WISCONSIN'S BRULE RIVER — Brock Haugrud of Lake Nebagamon was beside himself with joy. He was standing knee-deep in the Brule River on Saturday morning, cradling a crimson and silver 26-inch steelhead. Haugrud, 23, had just caught the fish on a fluff of pink yarn.
"This is a 'holy smokes' fish!" he exclaimed mostly to himself.
Haugrud, who has been steelhead fishing for just two years, was among a legion of steelheaders who turned out early Saturday for the opening of steelhead fishing season. Only the portion of this premier trout stream from U.S. Highway 2 to Lake Superior opened Saturday.
Steelhead — Lake Superior's big rainbow trout — migrate up the river each spring on their spawning run. An even larger spawning migration occurs each fall. Those fish remain in the river in the spring.
By Brule opener standards, this one was particularly sweet. No snow remained in the woods, which made for easy walking on riverside trails. River conditions were ideal, with modest water levels and just enough color in the current that fish weren't spooky. Skies were cloudy, and the air temperature was in the mid-30s.
Haugrud kept staring at his fish where it lay on a thick remnant of winter ice just downstream from Pine Tree Landing.
"That's what I've been waiting all winter for," he said.
A Brule steelhead must be 26 inches long to keep. Haugrud put the tape to his fish where she lay.
"Twenty-six on the button," he said. "Maybe just a bit over."
He believes in releasing nearly all of the steelhead he catches on the Brule, but he had a different plan for this one. Because it was a female making its upstream spawning run, it would be full of spawn. He planned to keep the fish to harvest that spawn as bait to catch future steelhead. Of course, he planned to eat the fish as well.
Lots of anglers seemed to be having good luck on Saturday. Few could have had a much better morning than Steve Rankila of Lake Nebagamon.
"I landed seven fish over 24 inches," Rankila said.
That is a phenomenal day by almost any steelheader's standards. He had caught 20 fish in all, he said, including several small ones. He had been using a stonefly imitation.
"I had one of those mornings," Rankila said. "This is the best day I've had in 10 years."
He released every fish he caught, as many Brule steelheaders do. The river's fishery is considered to be in good shape. Part of that can be attributed to the conservative regulation, allowing anglers just one fish with a minimum length of 26 inches.
The morning had gotten off to a questionable — and cold — start for Ross Hertensteiner, 25, of River Falls, Wis. He had arrived at the river by 3 a.m. with friends Nate Molyneux, 26, of Lakeville, Minn., and Ashley Burgoyne, 25, of Prior Lake, MInn.
"We try to be first," Hertensteiner said.
But sliding off a slanted ice sheet along the river's edge at Pine Tree Landing, Hertensteiner discovered the river was deeper than he remembered. He pitched forward, into the water. He took frigid water into his waders, and his hands, bracing his fall, wound up in the water.
"I toughed it out as long as I could," said, leaving the river about 9:45 a.m. "Nate had to tie my knots for me, my hands were so cold."
Despite that, he and his friends were happy. Burgoyne, in her first Brule opener, caught four or five steelhead and lost a couple more, she said. The fish ranged from 20 to 26 inches and were all released.
Up and down the river, lines went tight and anglers landed fish. Patrick Heal, 23, of Milwaukee, had taken two brown trout, also legal on this season opener. Jake Makela of Lake Nebagamon hooked a steelhead near Pine Tree Landing, but it shook off. Amos Melton of Shell Lake, fishing with his wife, Natalie, landed a small steelhead and lost a larger one. Luke Raisanen, 21, of Duluth landed about a 25-inch steelhead on a pink and green yarn fly.
"There are a lot of fish in (the river)," he said. "I've seen guys hooking 'em all over."
For many, returning to the Brule is a rite of spring, a celebration of moving water and a healthy fishery. Many make this pilgrimage every year.
"This is the river, man," said Dale Piper of St. Cloud, Minn. "This is it."
Courtney Johnson, a gray-haired gentleman from Poplar, Wis., was back for another Brule opener.
"I had knee surgery," Johnson said, "but I'm going fishing."