The population of steelhead rainbow trout that spend much of their lives in Lake Superior and spawn up the Brule River on Wisconsin’s South Shore appears to be doing well.

The Department of Natural Resources uses video cameras to record both the fall and spring runs of fish up the river as the fish pass through a narrow opening in the river’s lamprey trap. The invasive, blood-sucking lamprey can’t get past the trap to spawn, but the fish can.

Three steelhead rainbow trout swim past the underwater window in the Brule River lamprey barrier in this undated photo. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources uses a video camera to record how many and what kind of fish spawn up the river each spring and fall.  
Contributed / Wisconsin DNR
Three steelhead rainbow trout swim past the underwater window in the Brule River lamprey barrier in this undated photo. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources uses a video camera to record how many and what kind of fish spawn up the river each spring and fall. Contributed / Wisconsin DNR

The latest spawning run totaled 7,255 steelhead, including 6,144 last fall and 1,111 this spring.

The combined run is down a bit from 2019-20, but is still the second-highest run since 2010-11 and is above the 31-year average of 6,179, noted Paul Piszczek, a DNR fisheries biologist who looks after Lake Superior tributaries. The highest run since the fish-counting system has been in place was about 9,000 steelhead in 2005-06.

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“The population continues to be balanced, self-sustaining and supportive of an action-oriented fishery with harvest opportunities,” Piszczek said in his report.

Of the total 2020-21 run, 83% of the steelhead ranged from 20-25 inches long, weighed from 3-5 pounds and were 4-5 years old. Nine percent of the run was of the minimum legal length limit of 26 inches, with those bigger fish generally 6-9 pounds.

Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Weather plays a big role in when the trout begin their swim upstream. Anglers may want to note that the most steelhead enter the river in early October, which makes for some great fall fishing before the season closes Nov. 15. Last year, the peak run hit during the second week of October with a big rush of fish, but then slowed to a trickle when temperatures rapidly cooled off. The run picked up again the second week in November when very warm temperatures occurred.

The spring peak occurred the third week in March this year, with an early spring thaw, about a week before anglers could start fishing, but some fish continued moving into the river into May.

With many North Shore streams still at near record low flow levels, in some cases too low for fish to spawn let alone for anglers to catch them, it’s likely the Brule, with a more constant, spring-fed flow, will see more fishing pressure this fall.

Steelhead generally start spawning at age 4 or 5, although some can start at age 3. They will then return to their home river to spawn two to four years running, although some have come back as many as seven times to spawn, Piszczek noted. Some live to be 10 years old although 7 or 8 is more common — if they aren’t kept by an angler.

Rules of the Brule

The Brule is downstream from U.S. Highway 2 to Lake Superior. Its season runs from the last Saturday in March through Nov. 15. Fishing is prohibited from a half-hour after sunset to a half-hour before sunrise. The daily bag limit is five trout or salmon in total.

  • Rainbow (steelhead) trout — minimum size 26" (only one may be kept)

  • Brown trout — minimum size 10" (only two may be larger than 15")

  • Brook trout — minimum size 8"

  • Salmon — minimum size 12"

An inland trout stamp is required to fish for trout and salmon on the river and its tributaries. Brule River State Forest angler parking lots are for day-use only; overnight camping is limited to designated campgrounds.