Sunday, February 5th, 2023
Sunday, February 5th, 2023

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Lake Superior winter-run king salmon?

By Dave Zeug
Contributing Writer


To legions of fishermen, spring on the Brule River means one thing.




Preferably lots of big steelhead, like the one pushing 30 inches I caught one late April afternoon. This should have been the most memorable fish of the season, but the one I caught minutes after releasing that big hen steelhead edged her into second place.


After the release, I moved a few yards downstream and another big fish hit my Woolly Bugger offering. The Woolly Bugger is one of the most commonly used wet flies on the Brule River for a good reason.


It works.


I was convinced the bright fish was another spring-run steelhead until I slid her onto a sand bar and saw the elongated anal fin. A quick glance in the fish’s black mouth confirmed the catch.


I’d landed a chinook salmon.


But in April, not September when a limited number of about 300 kings enter the river on their spawning run.


Now the question was what was this chinook doing in the Brule at this time of year?


“The fish you caught likely has the winter (aka spring) -run ancestry of a Pacific Northwest chinook. Chinooks persist there in two discrete seasons, the winter-run and summer-run fish, which may be manifestations of distinct genetic codes. I find it interesting that the trait still shows up even after generations of stocking,” said Paul Piszczek, Wisconsin DNR fish biologist.


“I expect a few chinooks are in the river at this time every year, although in such low densities they’re only occasionally encountered and even then, not seen every spring. They’re so rare, there is no estimate of how many winter-run kings there are.”


Whether you call them a winter-run fish, or spring-run fish if they’re in the rivers in April, none of the salmon species found in the Great Lakes are native to Wisconsin. Although they were intermittently stocked here since 1877, they didn’t become firmly established until the massive stockings of the late 1960s to help control the invasive alewives in Lake Michigan.


This was the only second April chinook I’ve seen in decades of fishing the Brule. A few years ago a young friend I was tutoring landed one while we fished for steelhead. Since the April smelt run was going on, I assumed the fish was drawn further upstream after chasing smelt at the river’s mouth. Apparently that wasn’t the case.


Ken Lundberg, a master Brule River fisherman has also seen one of those fish.


“I saw a fisherman in the Bachelors area carrying a king this spring. I’ve caught a few kings in the spring over the years and wondered what was going on, also. It’s interesting that this (genetic) trait seems to last,” said Lundberg. 


Winter-run chinooks aren’t just rare in Wisconsin. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, winter-run chinooks pass under the Golden Gate Bridge on their spawning run up the Sacramento River in November, and then spawn in the upper spring-fed reaches of the river’s tributaries from mid-April into the summer months. According to the CDFW, threats to this migratory passage caused by loss of in-stream habitat, human harvest rates, degraded water quality and climate change have resulted in the agency moving the winter-run salmon from the states threatened species list to its endangered species list.


Other than when they’re spawning, there are no physical characteristics to differentiate the winter-run kings from the more traditional summer-run fish. Lake Superior will likely always have a few of both, but not near the numbers seen on Lake Michigan where they’re heavily managed through stocking. Steelhead will always be the king of the Brule River, but it’s nice to know there’s a chance to hook another kind of king once in a while, too.

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