Spring runoff swells Wisconsin’s Great Lakes tributaries and signals the start of another steelhead season. Up and down the Lake Michigan shore from Kenosha to Marinette and along the south shore of Lake Superior, these sleek silver rockets will soon head upstream, seeking gravel and a partner for the spawning dance. There’s no better remedy to shake your winter doldrums than hooking up with hard-charging steelies.
The season is open year-round on the Lake Michigan streams, so pick a mild late-winter day and get a jump on spring, because there will be some fish that came up during fall and winter. Lake Superior stream steelheaders must wait until the last Saturday in March on some streams and the first Saturday in May on others.
Water levels dictate the timing of the spawning run and whether a stream is fishable. Conditions vary widely from one stream to the next, due to variations in snowmelt runoff, rainfall, topography and soil type. By checking local conditions, you can move from stream to stream and enjoy good fishing throughout the spring season. You can get good information on fishing conditions online at www.steelheadsite.com. Water levels are available online at www.waterdata.usgs.gov/wi/nwis/rt.
LAKE MICHIGAN STREAMS
Department of Natural Resources crews stock three strains of steelhead in Lake Michigan streams. Skamanias enter streams in late summer or early fall. Last year, because of heavy rains and cool weather, there were good numbers of Skamanias in the rivers by mid-August. These fish typically spawn in January and February. Chambers Creek steelhead enter the streams in late fall and spawn in March and April. The Ganaraska run starts in early spring, with spawning in April and May.
When water flows dropped at the Kettle Moraine Springs Hatchery in Adell where steelhead are raised, annual stocking quotas were temporarily reduced from 500,000 to 350,000. Steelhead require high-quality water. DNR fisheries biologist Matt Coffaro says fewer fish stocked should actually net more and stronger adults returning to spawning streams.
“We know from stocking other fish that it’s not numbers but better quality fish that give you better returns,” Coffaro said. “We have stocked fewer chinooks in recent years, for instance, and yet we’re getting great returns in the harvest.”
The Pike River in Kenosha County is the southernmost of Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan steelhead streams. There is good access near the mouth in Alford Park and upstream at bridge crossings on county highways A and E. Contact: Kenosha Area Chamber of Commerce, (262) 654-1234 or www.kenoshachamber.com.
The Root River supports a large run of steelhead because it is one of two streams where eggs are taken for the hatchery program. Anglers come from all over North America to fish here. Fisheries crews take spawn in April at the Root River Steelhead Facility in Lincoln Park, where visitors can watch the entire process. Lincoln and Colonial parks provide good public access. An impassable dam on the west side of Racine marks the upstream limit of the run, which also helps concentrate fish. In most years, fishing on the Root is good by mid-March. Contact: Racine Chamber of Commerce, (262) 634-1931.
The Milwaukee River supports a good run of steelhead. County parks provide access all along the river. A dam at Kletszch Park stops most fish, but in some years many steelhead jump the dam and run all the way to the next dam in Grafton, some 20 miles upriver. Bridge crossings in Milwaukee and Ozaukee counties and the parks provide good access. Contact: The Flyfishers, (414) 259-8100 or www.theflyfishers.com.
The Menomonee River offers decent steelhead action for a couple miles near Miller Park. A concrete flood-control structure was removed several years ago, but nearly a mile of concrete channel still impedes the upstream movement of fish except when conditions are just right. Some anglers report catching fish above this channel along Menomonee River Parkway in Wauwatosa.
Habitat improvement on Sauk Creek in Port Washington gives steelhead a place to hide, and now this little urban stream supports a good spring run. Several bridge crossings in town provide access. Contact: Port Washington Chamber of Commerce, (262) 284-0900.
