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Is Lake Superior producing more big lake trout?

The Department of Natural Resources' annual lake trout assessment was the highest ever for western Lake Superior.

Andrew Lashinski with big lake trout
Andrew Lashinski holds a 34-pound lake trout he caught trolling on Lake Superior near Grand Marais on Saturday, July 23. It's one of several big lake trout that have turned up so far this summer on western Lake Superior.
Contributed / Andrew Lashinski
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DULUTH — Andrew Lashinski was fishing on his friend Skyler Johnson’s boat along with two other buddies Saturday, July 23, when he tagged into the fish of a lifetime on Lake Superior along Minnesota’s North Shore.

Lashinkski spent 12 minutes battling a behemoth fish that, when it came to the surface, turned out to be a 34-pound lake trout.

The fish hit a spoon trolled off a downrigger in 140 feet of water not far from Grand Marais, where Lashinski lives.

“I grabbed the rod out of the holder and it didn’t budge at first. … The fish was just stripping line off for two or three minutes. I couldn’t stop him,’’ Lashinski told the News Tribune. “After a few minutes of that I finally was able to pull up and reel, pull up and reel. … It took about 12 minutes total to get him in.”

Lashinski said the fish had swallowed the spoon deeply, with hooks in the gills, and that it appeared lifeless when it was brought to the boat. That’s why he made the decision to keep the fish and have it mounted.

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“It’s the biggest one I’ve ever caught,’’ Lashinski said. “We were having a good day. … I think we had eight fish total when we came in. But none were near this big.”

Lashinski noted that upper North Shore waters have been stubbornly cold this summer, with slower fishing, until the recent streak of hot weather.

While Lashinski’s is among the biggest lake trout from Minnesota waters of Lake Superior this season, it’s been a good season for big fish on the big lake in general, especially near Duluth and Superior. In June, Elizabeth Ketchum, of Rochester, landed and released a 40-inch laker just off Duluth while fishing with Capt. Parker Bambenek of Superior Pursuits Charters. Bambenek’s customers also have caught 30-inch-plus lakers in Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands waters of the Gitche Gumee.

big lake trout
Dan Grover, of Hermantown, caught this 21.7-pound lake trout on Lake Superior off Duluth in June. The fish won the lake trout category in the JAWS fishing tournament. Every angler's definition of "big" is different, but any laker over 20 pounds or longer than 30 inches is considered big by most western Lake Superior anglers.
Contributed / Jan Grover

Are there more big fish? More people fishing? More social media posts of big fish? Or all of the above?

“I think more people fishing is why we are seeing bigger fish,’’ Bambenek said of the big lake’s growing popularity. He also noted that modern electronics are making it easier to find where big fish are hanging out. “Easier to access the fish with better technology.”

Lorin LeMire, of rural Duluth, who runs Fish of the Gitch charters, posted a YouTube video last week of an estimated nearly 40-inch laker he caught while jigging for lake trout off the North Shore on July 17. Minutes later, the video showed his fishing partner for the day, Garrett Geving, catching another laker that he estimated was just a little shorter than LeMire’s. The anglers were jigging giant, 8-inch-long white tube jigs, and using electronics to pinpoint fish-holding structure, and fish, down deep.

DNR 2022 lake trout assessment: Highest ever near Duluth

This year’s annual Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fish survey of the big lake, conducted in May, found a strong lake trout population, especially near Duluth.

The DNR caught 35.2 lake trout per 1,000 feet of net near Duluth, in Lake Superior Zone 1. That’s the highest catch rate seen in 42 years of surveys, said Josh Blankenheim, large lake specialist for the DNR stationed at French River. That’s a nearly 26% increase from the next closest catch rate of 28.0 in 1994.

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Lake Superior lake trout
Danielle Kuball, Minnesota DNR fisheries intern, holds a nice lake trout netted as part of the agency's annual assessment of Lake Superior trout populations. This year's assessment, conducted in May, found the highest number of lake trout in the Duluth area in 42 years.
Contributed / Minnesota DNR

Farther up the shore, in Zone 2, the DNR’s catch rate was 11.8 lake trout per 1,000 feet of net this May. And in Zone 3, the far Arrowhead portion of the North Shore, the catch rate was 18.2 lake trout per 1,000 feet of net.

“Neither (zones 2 or 3) were record highs, but both were at or above the 75th percentile,” Blankenheim noted. The survey isn't a good measure of fish size because bigger trout generally don't get caught in the nets.

The DNR catch rates were even higher than in years when the agency was still stocking pen-raised lake trout, and the recent high numbers show that stocking really isn’t needed to foster a healthy trout population, Blankenheim pointed out.

LeRoy Chiovitte’s fish will be permanently displayed at the Chik-Wauk Museum on Saganaga Lake.

Cory Goldsworthy, Lake Superior fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said he’s not sure if more big trout are actually being caught or if more people are talking about the ones that are. Either way, it’s clear there are plenty of big fish in the lake growing older — and bigger — every year.

“In regards to more big lake trout around, I’m not sure why that might be, other than … having more fish out there is giving some (lake trout) the opportunity to grow to great sizes,’’ Goldsworthy said, “particularly as more folks are practicing catch-and-release of the bigger fish.”

Blankenheim also speculated that perception may be larger than reality. DNR creel surveyors have seen lots of anglers on the lake this summer but not as many fish caught as one might expect.

“This is me, purely speculating, but smartphones and social media make it so easy to share big fish pictures that at times I wonder if perception skews reality a little bit,’’ Blankenhiem said.

The big fish caught so far in 2022 continue a trend in recent years, a good sign of the lake’s reclaimed productivity after decades of damage caused by blood-sucking sea lamprey that are now being controlled by poisoning lamprey in the rivers where they spawn.

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In 2020, guide Joe Shead was fishing off shore from his home north of Two Harbors and landed, photographed and released a 44-inch laker he later figured weighed about 37 pounds.

The giant was caught Nov. 22 on Mille Lacs Lake.

In August 2019, Duluth’s Jordan Korzenowski was the charter captain whose customer, Steve Gotchie, caught what might have been the new state record lake trout — if it had been kept and weighed. Instead, they released the monster fish that was 45.5 inches long and 31 inches around the belly.

No one had seen a lake trout in western Lake Superior that big in decades, and the measurements indicate it might have topped the current Minnesota state record of 43 pounds, 8 ounces caught in 1955 near Hovland in Cook County.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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