For the past 100 years or so there’s been an unwritten tradition along Wisconsin’s Bois Brule River that most people who own cabins along the water don’t mind it when anglers skirt across their property on the riverbank to get to the best fishing spots.
But some bad behavior by some anglers over the past two years, and especially this summer, has thrown that century-old tradition downstream, leading several property owners on the river to post “no trespassing” signs for the first time.
And just as some of the river's best trout fishing of the year is upon us, some of the river's best fishing holes are now off limits.
The bad behavior includes anglers walking through yards and then arguing with landowners when asked to stay clear of their buildings.
Some visitors have started fires on private property, left garbage behind, argued with landowners who were fishing on their own property and, in one case, even defecated on a ladder a landowner used to scale the riverbank at his favorite fishing hole on his own land.
“Sorry, due to the lack of respect by many for private property,” one landowner wrote on a newly erected “no trespassing” sign.
Some of the areas now off limits to anglers include the Sauna Hole and Canoe Hole in the Red Gate area; the beach along Park Road near the Copper Range Campground; and off Culhane Road where signs and video cameras now guard a posted portion of the river.
“It started last year during the height of the pandemic and has really just kept going this year. … There are so many more people out fishing that I think it’s attracted a lot of new people to the river who maybe don’t know any better. Maybe they don’t know river etiquette,” said Cindi Peterson-Wlosinski, membership chairman of the Arrowhead Fly Fishers group.
What has the pandemic wrought?
The stories sound sadly similar to pandemic tales from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, state parks, Voyageurs National Park and other wild areas of the Northland — people either not knowing or simply ignoring the laws of the land and the ethics of being in nature.
Others say there’s been a general but obvious degradation of behavior among more people outdoors, possibly a generational issue or a sign of the political times as more people feel entitled to do whatever they want — even when it’s destructive or on someone else's property.
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“There’s been this long tradition of landowners along the Brule, from Highway 2 down to the lake really, allowing people access. That’s a tradition you just don’t see out West, or say in Michigan, where the best trout streams are riddled with 'no trespassing' signs,” said Brent Notbohm of Duluth, chairman of the Minnesota Council of Trout Unlimited. “And now it looks like the bad actions of a few people are going to spoil it for everyone else here, too.”
Notbohm said part of the problem may be anglers who are assuming the entire river runs through public property. Indeed much of the land along the river is part of the Brule River State Forest. But there are several pockets of private property all along the river, usually marked by cabins, homes or fences. Those private parcels should be obvious to most anglers, Notbohm said, especially when the landowner makes their presence and requests known face-to-face.
“I fish the Brule religiously, maybe 30 times a year. … And among the regulars who use the river, among the hardcore angling community, there’s a lot of anger right now,” Notbohm said. “But it’s not directed at the landowners. It’s aimed at the few anglers who can’t behave properly.”
Wisconsin state law gives the property owner the right to control the land right down to the water’s edge. Legally, you’d have to keep your feet wet, stay in the river, to move up and down the stream where there’s private property on shore, noted Dennis Pratt, president of the Brule River Sportsman's Club. But that’s something difficult, even unsafe to try along many stretches of the Brule.
Pratt suggests anglers look at the electronic Douglas County plat book (or try web-based mapping apps like onX) before they head out. While some popular Brule River fishing maps don’t differentiate land ownership, maps posted at kiosks at most angler parking lots do show where private land is located.
“The club’s role, as I see it, is to try to educate people, to make them aware of the private property that’s out there,” Pratt said. “We may not be able to change some people’s behavior. But we can help let people know that there is an issue. That’s really all we can do.”
An etiquette issue
Avid Brule River anglers also said there has been a change not just who is frequenting the river, and how many more people have been fishing during the pandemic, but also in how some people are fishing. Some anglers now are “camping out” at their favorite fishing holes and staying all day, a violation of angler etiquette by most standards. In some cases anglers are refusing to yield to people who own the land along that stretch of river.
“It’s always been that you fish a hole for an hour or so and then you move on. That’s just the way it’s done here,” Notbohm said. “But I’ve seen guys this summer who get their spot before dawn and are still there at dark. That’s just not right. We have to share this river with each other, and especially with the landowners.”
Notbohm said he has gotten to know many of the landowners along the river and, when they show up in waders “I leave and let them fish it. It’s their land.”
This summer there were multiple reports of individuals and groups of anglers, some with professional guides, who flat-out refused to leave a spot that was entirely surrounded by private land.
“We had guys down there screaming at landowners about public easements across private property. … Well, there aren’t easements on private property along the Brule,” Notbohm said. “There is no public right to cross private land here.”
That landowner went out that same day and purchased "no trespassing" signs and posted his land, Notbohm added.
Peterson-Wlosinski said she talked to one landowner who apologized for putting up the signs but who said they were fed up with rude, aggressive trespassers.
“The owners seemed very apologetic,” she noted. “But they had had it with some difficult issues they faced with certain fisherfolk this summer.”
Pratt and Notbohm both noted that there are still plenty of good publicly owned access points to fish along the Brule, but that anglers need to do their homework before they head out to any stream.
And Notbohm said it’s up to conscientious anglers to call out others behaving badly — not in a confrontational manner but by being clear on what's expected by their peers and by the law.
“We’re lucky to have as much public land along the river as we do,” Pratt said. “And, for now, it looks like that's where people will have to fish.”
John Myers reports on the outdoors, environment and natural resources for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com
For more information:
Douglas County has a free, electronic plat book available at douglascowi.wgxtreme.com.
A video on Brule River tips, rules and regulations is available at bruleriverpreservation.org/the-brule-river-video.
Wisconsin’s stream access laws are available at dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/Fishing/questions/access.html.