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Steelheading our our Great Lakes' Tributaries

Steelheading our our Great Lakes' Tributaries

We have it really lucky here with our great fishing for steelhead on rivers flowing into Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. The following are Wisconsin's best spring steelie streams.

Fond du Lac's Tom Bogenhagen releases a nice steelhead on the Sheboygan River. Photo by Dan Small

By Dan Small

Wisconsin's Great Lakes tributaries offer superb steelhead fishing from fall through spring. A handful of Lake Superior streams boast adequate natural reproduction to sustain wild steelhead in that lake without supplemental stocking. Meanwhile, Department of Natural Resources fisheries crews stock steelhead in Lake Michigan tributaries every year. The angler who does a little homework and picks a stream where the action is hot can enjoy good fishing.

The steelhead season is open year 'round on Lake Michigan streams. Three strains of steelhead are currently stocked in the Lake Michigan tributaries: Skamania, Chambers Creek and Ganaraska. The stocking goal has been cut from 500,000 spring yearlings annually to 350,000 per year because of recent low-water flows at Kettle Moraine Springs hatchery in Adell, according to Lake Michigan biologist Matt Coffaro.

"We're hoping that by raising fewer fish, with lower hatchery densities, those we stock will be healthier and have a better chance of surviving," says Coffaro.

Skamanias start their migration in late summer and spawn in late fall or winter. Chambers Creek steelhead enter streams in the fall and hang out until late winter, when they spawn. Ganaraskas move upstream in early spring and spawn in April or May. Even biologists can't tell one strain from another without examining the fin clips and checking DNR stocking records. As far as anglers are concerned, a steelhead is a steelhead.

The steelhead run usually begins in the southernmost streams and works its way northward. Weather and stream conditions vary dramatically, however, so check locally before driving far to fish. One river may be running over its banks, while another a few miles north or south may have ideal conditions.

The Pike River in Kenosha County flows through private land, but you can get on it in Alford Park near the mouth or farther upstream where it crosses County Highways A or E. The Pike clears in a few days after a spring rain and offers good small-stream fishing. For local information, contact the Kenosha Area Chamber of Commerce at (262) 654-1234.


The Root River in Racine is our state's premier Lake Michigan steelhead stream. There is access in Lincoln and Colonial parks, and you can watch DNR fisheries crews take spawn in April in Lincoln Park. There is good fishing up to the dam on the west side of town, which is impassible to fish. For local information, call the Racine Chamber of Commerce at (262) 634-1931.

The Milwaukee River usually has good water and plenty of fish in spring, but it muddies up after a heavy rain. Popular spots include Estabrook and Kletzsch parks. Above Kletzsch, fish spread out all the way to the dam in Grafton. Get on the river at bridge crossings in Milwaukee and Ozaukee counties.

The Menomonee River rises quickly after any rain and often floods. A concrete flood-control structure was removed several years ago, with the plan of improving steelhead and salmon access to the upper river. This was not as successful as hoped, but some fish do get above the Miller Brewing complex and into the holes in Wauwatosa. For information on Milwaukee-area streams, call the R&R Sports Fishin' Hole hotline at (414) 481-9090 or the DNR hotline for at (414) 382-7920.

Sauk Creek, in Port Washington, gets a good run of fish, now that a couple dozen lunker structures in the lower reaches give steelhead a place to hide while they wait for increased flows to move upstream. Get on the stream at bridge crossings in town. For information, call the Port Washington Chamber of Commerce at (262) 284-0900.

The Sheboygan River flows through Kohler and Sheboygan. To access the river on the Kohler Company property, you must purchase a River Wildlife membership. Some anglers launch canoes or belly boats in Sheboygan Falls, portage around the Kohler dam and then fish through the Kohler property. You're better off buying a membership or fishing public water in Sheboygan from the Interstate 43 bridge downstream to Taylor Drive. Fishing in this lower stretch is often excellent, as fish wait for adequate water to move upstream.

The Pigeon River is a smaller Sheboygan stream with a good run of fish - when water levels are right. It is accessible at road crossings, parks and the Maywood Environmental Center. Its level fluctuates rapidly with runoff. When it is at moderate flow and fairly clear, fishing can be tremendous. For information on Sheboygan-area streams, call the Sheboygan County Chamber of Commerce at (920) 457-9491.

Another stream that depends on runoff to hold fish above the harbor, the Manitowoc River flows through some wild and hilly country. The stretch at Lower Cato Falls County Park provides access to good water that doesn't see as much pressure as other portions of the stream. Farther north, the East and West Twin rivers are also good. The upstream run on the West Twin stops at the dam in Shoto, but you'll find better fishing and less competition downstream. On the East Twin, road crossings from Mishicot down to Manitowoc provide access. For information, try the Manitowoc-Two Rivers Area Chamber of Commerce at (920) 684-5575.

Wisconsin's other steelhead brood stream, the Kewaunee, has a heavy steelhead run. Access is good off several bridges where the river crosses County Highway C. The Kewaunee flows through a wild setting, with some deep holes and a lot of cover.

The Ahnapee River, and Silver and Stoney creeks located near Algoma all have decent spring steelheading. Steelhead also run up a number of Door County streams, most notably Whitefish Bay, Hibbards and Heins creeks. For information on these streams, call the 24-hour hotline operated by guide Kevin Naze at 1-800-626-3090. For other area information, call the Kewaunee Chamber (920-388-4822), the Algoma Area Chamber (920-487-2041) or the Door County Chamber (920-743-4456).

The Oconto, Peshtigo and Menominee rivers, located along the west shore of Green Bay, are all good steelhead streams. The Oconto is wadable from the Stiles Dam downstream to Oconto, with access points along Stiles and North River roads. Steelhead also run up the Little River, which joins the Oconto at Funk Road. The Peshtigo and Menominee are large rivers with bank-fishing access in town below dams. For information, try Oconto County Economic Development and Tourism, (920) 834-6969, or the Marinette Area Chamber of Commerce, (715) 735-6681.

A one-fish, 26-inch limit on Lake Superior tributary steelies helps protect this wild fishery. Most steelheaders release their fish anyway, according to DNR Lake Superior Fisheries supervisor Steve Schram, who reports good steelie runs every spring in large streams and a few smaller ones.

The Bois Brule, which flows the length of Douglas County, is the most popular of these streams. Season dates and regulations differ above and below U.S. Highway 2, so check the regulations booklet for details. The lower river is deep and fast, with high clay banks that turn the water red after a rain. The upper river is a series of riffles and pools, with good spawning habitat. There are access points in the Brule River State Forest. Other Douglas County streams with steelhead runs include the Nemadji, Middle, Amnicon, Black and Poplar rivers. For information, call Brule River Classics, (715) 372-8153.

In Bayfield County, the Sioux River and North Fish Creek get the most attention. Both streams muddy quickly after a rain. Most anglers get on the Sioux at Big Rock Falls and work downstream to the meadows. There is good access on North Fish Creek at the Highway 2 crossing or just below Pine Creek.

Fewer anglers fish the Flag and Cranberry rivers, but they have fish when conditions are right. Both are accessible at road crossing off Highway 13 between Herbster and Port Wing. The Iron River also has a steelhead run, now that the dam at Orienta has been removed. A fair number of steelhead stack up below the fish refuge on Pike's Creek at the dam by the state hatchery.

In Ashland County, steelhead run up the White River to the dam on Highway 112 and the Brunsweiler and Marengo rivers. The White gets a lot of pressure from local anglers, but both the Marengo and Brunsweiler are largely overlooked.

For information on Ashland and Bayfield County streams, call Anglers All in Ashland at (715) 682-5754 or Outdoor Allure in Washburn at (715) 373-0551.

(Editor's note: For more information on steelhead, along with maps and guidebooks showing every stream in the state, log onto

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