ON WISCONSIN'S BRULE RIVER - Bruce Koepke slipped his hand under the young brown trout and quickly removed his pink yarn fly from its lip. It was nearly midday on Saturday, March 31, opening day of the early trout season on Wisconsin's Brule River.
Koepke returned the fish to the water.
The Brule opener is a hallowed tradition for many steelhead anglers, and Koepke, of Duluth, usually rises early and heads for the river. But the snowstorm that had swept through parts of the Northland overnight made him reconsider.
"I woke up at a quarter to 5 and looked out the window," Koepke said. "And I went back to bed."
He told his wife that if the temperature got near 30, he'd go to the Brule.
In Duluth, it did. He went.
By midday he had released two brown trout and a 2-pound steelhead, he said
The heavily hyped snowstorm - forecasts called for 7 to 10 inches - stayed mostly south, dropping only 5 or 6 inches in the Brule Valley.
Few anglers are hardier than steelheaders, who are accustomed to sliding down riverbank ice shelves and standing in 35-degree water all day. Despite the forecast, many turned out for a chance at the fish they revere on the river they love.
"It was pretty amazing coming over here in a whiteout, and here are all these people," said Paul Piszczek, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist in Superior.
"I would say the turnout is above average," said Matt Leischer, a DNR ranger at Brule. "Three hundred cars is usually the average. I think we're on pace to get that."
Scott Thorpe, a retired steelhead guide (and Minnesota steelhead record-holder) from Minneapolis, hit the river at the crack of 10:45 a.m., the first time he had arrived that late in 48 consecutive Brule openers.
"We usually have to get up at 2:30 a.m. and sit in the dark for several hours," he said. "It's misery."
"But it's a good kind of misery," said his wife, Maria Manion.
Dave Suliin of Duluth and his crew of five family and friends were holding down their usual bend a few casts below Mays Ledges. They reached the spot at 2:30 a.m., Suliin said.
By 9:30, they had caught and released several steelhead up to 26 inches long. (Anglers may keep just one steelhead on the Brule, and it must be at least 26 inches long.)
Dave's son Connor Suliin, 14, had caught five steelhead, and Dave three, including the largest. Woodsmoke from a riverside campfire drifted through the air along with a few big snowflakes. Dave Suliin explained the reason the family gets to the river in the middle of the night to hold its spot.
"It's tradition, you know?" he said. "Either that or stupidity."
For Suliin, the Brule opener tradition goes back 40 years, to the time he was 10. His dad, Jack Suliin of Proctor, would bring him over. Jack, 80, was at home on Saturday recovering from triple bypass surgery.
Anglers up and down the river from Pine Tree Landing to Red Gate to the runs below Mays Ledges were catching good numbers of steelhead and browns, though many were smaller. That was a good sign for the future of fishery, said the DNR's Piszczek.
Nearly 4,800 steelhead entered the river last fall, according to DNR counts, swimming up from Lake Superior. Most of those held over the winter and will spawn this spring. Only the portion of the Brule from U.S. Highway 2 to Lake Superior is open for this early steelhead season. The upper river remains closed until early May to protect spawners.
It is one thing that the Brule fishery is in such good health. It is another to fish a river of such spectacular beauty. After the storm, every balsam fir bough was a latticework of white. If anglers didn't walk with their hoods up, low-hanging branches would drop fistfuls of snow down their necks. In the farm fields between angler parking lots, snow-topped hay bales looked like frosted Shredded Wheat.
The day remained cool, but fishing in the sunlight provided all the warmth any angler needed.
"I couldn't be more comfortable on a 20-degree day," said Ryan Pfeiffer of Minneapolis, fishing above Pine Tree Landing.
Few anglers could have been happier than Gerald Malec, 58, of Hawthorne. He and a fishing partner were getting ready to leave Pine Tree at midday, and Malec had a 29-inch steelhead in his pickup bed.
Meanwhile, Duluth's Koepke was still drifting a yarn fly just upstream from Pine Tree Landing.
He's been fishing the Brule since 1964 - 54 years.
"It gets in your blood," Koepke said.
Even on a snowy morning.