Fishing Wisconsin’s Brule River – The River of Presidents

This autumn Fishtec’s Ceri Thomas had the opportunity to fish the Bois Brule river in America’s upper Midwest. Read on to find out how he fared on the river of presidents, deep in the northwoods.

The Brule River Wisconsin

The Brule River Wisconsin.

Northern Wisconsin’s Brule river is a unique waterway that flows north into the vastness of Lake Superior. Passing through pristine ‘northwoods’ boreal forest, consisting of poplar, alder, cedar, birch and conifers, the Brule is quite special as it is spring fed in it’s upper reaches, therefore having a constant cool temperature and good flow. This makes it extremely hospitable to salmonid fish species; In fact brook trout (the native fish) brown, rainbow, steelhead, coho and chinook salmon all thrive and breed here.

A river of two halves

The Brule river can be divided in two distinct fisheries – the upper part of the river meanders slowly through pine forest and swamp, where it sometimes expands into shallow lakes where eagles soar overhead, deer swim and wild turkey roam the bankside undergrowth. Log jams, fallen trees, and undercut swampy banks all provide abundant habit for three species of trout – brown, brook and rainbow. Large migratory browns from Lake Superior also like to hole up in this part of the river. The upper river and lakes can be accessed from several road bridges and waded in a few areas, but is perhaps best fished from a canoe.

The upper Brule river.

The upper Brule river.

Half way along it’s forty nine mile course the Brule abruptly changes character and becomes a brawling, fast flowing river with a strong deep flow, much more like a freestoner. Here the quarry switches to lake run steelhead and salmon, suitable for wade fishing only with fly and spinning techniques.

The river of presidents

The Brule is sometimes referred to as the ”river of presidents.” It was on the banks of the upper river that several United States presidents essentially relocated the White house and spent their summers fly fishing. The Brule’s fishing presidents were Grant, Cleveland, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Harry Trueman and Dwight Eisenhower. They stayed in secluded log cabins in the midst of the woods at the private estates built by lumber barons, including the grand Cedar Island Estate. Here they fished by canoe in the main river and also in large spring ponds, safe from prying eyes. Back in those days, the fishing for brook trout was simply incredible – the now extinct ‘coaster strain’ were lake run brookies that averaged 3lb and ran to 14lb.

US President Calvin Coolidge fishing the Brule.

US President Calvin Coolidge fishing the Brule.

Fishing the Brule

During my five days on the Brule, I did plenty of wade fishing – including two tough morning sessions for steelhead in the lower reaches, where I landed small browns and rainbows in abundance, but not my intended targets.

Steelhead fishing the lower Brule river

Steelhead fishing the lower Brule river.

On the upper river I spent some time fishing the famous ‘big lake’, the largest lake in the Brule system, and also at spots above the Winnebojou bridge and Highway 2. I caught a lot of fish each time – numerous eager native brookies, small rainbows (most are juvenile steelhead) and a good number of browns to 12 inches all came to hand, using a selection of dries and streamers.

A Brule river brook trout

A Brule river brook trout.

Early morning on Big Lake, Brule River.

Early morning on Big Lake, Brule River.

What I noticed was Brule fish especially loved big dry flies, and were eager to strike at them. A large klinkhammer special proved a winner, especially when cast tight to cover.

Brule river trout love dry flies

Brule river trout love dry flies.

I also encountered coho salmon on big lake, and landed a fresh, silver brace using a black woolly bugger. These diminutive salmon fought like demons for their size. Some big Chinooks in excess of 20lb were also spotted, many in full spawning mode.

A brace of Brule river Coho salmon

A brace of Brule river Coho salmon.

I spent one afternoon in a canoe on big lake, where gusty winds and bright sun made it hard to fish – despite this plenty of brook trout, small browns and rainbows took klinkhammer specials and streamers with gusto, fished close to cover.

A beer stop on big lake

A beer stop on big lake.

You could say there are game fish for every discipline here – the species selection of naturally reproducing salmonids on the Brule is simply incredible; it was hard to say what you might hook into next. At times I caught brook, brown and rainbow all in consecutive casts – you cannot do that in many rivers in the world!

