Life's better on the Brule
FOUR FRIENDS AND SEASONED TROUT ANGLERS REFLECT WITH REVERENCE ON OUTINGS TO THE RIVER
© MARK PEERENBOOM
There is what I would call a "majesty" about the Bois Brule River in Douglas County as it flows through its many permutations on the way to Lake Superior. The river takes on a sacred quality for me as a result of the intense, quiet beauty of the place combined with my own memories.
More than 10 years ago, my son Brad convened a group of "Gentlemen Fishers" consisting of Dave, Mark, Brad and myself for a fishing trip to the Brule. Nearly a decade later, we repeated the outing. Among my memory highlights are these:
On our foursome trips, Mark is the one with boundless energy. He is always ready with fly choices, shore lunches, local lore and contagious enthusiasm. On our first trip, Mark prepared a memorable gourmet meal at one of the shelters between Stone's Bridge and Winneboujou. Years later, at that same shelter, Mark's environmental awareness served us extremely well.
After we had eaten lunch, Mark looked at the sky and said, "I think we ought to wait a bit before getting back on the river." Sure enough, within five minutes the sky opened with thunder and lightning — not a good time to be on the river in a canoe.
Dave has been a rock of a friend to me for more than 20 years. He is a "detail person" with a great sense of inquisitiveness and, I would say, "spirituality" in the broadest sense. At the Brule River, we shared a moment that transcended time.
Floating the upper portion of the Brule on a cloudless, windless day, we came upon a place where the river broadens and the eastern shore is lined with deep green cedars and pines. In the stillness, the reflections of the trees in the mirror-like river were indistinguishable from the actual trees.
It was a place and moment sometimes referred to as a "thin place," where earth and heavens seem to meet. We both had the good sense to stop paddling, lay down our fly rods and just "be."
Brad is the consummate minimalist fly-fisher. He becomes one with the river and casts with great skill and obvious joy. He is also an intrepid wader. I've never seen him fall in the river like me!
I have, however, seen him catch significant fish. One such fish was brought to net on our first Gentlemen's Fishing Expedition, when Brad was healing from his wife's bout with cancer. The memory of this trophy trout will always remind me how proud I am to be his father.
Oh, the adventures and misadventures we've had together. As Brad is fond of saying, "Life is for living!"
As for myself, I am the oldest of our foursome and, merely by virtue of age, the "dean." My casting is adequate and my knowledge of flies sparse. I use what I would call an "intuitive" approach: I look at the river and say to myself, "This fly feels right," and proceed. Sometimes I'm correct, often I'm wrong. Dave and Mark serve me well with alternative fly suggestions when mine fail.
Give me a fly rod and a setting most anywhere on the Brule and I'm just a "happy old guy!" Whether with others or simply by myself, the Brule is my premier place of solace, healing and sacredness.
© ED CULHANE
Mid-morning in mid-June. We perch the bow of the canoe on the rock dam and watch for rising trout. I sink my canoe blade into the river bottom to hold the canoe's back end from drifting downriver as I watch my canoe partner in the front with fly rod in hand.
The overcast midday sky keeps the trout from spooking. The fly line cast overhead doesn't flash or create shadows in the sunless sky. The trout hold their positions, which provides opportunities for multiple casts. My canoe partner's casts are accurate and his drifting fly is intercepted frequently by willing brook trout. I am pleased to sit back and observe the action.
During an earlier time in my life, sitting back and watching would not have been possible. I would be rigging and positioning the canoe, thinking about my next cast. Now it is a pleasure just to be a spectator and learn from someone else.
After a while, the river's personality changes and opens into what appears to be a long, never-ending spring pond. The fishing action is found tight up against the bank where fallen trees and bank-side shadows create holding cover.
I find myself taken by the tiered landscape of the river valley. The high valley walls hold beautiful white pine, hemlock and spruce. Near the top of the valley, aspen leaves flutter against the horizon. The trees create a wall of green shapes. A white-throated sparrow whistle reminds me we are in its inner sanctum.
I stow my rod and put down my paddle, stretching my back as best as I can in the canoe. The valley and the river's flat water urge us to be content. We obey for a short time until our journey's end calls us to paddle on.
© MARK PEERENBOOM
Now the river drops into rapids and demands our full attention. We stay alert as we paddle. We glide through "the estates," past log cabins with screen porches furnished with Adirondack chairs all shouting old money from a gilded time. In the past I would paddle by with envy; today there is none.
Beyond that, even more attention is required to maneuver the canoe past the rocks inhabiting this fast water. The rapids end in deep runs, which we fish. We all catch fish but one of us keeps taking more with a Royal Coachman swung down and across. He out-fishes all of us with this particular fly and technique.
His success highlights my own compulsion to overcomplicate with tippet sizes, techniques and too many fly patterns. I know my inability to simplify has been a burden not only in my fishing life, but in other parts of my life as well. I remain unteachable.
We shoot the last rapids and are at the head of Big Lake. The rest of the journey holds only pleasure. My partnership in the canoe is such that we can count on each other to make the last rocky runs before our take-out at Winneboujou. We are at the landing.
Reflecting now, months later, I treasure not my fishing but the images I collected, the wisdom gained and the lessons learned from the events on the river.
There is a lot of good fly fishing to be had in Wisconsin. Thousands of miles of designated trout streams spread out over much of the state. Spring creeks, small, medium and large streams and Great Lakes tributaries — what more could a fly fisher want?
There is one stream that is really special, the Bois Brule River in northwest Wisconsin. For those of us living in southeast Wisconsin, the Brule is a long way away, but the trip is always worth it for the experience and the memories. Ah, the memories ...
