Published March 18, 2012, 12:00 AM

Low fall steelhead run on the Brule has anglers wondering about spring run

The Brule River took its smallest run of steelhead last fall since 1996, according to a preliminary report from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune

The Brule River took its smallest run of steelhead last fall since 1996, according to a preliminary report from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Each spring and fall, the DNR monitors fish as they pass upstream through the Brule River Lamprey Barrier. Last fall, 2,933 steelhead were counted. In recent years, the fall run has ranged from 7,000 to 8,000 fish, and the long-term average is 5,600 fish, said Peter Stevens, DNR Lake Superior fisheries manager in Bayfield. Counting began in 1987.

“We’re not hitting the panic button yet,” Stevens said. “I’m urging calm and caution until all the numbers are in this spring. That can then guide our response.”

Steelhead, after living in Lake Superior for a couple of years, return to the Brule to spawn as adults. They spawn in the spring, but typically the larger part of the run comes in the previous fall and spends the winter in the river.

Last year’s weather was unusual, with a cool, wet summer through June, followed by a very dry late summer and fall. Flows were extremely low on the Brule last fall.

Biologists generally believe that migratory fish such as Lake Superior rainbows don’t like to enter tributaries when the water is low and clear. At some time during most fall seasons on the Brule, a big rain raises river levels and the peak of the steelhead run occurs after that rain, Stevens said. But no big rains occurred on the Brule last fall.

“A lot of people are going to see that (low fall run) and wig out,” said Brule fishing guide Damian Wilmot of Superior. “My take on it is, you’re going to have natural fluctuations. … I knew something like this was coming.”

Steelhead fishing on the Brule has been consistently good over the past several years, and the past two years in particular have seen a lot of big, heavy fish caught. Under Brule regulations, anglers must release any steelhead less than 26 inches long and may keep only one over 26 inches. Biologists say that allows adult steelhead to spawn at least once.

Bruce Sederberg of Duluth, another Brule river steelhead angler, said the lower fall return doesn’t worry him a great deal.

“If you look back through past history, there have been a few other years … that dropped into the 3,000s, and it seemed to rebound,” Sederberg said.

He’s also a Lake Superior troller.

“What encourages me is how many steelhead I’m seeing on Lake Superior in the summertime,” he said. “I’ve never seen that many steelhead out there. We’re averaging more than one a trip. It used to be a rarity to get a steelhead.”

The DNR’s Stevens said the runs of brown trout, coho salmon and Chinook salmon also were down in the Brule counts last fall, although not as severely as steelhead were.

Often, years with low fall steelhead runs are followed by higher-than-usual spring runs, Stevens said.

“We will be monitoring the spring run closely and respond appropriately depending on whether we see a compensating increase in spring run steelhead,” he said.

Wisconsin’s early steelhead season on the Brule, from U.S. Highway 2 to Lake Superior, opens March 31.