Few fish can increase an angler's heartbeat like the steelhead. Here are some streams that may make yours skip a beat! (February 2009)
Wisconsin's Lake Superior tributary streams have long been known for excellent steelhead fishing. Unlike their Lake Michigan counterparts, these streams are essentially hatcheries -- steelhead spawn in them every year to restock the fishery naturally.
Mike Pollak caught this fresh-run steelhead on the Bois Brule River. Photo by David L. Kohne
There are two different open-season dates for steelhead and other trout on Lake Superior tributaries. On some streams, the season runs from the first Saturday in May through the last Sunday in September. On most streams, the season runs from the last Saturday in March to Nov. 15. The daily bag limit is one steelhead or rainbow trout over 26 inches, but most anglers release the legal-sized fish they catch to help maintain the fishery.
Techniques for catching these fish vary. Some anglers use spinning gear to throw spinners or drift spawn, but fly rods are better suited to fishing spawn, small wobbling plugs or flies on most of the smaller streams.
To fish spawn or plugs on a fly rod, choose a 9-foot 8- or 9-weight rod, a multiplier reel and 8- or 10-pound-test monofilament or fluorocarbon line. For spawn fishing, tie natural eggs in cherry-sized sacs using commercially available mesh material. Snell a No. 4 or 6 salmon egg hook to your line, slide the hook into the spawn, pinch split shot a foot or so above the hook, and you're ready to fish. Some anglers put a tag of orange or chartreuse yarn in the snell. Some also attach sinkers with a short dropper and a three-way swivel.
Spawn fishing with a fly rod thus rigged is a short-range proposition. Wade upstream or down and lob the spawn into deep holes and runs and let it bounce along the bottom. You can also fish this rig with only a yarn "fly" and no spawn.
To fish a wobbling plug on a fly rod, simply tie it to your line, lob it downstream and let it work in the current. Swing it back in forth in front of steelhead holding in riffles or on spawning redds to entice strikes from reluctant fish.
To fish flies, use a 9-foot 8-weight rod with a floating weight-forward line and stout tapered leader. Effective fly patterns include dark, natural-looking patterns like stoneflies, Woolly Buggers and leeches, as well as colorful attractor patterns, single eggs and yarn in chartreuse or orange.
BOIS BRULE RIVER
The most popular Lake Superior steelhead stream is the Bois Brule, which flows north through eastern Douglas County. The early season is open downstream of U.S. Highway 2. This section of river starts with deep, slow meadow stretches, and then moves to swift runs and a series of dangerous rapids and deep pools. Steelhead hold in the deep water. Some stretches are wadeable, while others are treacherous, especially at high water levels, which can occur after ice-out or a heavy rain.
One reason the Brule is so popular is there are always fish in the river when the season opens, whereas the other rivers don't see steelhead until spring.
Steelhead raised from spawn taken from Brule River fish were stocked from 1988 through 2003, first to rehabilitate dwindling natural stocks, then later to develop a technique for restoring steelhead in case any Lake Superior stream loses its fishery through a natural or manmade disaster. No stocking has been done since that time, so any fish you catch now is likely to have been naturally produced.
There are parking lots and access points all along the river off U.S. Highway 2, county highways H and FF, Highway 13 and Clevedon Road. Nearly every bend, landing, bridge and hole on the Bois Brule has a name, and old-timers can tell plenty of stories about the river and the people who have fished it. Any steelheader who has not fished the Bois Brule in spring owes it to himself to try this fabled river before he hangs up his waders.
BAYFIELD PENINSULA STREAMS
Most of the other steelhead streams worth fishing flow into the lake on the Bayfield Peninsula. The Sioux, Flag and Cranberry rivers and North Fish and Pike's creeks are managed as individual streams, but are combined in one land-acquisition project called the South Shore State Fish and Wildlife Area.
The Sioux probably ranks second among Lake Superior tributaries in popularity, largely because it is quite accessible. Most anglers start at Big Rock Falls and work downstream. To get there, take State Highway 13 to Washburn, then turn left on County Highway C. Turn right on Big Rock Road and go a mile and a half to the river. A town park is just across the bridge.
There is a walk-in access with parking for several cars on Friendly Valley Road, where the Little Sioux River joins the Sioux. Steelhead season on the Little Sioux itself does not open until May, but the hole at its mouth sometimes holds fish.
NORTH FISH CREEK
North Fish Creek enters the lake at the head of Chequamegon Bay between Ashland and Washburn and is open during the early season downstream from its confluence with Pine Creek. Coming from the east, take Hnath Road west off U.S. Highway 2, then take a right on Old U.S. 2 to the river. Coming from the west, take County Highway G east off U.S. 2, then go right on Old U.S. 2.
The first half-mile downstream from Pine Creek winds through a wide, sandy flat until it enters the woods and flows through boulder runs, shallow riffles and deep holes for several miles between bridges. You'll hike to reach fish, but it can be worth it because you'll have the river to yourself. Another popular stretch begins just below the U.S. Highway 2 bridge. Here, the creek is slow, with a sand bottom and deep bend holes.
FLAG AND CRANBERRY RIVERS
These two rivers also attract good numbers of steelhead in spring, but fewer anglers fish them because they are off the main travel routes. Both have stretches of sand, gravel and muck bottom. Walking can be tricky, so take it easy until you learn the holes. The Flag has a little more water, and both rivers have plenty of snags that hold fish.
The Cranberry enters the lake at Herbster. It is open during the early season from Lenawee Road downstream to the mouth. There is access at the Lenawee Road bridge and downstream at a small park at the intersection of Touve and Cranberry River roads. The Flag River flows into Lake Superior at Port Wing. It is open during the early season downstream from East Fork. There is access at the forks and at several points along Flag River Road.
OTHER STEELHEAD STREAMS
The White River, from Wh
ite River Dam on State Highway 112 (Sanborn Ave.) downstream, is open during the early season. There is access just below the dam.
The Marengo and Brunsweiler rivers are both open during the early season from their respective bridges on State Highway 13 downstream to the Bad River. The Bad River, too, is open from Devil's Gate in Copper Falls State Park, as is the Ashland County stretch of the Potato River. Some of this water lies within the Bad River Indian Reservation, so contact the Bad River Natural Resources Department or a tribal warden at (715) 682-7123 to inquire about access.
For more information, contact the Brule River Sportsmen's Club online at www.bruleriversportsmensclub.org.; Lake Superior Steelhead Association, www.steelheaders.org; Anglers All, www.anglersallwisconsin.com, (715) 682-5754; Outdoor Allure, www. outdoorallure.com, (715) 373-0551.
(Editor's Note: For more information on fishing Lake Superior streams, listen to Outdoors Radio with Dan Small, on broadcast stations around the state or online 24/7 at www.lake-link.com/radio.)