Meet The New Steelhead In The 'Hood

Wisconsin DNR biologists have been tinkering with a different strain of steelhead in Lake Michigan. The new gang swimming in the big pond has already established its turf -- and it's right in your back yard! (February 2006)

Cudahy's Ivan Stross (left) caught a 16.5-pound Arlee-strain steelhead to win first place in the rainbow trout category of the Ozaukee Great Lakes Sportfishermen Derby held at Port Washington last summer. Also pictured are (left to right) Mequon's Ken Schlosser, Brookfield's Sal Foti and West Bend's Doug Endlich.
Photo courtesy of Sam Arndt, Ozaukee Press

When Ivan Stross wrestled a big steelhead up onto the Port Washington pier on the Fourth of July last year, he knew he'd caught something special. Stross' fish -- which measured 33 inches and weighed 16.5 pounds -- earned him first place in the steelhead category in that city's holiday weekend fishing derby. It also caught the attention of anglers and Department of Natural Resources biologists.

Stross' fish was clear evidence that an experimental stocking program was paying off. Fin-clips indicated it was an Arlee-strain steelhead stocked in Lake Michigan in 2002 in either Manitowoc or the Milwaukee harbor. It is the largest reported Arlee steelhead caught to date. DNR biologists began stocking Arlee-strain steelhead -- or rainbow trout -- in 2001 to bolster flagging nearshore fishing opportunities.

"Our goal is to re-energize some of the nearshore fishing opportunities we've lost on Lake Michigan over the past 15 years or so," said DNR fisheries biologist Steve Hogler, the main investigator on the Arlee study.

In recent years, to catch any Lake Michigan trout and salmon in summer, you had to fish offshore over deep water. In the mid-1980s, shore- and pier-anglers could count on catching their share of brown trout and salmon. Back then, that group accounted for about 11 percent of the trout and salmon caught from Lake Michigan. That percentage has fallen steadily to the current 3 percent, in part because zebra mussels have made nearshore waters clearer and because food sources have moved offshore as well. On top of that, the three strains of steelhead stocked in the lake since 1984 -- Skamania, Ganaraska and Chambers Creek -- tend to stay in deep, offshore waters during most of the year.

At the same time the nearshore trout and salmon fishery began to slide, yellow perch numbers declined as well. That left boatless anglers without much to fish for. People began asking the DNR to look for other strains of rainbow trout. Biologists agreed, and the search was on.

Funded by revenue from the sales of Great Lakes salmon and trout stamps, the original study called for stocking six ports with two strains of rainbows. This would allow biologists to determine the effectiveness of rainbow stocking and compare the two strains to determine which one performed better.

Illinois has successfully stocked Arlee-strain rainbows in Lake Michigan for many years. Anglers and biologists alike report that these fish tend to stay near shore and do not migrate far from where they were stocked. Arlee eggs were available from Ennis National Fish Hatchery in Montana, so this strain was selected to begin the experiment. Kamloops-strain steelhead from a Minnesota hatchery were added to the mix in 2003.

"Our goal was to stock 10,000 rainbows of each strain at each of six ports for three years," said Hogler. "We selected Kenosha, Milwaukee, Sheboygan, Manitowoc, Algoma and Sister Bay. We avoided Racine and Kewaunee because the Root and Kewaunee rivers serve as broodstock streams for our Skamania, Ganaraska and Chambers Creek steelhead."

The six ports each received 12,000 Arlee steelhead in April and May of 2001. Because of hatchery shortfalls in 2002, 7,500 Arlees were stocked only in Milwaukee and Manitowoc harbors that year. In 2003, each of the six ports received 10,100 Arlees. Hatchery shortfalls reduced the number of fish available again in 2004, when 5,000 Arlees were stocked in each of the six ports. Kamloops trout were first stocked in 2003, when 10,300 fingerlings were planted in each of the six ports studied. In 2004, the same ports each received 10,000 Kamloops. Last year, 10,590 Arlees and 8,500 Kamloops were stocked in each of the six ports. The Arlee fish averaged between 6.9 inches and 7.9 inches in length at the time of stocking, while the Kamloops fish averaged 5.8 inches in length.

Both strains will be stocked again this spring, but Kamloops stocking may be halted in 2007 until all the data is analyzed. Arlees will likely continue to be planted during the evaluation phase of the project.