The Sheboygan River from a dam on the River Wildlife property in Kohler downstream to Sheboygan holds plenty of steelhead from fall through spring. An annual membership is required to fish the River Wildlife property, but there is public access in parks and at bridge crossings from Interstate 43 downstream to Taylor Drive in Sheboygan. Fish hold in deep water in this lower section, waiting for enough water to move upstream. A few miles farther north, the Pigeon River also flows through Sheboygan. Get on the river at Evergreen Park or Maywood Environmental Center and at bridge crossings west of town. Contact for both Sheboygan County streams: Sheboygan County Chamber of Commerce, (920) 457-9491 or www.sheboygan.org.
There are three good steelhead streams in Manitowoc County. A dam at Clarks Mills is the upstream end of the steelhead fishery on the Manitowoc River. There is access at bridge crossings and at Lower Cato Falls County Park. The West Twin River offers good fishing for a couple miles below the dam at Shoto. The East Twin from Mishicot to Two Rivers has better fishing and more water. Bridge crossings provide access. Contact for Manitowoc County streams: Manitowoc-Two Rivers Area Chamber, (920) 684-5675 or www.manitowocchamber.com.
The Kewaunee River is the state’s second steelhead brood stream, with the C.D. Besadny Anadromous Fish Facility at Footbridge. Anglers enjoy good fishing below the facility and upstream to the third County Highway C bridge crossing. There are plenty of deep holes and good cover on this stream. The Ahnapee River, which joins the lake at Algoma, attracts a decent run when there is enough runoff. A number of Door County streams support steelhead, again when there is enough water. Among them are Stony, Whitefish Bay, Hibbards and Heins creeks. Outdoor writer and guide Kevin Naze operates a 24-hour hotline for all these streams at 1-800-626-3090. Other contacts: Kewaunee Chamber, (920) 388-4822; Algoma Area Chamber, (920) 487-2041; and Door County Chamber, (920) 743-4456.
Don’t overlook the streams along the west shore of Green Bay. The Oconto River offers good fishing from the Stiles dam downstream to Oconto, with access along Stiles and North River roads. The Little River, which enters the Oconto at Funk Road, also s
upports a spring run. The Peshtigo and Menominee are larger rivers, with bank-fishing opportunities below dams in both towns. Contacts: Oconto County Economic Development and Tourism, (920) 834-6969; Menominee Area Chamber, (715) 735-6681.
LAKE SUPERIOR TRIBS
The Lake Superior steelhead fishery is made up of wild fish, which reproduce naturally in the high-quality tributaries that feed the lake. Regulations now allow anglers to keep one fish over 26 inches long per day. According to DNR fisheries biologist Steve Schram in Bayfield, the new regs are beginning to pay off. “The population seems to be responding to the new regulations,” Schram says. “The growth of these fish appears best during years when there are lots of lake herring available.”
The Bois Brule River, which flows north through Douglas County, is Lake Superior’s best-known steelhead stream. Regulations and season dates differ above and below U.S. Highway 2. Check the regulations booklet for details. The lower river is deep, with clay banks that turn the river red when it rains. The upper river is classic riffle/pool water with good spawning and holding cover. There are numerous access points in the Brule River State Forest. Contact: Brule River Classics, (715) 372-8153 or www.iracc.com.
Four Bayfield County streams offer good steelhead action: the Flag, Cranberry and Sioux rivers, and North Fish Creek. Downstream from Big Rock Park, the Sioux offers good fishing all the way to the lake. Fish Creek has several miles of good water from Pine Creek to the U.S. Highway 2 crossing. The Flag and Cranberry rivers are accessible at town road bridges between Herbster and Port Wing. The Iron River also has a decent run of steelhead now that the dam at Orienta is gone. Three other Lake Superior streams worth checking out are the White, Brunsweiler and Marengo rivers in Ashland County. Contacts: Angler’s All in Ashland, (715) 682-5754; Outdoor Allure in Washburn, (715) 373-0551 or www.outdoorallure.com.
(Editor’s note: For more info on steelhead along with maps and guidebooks showing every stream in Wisconsin, log onto the author’s Web site at www.dansmalloutdoors.com.)