The Bois Brule River of Northern Wisconsin

The Bois Brule river begins as a cold spring seep emerging from the Northwestern Wisconsin boglands, then flows for over 44 miles on it’s Northward journey to Lake Superior. The river changes character dramatically over it’s course. In it’s upper reaches, the Brule is a small, ice cold, crystal clear stream where native Brook Trout dominate. More and more brown trout and steelhead smolts show up as you travel downstream, and in the middle section of the river all three species are well represented. Two lakes exist in this middle section, and they are sometimes home to some very large brown trout. The lower Brule, specifically below the highway 2 bridge, is much bigger and the river races through boulder-filled runs and deep pools amid a wild landscape. The river above highway 2 is classic stream trout water, with predictable hatches due to it’s consistent spring-fed flows. This stretch is closed during the salmon and steelhead runs to protect the abundant spawning gravel. The lower river is where the big anadramous salmonids are pursued when they enter the river, and it is this water that I will focus on here. The Brule fishery is a wild, self-sustaining population. It is one of the few tributaries of Lake Superior to support natural reproduction, and for this reason and many others it is a special river.







The steelhead is the uncontested king of the lower Brule. Though not native to the area, Brule river steelhead are wild fish that reproduce and create a self-sustaining fishery. Steelhead are essentially rainbow trout that grow very large due to the fact that they migrate out into Lake Superior and feed heavily on pelagic baitfish. The fish then return to the river each year to spawn in the Brule's gravelly runs. All steelhead spawn in the Spring, but many fish move into the river in late Fall and overwinter there. When they first leave the lake and enter the river, steelhead are bright silver in color. The longer they remain in the river the more colorful they become, eventually looking like a very large resident rainbow trout. Millions of baby steelhead or "smolts" also reside in the river. They average about 11 inches, and will often end up on your line as well.
brown trout

Brown Trout

Like the steelhead, brown trout are not native to the Brule. Two forms of brown trout exist in the river. "Resident" browns reside in the river year-round, and are mainly targeted in the upper river where they feed on the river's abundant insect hatches . "Lake-run" brown trout have a life cycle similar to the steelhead, although they spawn in the Fall. Lake-run fish attain much greater size than their resident cousins, often exceeding 30 inches and 8 pounds.
chinook salmon

Chinook Salmon

The chinook salmon is another exotic species which has found a home in the Brule river. Very little reproduction takes place for this species, but enough spawn successfully each Fall to create a viable fishery. Very few chinooks are caught by anglers, but occasionally a 20+ pounder will end up on your line if you fish the extreme lower waters of the Brule.
coho salmon

Coho Salmon

The coho salmon, another exotic, is similar to the chinook but does not attain the same size. Most cohos found in the Brule are only a few pounds in weight, with a 7 or 8 pounder being a very large specimen. Cohos reproduce quite successfully in the river, and they are a fairly common catch for anglers fishing the lower river in the Fall.
pink salmon

Pink Salmon

Yet another exotic Pacific salmon occasionally found in the Brule is the pink salmon. Pinks are very small fish that average only about two pounds. They enter the river about the same time as the chinooks, and like the chinook their numbers are very low.
brook trout

Brook Trout

Brook trout are native to the Bois Brule river. In fact, a hundred years ago huge runs of very large brook trout would enter the river in the Fall on their spawning run. These lake-run brookies or "coasters" as they were called reached weights of 6 to 8 pounds. Sadly, these wonderful fish were overharvested and pushed to the brink of extinction. After all of the exotics mentioned above were introduced into the Brule, the Coaster brook trout had little chance of reclaiming the river for their own. Occasionally an angler lands a 4 pound brook trout, but it is indeed a rare catch. If you do catch a large, colorful brookie from the lower river, please release this endangered species. Resident brook trout also exist throughout the river, especially in the upper reaches.
longnose sucker

Longnose Sucker

The longnose sucker is another native species found in the river. They are found only in Lake Superior and it's tributaries, and make a spawning run up the Brule in the Spring. Although not a "gamefish" per say, the longnose sucker is a unique and interesting nativespecies which deserves respect from anglers. Males develop bright red sides during the spawn. They are usually caught in the extreme lower river, and will take spawn, nightcrawlers and egg imitations.
white sucker

White Sucker

Another native sucker that lives year-round in the river is the white sucker. Whites have a more blunted snout than the longnose, and lack the bumpy papillae as well. They are most often caught on bait fished along the bottom.







