Snowshoes, Steelhead on the Brule
Along the Brule River, Wis. — The thermometer fell to 14 degrees in the valley here Saturday morning, but Derek Leslie didn’t mind.
Leslie got his spot near Co-op Hole around midnight to make sure he had a decent place to fish for the opening of the Brule River trout season.
He had a portable heater, a lawn chair and a tow strap tied to a tree to pull himself up out of the river and onto the ledge of ice and deep snow along the shore.
“I slept in my truck for a little while but I didn’t want to lose this spot,” Leslie said.
Good thing, too, because that spot north of Brule produced a 26-inch steelhead trout early on as well as a 21-inch brown trout. Leslie took an iPhone video of the steelhead and then released it back into the river. He took photos of the brown trout, too, but kept it to eat.
“It’s been a good morning,” Leslie said between casts. “Not exactly spring-like, but not bad.”
Indeed this year’s Brule River trout-fishing opener was about as winter-like as anyone had seen, with as much snow as ever before - more than 30 inches on the level - and far more ice than anyone could recall. The river was ice-covered from about Douglas County Highway FF to Lake Superior, closing off some of the Brule’s most productive steelhead fishing spots.
“I wouldn’t normally be here. I’d be down below Mays Ledges. But the ice is so solid in there you could drive on it. . So I picked somewhere I could drive my truck up pretty close and not have to walk too far in the snow,” Leslie said. “I expected there to be more people here. But there aren’t that many guys out here at all.”
The Brule opener usually brings sounds of spring, like Canada geese honking or eagles screeching. This year it was the distant whine of snowmobiles and the clacking of snowshoes against willow branches.
“I had more calls in the office for ski conditions than river conditions today,” Catherine Khalar with the Brule River State Forest said the day before the steelhead opener.
Snowshoes were mandatory for any travel off the beaten path along the river. People who didn’t have them sank up to their thighs with nearly every step, turning usually short jaunts into aerobic workouts.
Justin McGuire snowshoed in about 20 minutes from Black Landing, also in the middle of the night, to his favorite opening-day bend in the river. It was the seventh year in a row he’s held this spot for opening morning, starting his own tradition to join the ranks of Brule anglers who for decades haven’t missed opening day. Spend enough time along the river and you find diehards who haven’t missed an opening day for 25, 30 even 35 years running.
McGuire had a stocking cap over his ball cap. Ice was forming on his rod eyelets. His toes were cold. And he hadn’t caught a fish as of 8 a.m.
“Doesn’t matter. I’m just glad to be here. I wouldn’t miss this,” he said. “This is my ritual. I’m here every opener now.”
McGuire usually fishes alone for the opener but this year brought two buddies, Casey Lott and Chris Belanger. Lott and Belanger had taken a break from fishing to build a fire and were gathering wood when two newspaper people snowshoed up to chat.
“This is crazy,” Belanger said of the irony of dealing with waders, deep snow and snowshoes all at once. The calendar may say spring, almost April 1, but along the Brule it was clear that Old Man Winter was still in charge.
In a lull in the conversation, down in the river valley, the only sounds were a raven calling and the mellow rushing of a low, cold and clear river rolling over rocks.
“It’s nice down here. Quiet,” Belanger said, soaking in the atmosphere that keeps people coming back to the Brule. “And I’m not at work.”
As early as the anglers claimed their spot, however, it didn’t compare to the Rossmanns of Brule. Tom Rossmann Jr. and his brother, Blake, along with Hayden Anderson of Poplar, claimed their bend in the river one Friday afternoon about 3:30. Dad Tom Rossmann Sr. waited until that Saturday morning to join them.
“I got to sleep in,” Tom Sr. said, right after landing a dandy 25-inch steelhead rainbow trout. It was a dark trout, one that had spent all winter in the river after moving up out of Lake Superior. But even seen from across the water it had color that only steelhead can show.
The fish was released after an exciting tussle, with Tom Jr. netting the fish and Blake, who will soon be 8, watching closely - a bonus few moments of action during a great morning on the water for a family and friend.
“Hey, don’t tell anyone where we are,” Tom Sr. yelled across the river to the newspaper guys. “Just say secret spot No. 26.”
Somewhere between U.S. Highway 2 and Lake Superior, to narrow it down a little, where the Brule diehards held another trout opener get-together on a Saturday.
Ice, cold, snow and all.