DULUTH, Minn.—When steelhead season opens Saturday, March 25, on Wisconsin's lower Brule River, it's safe to say a lot of anglers will be drifting bits of colored yarn or marble-sized bags of spawn. Those techniques are time-honored presentations for taking steelhead on the Brule as well as on North Shore streams.
But recent years have seen a large upswing in the number of anglers using flies to fool Lake Superior's big rainbows during the spring spawning run on the Brule. Fly-fishing guide Damian Wilmot of Superior, Wis., said the change has been dramatic.
"It's absolutely a growing thing," said Wilmot, who has operated his Fly By Night Guide Service on the Brule since 1989. "You don't have to go back too many years to when the overwhelming number of fishermen you saw on the Brule were drift fishermen using spawn or yarn. Now it's 10-to-1 fly fishermen over those guys."
John Fehnel, who owns Great Lakes Fly Shop in Duluth, also has witnessed the growth.
"With the advent of more fly fishing on the Brule, you're seeing more people adjusting to that type of fishing for steelhead," he said.
This fly-fishing approach to steelheading on the Brule often involves the use of flies called nymphs, which represent an immature form of an aquatic insect. Phil Johnson of the Superior Fly Angler shop in Superior said fly fishers often use bead-head nymphs fished under a "strike indicator" — essentially a small bobber, sometimes with a splitshot sinker.
"Obviously, you're looking at a bobber, although fly-fishermen don't like to call it a bobber," Johnson said. "Seventy-five to 80 percent (of steelheading fly fishers) will use an indicator-splitshot-nymph combination. A lot of guides will put their clients on that."
Steelheading is challenging no matter how it's done, with traditional yarn and spawn or with flies. But flies can be effective, Johnson said.
"Flies do work — basically nymphs," he said. "People have found out if they imitate big Hex (Hexagenia mayfly) nymphs, they're going to catch fish."
"Fish see a lot of spawn bags," Fehnel said. "They like to see bugs or something natural drifting by them."
Some fly anglers are moving beyond nymphing, Wilmot said.
"At one time, it was all just indicator nymphing," he said. "Things are evolving. Now you're seeing guys swinging flies with switch rods and Skagit heads (both designed for shorter casts in tighter quarters)."
Swinging flies with switch rods may not be as productive for steelhead as fishing a nymph under an indicator, Wilmot said.
"If numbers are what it's all about, there are better ways to catch a steelhead," he said. "But as far as an experience, to have a wild Brule steelhead freight-train a fly — it's a pretty moving experience. That's the only way I fish now."
With this spring's early ice-out on the Brule in mid-February, many of the steelhead that entered the river last fall likely will have moved upriver this spring to spawn. Some of those fish will be on their way down, headed back to Lake Superior, Fehnel suspects, when the steelhead season opens on Saturday downstream from U.S. Highway 2.
The river will take a separate run of steelhead this spring as well, and those fish will be moving upstream to spawn.
Up river and down
Fly-fishing the Brule has a long and storied tradition, mainly for resident brown trout and brook trout in the upper reaches of the stream during summer months. At that time of year, fly anglers try to throw flies that imitate the insects that are hatching. In the spring and fall, when steelhead are in the river, anglers converge on the stream for a chance at tying into one of the hardest-fighting fish anywhere.
Fehnel contends that part of the growth in steelheading with fly-fishing techniques is a youth movement.
"Geesh — I've got high school kids coming in here," he said. "A few years ago, I'd have said the demographic was 28- to 45-year-olds. Now, I can tell you the demographic is 17 years old to 33 or 35 years old. That's where the biggest growth is from."
Fehnel said sales at his shop are up 25 to 30 percent in the past 15 years. Some fly fishers were first exposed to steelheading and fly-fishing when they were students at the University of Minnesota Duluth, he said.
"They came to UMD, then left and got a job somewhere else," Fehnel said. "Now they're coming back. People are moving here from Oregon, Colorado, Montana. They want to fish their own particular way on the rivers here. They want to hike rivers and take backpacks and tents and fat-tires (bikes). It's most definitely an adventure.
"The downside is that young people want gratification right way. With steelhead, you can't do that."
Many steelheaders will tell you they fished for two or three years before landing their first steelhead, no matter what method they used.
Johnson says he hasn't noticed such a strong youth infusion in steelheading.
"It's not just younger folks," he said. "I think you'll find different age groups doing different things."
There's an appeal to fly-fishing for steelhead and other trout that goes beyond the act of fishing, Johnson said.
"Part of the interest in fly-fishing is, if you tie your own flies, you want to come up with the 'secret fly' that works all the time," he said. "It's something nobody will achieve, but there's the hope, the dream."
Favorite Brule River steelhead flies
We asked several fly fishers to share their favorite flies for steelheading on the Brule River and tell us how they fish them.
