Finally, there’s a moral, even public health reason for steelheaders to remain at least six feet apart on the Wisconsin Bois Brule River trout fishing opener on Saturday morning.

So even if the next guy down river is landing fish after fish out of a hot hole, keep your social distance.

The Northland’s first opening day of open water fishing will come a half-hour before sunrise Saturday, March 28 when trout and salmon become legal game downstream of U.S. Highway 2.

It’s a ceremonial rite of spring for hundreds of wader-clad anglers, to be sure. But, for even more of us, the Brule opener is also an annual, comforting sign that winter has finally loosened its grip.

Conditions for anglers should be good. Most of the river opened up — lost its ice — in early March, earlier than usual, after a milder-than-usual winter. Much of the deepest snow and ice shelves have melted away from along the river’s banks, although the river valley shades many areas and anglers will run into lingering snow in places.

“If you stick to the main trails from the parking lots you’ll probably be OK. But if you take off across through the woods, you might be post-holing through a couple feet of snow in some places yet,’’ said Paul Piszczek, senior Lake Superior area fisheries biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Because of the early ice-out, some anglers fear a “spawned and gone’’ situation where the migratory steelhead rainbow trout finished their swim upriver, finished their spawning ritual and returned to the lake before the fishing season opened.

But others say that, no matter how early the spring is, some steelhead will stay in the river longer, with ample fish still available to catch. While many steelhead that spent the winter in the river may spawn early and leave soon, spring-run, chrome-colored fish that move upriver this time of year have had to wait for the Lake Superior ice at the mouth of the river to clear before they could move upstream.

“Those spring fish for sure, they’ll still be in the river for several weeks. We have fish in the river into May most years,’’ Piszczek said.

The exception is brown trout, which spawned last fall and spent the winter in the river. They often follow the ice-out downstream and are likely now in Lake Superior.

River flow has been moderate so far, Piszczek noted, thanks to a very gradual snowmelt. That could change with a period of very warm temperatures or with a heavy rain. “But so far we’ve avoided those high, flashy flows’’ which can make the river difficult or even impossible to fish.

Steelhead numbers holding stable

The population of steelhead that spawn in the Bois Brule River appears to be very stable, Piszczek said, with between 5,000 and 6,000 making the trip upstream annually in recent years, combined fall and spring runs. That’s considerably higher than the 2011 to 2015 period when annual runs were below 3,000 in some cases. The current period of stability is still below the 2002-2010 period which saw runs above 8,000 and even 9,000 fish per year.

The fall 2019 spawning run, with numbers just released Thursday, hit 6,497 steelhead, up 16% from 5,616 in the fall of 2018 and the highest fall run since 2009.

“We’re also seeing consistent lengths and weight for the (recent year classes) which is nice to see,’’ he said, noting Lake Superior appears to be providing enough food for the trout to eat during the lake portion of their lives.

Piszczek said one issue remains, however, when Lake Superior trollers keep and kill smaller, protected-length steelhead, apparently confusing them for coho salmon. The minimum length for steelhead to be kept is 26 inches, but coho can be kept as short as 12 inches.

“The creel surveys show we need to do better work educating anglers on the difference between a small steelhead and a small coho,’’ Piszczek noted.

Rules of the Brule, downstream from U.S. Hwy. 2 to Lake Superior

The season begins on the last Saturday in March and continues through November 15. Fishing is prohibited from one-half hour after sunset to one-half hour before sunrise during this time. The daily bag limit is five (5) trout or salmon in total.

  • Rainbow - minimum size 26" (only one may be kept)

  • Brown - minimum size 10" (only two may be larger than 15")

  • Brook - minimum size 8"

  • Salmon - minimum size 12"

An inland trout stamp is required to fish for trout and salmon on the river and its tributaries. Brule River State Forest angler parking lots are for day use only; overnight camping is limited to designated campgrounds.

Minnesota North Shore steelhead

Minnesota steelhead trout season is open year-round but generally doesn't get going until North Shore streams lose their ice and the trout start moving upriver to spawn, and that’s already starting to happen this year.

Minnesota's streams are catch-and-release only for wild rainbows with an unclipped adipose fin, mostly steelhead rainbows. The limit for hatchery-raised clipped-fin fish, steelhead or any remaining Kamloops rainbow trout, is three daily, minimum size of 16 inches.