A lot of Brule River steelheaders rose before dawn Saturday wondering if they'd find trees encased in ice and skating rinks for streets. But the freezing rain held off just enough to allow hundreds of anglers to make their annual migration to the Brule's early steelhead opener on Saturday.
They found the forest intact, winter's snow but a memory and the river in good shape. And some of them found steelhead, too.
Pickups choked angler parking lots along the river, which opened to trout and salmon fishing from U.S. Highway 2 north to Lake Superior on Saturday. Jarrod Novotny of Duluth, Minn., had made the pilgrimage. He hadn't caught a fish by midmorning, but he was happy and hip-deep in the Brule below Wisconsin County Highway FF. The river was a little high and was carrying some color, and Novotny liked it.
"Beautiful. Perfect. Conditions are optimum," Novotny said during a break from his fly fishing. "I think it's right on the money, and fish are starting to come."
One of his partners, Mike Whitman, had taken a small brown trout. Another partner, Joel Lobbestael, had caught a small steelhead and a small brown. Zach Sundberg had taken steelhead of 20 and 24 inches.
On the Brule, a steelhead - or migratory Lake Superior rainbow trout - must be 26 inches to keep, and an angler may keep only one of them. But most anglers who caught legal steelhead Saturday put them back anyway.
Brad Biser, a conservation warden with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources at Brule, was checking anglers up and down the river Saturday.
"There's a lot of people," Biser said. "With the weather conditions, I'm not surprised. The water is fishable. The ice is out at the mouth, so the fish should be coming up."
More than 7,000 steelhead came up the Brule last fall and wintered over, according to the DNR. They're recorded on videotape when they pass the Brule River Lamprey Barrier. Dave Mueller of Chippewa Falls, Wis., had intercepted a few of those migrants early Saturday morning.
"I got more fish this morning in an hour than I got all last year," Mueller said. "I caught three steelhead over 20 inches and three about this size."
He held his hands about a foot apart. Mueller had been drifting a spawn bag under a bobber in a stretch of slow water below Highway FF.
Whitman, fishing below Highway FF, was making his first trip to the Brule as a fly angler.
"I've always been a spincast fisherman," he said, "Then I took a fly-tying class at the Great Lakes Fly Co. this winter, just for something to do, and (owner) John (Fehnel) got me excited about this."
At midday, Bill Ronchi of Lake Nebagamon, Wis., was headed for his pickup with a leaky wader. Fishing had been good enough that it was hard for him to leave. He had hooked four steelhead and landed two. His son Grant, 22, had hooked three steelhead and landed two. One of them was over 25 inches.
Action was somewhat slower at Pine Tree Landing, off the Dead End road.
John Maher had hooked four fish, but hadn't landed one.
"I haven't seen many fish at all," he said.
Jason Graber had scouted that stretch of river on Friday, the day before the opener, and had gone home optimistic.
"There were fish laying in here all over," he said. "One spot, you could see eight fish."
Graber had hooked one small brown trout and one small steelhead, he said. He was using yarn flies.
Below Mays Ledges, Bill Fleischman was back for another Brule opener, too. He hadn't touched a fish by late morning, but he was glad to be thigh-deep in the river.
"It's the first day. You gotta be here," Fleischman said.
He had taken the water temperature and found it was 39 degrees. Many openers find water temperatures of 33 or 34 degrees. The warmer water may have induced more wintering steelhead to move on upstream to spawning beds above Highway 2. Fresh fish, still shiny from two years or more in Lake Superior, should soon be moving upstream.
Chris Johnson and Gary Madison had each found one of those bright fish at about 11 a.m., fishing a couple of bends below Mays Ledges. One was a big male, and the other a big female, Johnson said. He estimated each at 26 to 27 inches. Both, caught on spawn bags, had been released.
This wasn't a banner, everybody's-getting-fish opener, but it was decent, said Bruce Sederberg, a Brule regular.
"It's kind of been steady all morning," Sederberg said. "It's not a gangbusters opener like some years, but some fish are moving through."
Using spawn bags, Sederberg detoured two legal steelhead for a time, then released them to get on with their procreation.
Everything else about the Brule was just about ideal. Under the overcast skies, the cedars dripped melting ice on the mosses below. Little feeder streams ran cold and clear down creases in the land. Pileated woodpeckers yammered, and red-breasted nuthatches sounded their nasal "yank, yank, yank."
The morning air was thick and cool. Ranks of fishermen, dressed in drab browns and greens, looked like something from the 1940s as they made their drifts beneath ancient pines. Conversations were conducted in muted tones.
For some, there is simply no place like the Brule.
"I've fished Montana and Wyoming and Pennsylvania and a lot of places in between," said Novotny. "This is definitely blue-ribbon."