Photo by WIBigFish.com
Southeastern Wisconsin steelheaders have it made. A dozen Lake Michigan tributaries support solid runs of three different strains of steelhead, the season is open year ’round, and the fish eagerly take bait, lures and flies. The biggest challenge is often deciding which stream to fish on a given day.
Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources fisheries crews stock three strains of steelhead, and each strain makes its spawning run at a different time of year. Skamania steelhead run up the tributaries in late summer and early fall, and they remain in the rivers until they spawn in February. Chambers Creek steelies make a late-fall run and spawn in March. Ganaraska steelhead stay in the lake until March and early April, then make a mad dash up tributary streams to spawn as soon as conditions are favorable.
THE BIG THREE
John Graba, fishing department manager at the Gander Mountain store in Kenosha, fishes steelhead practically every day he is not working, and he talks with hundreds of anglers every year while at work, so he has a good feel for fishing opportunities along our eastern coast.
“Three streams stand out as the best steelhead producers,” Graba said. “The Root, the Milwaukee and the Sheboygan. All three have good numbers of fish, and all are big enough to drift a bait or cast a fly with ease. Runs on the Milwaukee and Sheboygan last longer and don’t peak as quickly as on the Root and smaller rivers.”
The Root is the earliest river to open each spring, and anglers flock to it from all over Wisconsin and beyond. There is good public access at Lincoln and Colonial parks in the city of Racine, and at the Horlick Dam on the city’s west side. That dam limits the upstream migration of fish, so steelies often stack up there and in the long gravel run below it. As a broodstock stream, the Root receives abundant fish of all three strains.
The Milwaukee is wide open in many places, so casting is easy. It is also easier to wade than some other streams, and its broad watershed helps stabilize its flow, so it does not rise or fall as quickly as smaller streams. There are long stretches with good spawning gravel, Graba said, thus making it easy to target fish on the redds.
“The ideal size for steelhead spawning gravel is anything from a marble to half the size of a baseball,” Graba said. “There are good deep channel cuts close to most gravel areas on the Milwaukee, which allow fish to hold near where they will spawn. If the fish are not spawning, they will most likely be in the nearest deeper water.”
There is good public access on the Milwaukee in Estabrook and Kletszch parks, and at bridge crossings in Milwaukee and Ozaukee counties. The removal of the North Avenue dam allows fish to reach Grafton about 20 miles upstream, but concentrations are heaviest from Capitol Drive in Milwaukee north to Thiensville.
The Sheboygan River has good numbers of all three steelie strains. With many bends, good structure and current fluctuations, the Sheboygan offers quality fishing — especially in the seven-mile stretch that flows through the Black Wolf Run golf course and River Wildlife recreation area, which are both owned by the Kohler Company. Anglers can purchase a seasonal pass to fish this water, and most people who do usually say it is well worth the moderate cost.
Guide John Matenaer likes the Sheboygan because it has good numbers of fish regardless of water levels.
“Because the Sheboygan joins the lake in a harbor and not a beach, it’s easy for fish to enter it,” Matenaer said. “In low water, you can fish the public water closer to the mouth and still catch steelhead.”
Several smaller streams in southeast Wisconsin support good runs of steelhead, but they don’t get as many fish or anglers as the “Big Three.” The best of these are the Pike, Menomonee and Pigeon rivers. Most anglers also put the Manitowoc in this second group, because its flow and runs vary greatly.
The Pike River, which drains northern Kenosha and southern Racine counties, is the southernmost of Wisconsin’s steelhead streams. A small tributary, the Pike suffers from dramatic fluctuations in flow. One good rain can put it over its banks and turn it into a muddy mess. Come back in two days, though, and you’ll find it full of fish.
Private land restricts access to the Pike, but there is good access at the mouth in Alford Park and upstream at bridge crossings on county highways A and E. A dam on the Pike on the Kenosha Country Club golf course was removed two years ago, and now steelies can travel upstream as far as water allows them to go.
The Menomonee River, which flows from Menomonee Falls down to its confluence with the Milwaukee River, is another good second-level steelhead stream. The best stretch on the Menomonee runs for a couple of miles near Miller Park, with access from the Hank Aaron Trail. When fish can get above a mile-long concrete channel, there are good holding pools along the Menomonee River Parkway in Wauwatosa.
The Pigeon River in Sheboygan County usually has a good run early in the season, but a sandbar at its mouth often blocks the passage of fish until a good rain blows the sand out. The run here doesn’t last long, however, and anglers quickly clean out the few good holes in the upstream stretches. Get on the river at Mill Road, at Jaycee and Evergreen parks, and on the grounds of Maywood Environmental Center, as well as at bridge crossings west of Sheboygan. You’ll find the most fish from Maywood downstream to the mouth.
The Manitowoc River has good rock structure, and when there is enough water, there are plenty of fish. The lower river always has fish, but only a short stretch in town is wadeable. Too often, though, from Rapids Road upstream the river is one big boulder garden with hardly enough water to hide a steelhead. A good rain or adequate runoff will bring steelies all the way up to the dam at Clarks Mills. There is access there, and also downstream in Lower Cato Falls County Park, as well as at bridge crossings on several roads that go north off County Highway JJ.
GETTING HOOKED UP
Steelheaders are split about evenly between fly-fishers and bait-drifters, and both techniques will produce fish. You can also take steelhead on in-lin
e spinners in deeper water.
Fly-rodders favor 9- to 10-foot rods in 7 or 8 weight with a large-arbor reel and floating or sink-tip line. A Furled leader with a loop at each end will allow you to replace tippet material easily. Fluorocarbon tippets in 3X to 5X will let you fish stained or clear water.
“A reel with a smooth drag will prevent fish from breaking off on light tippets,” John Graba said.
Most fly-rodders use egg imitations and colorful attractor patterns when steelhead are on their spawning redds, and insect-imitating nymphs when the fish are in the deep holes. Some anglers rig two flies in tandem, tying an egg pattern on 18 inches of tippet to the bend of a nymph pattern. In low, clear water, Graba uses nymphs down to No. 18 and single egg imitations on light tippets.
In deep runs, fish flies across the current and downstream, letting them swing at the end of each drift. When sight-fishing steelhead on the redds, cast flies above the fish and let them drift down in front of their noses.
Drifting bait is great on bigger rivers like the Milwaukee and Sheboygan. Guide Eric Haataja prefers 10- to 13-foot spinning rods and spinning or center-pin reels spooled with 8-pound test monofilament. Add a barrel swivel and a 6-pound-test fluorocarbon leader, and then tie on a single egg hook or jig. Attach a balsa float set to keep the bait just off bottom, and pinch on a couple split shot to keep the float upright. Use this rig to drift spawn sacs, single eggs or wax worms through deep runs and holes. “The long rod lets you lift a lot of line off the water for a drag-free drift,” Haataja said. “Let your bait drift as far as possible and set the hook at the slightest twitch of the float.”
On smaller streams, use shorter rods to fish flies or bait in a similar fashion. Work the deep holes, and stalk fish on the redds.
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Southern Wisconsin’s great steelheading extends farther up the coast to Kewaunee, Algoma and into Door County. But that’s another story for another day.