Encountering Anadramous Salmonids in the Bois Brule



Fall Run Timing

Runs of salmonids enter the Brule both in the Spring and Fall. In the Fall, the first to enter the river are the big brown trout. They come in in August and soon disperse in the river. Many take up residence in Big and Lucius lakes and feed aggressively after dark. Browns can be found through the end of the season in the lower river. A few chinook salmon run each Fall, but the small number of fish makes it hard to specifically target them. However, a 25-pound King is always a possibility in early Fall. A few pink salmon may also run along with the chinooks. Starting in late September, both coho salmon and steelhead enter the river. Generally, a good Autumn rainfall will bring the river flows up and encourage a fresh run of fish to move into the river. The season closes somewhere around the third week of November, and good fishing for steelhead and cohos can be found right up to the last day. The following graph shows general Fall run timing.


Here's a link to fall 2008 Brule salmonid returns



The Spring Run


Obviously, any salmon that enter the river in the Fall die shortly after spawning. However, steelhead that come in in the Fall spend the Winter in the river, and in early Spring these steelhead are joined by a fresh run of chrome rainbow trout juiced up for the spawn. All Brule steelhead spawn in the Spring, regardless of when they enter the river. The season opens in late March, and fishing typically peaks in mid April. Longnose and white suckers are also present in the lower river at this time of year. Snowmelt and Spring rains change the river into an unfishable torrent each Spring, so keeping an eye on theUSGS flow data will help in planning your trip to the Brule. Here's a graph showing Spring run timing.



General Tactics




Anglers use a wide variety of tactics and equipment to target Brule river salmonids. The tackle you use is somewhat a matter of personal preference, but overall a few specific techniques have proven to be consistently successful. Your Fall tactics may differ from Spring. Changing river conditions will also require a change in your approach, so being familiar with a few different presentations will make you a more successful angler in the long run. I will give a general overview of a few of my favorite tactics here, and explain why each is effective in certain situations.







Chuck and Duck








One of the most effective techniques on the lower Brule is the chuck and duck method of drift-fishing. An 8 wt. flyrod and flyreel are used, but many hardcore drift-fishers load up their reel with monofilament to even further refine their presentation. A flyline can be used to fish in his manner as well, but it does not perform quite as nicely. However, with a flyline you can easily switch tactics to nymphing or swinging streamers while the angler using monofilament is limited in what he can do. The chuck and duck tactic consists of short, accurate casts made into relatively swift water. It enables an angler to thoroughly cover every inch of a run, and keep your offering drifting along the bottom where it has to be. This keeps you in the strike zone and is a very efficient way to fish in even heavy current. The basic “cast” is in effect more of a flip or a sling. To execute the cast, first strip 30 or so feet of line from the reel. Point the rod straight up, then angle it slightly back behind you. Your weight and fly or bait should hang just above the water. Flip the rod forward, and at the same time give a little tug downward on the line with your line hand in order to load the rod. Let go of the line, and point the rod horizontally toward the spot you want to cast to. The line should shoot out with ease, without much effort on the part of the angler. Once the cast lands, keep the line somewhat taut with your line hand and follow your offering with the rod tip as it bounces downstream along the bottom. Generally, you want to cast slightly upstream to allow your bait to sink down to bottom and be in the strike zone as it comes right in front of you, then remain fishing deep and well until the line is pulled directly downstream of you. A drift of 30 feet is about average. At the end of the drift, strip in the line and repeat the procedure. Take a step downstream occasionally, and thoroughly cover the run.


