This spectacular river, located in extreme Northwestern Wisconsin, is among the best we have available in the Midwest.
Certainly, the Brule (as is called by most) ranks in the top five quality trout streams of all flowing waters in the Midwest. Some would say the Brule ranks in the top three rivers for steelhead and salmon fishing. And for still others, particularly from the Western Great Lakes region, the Brule ranks as the best, the number one river in the entire Great Lakes Region.
Obviously, that's a bold claim, sure to be challenged by many. Yet all would agree that in terms of beauty, variety of river conditions and fishing quality, the Brule is a truly remarkable fishery.
The literal translation of the term "bois brule" is burnt wood.
My research indicated that an early Native American (Anishinaabe) language referred to the Brule as "a river through half-burnt woods." Both Minnesota and Michigan have rivers named Brule as well.
Wisconsin's Brule has a number of distinctive historical and geological features. First, the river flows south to north, originating from the bogs and springs of Douglas County, Wisconsin.
The river was first used by Ojibwe (Anishinaabe) Native Americans as a route from inland to Lake Superior and beyond. Later fur trappers and traders used the same route. Early (nonnative) explorers first appeared in the area in the late 17th century. The river was carved by glaciers and when the glaciers receded the Brule and St. Croix rivers formed to flow in opposite directions. The St Croix flows south to join the Mississippi River and on to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Brule flows north for 44 miles to its mouth on the shores of Lake Superior. Thus, the Brule provides a connecting link between the Mississippi and Lake Superior watersheds.
The route was first used by Native Americans. Later it was discovered and used by nonnative traders, trappers and missionaries. The upper river is in many ways a classic trout stream.
Clean, cold, fed by numerous springs that provide for stable, consistent flows. It currently supports a healthy population of native brook trout, along with a stable population of resident Brown trout. Lots of spawning gravel is present and the upper section (south of U S Highway 2) is closed during the early steelhead season, providing a sanctuary for the steelhead that migrate as far as this upper stretch of the river.
The lower section of the river flows north for 15 or more miles from U S Highway 2 to its mouth in Lake Superior. Much of this part of the river is very fast, one stretch drops 200 feet in 12 miles. This upper section north of U S Highway 2 is of special interest to all those pursuing lake run salmonids, particularly the Brule River Strain of steelhead. Since the introduction of these fish in the 1890s, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has maintained a wild strain of these fish, which have adapted to the Lake Superior ecosystem and thrived in the pristine environment of the largest of the Great Lakes. The fish are not large in girth, tending to develop a torpedo like shape, typical of many Lake Superior fish. These fish are strong and their activity level seems to tolerate well the extremely cold-water temperatures commonly found when the season opens on the last Saturday of March each year. Water temperatures can often be 33 degrees, certainly well below the 40 degree mark that gets the fish ready to spawn. But the fish are there, at least 60-80% of the total run each year enter the river by mid to late October of the previous fall. These fish migrate towards suitable spawning gravel and are situated near this spawning habitat in the lower river by opening day, even if the fish are not yet ready to spawn.
The Brule is large enough for the fish to spend the winter in the river, which has abundant holding pools and protection from predators. The river also has stable enough flows and ample food present. As a result, the vast majority of the annual run is in the river by mid to late October of each year.
These fish tend to spawn earlier than the spring arrivals, which usually show up by mid-April to early May. Since the spring arrivals are fresh from Lake Superior they are silvery in appearance, and when fish are hooked or landed the spring run fish are referred to as “bright” fish.
The fall migrators are often referred to as “dark” fish, since they spend more time in the river and eventually take on the coloring of a resident Rainbow. As I mentioned the fish from the fall run tend to spawn earlier than the fish from the spring run. Many years if there is a winter thaw, this warming may trigger earlier than usual spawning activity, such that most of these fish are through spawning or “spawned out” by the time the season begins on the last Saturday in March each year.
On the other hand, in some years when spring is delayed, spawning fish may still be present in the river when the regular trout season begins on the first Saturday in May.
At this time the entire river is open and the upper river (south of U S Highway 2) is open to the steelhead angler. I've had really good luck on this upper stretch, especially when spring arrives late in the North Country. Much of the shoreline below Highway 2 is private, but the stream is smaller and not as fast, so wading is not a problem. As long as you stay in the river you may fish to your heart's content.
Fishing the Wisconsin Brule
Early season fishing is usually very productive, and a variety of presentations can be successful.
Slow, holding water is often fished effectively with spawn under a float (read that as a bobber!). However, during the spring most fish in the river are focused on reproduction. As we all know, the fish spawn in fast moving water and are often on redds, even during daylight hours. If not on the beds the best strategy is to fish the dark water that's close to the gravel.
Given the fact that the Brule is not large by West Coast standards, the river is fished by various drift fishing methods. Some anglers use spinning gear, but fly rods and reels are more suited to making frequent short passes through known holding areas. To do this you can use floating or sink tip fly line, though floating line will require a strike indicator (read that as a bobber!).
Most Brule River anglers spool the fly reel with high quality monofilament, or a combination using a section of fluorocarbon as a leader.
The key question is what's the best terminal tackle?
What works best to fool the fish?
Most anglers depend on some form of yarn fly or egg fly pattern. Some prefer to pre-tie these flies in likely colors and change out as needed. I prefer tying as I go, carrying a box or two of precut yarn in various likely (and some unlikely) colors and making a Snell knot on an octopus style hook to slip the yarn through, then trim the yarn to resemble a small egg cluster. It is also legal to fish with two flies on the Brule.
