ON WISCONSIN'S BRULE RIVER — It was almost as if the ancient white pines knew. As sure as their spent needles were piling up beneath outreached boughs, anglers would be coming.
It was a glorious September morning, finally almost crisp after several days of rain and thick air.
Yes, the river was running a little high from that spate of precipitation. And, yeah, it might be carrying a little more color than a trout or salmon angler really would have liked.
But there are days — and every Brule angler knows it — when you wake up, smell the air and say, "I'm going."
Unlike in spring, when the river is all about the steelhead run — the big rainbows coming in from Lake Superior to spawn — the river offers a smorgasbord in late September. The fall-run steelhead could be coming in, although it's a bit early yet. But the river could also hold brown trout, coho salmon and a few king salmon, also there to spawn.
Any one of them could give you a fierce tussle. A friend of mine had tied into a 36-inch king just a few days earlier — and managed to land it. It was his biggest river fish ever, and he's been at it for several decades.
"You should have been here the other day when an 8-year-old boy was in here with a huge coho," said the clerk at the convenience store in Brule. "His first time fishing the river."
It could happen to anyone.
At a river bend
It could have happened to John Burchfiel of Two Harbors, who was throwing languid loops of lime-green fly line at a bend in the river somewhere between County Highway FF and U.S. Highway 2. That's a long thread of river, I know. We can't be too specific here, out of respect to Burchfiel and his friend Brad Berg of Lakewood Township, who was throwing a spinner just downstream.
It would have been hard to imagine a more classic Brule River scene than Burchfiel, 63, standing thigh-deep in the current, ash leaves swirling around his waders on their way to Lake Superior. His fly line looked as if it belonged to the scene — green and graceful and silent as it delivered a bead-head streamer to the river.
Burchfiel, in his faded canvas fishing vest, his old gray cap, his salt-and-pepper beard, looked as if he might have been fishing there for 40 years. He seemed to be part of the river. He's been fishing the river since the '80s, but he's new to fly-fishing.
"I used to fish yarn and sinkers," he said, watching his line drift downstream. "I switched to fly-fishing. I got tired of leaving lead in the river."
He meant just this fall. He had gone to a fly shop in Duluth and had gotten set up — rod, line, flies, gear.
"My life has changed before my very eyes," he said, making another cast. "I'm so happy with it."
He had hooked a bright silver steelhead a week earlier, he said, a fresh-run fish just in from Lake Superior. But that was it.
"It's still pretty early," Burchfiel said.
Just up the river
I moved upstream, past crisp brown fern fronds, past mottled red and orange sumac leaves hanging off branches like flashy lake-trout spoons hanging on a tackle-shop wall. The yellow pup worked away from the trail, and I heard the low thrum of a flushing grouse. She came running back, ears flopping, as if to say, "How 'bout that, boss? Huh? Where were you? And where's your 20-gauge?"
And she was off to look for more.
Michael Reinhardt of Plymouth, Minn., had been unable to resist the call of the river, too. He was fishing a bend or two upstream from Burchfiel and Berg, throwing a fly line. He was up for a couple of days.
How often does he come north to the river?
"As often as I can," he said.
He liked the river's conditions — running on the high side, the color of strong coffee. And he knew it was dropping. Every Brule angler knows how the Brule is flowing, thanks to data on a U.S. Geological Survey website.
Reinhardt had taken a brown trout and a young steelhead when he was up about 10 days earlier, he said.
Lure of needles
When I was trudging back up the hill, I saw another big pine with a carpet of russet needles below. I stopped momentarily. I thought I heard the needles talking to me.
"Hey, buddy. How about a little nap? Right here in the sun. You could prop your head on this big ol' root. Huh? Your pup could lie right beside you. Listen — you can hear the river from here. That would be the last thing you heard before you drifted off to sleep. Think about it. Maybe you'd wake up with a chickadee perched on your boot."
I came close. But, somehow, I turned and continued up the hill.
SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune outdoors writer and columnist. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Find his Facebook page at facebook.com/SamCookOutdoors or his blog at samcook.areavoices.com.
Brule River fishing season
Fishing closed Saturday on the portion of the Brule River upstream from U.S. Highway 2. The season closes downstream from U.S. Highway 2 to Lake Superior on Nov. 15.