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Steelhead catch-and-release requirement to stand

Fisheries officials with Minnesota Department of Natural Resources have decided to continue a catch-and-release-only policy on steelhead in Lake Superior and its tributaries.

The decision was announced Wednesday after the agency had weighed comments from anglers and angling groups.

Officials said the decision was made based on angler input and also on biological data indicating the steelhead (wild rainbow trout) population is not yet fully restored.

Steelhead first were stocked in Lake Superior in 1895 and reached their peak runs in the 1960s and 1970s. Populations declined through the 1980s and 1990s and have only recently begun to increase.

Currently, the catch rate for steelhead is 0.10, meaning that it takes the average angler 10 hours to catch a steelhead.

Angler response overwhelmingly supported continuation of the catch-and-release regulation, which has been in effect since 1997. Of 30 responses from anglers, some representing angling groups, all but three supported the no-kill regulation.

"Looking at it historically, it's encouraging to see that the ethics of the steelhead fishery have changed, and that people appreciate how unique the fishery is," said Don Schreiner, DNR Lake Superior area fisheries supervisor. "They're willing to give up harvesting the fish to continue enjoying the experience."

The Duluth Charter Captains Association, a group called Kamloops Advocates and the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa were the only ones who supported a harvest of steelhead, said Matt Ward, DNR fisheries specialist at French River.

Scott Thorpe of the Lake Superior Steelhead Association supports the catch-and-release regulation.

"Ten hours for one fish is not a recovery strong enough to allow a harvest," Thorpe wrote in his comments to the DNR.

Anglers and angling groups also were asked by the DNR whether they supported different regulations on Lake Superior than on its Minnesota tributaries, and only the charter captains association supported that idea.

Most anglers and angling groups said they believed the steelhead population is recovering but that it is not "recovered," Ward said. Many cited the challenges facing steelhead, including a diminished number of smelt, competition for forage with lake trout and harsh conditions in the North Shore tributaries where steelhead spawn.

The DNR's data, based on streamside and lake angler surveys, as well as data from a trap on the Knife River, support the idea that steelhead are on the upswing but not yet recovered, Ward said.

"The overall population numbers are increasing," Ward said.

It's unlikely steelhead will ever reach the numbers seen in the 1960s and 1970s, he said. Steelhead spend their first two summers in streams, then down-migrate to Lake Superior, where they typically spend two more years before returning to streams to spawn.

The carrying capacities of North Shore streams have remained roughly the same as in the steelhead heyday, Ward said, but the lake has changed.

"The heyday of the steelhead run in the '60s and '70s coincided with the time when lake trout were at an all-time low and salmon species were just entering the scene," Ward said. "It's my opinion that similar numbers [of juvenile steelhead] were leaving the streams, but their survival rates were two to three times better than what they are now."

Steelhead runs aren't apt to reach those levels again. Lake trout are almost fully recovered in the lake. Smelt populations are low. Now, three species of trout and three species of salmon are trying to occupy the same niche in the lake steelhead once had mostly to themselves, Ward said.

The catch-and-release regulation for steelhead will remain in effect at least until 2015, when the DNR's Lake Superior management plan comes up for review.