ALONG THE BOIS BRULE RIVER — The experts say you’re not supposed to fish memories, that you should change with changing conditions and try new spots, new lures, new presentations.
But Rian Lisdahl still had a great memory from opening day 2019 on the Brule when he caught a 26 ½-inch steelhead rainbow trout just downstream of the bridge on the Copper Range Campground Road.
So that’s where he was again Saturday, for the 2020 opener.
“I was up and down the river last year on opening day and didn’t see a fish. Then I came here and bam, right away. So that's why I came back,’’ said Lisdahl, of Superior.
Good thing. Just about 8:30 a.m., Lisdahl tied into another fine trout, a 26-inch steelhead that bit a “looper bug’’ baited with a wax worm.
“At first I thought it was a small one. But then she saw me and it freaked out and really started taking drag,’’ Lisdahl said as he posed for photos with the fish before slipping it gently back in the river.
“I just switched (from a dark looper bug) to a white one because the river seemed a little dirty, and bam,’’ Lisdahl said. “That one fish makes my whole year.”
The river had come up in recent days because of melting snow. But it wasn’t too fast to fish nor too cloudy for the fish to see baits. That will change with expected snow and rain this weekend, which could make the river too high and cloudy, at least for several days.
Like many other anglers on the river Saturday, Lisdahl thought about not making the trip. The weather forecast at first looked bleak — rain, snow and wind all day. But then the storm held off and Saturday morning broke partly cloudy, calm and almost balmy by Brule River opener standards with temperatures in the upper 20s to start and nearly 40 by noon.
But like others along the river Saturday, Lisdahl also thought about not coming because of the COVID-19 pandemic; the warnings, recommendations, suggestions and rules by government agencies not to travel, not to mix with strangers. Wisconsin officials last week flat-out recommended anglers fish only in their community, whatever that means, and said even anglers as close as Superior or Duluth should not make the trip to the Brule under the state’s Safer At Home travel regulations.
But like hundreds of others, most of them from more than 20 miles away, Lisdahl couldn't fight the river’s call. That’s how powerful opening day of steelhead fishing can be on the state’s most storied trout stream.
For many, the Brule and it’s people are their community.
“Being cooped up in the house, that isn’t good for me. I had to get out ... And there's nobody near me out here, so what’s the problem?” Lisdahl wanted to know. “The hardest part I had was finding bait with the bait shops closed. I had to buy it at a gas station.”
Lisdahl reflected what many other anglers said Saturday, almost all of them coming from beyond the vague standard for “community.” While most folks agreed there were fewer people than normal, including an unofficial tally by DNR staff who count vehicles along the river each year, there were still plenty of vehicles at every parking lot we checked, and plenty of Minnesota license plates sprinkled in, as usual.
John Burmeister of Cable, Wisconsin was upstream of Lisdahl a quarter-mile or so — a place they call the Dance Hall Hole — drifting a pink plastic worm, a Berkley Powerbait, under a float. He hadn’t had a strike by 8 a.m. But that didn't seem to matter.
“It’s a beautiful morning,’’ he said as he changed to a wax worm for bait. “Keep trying until you give them something they want.”
Burmeister said he, too, was “a little concerned with the quarantine stuff, whether I should come or not. But, as I read it, solo outdoor activities are allowed,’’ he said as he made another cast. “Besides, it’s easy to keep your social distance on the river.”
Indeed the nearest angler was across the river, more than 100 feet away.
A bit farther upstream, Cole Heines of White Bear Lake, Minnesota and his buddy, Adam Montividas of Duluth, were still fishless at mid-morning but still having a great time.
“We thought about not coming. But it’s so nice out here this morning,’’ Heines said. “People are going into grocery stores with 100 people packed around them. So why can’t we be out here when there's no one else in sight? This is all so crazy.”
Mike Channing of New Richmond, Wisconsin, agreed. He left home at 4 a.m. with 10-year old son Caleb, who slept all the way up.
“The safest place to be during this (pandemic) is out here in the great outdoors,’’ Channing said.
The fishing, which everyone agreed was slow to start the day, seemed to pick up as the sun peeked through clouds from a higher angle at mid-morning.
Downstream of Highway FF, Gary Tiegen of Iron River tied into a big “chromer,” a spring-run steelhead that was shiny silver and about 24 inches long, just below the 26-inch legal limit to be kept. His friend, CJ Johnson, netted the fish for him before a few photos were snapped and the fish released.
“It’s a good thing we moved 20 feet up because that’s where it was,’’ Tiegen said. “I thought it was another rock. I was surprised when he pulled back!”
Minutes later and just downstream, David Leslie of Duluth hooked up with another pretty fish, maybe 24 inches. He was part of the annual Leslie family reunion held at the same bend in the Brule River every opener, year after year, decade after decade, pandemic or not. But this was actually David’s first time making the trip.
“My first Brule opener and already I’ve landed four fish!’’ he said, more surprised and happy than bragging.
Wisconsin Conservation Warden Phillip Brown was patrolling access points along the river as usual on opening day, mostly chatting with anglers, many he sees year-to year. He kept his social distance and said his agency had no intention of enforcing any kind of travel restrictions.
“That’s not our jurisdiction … I’m not arresting anyone or shipping them home for being out here,’’ he said while standing more than six feet away. “They want us to be good examples of safe distancing. So we’re just out here, adjusting to the situation, doing our job with the resource.”