Wis. DNR ponders help for Brule River steelhead fishery

Concerned over a significant decline in spawning steelhead on the Brule River, Wisconsin fisheries officials say they plan to take action soon. But they aren't yet sure what that action might be.

Concerned over a significant decline in spawning steelhead on the Brule River, Wisconsin fisheries officials say they plan to take action soon. But they aren't yet sure what that action might be.

The 2011-12 spawning run totaled 4,672 steelhead, down from recent years' runs of 6,300 to 9,200 fish, according to a Department of Natural Resources report released last week. The fall portion of the run from 2011 -- 2,933 fish -- was the smallest since 1996, according to the DNR.

Peter Stevens, Lake Superior fisheries manager for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources at Bayfield, said fisheries officials are concerned about the decline.

"We don't see doing nothing as an option," Stevens said. "I don't think waiting and seeing would be a viable option."

The Brule River Sportsmen's Club will send a letter to DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp expressing its concerns about the decreased spawning runs, said club president Ken Lundberg of Lake Nebagamon.


"It's not time to panic yet, but it's time to put it on the radar," Lundberg said. "We're down to less than 50 percent of big (spawning) runs. We've had nature events of heavy flooding at wrong times. We're losing those year classes. If we lose a couple more then I think stocking is something that has to be considered."

The DNR stocked steelhead in the Brule for several years in the 1990s through 2001, and the stocking temporarily increased runs. The stocking was discontinued because it was deemed not cost-effective. No stocked steelhead have been counted on the Brule for the past two years, according to the DNR.

"It's hard to maintain fisheries at historic highs," Stevens said. "What goes up generally has to come down. We've returned to the runs that that are about the same size as in the 1993-to-1998 period."

Few options

The DNR has limited management options for increasing steelhead runs on the Brule River. Already, anglers must release any steelhead they catch under 26 inches long, and they may keep just one over 26 inches.

"It would be difficult to make angling any more restrictive than one-over-26-inches," Stevens said.

That leaves stocking as perhaps the only other option.

"Unfortunately, that is the major tool that we have in our toolbox," Stevens said. "We'll have to explore if that's feasible. We prefer to use it as a rehabilitation tool."


The stocking done in the past was intended to "jump-start" the fishery, but that didn't turn out to be the case, Stevens said.

"The DNR, I think, is going to go back to planting some fish in the Brule to supplement the natural run," said Brule River Sportsmen's Club member Tom Champaigne of Brule. "I think that's something worth trying. I don't know if that will solve the issue."

But stocking, especially by taking eggs from wild Brule River steelhead, is labor-intensive and expensive at a time when DNR budgets are shrinking.

Damian Wilmot of Superior, a longtime Brule angler and guide, said he thinks anglers need to be more patient.

"I don't know if it's time to panic or not," Wilmot said. "With one year, are you ready to panic and start planting fish? I'm more of the let's wait and see what happens. I'm a very strong believer in wild trout."

The DNR hopes to come up with a proposed course of action within a month and begin meeting with angling groups, Stevens said.

In the meantime, anglers and fisheries officials are hoping that this fall's run of steelhead on the Brule will bounce back to higher levels. That would indicate that last fall's run was something of an anomaly, Stevens said.

Changing conditions


Changes in rainfall events and changes in the Lake Superior fishery may be affecting the Brule's steelhead population, biologists and anglers say.

Biologists are concerned about so-called "spring scouring flows" in the Brule, in which heavy runoff from rains carries juvenile and just-hatched fish downriver to Lake Superior, where they are unlikely to survive.

"We had another one this year, in June," Stevens said. "High spring flows are still a major problem for Brule River steelhead. And they're happening with increasing frequency and increasing severity. We think they have a lot to do with the lower spawning runs. Fewer fish are surviving, so fewer fish are returning."

Champaigne, who fishes the Brule regularly, says he has seen fewer and fewer smolts, or juvenile steelhead, on their way downstream to spend a couple of years in Lake Superior.

"If you'd use the hatchery (to stock steelhead), you'd be filling in that gap," he said.

An unusually warm spring in 2012 brought steelhead into the river earlier than in most years, According to the DNR, the peak of the migration -- and the largest single week of steelhead migration recorded on the Brule -- occurred the week before the fishing season opened.

DNR officials know exactly how many steelhead ascend the Brule River to spawn because they're recorded on video at the Brule River lamprey barrier, and later counted.

Lake Superior also has changed dramatically in the past 20 years, as the lake trout population has rebounded and flourished. Steelhead smolts, entering the lake at 7 or 8 inches long, are bite-size snacks for hungry lake trout.


"Lake Superior has changed," Champaigne said. "Lake trout are the predator out there."

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