Spring Silver: Our Steelhead Tributaries

Spring Silver: Our Steelhead Tributaries

Wisconsin's Lake Michigan tributaries are swarming with hard-fighting steelhead right now. Here's how and where to get in on the action for these silver rockets! (February 2010)

The spring steelhead run generally begins first in our state's southernmost Lake Michigan tributaries and works its way north.
Photo by Dan Small.

Steelhead were the first non-native trout or salmon to be stocked in the Wisconsin waters of Lake Michigan. From some perspectives, they have also been the most successful.

Wisconsin began stocking the species in Lake Michigan back in 1963, when 9,000 young steelhead were released. Stocking numbers gradually increased to more than 1 million fish annually in the 1970s and '80s, then dropped to the current level of about a half million fish per year.

"We have found that by stocking fewer, higher-quality fish, we get better survival and a better return in the creel," says Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Lake Michigan fisheries biologist Matt Coffaro.

Steelhead are not the largest of the Lake Michigan salmonids, nor are they the easiest to catch in the lake, as they tend to roam far out over deep water, where they follow temperature breaks in search of insects and small baitfish. When they hit the streams, however, they provide fast and furious action for the anglers who have learned how to find and catch them.

In an effort to provide a year-round fishery, Wisconsin currently stocks four strains of steelhead -- or rainbow trout -- in Lake Michigan: Skamania, Chambers Creek, Ganaraska and Arlee. Stocked as yearlings, these fish are planted in streams and harbors from Kenosha north to the Menominee River.

Three strains spend several years in the lake then return to tributary streams as adults to spawn. Skamania steelhead return to streams in late summer and spawn in February. Chambers Creek fish return in fall or winter and spawn in March and April. Ganaraskas return in spring and spawn in April or May. By stocking all three anadromous strains, state biologists ensure that there will be steelhead in tributaries and harbors from August through May, which makes them accessible to stream anglers longer than any other salmonid species.

Arlee rainbows typically remain in the lake and hang out near shore, which makes them accessible to pier, shore and small-boat anglers as long as there is cold water near shore.

The MDNR publishes a report in March of each year detailing the Lake Michigan stocking program since its inception. The report lists the actual numbers of fish stocked at each location, along with fin clips used to mark the fish. Because steelhead tend to roam and may return to a different stream than where they were stocked, the report should be used as a general guide. This and other fisheries reports are accessible online at http://dnr.wi. gov/fish.

Most anglers don't care what strain of fish they catch, as long as it bites and fights. This time of year, most Lake Michigan tributaries harbor steelhead.

In the larger streams, there are still some holdover Skamania and Chambers Creek fish. These fish are usually dark in color, and they may look somewhat battered and bruised from the rigors of spawning. If they are not caught and kept by anglers or killed by predators, and if they do not succumb to disease or injury, they will eventually return to the lake.

You'll find these fish in deep holes and behind any available cover. They will sometimes feed aggressively, striking at a variety of baits, lures and flies, but they do not fight like a fresh-run fish.

Snowmelt runoff and the first spring rains will bring in the first run of Ganaraska steelhead. Fresh-run fish are bright silver with dark backs. Females may have a faint pink stripe along their lateral line, and they will be heavy with spawn. Males will be sleeker and often a little darker, with a bright red cheek patch and a slight hook to the jaw.

These fish may be found anywhere in a stream. Typically, they hang in deep runs and holes until ready to spawn. Here, they will take spawn sacs, spinners and a variety of flies from egg imitations to insect patterns and streamers. Catch them by fishing the water, bouncing offerings off bottom and letting baits drift through runs and holes.

Once spawning begins, you can sight-fish for steelhead with spawn sacs, small spinners and egg flies. Hens (ripe females) will turn on their side and use their tail to dig out redds in shallow gravel bars, while bucks (males) hold in deeper water behind them and move up to fertilize eggs released by the hens. Bucks will fight with each other for breeding privileges, just as buck deer or tom turkeys will. You can sometimes catch several males from a pod behind a spawning female without disturbing her. Catch the hen, however, and the males will scatter.

The spring run typically kicks off on southern streams first, then moves north as runoff progresses. Rain and local weather can change this progression, however, so it is best to check with a bait shop in the area where you plan to fish before heading out. Several Web sites and telephone hotlines also provide reports on stream conditions.

The Pike River, which often sees the first fresh fish of the season, flows into the lake near Carthage College on Kenosha's north side. There is good access near the mouth at Alford Park and farther upstream at bridge crossings on county highways A and E. Petrifying Springs County Park is another popular access point. This is a small river, but it has deep holes that hold fish and abundant spawning gravel. The Pike picks up a heavy silt load from upstream farms after a rain, but it clears quickly, offering excellent fishing.

The Root River, which enters the lake at Racine, is one of the state's premier steelhead streams. The egg-taking facility in Lincoln Park is a popular destination for anglers and sightseers alike. Fisheries crews release spawned-out fish above the facility, but most anglers fish below the facility to get at fresh fish. There is public access in Lincoln and Colonial parks and just below Horlick Dam on Highway 38 at Horlicksville, the upstream limit for migrating fish. The Root is often crowded with anglers, but you can usually find a bend or two to fish.

"Runs on the Pike and Root are often short and sweet," says John Graba, an avid steelheader who manages the fishing department at the Kenosha Gander Mountain store. "Larger rivers farther north hold steelhead longer and provide good fishing later in the season."

The Milwaukee River has emerged in recent years as a great steelhead s

tream, thanks to efforts to clean up contaminated areas and good access. The removal of several dams has allowed fish to get as far upstream as Grafton. Several Milwaukee county parks and bridge crossings in Ozaukee County provide public access. From Estabrook Park to North Avenue, the river runs in a deep, wooded gorge that disguises its urban setting. Deer, coyotes and wild turkeys travel this corridor, and hikers and mountain bikers use the trails along the river.