One very efficient way to so this is to tie the yarn fly with a long tag end of one to three feet. Then tie a 'point fly' on the tag end and you can fish an egg pattern simultaneously with some type of 'bug' pattern.
A variety of nymph and minnow imitations can be used. Some of the most effective patterns on the Brule are stone fly nymphs. When the water is not gin clear these patterns can be only suggestive yet very effective. Woolly Buggers are often effective, though be sure to try them in small sizes, perhaps size eight or ten, if need be. Of course, when the water has less clarity bigger and brighter patterns can be effective. The Egg Sucking Leech can work, even in size two or four. Probably a good stone fly imitation is my number one choice.
If you choose to sight fish for spawning steelhead I would recommend you forget about a two-fly rig. Rather, experiment with smaller yarn fly patterns and try to present the fly as close as possible without spooking the fish. Remember these are spawning fish! If you hook a female play her quickly, handle her gently, and after a quick photo carefully return her to the water.
There is also a fall fishing opportunity for these fresh run fish. Like I said, the fish are present in the river by some time in October. Prior to then, there is a migration of lake-run brown trout that can reach 4 to 10 pounds, though typically 3 to 8 pounds.
Many of these fish swim past the holding spots in the lower river and head for one of two natural impoundments on the river. There they are pursued by various means, often by fishing at night. There is also a fairly strong run of coho salmon, but their relatively short life cycle plus the Lake Superior environment result in smaller fish compared to other coho fisheries.
Adults range from 4 to 7 pounds. These fish enter the river in September and are present till the fall season ends on November 15.
So, steelhead are generally present for the last month of the fall season. Most will remain in deeper, slower stretches of the river and are often very willing to take an offering. Fall anglers often use live bait presentations, but spoons and spinners are legal and often the fish are eager biters. Yarn flies and nymphs also produce, along with minnow imitations.
The fish are generally very active, but with water temps in the 50's they be hard to land, I have personally experienced “eye high” steelhead when fishing in the fall.
And yes, the last one to leap high and look me in the eye got away!
Steelhead Run Characteristics
The Brule River run is monitored by digital video equipment. By visiting the Wisconsin DNR (WDNR) on the web you can access these data, provided by the WDNR Superior WI office.
For example, I reviewed the information provided for the fall, 2016 and spring, 2017.
During the fall run, which peeks in October, 5544 steelhead passed through the lamprey barrier, where the digital camera is located, a few miles from the river mouth. During the spring run, which tends to peek in mid-April, 724 additional steelhead passed the camera on their upstream migration. Summary data provided by the WDNR indicate the yearly mean number of steelhead heading upstream has been 6136 fish.
This average number is based on annual data compiled since 1990. This information is further broken down to indicate fish size and corresponding ages, beginning with immature “jacks” which are 12-17 inches long. These fish accompany the spawning fish but are generally non-contributors to the spawning process.
Jacks are estimated to represent 20% of the run total. First year spawners are 20 to 25 inches, 3 to 5 pound and are 4 to 5 years of age. These mature fish compose 50% of the run total.
Finally, fish over 26 inches in length are generally 6 to 9 pounds. These fish are thought to be repeat spawning fish that have survived the initial spawning cycle and returning for a second time to the river to attempt to spawn again. These steelhead represent on average, 23% of the total run each year.
The current steelhead fishery is maintained 100% by natural reproduction and has been for 10 years. There have been stocking efforts in the past but only Brule River Strain steelhead were utilized in these efforts.
If you examine the run return data you can see that the stocked fish return numbers were extremely low, relative to the total run each year. It's easy to see why the WDNR made the decision to stop planting fish in this river. Now the health of the fishery is maintained by managing the resource and a very restrictive harvest quota.
Only one fish can be harvested and it must be longer than 26 inches. As I noted above, this means that all first year spawners are protected during their first year in the river. Meaning any fish landed that's less than 26 inches must be returned unharmed to the river immediately. Most anglers choose to return all steelhead, but the law allows one over 26 inches to be kept if desired.
Wow, perhaps more than you may want to know about this fabulous fishery. As I mentioned previously, the river also gets runs of other migratory fish from Lake Superior. Lake-run brown trout are present in the summer and fall, as are coho salmon and a few kings.
The upper river also is a natural brook trout stream, cold, clear and spring fed.
There are many resident brown trout in this stretch as well. But what makes the river special is the strain of steelhead that have adapted and survived for over 100 years and continue to show up year after year in this river.
The scenery is fantastic, the Brule is drop dead gorgeous, marvelous trout water. You have to see it to appreciate its beauty and splendor. Pound for pound I think you will find that these fish are the feistiest steelhead in this part of the Great Lakes Region.
A word of caution about planning a trip to the Brule. The river's outstanding features are well known to the angling community. In addition to the population in the Duluth-Superior area, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul contain well over three million people.
Most steelheaders are willing to drive the 170-mile distance from the Twin Cities to fish this glorious river. On opening day on the Brule, it can seem like half this population wants a spot on the river. Plan your trips with this in mind.
Even during the week things can be crowded, especially early in the year. So, expect to see many others and think in terms of working one stretch or even one spot well. Arrive early and stay late is another tactic that usually works. Since you know the fish are seeing lots of offerings, try going with smaller and different presentations.
A few years ago, I tried blue yarn for the first time. I was skeptical, but now I'm a believer!
I'll see you there...
- written by Dr. Wally Balcerzak