Gordon Lightfoot song, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," was an ore carrier hauling a cargo of 26,116 tons of taconite pellets, bound from Superior, Wisconsin, to Detroit when she went down with all 29 crew members during a storm on November 9, 1975. The Fitzgerald-the largest ship on the Great Lakes for much of her career-was 729 feet long. The waves that night reached 35 feet.

But in mild weather, the open-lake fishery can be spectacular. In 1997, 16relatively sterile-oligotrophic-its fish are scattered. Most anglers go to the bays, channels, and river mouths, places where fish tend to concentrate. One very good spot much of the year is at the outlet of the lake, at Sault Ste. Marie. The "Soo" is two cities, the smaller in Michigan, the larger in Ontario. Here is where Lake Superior's water tumbles toward Lake Huron and ultimately to the St. Lawrence to the Atlantic. For centuries the rapids at the Soo was a meeting place for many tribes of Native Americans and later for the French explorers, voyageurs, and missionaries who were the first Europeans here. The rapids must have been an awe-inspiring sight: Lake Superior funneled into a spigot and roaring through a mile-long maelstrom. For centuries Indian fishermen had speared and netted whitefish in the rapids, a fishery that so enchanted European settlers that they promptly decimated it. The Lake Superior whitefish is regarded as among the tastiest of fish and remains a popular headliner in restaurants throughout the region.

Although most of the water that once ran through the rapids has been diverted to canals that feed the Soo Locks, allowing oceangoing freighters to enter Lake Superior, the St. Marys River remains a vital fishery. Sport anglers enjoy a seasonal march of glamour species, from steelhead in the spring, to Atlantic salmon in the summer, to pink, coho, and chinook salmon in the fall. Steelhead also return in the fall, often spending the winter. There's hardly a day of the year when something big and silvery can't be caught from the rapids.

Unlike most of Superior, however, the Soo is an urban fishery. To sample the wilder side of the lake, all you have to do is head west or north. If you have the time-better plan on two weeks-a circle tour is a fine way to encounter a variety of fishing opportunities. Everywhere around the lake you can fish river mouths and bays for coho, chinook, and pink salmon, as well as steelhead, lake trout, pike, muskies, walleyes, smallmouth bass, whitefish, perch-the list goes on.

Charter boats operate out of most ports and offer deep-water trolling for lake trout and salmon. This is primarily a summer fishery, for good reasons. Ask locals how to fish Superior, and they'll invariably say, "Very carefully." It's not water that you can just jump into with a small boat. Nor, for that matter, with a big boat. The ship immortalized by the Gordon Lightfoot song, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," was an ore carrier hauling a cargo of 26,116 tons of taconite pellets, bound from Superior, Wisconsin, to Detroit when she went down with all 29 crew members during a storm on November 9, 1975. The Fitzgerald-the largest ship on the Great Lakes for much of her career-was 729 feet long. The waves that night reached 35 feet.

But in mild weather, the open-lake fishery can be spectacular. In 1997, 16