slinky rig


The chuck and duck tactic is mainly used to present yarn flies, egg imitations and spawn bags along the bottom, and it is deadly in the hands of an experienced angler. Quite a bit of weight is used, and you can either use a few split shot or a slinky weight. Slinkies are made by filling a hollow piece of cord with shot, then the ends are sealed with a flame. A snap swivel is clipped through one end, and the weight slides on the line. An inline swivel is used to stop the weight, 8 to 18 inches above the bait or fly. Slinkies are extremely snag proof, and will fish through rocky water without hanging up. 3 or 4 bb size split shot can also be pinched on the line for weight. Follow your offering as it bounces downstream, and make sure you are feeling it tick bottom occasionally throughout the drift. Add more weight until it is bouncing along nicely, but not so much weight that it hangs up. When a fish takes, it is often no more than a slight hesitation in the drift. Your line may stop suddenly, you may feel a sharp tap-tap, or sometimes the fish will simply hook itself and take off. Most often the take is very subtle, and it takes a keen sense of feel to notice it. If anything out of the ordinary happens during the drift, set the hook. As you become more adept at this technique, you will gain a sort of sixth sense and enhanced feel for what your offering is doing.

Float Fishing


To effectively fish slower, deep water, a slip float can be used. Use a sensitive, thin quill-type float, pinch enough shot on the line to get down to bottom and keep the float riding, and use a size 4 to 10 octopus or mosquito hook. Keep your hook sharp, and check it often. Keep your offering hanging just above bottom, and work the float through slow tailouts, deep, slow runs, and holes. Generally, some kind of bait is used when fishing with a float. Spawn, nightcrawlers, live nymphs and minnows are all baits that produce fish on the lower Brule. Spawn is by far the most effective bait overall. Don’t bother using those spawn bags in a jar of oil that you can buy in tackle shops. You’re better of using a plain yarn fly in my opinion. Get your hands on some fresh spawn from a steelhead, salmon or brown trout, and tie up your own bags. Spawn can be frozen and will keep for up to a year. The aroma of fresh spawn is irresistible to salmonids, and it will produce results year-round.




Fly Fishing





At certain times, particular flies will take Brule salmonids when seemingly nothing else will. First of all, leave your little 5 weight rod at home and bring the big 8 weight. YOu will need the backbone when a large fish tries to take all your line downstream. Tippets from 4x to 2x will be used, depending on the river conditions you find yourself in. A weight-forward floating line will get the job done in 90% of the situations you will see, but bring along a sink-tip or full sinking line if you will be doing nothing but prospecting and covering water with a large streamer.
The glo-bug and other egg imitations are top flies, so carry a wide selection of colors with you. These are most often fished using the chuck and duck tactic described elsewhere. Tie on a glo-bug, make sure you have enough weight on the leader to keep your offering bouncing along bottom, then step into the top of a run and begin fishing. Cover every sqare inch of the run, taking a step downstream when necessary. Check your hook point often, and be ready for a pickup at any moment.
Deep nymphing tactics using long leaders, large indicators, ample weight and various nymphs will steelhead and brown trout at times. Drifting a large black stonefly nymph is always a wise idea, especially around dusk. Some anglers do quite well in tough conditions like extremely cold water by drifting small nymphs like Copper Johns and Princes in size 10-14. Low water conditions in late Fall are ideal for trying some of the smaller stuff. For drifting nymphs, use an indicator and make sure you are getting down to bottom. Cast directly upstream if possible, or across and up. Be sure to mend your line acordingly to avoid unnatural drag on the fly.
Another time fly fishing works well is in Spring when steelhead are hanging around spawning gravel. Large buck(male) steelhead are very aggressive at this time, and they will smack a streamer retrieved across their vision. This is an exciting way to fish, one of my favorites. Large, bright streamers and leech patterns can also be blind-fished through likely spots like tailouts and any boulders or logjams present in a run. Early morning is by far the best time to fish aggressively with large streamers.




Suggested Fly Patterns




Click on a fly to see a detailed recipe...


AC's Hexagenia Nymph
Copper Range Special
Purple Egg-Sucking Leech
Disco Stone



Bois Brule Map


The Bois Brule river lies completely within the Brule River State Forest. This huge tract of land was given to the state of Wisconsin long ago, ensuring that it will remain as pristine and wild country. Access to the river is very good, but private land does exist on some stretches s be sure not to trespass. Numerous "Fisherman's Parking" lots are spread along the river, and two state campgrounds also accomodate anglers. Click on the link belw for a PDF map of the area.

Detailed map in PDF

Species Covered: