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Element Preview Rookie anglers feel the pull of steelhead

The Jaap Hole on Duluth's Lester River was encircled by steelheaders Tuesday afternoon. Several seasoned anglers in weathered vests drifted waxworms and yarn-flies in the pool just below a six-foot waterfall.

But sprinkled among those old hands were several anglers who didn't resemble the crusty veterans. These were kids, 14 and 15 years old, scrambling on the rocks, soaking waxies and salmon eggs. And catching fish.

It was spring break week in the Duluth schools.

"We've come every day this week, so far," said Kiel Granger, 15, a freshman at Duluth East High School.

He and buddy Luke Raisanen, 14, had been there since 5:45 a.m. -- and it was now mid-afternoon. Their friend Reilly Hallstrom, 14, had joined them at 11 a.m.

None of them had fished for steelhead before this past week, they said.

"My cousin came down here and caught one," Hallstrom said. "He told us about it."

Hallstrom had the look of a steelheader in his waders and fishing vest. Raisanen wore a hooded sweatshirt and rubber boots. Granger wore just a T-shirt, warm-up pants and rubber boots.

They were fishing with waxworms and salmon eggs.

Fishing on the edge

All three clambered around a lump of basalt 8 or 10 feet above the foaming water like Dall sheep, weaving among each other, flirting with the edge of the cliff. If you were one of their parents, you might have worried about their safety. But they were on their own, free to assess all risks themselves.

Suddenly, Raisanen set the hook on something serious. His spinning rod coiled almost in a circle as a steelhead raced through the foam and current below. Twice it leaped, jetting out of the maelstrom into the April air, a muscled torpedo of a fish, all business.

Raisanen, dancing along the edge of the cliff, held his own, squeezing his rod handle with both hands. Meanwhile, Hallstrom scrabbled down the cliff with a landing net and stood on a shoal below, ready. Granger manned the video camera.

After a frenetic two-minute fight, Raisanen guided the fish toward the shoal, and on the third try Hallstrom's net gobbled it like a pelican scooping lunch. Raisanen scuttled down to inspect his catch.

He said he was never worried.

"I had him good," Raisanen said, sounding like a veteran.

And the fight?

"Crazy," he said.

The boys knew that regulations required them to release the fish -- anglers may keep no wild steelhead, only stocked rainbows with a clipped fin. The big rainbow must have been at least 24 inches long. It was thick and strong and wild to get upriver to spawn.

After a quick photo, its patience had worn thin. It flopped from Raisanen's grip, splashed in the river and was gone, downstream to the Railroad Hole.

The boys quickly regathered on the rock face. Raisanen took a cell phone call from his sister. He re-baited, and they all got back to work.

Veterans alongside

Fishing near the boys was a river veteran, intent as a heron, making precise drifts with a long fly rod. It was Duluth's Robert Olson, 52.

It was hard to tell, looking on, how Olson felt about these rookies sharing the precipice with him. Unless you asked.

"They all need help," he said. "Nobody was born knowing how to do this. I get no bigger thrill than helping somebody catch his first fish."

When Raisanen snagged up, Olson wordlessly motioned for the young angler to switch rods with him. Olson took the short spinning rod and handed Raisanen his own elegant fly rod. Then Olson shook free the snag for the youngster and handed the rod back to the boy.

A few minutes later, when Olson's own fly wound up high above him on the cliff in a bush, Granger monkeyed up the rock, pulled the hook free of the tangle and tossed it back to Olson. No conversation was necessary. In the code of the river angler, actions carry more weight than words.

Dave Beck, another long-time steelheader fishing the Lester that afternoon, was pleased to see the kids at the Jaap Hole (named long ago for angler Bill Jaap of Duluth).

"They're having a blast," said Beck, 53, of Duluth. "My fishing partner, Rick Amundson, helped a kid this morning, showed him how to get the hook out and release the fish.

"We think it's great to have kids getting started. ... It's like Take a Kid Fishing and Take a Kid Hunting. You don't want it to die out in the state."

Sometimes, a youngster needs a bit of river etiquette in this crowded fishing hole.

"If they don't get it, you tell 'em: 'Don't cast your line across 20 other lines,' " Beck said.

They only have to be told once.

Mostly, the older anglers are eager to hook kids on steelheading.

"They're pretty nice," Hallstrom said. "There was a guy fishing right there yesterday" -- he pointed a few feet away -- "and if he hooked one, he'd let us play it."

Decent action

The river held plenty of fish on Tuesday. Every few minutes, one would launch from the pool and hurl itself up and over the falls -- or fall back to try again. Several anglers caught fish, and the boys were holding their own.

Granger had caught and released a steelhead earlier. Hallstrom had caught and released two the day before. Now Raisanen had one. Already, the boys had come to know the power of these fish, that they are unlike walleyes and bass and others they've caught.

"They fight way harder," Hallstrom said. "It's a fish that controls you."

Robert Olson, with a few decades of steelheading behind him, could identify with that.

"This fishing is an addiction you never give up," he said.

Perhaps it would be the same with Granger and Raisanen and Hallstrom. Maybe someday, they would be the old herons in the sun-faded vests, standing in their $400 waders making drifts with $300 fly rods.

Surely they'll remember that first spring they were on the river with sandwiches in their backpacks, catching steelhead with the best of them.