Top spots include below the dams in Estabrook and Kletzsch parks and in Riverside and Hubbard parks. You can download a map of the Milwaukee Urban Water Trail, which shows access points for paddlers and anglers, at http://mkeriverkeeper.org/.

The Milwaukee's broad watershed helps stabilize its flow, so it rises and falls more slowly than smaller streams. It can be treacherous when the flow is high, however, especially in areas with a lot of broken concrete and rock riprap. It's a good idea to carry a wading staff and fish with a partner.

Guide Eric Haataja of Big Fish Guide Service spends a lot of time on the Milwaukee River and in the harbor in spring and fall. He specializes in drift-fishing with long rods, balsa floats and spawn or small jigs.

"I like 10- to 13-foot spinning rods rigged with 8-pound-test monofilament or fluorocarbon line," Haataja says. "Add a barrel swivel and a fluorocarbon leader, and use a balsa float to keep your bait just off bottom. The long rod lets you keep your line off the water for a long, drag-free float."

Haataja prefers fishing long, deep runs, where he can let a bait drift for 100 yards or more before retrieving it and casting out again. Two split shot a foot or so above the hook keep the float upright, which makes it easy to detect strikes.

Reach Haataja at (414) 546-4627, or online at www.wibigfish.com.

The Sheboygan River is smaller than the Milwaukee, but it has similar water with fast runs, deep holes and shallow spawning riffles. Like the Milwaukee, it drains a large watershed, so it tends to rise and fall more slowly than smaller streams. Also, like the Milwaukee, it enters the lake in a harbor, so fish have no trouble getting up into the lower reaches, even during low-water periods.

The best stretch is the seven-mile section that flows through Blackwolf Run and the River Wildlife property owned by the Kohler Company. You can purchase a seasonal pass that allows you access to this entire stretch. A dam on the Kohler property prevents upstream passage, which concentrates fish in this stretch.

There are also plenty of steelhead in the public water from the I-43 bridge to the lake. Several bridge crossings in the city of Sheboygan and a small roadside park on Highway PP provide access.

John Matenaer fishes the river from ice-out to ice-up. He guides primarily on the Kohler property and specializes in fly-fishing. He likes to fish white or black Woolly Buggers across the current, letting them swing downstream and rise as the current catches his line. Most strikes come at the end of a drift.

Contact Matenaer at (920) 208-8042 or at www.flycastingguide.com.

The Pigeon River is a small stream similar to the Pike in size, but with much cleaner water. It rises in Manitowoc County and flows south, then east to enter the lake on the north side of Sheboygan. Low water levels sometimes make fishing difficult, and a sandbar at the mouth can prevent fish from entering the river, but when the fish are in, it's a heck of a stream.

Evergreen and Maywood parks provide good access, and there are several bridge crossing where you can get on the river. The stream has a series of deep pools that hold fish and shallow riffles where they spawn. This is a good stream for sight-fishing when conditions are right. Rural road crossings upstream of I-43 provide access to remote sections.

The Manitowoc River is often plagued by low water levels, but when conditions are good, steelhead run all the way up to the dam at Clarks Mills. A steep gorge at Lower Cato Falls County Park on Highway JJ is a popular spot, as steelhead hold in a deep hole before moving upstream. This was the favorite stream of the late Marty Kwitek, a guide and fly-tier from Maribel who developed several deadly fly patterns, including one he called a Rainbow Scud. Tied on a No. 6 keel hook, this fly consists of three colors of yarn -- orange, pink and chartreuse -- and a clear shell that glistens in the sun like the body of a shrimp. I still have one Marty tied for me years ago. I bring it out for a few ceremonial casts every season, but I should retire it before I lose it. The Branch River is appropriately named, as it is actually a branch of the Manitowoc. About the size and clarity of the Pigeon, the Branch is a decent smallmouth stream in the summer, and it holds good runs of steelhead in spring. It joins the Manitowoc south of the hamlet of Branch. Numerous town roads provide access, but the river flows entirely through private property, so once you get on it, stay in the water.

The West Twin and East Twin rivers flow southeast through Manitowoc County and enter Lake Michigan at Two Rivers. A dam on the West Twin at Shoto is a popular fishing spot, but the river is less crowded downstream. On the East Twin, several bridge crossings downstream from Mishicot provide good access. This river, too, flows mainly through private land.

The Kewaunee River offers some fantastic steelhead fishing in a remote setting reminiscent of the North Woods. There are deep holes and long gravel runs that hold fish. There is good access at the Besadny Anadromous Fisheries Facility near Footbridge, but you'll find better water and fewer anglers upstream at one of the Highway C bridge crossings. North of Algoma, the Ahnapee River sees fewer anglers than the larger streams farther south.

Along the west shore of Green Bay, the Oconto, Peshtigo and Menominee rivers are all good steelhead streams. The Oconto is wadable from the dam at Stiles downstream to Oconto. There are several access points along Stiles and North River roads. Steelhead also run up the Little River, a tributary that joins the Oconto at Funk Road. The Peshtigo and Menominee are large rivers with bank-fishing access in town below dams.

For current stream conditions and a fishing report on most streams, call the MDNR Lake Michigan Hotline: (414) 382-7920. Two Web sites provide good information on most Lake Michigan streams: www.steelheadsite.com, and www.lake-link.com. The U.S. Geological Survey provides real-time stream-flow data for many rivers at http://waterdata.usgs.gov/wi/nwis/sw.

Editor's Note: For more information on steelhead fishing, listen to the author's weekly radio program, "Outdoors Radio with Dan Small." Listen online or find broadcast stations at www.lake-link.com/radio.

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