The Northwoods: The Brule is truly "up North" where you're surrounded by forests, tall pines and birch trees, campfires and cafes where people seem to sit a while longer telling stories. There's always enough time for another cup of coffee or a piece of pie.
Big water: Wisconsin has a lot of small and medium-sized streams. The Brule is bigger, more rugged. You can often stand in the middle of the stream and cast in both directions. That's fun, and it's a stream you can canoe and fish. It's a whole different experience because you're in the wilderness, at times miles away from a highway or people.
Clear and cold: You know you're in a good trout stream when the water is crystal-clear and cold. The Brule is a good trout stream. I love looking down into the water, seeing the water flowing downstream over gravel and stones, the vegetation waving in the current. The deeper, quieter water demands respect.
Away from it all: I love the quiet and solitude of fly fishing and the Brule provides both. Whether its wading in wide, sweeping shallows or canoeing deeper water, there are long stretches where you'll find nothing except the natural world all around.
The smells: I mostly fish the streams in southwest Wisconsin where the smells mingle with the scents of agriculture, traffic and higher population densities. There is something different about the smells of streams in northern Wisconsin; they are of "wilderness." Just being there provides the senses with something special. Different forest species factor in, but there is something more — the wildflowers, the ferns, the moss and bogs, the slow decay of organic matter as plants and trees live, die and come alive again.
© MARK PEERENBOOM
The sounds: If quiet and solitude are to be cherished, the sounds of ripples and rapids are to be experienced. Wading or canoeing, the Brule River rapids and ripples are alive with sound. From a canoe, hearing the sound of rapids increases the heart rate just a bit — sometimes a lot! It's time for more communication and teamwork with your canoeing partner to plan the path forward. And when the canoe is safely through the rapids, it's time to stop and fish. The quieter water downstream is often where trout congregate to feed and "catch their breath" with freshly oxygenated water.
Camaraderie: Though I love the quiet and solitude, the Brule also is a place to share with friends. I know my friends appreciate the Brule in their own way. Whether it's pointing out things along the way or discussing flies to be tried or telling stories of trout caught and trout missed, the Brule River experience is something to share.
Oh, and the fishing: The Brule features a "hat trick" of brookies, browns and rainbows, small and big. When I reflect on the Bois Brule River, the fishing is amazing — as is the entire experience.
The trip always starts way before the trip. In this case it started in February 2017 when visions of summer and the Bois Brule River entered my thoughts. I acted on those thoughts by floating an idea to a group of my best fishing buddies and dear friends: It was time to return to the Brule.
We had been there together almost 10 years before. I knew it was 10 years because that was the year my wife was diagnosed with cancer. I had been by her side through aggressive chemo treatments all through that spring — we were and are beating this thing.
I also remember because I caught and kept one of the biggest brown trout of my life on that first trip. I rarely keep my fish but in that case, I needed something tangible.
That fish, a big healthy brown, attacked a soft hackle skated from the edge of a pool. I danced carefully with the trout as our canoe floated toward the rapids. Howard — Dad, to me — eventually helped me net the fish seconds before we might have gone over. I sensed his gentle encouragement and, I think, his pride as the process unfolded.
© MARK PEERENBOOM
The Brule has lots of history. You can feel it walking along the banks, floating the river in a canoe or even talking to a local resident at a gas station. For decades, men and women have traveled to the Brule and created memories not unlike my own. Collectively, these memories make up the soul of the Brule — you can feel it.
These were my thoughts on that cold February day. The next four months were filled with the kind of correspondence fly fishers love to have when they are unable to go fishing but are planning a trip: Where shall we stay? What meals are you bringing? What do you think the hatch will be in June? Which canoes should we bring? Do you remember that time at Big Lake?
Finally, the trip arrives. The Brule in June is magical and the latest trip reaffirms this.
After the long drive north, I want to take time to reunite with my fishing buddies but the tug of the river is greater. We quickly organize to go fishing. Dad leads us off-trail to a "secret spot." We split up water with nods and gestures and go off on our own adventures.
I know I should pause and take time to watch the water for bugs but I feel impatient, wanting to be part of the river. I step into the water, feeling cool pressure on my waders as I clop through the muck toward the center of the stream. I find my footing, strip some line and become lost in the rhythms of fly fishing.
The next day we're floating — Stone's Bridge to Winneboujou. It is visceral, gorgeous and varied, and takes all day to do if you fish along the way. Even though we've done this same trip before, it's never really the same. You can't step in or float the same river twice.
We spend the morning paddling and fishing. We talk in spurts in between steering and casting. My boatmate Dave, modest as always, gets into fish and I delight in his happiness. At midday, it looks like rain and we opt to pull out at one of the lake shelters for lunch. I catch a shallow nap listening to the rain and feel at peace.
The next few hours are less fishing and more paddling. Toward the take-out, a combination of happily straining muscles and the visual masterpiece we float through has me in a punchy, euphoric mood. Pulling hard, we make it before dark. Later, I relive the smiles on my companions' faces as I drift to sleep. This was a great day.
About the authors
Howard Bowman is retired and lives with his wife in Madison, well situated near many Driftless Area trout streams. Mark Peerenboom, a retired school counselor in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, has been a trout fisherman for 46 years and is a member of the Kiap-TU-Wish Chapter of Trout Unlimited. Dave Williams recently retired from UW-Extension's Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Programs. He lives in Waukesha and is a member of Southeast Wisconsin TU. And Brad Bowman is a self-described "father, husband, school counselor and trout bum" who also coordinates the Trout in the Classroom program in Chilton. For the past four years, the program has raised trout fry and, under DNR guidance, planted them into Stony Brook, the only trout stream in Calumet County.