I’m not a morning person. I struggle to wake up by 8am most days to get ready for work. Yet I had no problem launching myself from the bed at 4am to begin a five-hour drive to the cold, wet Northwoods to chase a fish that I’m not entirely convinced exists. And I would happily do it again. That is the allure of the Bois Brule River.
So here there be a warning to anglers: abandon all hope, ye who steps foot in the Brule’s waters. You can never go back to the angler ye once was.
Kyle Zempel has a sweet camp set-up: a large canvas wall tent with room for four, a wood stove in one corner and mini-keg of American pale ale in the other. With the fire roaring we were down to base layers while cold rain pelted the roof. We never seemed to run out of beer. Within a few hours of being here two things have been ruined for me: fishing for steelhead anywhere else, and every other form of camping.
We raised camp at the Copper Range Campground, which is perched just above a large bend in the river several miles north of Highway 2. On a weekend in the peak of the steelhead season I hear the place is more exclusive than a Dubai Hilton, but on a Tuesday morning near the end of October we were hardly bothered by the pop-up camper at the edge of the grounds. With the tent up and a carload of firewood stacked around the fireplace, we suited up on the waders and took a long walk along the river bank in search of a small piece of water to ourselves.
If you’ve never been to the Bois Brule, and you’ve heard of it only through stories from fellow anglers or the writings of folks like Gordon McQuarrie, then you probably have a concept of it already in your mind. Like I was, you’re probably wrong. It is not the last outpost of wilderness in northern Wisconsin, where black bears grab salmon out of the air as they leap across tumbling rapids and the nearest human settlement is Old Jim’s Cabin on the forks of the river. The town of Brule is tiny but has amenities. You’re a half-hour drive from the thriving city of Ashland. Hell, you can take a long walk from your tent to the Hungry Trout bar.
That’s not to say that the Brule isn’t worthy of it’s legend, but like any good legend it is widely known. It has a long history of human habitation, evident in the deeply-rutted footpaths that line both banks of the river. The waters are so well-studied that each hole has been given a name, and this information is freely given away at the gas station for $10 a map. Planning to fish a hole means having a Plan B when it turns out three other guys are already there. The Brule has no secrets left.
Yet when you get far enough upstream, away from the most accessible runs from the parking lot, and you make that first step off the banks, the Brule becomes one of the most perplexing pieces of water you’ll fish. The river’s mystique is still well-earned, even if it’s secrets aren’t. That much becomes very clear soon after wetting a line.
For those of you who haven’t been there, and haven’t gleaned a damn thing from my purple prose, let me set the scene.
First, it sounds like Bwah Brool, and not Boy Brool or Boys Broolay as any reasonable English speaker would sound out. Like the other half of Wisconsin place names that are not aboriginal, this one is a French derivation of an Ojibwe phrase to describe the river’s surroundings: “place of the half-burned forest.” At some point a forest fire burned out a good section of the woods, and the name stuck. It’s possible the original pronounciation was Bwah Broolay, as in Creme Brûlée (“burned cream”), but those little squiggly lines got lost in the forest somewhere along the way. Most anglers simply call it “The Brule.”
Like the Nile, it flows north, rising in eastern Douglas county and emptying into Lake Superior about ten miles from Copper Range Campground. A narrow strip of state forest flanks the river along most of its length, and is typical Northwoods: stands of pines, bone-white paper birch, thick oaks and stately maples. By the end of the October most are bare, except for the buttery-gold tamaracks still holding to their needles. The river itself is a freestone water, meandering through some of the oldest volcanic rock on the continent.
At one time, long, long ago, the river was host to a different kind of spawning run when native Lake Superior brook trout– the “coasters”– ascended the tributaries in early fall and dropped back to the lake sometime later. Habitat degradation and overfishing led to a decline in the brook trout population by the end of the 19th century from which it never recovered. Now we fish the coaster proxies, the chinook, coho, browns, and steelhead that fill the Brule from September to November each year to carry out their three primary aims in life: fucking, fighting, and feeding.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone, then, that anglers take such a kinship to these fish.
On the first afternoon Kyle and I finally located some unclaimed water and split up, working adjacent holes and then leap-frogging one another upstream in search of chrome. My weapon of choice is a Clearwater 9’6″ 7-weight, fluoro leader, some nymphs and trout beads, and a buttload of splitshot to get that rig to kiss the river bed. Rod raised high, I can feel the stonefly nymph twitch and tumble across the gravel, diligently working it loose from snags before it turns into something worse.
