The spring run of steelhead on Wisconsin’s Brule River totaled 1,739 fish, which is the most in the past several years, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. However, the 2011 fall run, as previously reported, was just 2,933 steelhead, down substantially from previous years’ runs of 6,300 to 9,200 fish and the smallest fall run since 1996.
Steelhead spawn in the spring, but some fish enter the Brule in the fall and winter over before spawning in the spring. Some enter in the spring and move upriver to spawn. The bulk of the run typically occurs in the fall.
The total steelhead run for 2011-2012 was 4,672. about half that of recent years.
Peter Stevens, Lake Superior fisheries manager for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources at Bayfield, said steelhead runs on the Brule River have been at or near historic highs since records have been kept.
“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.”
Stevens said fisheries biologists are concerned about the decreased size of the 2011-2012 run.
“We don’t see doing nothing as an option,” Stevens said. “I don’t think waiting and seeing would be a viable option.”
The only management options available would be changing the regulations or resuming a stocking program, Stevens said.
“It would be difficult to make a regulation more restrictive than the (current) one-over-26-inches,” he said. “That’s nigh onto impossible.”
But stocking, especially by taking eggs from Brule River steelhead, is labor intensive and expensive at a time when DNR budgets are shrinking.
The agency hopes to come up with a proposal within a month and begin meeting with angling groups to discuss it, Stevens said.
Meanwhile, biologists will be monitoring this fall’s steelhead run in hopes that the 2011-2012 run was something of an anomaly, Stevens said.
DNR fisheries biologists Dennis Pratt and Bill Blust in Superior experimented with stocking various sizes of steelhead in the ensuing years to see if those fish would lead to increased reproduction in the stream. While those returning stocked fish did increase runs as adults when they were in the population, the stocking has not led to stronger reproduction, Stevens said.
Biologists are concerned about so-called “spring scouring flows” in the Brule, in which heavy run-off 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.”
Steelhead fishing on the Brule had 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.
In this spring’s steelhead run, nearly two-thirds of all the fish were 4-, 5- or 6-year-olds, DNR officials said. Three-year-old fish outnumbered 7-year-old fish, indicating an overall younger population, Pisczcek said in a news release. Nearly three-fourths of the fish in the run measured from 18 1/2 to 25 1/2 inches long.
Having those young fish in the population is good, Stevens said.
“I don’t think it can ever be a bad thing when you hae a strong class of fish about to recruit (grow into) the fishery,” he said.
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.