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With deep snow, trees down on trails, earliest possible Brule River opener is March 25

Last fall's steelhead run was down a bit from 2021 and from the long-term average.

Brule river fishing
Anglers heading to Wisconsin's Brule River for the Saturday, March 25, steelhead opener are likely to run into plenty of snow in the woods and ice along the river. It's the earliest possible date for a Brule trout opener.
Clint Austin / 2015 file / Duluth News Tribune

BRULE — It's probably going to take snowshoes, maybe even a saw and a lot of huffing and puffing to reach your favorite fishing hole on the Bois Brule River on Saturday, March 25, for opening day of steelhead trout season.

It's the earliest possible opening date, always held the last Saturday in March, and comes as a very snowy winter drags on with 3 feet of snow still on the ground in parts of the Bois Brule River Valley.

The good news is that most of the river’s ice gave way, from U.S. Highway 2 to downstream of County Road FF, more than a week ago. Whether it opens all the way to the lake by opening day, allowing fresh fish from Lake Superior to swim upstream, remains uncertain.

Gerald Malec with steelhead
Gerald Malec of Hawthorne caught this 29-inch Brule River steelhead on opening day in 2018. This year's opener, on Saturday, March 25, is the earliest possible opener under Wisconsin regulations that call for fishing to begin the last Saturday in March.
Clint Austin / 2018 file / Duluth News Tribune

But there was 33 inches of snow on the level along the river near County Road FF earlier this week, and that was before the new snow forecast for Thursday and Friday this week.

One old-time river rat noted it’s not just the deep snow that will slow anglers from getting to the river, but also trees that were downed in the heavy, wet mid-December snowstorm. Some trees are bent, others are broken, and they’re blocking trails up and down the river.


Bad behavior by some anglers is leading to more private property being posted.

State forest personnel agreed.

“There’s a lot of storm damage on every trail. The trails down to the river are going to be an absolute mess,” said Matt Leischer, a property manager for the Brule River State Forest.

Leischer said he was able to use a tractor to clear out the loop in the Copper Range Campground, a popular spot for opening weekend Brule anglers. He will try to tackle the parking lots along the river next week.

“I’m going to do my best with tractors and snow plows and everything else we have to try to get the angler parking lots cleared in time,” he said. “But with more snow coming this week, I don’t know. ... There’s just a ton of snow on the ground.”

Brule River steelhead
A legally kept Brule River steelhead on the snow. The migratory rainbow trout must be at leas 26 inches long to keep.
Clint Austin / 2015 file / Duluth News Tribune

Opening day on the river usually draws crowds as the Northland's first big open-water fishing of the year. That will come a half-hour before sunrise when trout and salmon become legal game downstream of U.S. Highway 2.

Snow may crust over during colder overnight temperatures, allowing walking on top, but then soften up as daytime high temperatures rise well above freezing. Snowshoes might be a necessary option to reach some areas. Unsafe ice shelves along the river banks also may be an issue.

While a little melting would make access easier, too much melting isn’t good for fishing. Anglers are hoping the snow doesn't melt too fast for any length of time, sending the river into a muddied, rushing frenzy that makes it too fast and too cloudy to fish successfully.

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Fall fish count: Here are the new numbers

Paul Piszczek, senior Lake Superior area fisheries biologist for the DNR, said preliminary results from the 2021 fall fish survey showed a mostly stable population of migratory steelhead rainbow trout in the river.

The DNR uses video camera shooting through a window in the lamprey barrier on the lower river — essentially a dam that blocks parasitic lamprey from spawning but allows fish to move upstream — and then DNR staff review the video over winter to count the salmon and trout that swim by. The system has been in place since 1990, offering a rare, accurate survey of how many fish are using a specific river.

Last fall's run of migratory steelhead rainbow trout hit 4,941, Piszczek noted Wednesday, down a bit from 5,144 in 2021 and 6,144 in 2020. Those fish are still in the river and will make up the bulk of the fish anglers catch early-on. Spring-run steelhead will move up the river when the ice is gone and the water warms up a bit.

Brule River steelhead.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

It’s the smallest fall run since 2017 and is down 8.5% below the long-term average of 5,400 with fluctuations between 3,500 and 8,500 over recent decades.

Recent steelhead runs have been considerably higher than the 2011-2015 period, when annual runs were below 3,000 in some cases, but below the 2002-2010 period, which saw runs above 8,000 and even 9,000 fish per year.

"As far as I can see it's just the natural cycle, the natural variability, of that population,” Piszczek told the News Tribune. "I'm going to take a better look to see if there's anything happening we can tease out of the data. ... But it's not likely anything major considering the difference is just a few hundred fish over several years. It's a pretty stable, self-sustaining population."

The fall 2022 Brule River fish count also showed 3,230 brown trout, up a bit from 3,311 in 2021 and down from 4,545 in 2020; 1,951 coho salmon, down some from 2,259 in 2021; and 339 Chinook salmon, up from 310 in 2021.

Rossman family and a steelhead
A steelhead rainbow trout is landed by a family on opening day of the Bois Brule River season in 2014. This year's opener will likely see plenty of snow and ice shelves along the storied river.
Steve Kuchera / 2014 file / Duluth News Tribune


Rules of the Brule

Downstream from U.S. Highway 2 to Lake Superior

  • The season begins on the last Saturday in March and continues through Nov. 15.
  •  Fishing is prohibited from one-half hour after sunset to a half-hour before sunrise.
  • The daily bag limit is five trout or salmon in total.
  • Rainbow trout — minimum size 26 inches (only 1 may be kept).
  • Brown trout — minimum size 10 inches (only 2 may be larger than 15 inches).
  • Brook trout — minimum size 8 inches.
  • Salmon — minimum size 12 inches.
  • An inland trout stamp is required to fish for trout and salmon on the river and its tributaries.
  • Brule River State Forest angler parking lots are for day use only; overnight camping is limited to designated campgrounds.
  • While much of the land along the river is part of the Brule River State Forest and open to the public for fishing, there are many parcels of private property along the river that are not open to the public.
Brule River State Forest.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Minnesota North Shore steelhead

Minnesota steelhead trout season is open year-round but generally doesn't get going until North Shore streams lose their ice and the trout start moving upriver to spawn. With winter holding on tight so far, that could be several more weeks.

Minnesota's streams are catch-and-release only for wild rainbows with an unclipped adipose fin, mostly steelhead rainbows. The limit for hatchery-raised, clipped-fin fish, stocked steelhead or any remaining Kamloops rainbow trout, is three daily, minimum size of 16 inches.

The group formed in 1968 to promote better fishing but has expanded into much more.

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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