I’m not the best steelheader, since I quickly grow tired of repeating the same mend and drift. I hang out at this hole a bit longer than I might on a typical trout stream, but then I feel the need to keep moving. I hop ahead of Kyle and crest a steep bend-and-cutbank, then double-back and put in just upstream of the bend, working the nymph-egg along a fallen log for a while. It doesn’t take me long to grow restless again and I continue upstream once more.
Kyle and I catch up to one another again and begin picking apart another section of stream together. Kyle disappears around a corner while I work a long glide of slow-moving water. After passing the nymph rig several times across from submerged shrubbery the indicator sinks. I raise the rod and it wiggles in response.
“I’ve got one!” I say. The silvery fish flashes into view. “It’s not big, but I’ve got it…”
By the time Kyle appears streamside I’ve just about wrangled the fish into the net. It’s a beautiful little rainbow, maybe 12 inches long. I pause long enough for Kyle to take a few photos and then release the fish back into the water.
I don’t know it yet, but it will be the most success I’ll have on this trip.
Still, that fish puts me on an angler’s high and I fish happily the rest of the afternoon. At the next bend I laze around a bit to watch Kyle. I nearly miss his hook up, but out of the corner of my eye I watch the line go tight, the rod bend, the line violently moving upstream. It’s like watching a rodeo cowboy: five seconds later and it’s over. It was a Hell of a five seconds though.
There’s a saying that war is long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Steelhead fishing is similar, if a bit safer.
That night Ben and Mike joined us, and we cracked open that keg of pale ale, scarf down large bowls of near-perfect homemade chili and sublimely simple quesadillas and talked about tomorrow’s fishing.
It began to rain. And it just. Doesn’t. Stop.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the wall tent/wood stove combo saved this trip. Hanging out in a small three-season tent in a steady rain, in the cold, in the dark, is the surest way to murder the fun in camping. Even after the canvas ceiling began to drip, and the floor reduced to mud, the wall tent was a welcome place to return to after a long day on the water. I don’t know if I ever slept better in a tent (and possibly a few hotel rooms over the years, too).
The next morning we awake to rain. We suit up, line up, tie on a fly, head back down to the river, this time moving downstream toward Pine Tree Landing. It rains the entire time, the kind of steady downpour that isn’t enough to be soaking but more than enough to be uncomfortable. Between the four of us there are lots of casts, lots of mends, lots of lost flies, every fishy hole exploited, buckets of rain- but no fish. We literally have this water to ourselves.
There is not much else to say. On our way back up the road to the campsite we passed the Hungry Trout, its gravel lot filled with angler’s cars. I guess they didn’t bring their own wall tent.
Even when fish aren’t being caught there are things to learn. Like the importance of studded boots and a wading staff in freestone waters. The fine art of loading down the leader with splitshot. How to make the perfect quesadilla.
At one point late in the trip I was working a run in a tight spot. Behind me was a stand of trees and the walking path, making a traditional backcast difficult. Just ahead of me was the drowned remains of a tree that stretched twenty feet downstream, making a roll cast difficult as well. Just a consequence of needing to somehow make a cast, I began to experiment with different angles and casting motions and finally worked out a solution: I let the fly swing downstream until it was parallel with the fallen tree, lifted the rod tip until most of the line was off the water, and then performed a water haul to flick the line upstream parallel to the bank. As it came downstream again I lifted the rod tip as high as I could, slightly back over my shoulder to get a D-loop to form, and then flicked the rod downward to launch the line across the length of the river. It was a neat trick, I thought, and got the job done.
On Thursday Eric joined us for the hunt, employing his switch rod for swinging streamers. In the few hours before I left on the drive home he landed two brown trout over twenty inches. I started to consider that maybe there was something to this switch/spey thing after all. At home, spent from two days worth of steelheading, I watched a few spey casting videos on YouTube. The basic casting motions weren’t too different (though much more refined) than what I sorted out on that last run.
Necessity is the mother of invention. That, and boredom on fish-less days.
It’s been several weeks since the trip ended and my phone still gives me updates on weather in Brule, WI. I’m not exactly sure how to reset it. Part of me doesn’t really want to.
There’s a theory in physics known as quantum entanglement that states when particles interact with one another, they become inextricably linked to one another: when one particle is affected by something, so to is the other, no matter the distance between them. “Spooky actions at a distance,” Einstein called it. This effect only operates on the the quantum level, but I would argue that on the macroscopic scale there is something to be called Brule entanglement. Place yourself in the Bois Brule’s waters, and it ensnares you in it’s wonder. Doesn’t matter where you go afterwards, it has you. It might even have your phone.
Sometimes when you’re fishing, you don’t realize that you are the one being caught. That’s Brule entanglement.