It didn't take long for the new steelhead to show up in anglers' catches. Creel census results indicated anglers harvested an estimated 1,324 Arlees in 2001. Of those, 1,262 -- or 95 percent -- were caught by shore- and pier-anglers. The rest were caught by boat-anglers. By July, those fish measured 10 to 14 inches, and by September, some had reached 18 inches.

In 2002, anglers caught an estimated 1,605 Arlees, most of which (1,116) were stocked that year. When caught, the 2002 fish averaged 18.7 inches in length and weighed 2.4 pounds. The 2001 Arlees averaged 21 inches and 4.8 pounds. That year, boat-anglers caught 1,259 (78 percent) Arlees, while pier- and shore-anglers caught 285 (18 percent) and stream-anglers, 61 (or 4 percent).

In 2003, anglers harvested an estimated 859 (76 percent) Arlees and 267 (24 percent) Kamloops. Arlees stocked in 2003 made up 58 percent of the catch, with the remainder evenly split between fish stocked in 2001 and 2002. That year, as in 2001, 95 percent of the Arlee harvest was taken by pier- and shore-anglers, and 5 percent by boat-anglers. Arlees from the 2001 year-class averaged 25.9 inches in length and 6.8 pounds in weight. Fish stocked in 2002 averaged 24 inches in length and 5.3 pounds in weight, while those stocked in 2003 averaged 16.3 inches and 2.4 pounds when caught. All Kamloops reported caught in 2003 were taken by pier- or shore-anglers. Those fish measured an average of 14.1 inches and weighed 1.5 pounds.

In 2004, anglers caught an estimated 953 (59 percent) Arlees and 659 (41 percent) Kamloops. Arlees stocked in 2004 made up 46 percent of the total Arlee harvest, while fish stocked in 2002 made up 15 percent. Those stocked in 2003 were at 31 percent and those stocked in 2004 at 8 percent. Fish stocked in 2001 averaged 27 inches and 9.8 pounds. Fish stocked in 2002 were 25.8 inches and 5.8 pounds. Fish planted in 2003 were 20.5 inches and 3.4 pounds, while 2004 fish were 12.7 inches and 1.1 pounds. Of the Kamloops caught in 2004, 78 percent were stocked in 2003 and 22 percent in 2004. Pier- and shore-anglers caught 78 percent of the fish reported, while the remainder was divided equally between boat- and stream-anglers. Kamloops stocked in 2003 and harvested in 2004 measured 16.7 inches an

d weighed 1.9 pounds on average. Creel census clerks measured and weighed only one 2004 year-class Kamloops, which measured 21.8 inches and weighed 3.5 pounds.

"Results from the first four years are encouraging," said Hogler. "Since the beginning of the project, 66 percent of the nearshore rainbow harvest has been by anglers fishing from piers or shore."

In years when both strains were stocked, anglers have caught them in similar numbers. Arlees are larger both when stocked and harvested, but historically, Kamloops are longer-lived, so it is not yet clear which strain will provide the greatest return to anglers.

Your best chance of catching either strain of nearshore steelhead is to fish from piers or from shore. The best times of year are from ice-out through May, and again in September and October. Every port where these fish are stocked has at least one public fishing pier. As Ivan Stross and others have proved, these fish may also show up miles from where they were originally stocked. Invariably, however, they will be close to shore.

Time-tested methods for catching steelies from piers or shore include casting big spoons or soaking an alewife under a bobber. You'll generally have the most action early and late in the day. Like other rainbows, many Arlees will run up tributary streams in spring to spawn, so stream-anglers will also have a shot at them.

Arlees tend to be shorter and fatter than the three steelhead strains anglers are used to catching, while Kamloops are more streamlined fish. If you're old enough to recall the Shasta strain of rainbows that Wisconsin stocked prior to 1984, you'll find Arlees similar to them in appearance. "They're shaped like footballs," said Hogler. "Short and chunky."

The fish that Ivan Stross caught was larger than the average 3-year-old Arlee, but there is considerable variation in the size of these fish, as creel records show. The Arlee you catch may not win any fishing contest, but it will certainly put up a good fight. And the best part is that you don't have to own a boat to catch one!

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