Brule river grand slam - brown, brook and rainbow.

Brule river grand slam – brown, brook and rainbow.

Night fishing

Brule river guides and local anglers have a tradition of night fishing for brown trout on the calmer waters of the upper river – resident and lake run browns behave much like our sea trout do in the UK.

In summer and autumn the bigger browns on the Brule become almost exclusively night feeders, preferring to slurp down hapless rodents swimming past in the dark. See the image below for proof of this!

Evidence Trout eat mice - a Brule night feeder

Evidence Trout eat mice – a Brule night feeder.

Large surface lure patterns fished on 7 weighs are the order of the day. Fishing out of a canoe is the best way to do this, but you can also wade in some areas such as the south west shore of big lake.

My experience of night fishing this trip was on the Brule’s famous night fishing spot, ‘big lake’ with my uncle, local fishing guide Tom Heffernan. The early evening was spent casting dries and soft hackle wets tight to overhanging cedar trees, log jams and weed edges. I landed around a dozen small but beautiful brook trout and a 12 inch brown using my 9′ #5 Sage fly rod to start things off.

A brook trout that fell for a soft hackle on Big lake.

A brook trout that fell for a soft hackle on Big lake.

Before we began night fishing proper, we joined some of the local guides for a traditional northwoods dinner in a shelter on the lake shore – a delicious feast of bacon, fried potatoes and chicken were cooked up in the cold evening air, all washed down with beer and vodka.

A tradition Brule river guides supper

A traditional Brule river guides supper.

The 7 weight rods were then rigged up with various floating abominations, including the Hanks creation – a local night fishing special tied by Steve Therrien. (For more info, check out this blog post by Steve).

The hanks creation surface lure

The hanks creation surface lure.

I choose to rig up with a Jambo, a wake fly that works great on Welsh Sea trout. The Jambo’s small flying trebles ensure a better ratio of hookups, something surface lures are notoriously bad at – big single hooks can let you down. Combine with low stretch Airflo fly lines and you have a combination that will result in far more conversions… that was the theory anyway.

After our campfire feast the night was fully dark and we headed out into the lake. It turned out Tom knew every stone, log and channel by heart – it was remarkable; not a wrong turn or harsh bump on a rock was to be felt, a mean feat in what was a pitch black night.

Following Toms directions I worked the Jambo in several prime spots – resulting in 5 fierce takes, with 4 fish landed, 2 of 14 inches, one of 15 and a plump 17 incher that felt as if it had a few mice in its fat belly. After an hour of good fishing we found the other end of the lake crowded, and with a cold mist descending we left the lake – but not before hearing a lure angler on the shore tussling with what sounded like a true behemoth of a fish in the darkness.

Night feeding Brule river browns.

Night feeding Brule river browns.

The Brule didn’t give up it’s biggest fish for me this trip, but what they lacked in size they certainly made up for in numbers. The fishing here is really all about the experience – on the Brule there is a calming remoteness and feeling of pure escapism from civilization.

The Brule river – the ultimate northwoods experience.

The Brule river – the ultimate northwoods experience.

Afloat or wading you can easily imagine yourself back in time at the days of the first pioneers, with nothing but the sound of eagles, woodpeckers, flowing water and wind in the pines to keep you company. It’s little wonder presidents wanted to fish here, to get away from it all. For a true northwoods wilderness experience, this is one for your bucket list.

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Ceri Thomas

About Ceri Thomas

Ceri Thomas is the online marketing manager at Airflo and Fishtec. An accomplished fly-fisher and predator angler with over two decades of experience, he can be found casting lines across Wales and beyond. Ceri also lends his expertise to several publications including Fly Fishing & Fly Tying magazine, Fulling Mill blog, Today’s Flyfisher, Eat Sleep Fish and more. A member of Merthyr Tydfil Angling Association, he is active in the public discourse surrounding environmental conservation. You can keep up with his fishing adventures on his twitter account.