FRENCH RIVER - They stood on the flat shoreline rocks with their backs against a northwest wind, faces pointed at the sun glistening off Lake Superior.
Their bobbers were floating on the lake, pitching in small waves, small flies or jigs or spawn sacks hanging below.
The ice that had locked onto the North Shore over winter separated from the mainland in the final days of March. On April 2, a 35 mph northwest wind blew it entirely out of sight, out to break up in Ontario or Michigan waters.
Spring had sprung. Trumpeter swans and Canada geese flew by. It was an absolutely beautiful morning to be fishing on the shore of the big lake.
And yet, to a person, the eight or so guys fishing here were brooding, even angry. Not a single one had caught a kamloops rainbow trout through noon. No one had seen a looper caught yet this open water season. No one had even seen one rise and roil the surface of the water.
"They're gone,'' Steve Anderson of Grand Rapids said of the loopers. "They're never coming back because there's no stink in the river water. No stink, no fish."
Anderson was referring to the shutdown of the French River fish hatchery which permanently closed last July. Many looper anglers say it was the discharge from the hatchery - full of trout pheromones - that attracted loopers swimming in Lake Superior to congregate in this specific spot on the North Shore. That congregation made them very catchable to shore anglers.
"Now they're out there wandering around aimlessly with nothing to clue in one,'' Anderson said of the loopers.
Anderson was using a spawn bag under a marshmallow sack near the mouth of the French River Wednesday, hoping for one last looper. He has been coming to the shore here for 30 years. That's the kind of loyalty this strong trout inspired. kamloops trout, named after a region in British Columbia where they are native, won the fishing trifecta - willing to bite, incredibly strong fighters once hooked and absolutely delicious table-fare.
"One rainbow is worth 1,000 walleyes,'' said Ben Stone of International Falls.
Since 1976 the state had been stocking more than 90,000 loopers in the French and Lester Rivers each year (the imported fish had little natural reproduction here.) But last year, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources stopped stocking loopers, saying multiple studies showed the fish had been inbreeding with their cousins, steelhead rainbow trout and damaging the genetics of wild steelhead. Moreover, the kamloops program was exceedingly expensive, costing far more than the state took in from trout stamp sales.
Because wild steelhead are a priority in the agency's Lake Superior fisheries plan, the DNR decided to take loopers out of the mix.
Yet while most shorecasters knew a year ago that the end was near, many assumed it would be a slower fade-out of their favorite fish, not a cliff dive.
Cory Goldsworthy, Lake Superior area fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at French River, said the last loopers stocked in 2017 should still be in the lake and catchable until about 2022.
But maybe not.
"It is very possible that the lack of hatchery effluent could cause kamloops to stray more this spring and not show up in big numbers at the French,'' Goldsworthy said.
"They are out there dazed and confused and they can't find their way home,'' said Ross Pearson of Duluth. "They can't tell where home is any more without the hatchery water coming out."
Pearson cut a stark, lonely profile as the only shorecaster at the Lester River just after noon Wednesday. He hadn't seen a fish yet that day. He hadn't seen one over the weekend at French River, either.
"I knew this was coming once the hatchery was shut down," he said. "But it's coming as a shock to some people out here. It's done."
For decades, every looper season - roughly October through May - Pearson averaged at least 100 of the chrome-colored fish. His best season was over 400 loopers caught.
"This season I'm at four,'' he said, staring at his bobber floating 40 yards off shore.
"On a normal day in years past I could stand there and watch 200 fish roll in morning. I went out (to the French River) over the weekend weekend and never saw a one,'' said Pearson, who formed the group Kamloops Advocates years ago in an eventually unsuccessful effort to keep the DNR's stocking program going. "I went up to the French the other day and there were four guys there. A few years ago there would have been 40. Next year, there won't be anyone."
Anglers not showing up
Few people are happy about the abrupt end of a popular fishery. On a busy, mild spring day in past years there may have been 300 anglers spread out along the shoreline, most near the French and Lester rivers but some at Stony Point and as far as the Two Harbors' breakwall. It's estimated about 3,000 people fished specifically for loopers annually, although many others pursued them along with steelhead and other Lake Superior species. That's not a big number out of 500,000 licensed anglers, but it was a loyal group.
To help make up for the loss of loopers, the DNR is bolstering steelhead efforts. The agency will stock about 120,000 fin-clipped, pure-strain steelhead annually that anglers may keep, most in the French and Lester Rivers, where a majority of the kamloops had been.
"We are actually stocking more clipped steelhead than we did kamloops,'' the DNR's Goldsworthy said of the effort. "It's a new program that we will constantly be evaluating and trying to make better through time."
But those steelhead won't stage offshore for months at a time as kamloops rainbows did. They will mostly be caught when they enter North Shore streams for a few weeks each spring. That won't make up for nine months of lost shorecasting, looper fans argue.
"I still hope some will come in. I love coming down here as much as I like going to Alaska to fish. I mean, look at how beautiful it is,'' said Stone, the International Falls angler who frequently makes the 320-mile round-trip to fish the North Shore. "Now, there's no fish to catch. That's just sad."
Goldsworthy said that, already in 2018, far fewer anglers were showing up on the shore to fish loopers as word got out the program was ending. Last year fewer than 2,000 angler-hours were recorded in creel surveys, the fewest looper fishermen since records started in 1992. That's less than a third of the 6,500 hours logged in 2010.
If the first ice-free week was any indication, this year's number will be even lower.
"The worst part for me is that there won't be another generation of kids that get to experience these fish,'' said Anderson. "To come down here and see a 10-year-old kid catch a 24-inch rainbow trout, to see the smile on their face, that's was a joy. That was a kid hooked for life on fishing... We had this wonderful fishery in our back yard and now it's gone. It's a tragedy."