Soggy opener on the Brule: Rain in the air, snow on the ground greet steelhead anglers

ALONG THE BRULE RIVER -- Dan Keup quit fishing the Brule River for about 20 years after his brother Bob died of a brain aneurysm. The two had been inseparable river rats as they grew from boys to men. But when Bob was gone, the river held too man...

Brian Ormond of Poplar casts his line Saturday while fishing on Wisconsin's Brule River. Saturday was opening day of steelhead fishing on the river from U.S. Highway 2 to Lake Superior. (Clint Austin /

ALONG THE BRULE RIVER -- Dan Keup quit fishing the Brule River for about 20 years after his brother Bob died of a brain aneurysm.

The two had been inseparable river rats as they grew from boys to men. But when Bob was gone, the river held too many memories for Dan to deal with. Their dad had died when Dan was young, and Bob had been like a father to Dan.

"I still fished, lakes and other rivers some, but I couldn't go back on the Brule any more,'' Keup recalled while driving his pickup east out of Superior on Saturday morning.

That was 30 years ago, though, and for the past decade Keup, 59, of Superior, has renewed his love affair with Wisconsin's most storied trout stream.

"My neighbor convinced me to come back and give the Brule a try again. That was, what, about 10 years ago?'' Keup asked, answering yes to his own question. "Now, I can't stop. I've got this addiction worse now than ever before."


The "addiction" Keup speaks of is called steelheading. And Saturday was opening day for steelhead fishing on the Brule, the first chance for Keup and hundreds of other diehard anglers to get back on open water and, just maybe, feel the tug of a powerful steelhead rainbow trout at the end of the line.

"Last time I was on the river was Nov. 14, the day before the season closed," Keup said between fly casts at a lazy bend in the river referred to as the "Fisherman's Hole." "I had a great year last year... maybe

30 fish in the spring and 70 or 75 in the fall. It was a fun fall."

Rainy morning

On Saturday Keup was focused on the spring run of steelhead, some of which have spent winter in the river awaiting their spring spawning ritual. Brighter, silvery steelhead also are moving in now, out of Lake Superior, heading up the river to mate.

Keup hopes to interrupt their travels for just a few minutes.

"We let them all go. I don't hold it against anyone to keep a legal (over 26 inches) fish now and then if they love to eat fish. But our group feels it's pretty important for the future of the fishing here that we catch and release,'' he said.

Keup's group is a bunch of river rats who hang out at the Superior Fly Angler shop on Belknap Street. That's where he met Brian Ormond of Poplar, who was standing about knee-deep in the river just upstream from Keup.


An overnight rain had stopped just as we turned onto Douglas County Highway FF at about 9:30 Saturday morning. Perfect timing, according to the drenched anglers we met walking away from the river as we were walking in. Nearly a half-inch of rain fell overnight, and the Brule, which had been unusually low and clear this cool spring right up to Friday, suddenly had become faster and muddier.

Muddy water makes it harder for the fish to see the lure.

"It's not as clear as I'd like to see it. But it's not terrible. The one good thing is that the fish will spread out now. They don't have to stay in the pools,'' Keup said.

Still, the fish were being stubborn Saturday morning. The water was cool to start, 41 degrees, and steelhead are more active when the water warms closer to 50. Even as the fog lifted after noon, and the sun peeked through the clouds, the river valley still felt cold.

There still was a foot of rain-soaked snow in the woods, and ice shelves lined the river, hanging a couple feet over the open water, leftovers from higher water and colder days that are best avoided if you don't want a quick dunk in the river.

Despite those remnants of winter, though, there were ample signs of spring. Canada geese honked overhead. A pair of pileated woodpeckers seemed to be making mating calls to each other across the valley. Bald eagles screeched overhead.

The Brule opener, as usual, brought much-needed hope for spring.

Fishing techniques


The river was crowded Saturday, but not elbow-to-elbow like some past year's openers. There was plenty of room if you weren't too picky where you fished.

"You can't expect to have the river to yourself on opening day. It's all about getting out more than catching fish,'' Keup said. "There are no secrets on the Brule. If you think you have a secret spot, it's probably someone else's favorite spot, too."

Keup and Ormond fished several spots. We watched one angler land a decent steelhead just upriver. And a couple of other nearby anglers lost fish halfway through the battle. But, for the most part, the fish weren't taking what the guys were offering.

Both Keup and Ormond tie their stone flies to imitate the insects that frequent the river and that fish love to munch. They weigh them down with small, split shot sinkers and use strike indicators, tiny bobbers, to hold the fly just off the bottom as the fake insect drifts through fishy-looking runs of the river.

"I caught my first steelhead right here,'' said Ormond, a relative newbie to the Brule, fishing here since 2009.

While many steelhead anglers use colorful yarn or salmon eggs as lures, Keup and Ormond say they derive great pleasure from landing fish on lures that imitate bugs, and that they make on their own.

Keup and Ormond kept their casts fairly short, flipping their lines with a twitch of the rod at just the right time to keep the underwater fly moving naturally downstream. Keup, on his third artificial shoulder joint, can't raise his right arm much past chest height but has mastered a side-armed cast.

Often, if their indicator bobbers dipped under the surface, they'd pull back hard on their long graphite rods to set the hook. Most times Saturday there was nothing on the other end.


"This is one of my favorite spots. I'm amazed we got it,'' Keup said of another bend in the river, just below a riffle of fast water, where the river slowed just enough for a pool to form.

And that's where the first fish hit.

"It isn't much, but it's a fighter,'' said Keup, who patiently played the fish in.

The colorful, 16-inch brown trout wasn't the target species he'd been hoping for, but anytime your homemade lure works to land a fish, it's fun.

A few minutes later, Ormond tagged into a little rainbow trout, only about 10 inches long. Right species, wrong size.

"That was a future steelhead,'' Ormond said with a laugh as he released the fish.

By early afternoon the newspaper reporter and photographer had to head back to Duluth. We said our goodbyes and thanked the anglers for letting us tag along for the day. As we walked away, both men were both getting ready for another series of casts, ready to work another section of the river where a big steelhead just might be holed-up.

"I'll probably be out here pretty much every day now,'' Keup said with a laugh. "My wife doesn't see much of me this time of year. But she understands that I have this addiction."


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