Tim Pearson, Silver Bay
The flesh fly is a pattern I started fishing for Lake Superior steelhead about 10 years ago. It's a fly I've brought back home from my seasons guiding rainbow trout in Alaska. The flesh fly was originally tied to emulate the flesh of dead and decaying salmon. I really don't think steelhead take it for salmon flesh, though.
I like the flesh fly because it can be tied in many different ways, and I fish it in almost any condition. It is suggestive fly that I have confidence in. I prefer to fish the flesh fly in a down-and-across fashion on a sink-tip line, but it is also effective dead-drifted under a bobber.
Brian Porter, Duluth
One of my favorite flies on the Brule is the Superior X-legs. It's been around much longer than the 10 years or so I've been fishing out there, but it still puts fish in the net. This fly is very simple to tie in large quantities, so it's not a heartbreaker when you hang one in an underwater log. You can fish it with confidence in snaggy water. It seems like everyone ties them a little differently, but it's a pretty general nymph imitation and can be sized according to the height and color of the river. Success in steelhead fishing comes down to getting the right drift much more often than the perfect fly pattern. I usually keep my presentations pretty basic and keep the flies in the water as much as possible.
Flashback pheasant-tail nymph
Phil Johnson, Esko
Superior Fly Angler, Superior
One fly which works well is the flashback pheasant-tail nymph. There are many variations, but the fly tied on a jig hook with a tungsten bead is a favorite. The bead sinks the fly quickly, and the jig hook rides up which eliminates at least some snags and loss of flies. This fly in sizes 8 and 10 is good for a variety of water levels. I've used this not only on the Brule but on other waters (southern Wisconsin and Montana) with good results. Google "pheasant-tail nymph" for tying instructions.
Alice Wiese, Grand Rapids
The Blackjack Steel has become my go-to steelhead nymph on the Brule, especially if the water tends to have a little more color to it. Being a frequent Pinterest follower, I found this pattern while searching for new flies to tie. This one has definitely provided me great success over the last couple of seasons. I feel a majority of the success came simply from presenting the steelhead with something a little different rather than tossing the same flies and egg patterns which are more commonly used. The Blackjack Steel is basically a variance of the ever-popular Prince Nymph, using instead a chartreuse or pink bead head, as well as a black body. If you hear someone yelling "Blackjack!" this year on the river, you can be sure I have one hooked.
John Fehnel, Duluth
Great Lakes Fly Shop
For dead-drifting or swinging in runs and riffles, you cannot beat the stonefly. This is my go-to fly for high-sticking in deep runs and then letting it swing out in the tail-out, with the attack coming on or before the pickup. I like my stoneflies in size 8 to size 4. There are lots of different patterns for stoneflies, but my all-around favorite is the Harry-A Stone. Lots of movement in this fly as well as some realistic colors and shapes. When rivers are higher than normal, use this stonefly with splitshot and an indicator (strike indicator) or just go traditional with sink-tip line and use the across-and-down swing. It's also very deadly when waters are low and clear. I also like the fly because it is relatively easy to tie with not too many hard-to-get parts. Use this pattern on a weight-forward floating line or a sink-tip line.
Big Rock Candy
Justin Wiese, Grand Rapids
There is something about this fly that amazes me. I don't know if it's because this is my own pattern, the way it swims or the fact it just plain catches fish. As a steelhead fly fisher and a tier, I'm always looking for new flies to tie, and also trying to come up with a few of my own. When you find something that works, you stick with it. I swing this intruder pattern when the water is somewhat clear- to light-colored, typically working the back end of small pools, riffles and runs. In darker and dirtier water, I use the same pattern tied with brighter colored material. This intruder has a medium-large profile which has proven to be highly effective in enticing a holding steelhead to strike. Hooking into a fresh-run steelhead is an exhilarating event in itself, especially when I set the hook using one of my own flies.
Brule River steelhead opener
Opener: Saturday, one-half hour before sunrise
Portion of river open to fishing: From U.S. Highway 2 to Lake Superior
Conditions: Ice-out occurred Feb. 20 as far downstream as Wisconsin Highway 13, much earlier than usual. Little snow remained on the ground at midweek. Unless more snow — or rain — falls, river should be near normal levels for the opener.
The run: The Brule took a run of 5,544 steelhead last fall, very close to the 5,660 counted in the fall of 2015. Some of those fish likely have moved upriver, beyond U.S. Highway 2, to spawn already. Spring-run counts are not available.
River level reports: Find U.S. Geological Survey river level readings at waterdata.usgs.gov/usa/nwis/uv?site_no=04025500
Limit: Steelhead, 1 fish, 26-inch minimum length; brown trout, 2 fish, 15-inch minimum length.