Wisconsin's Finest Trout Fishing
September 30, 2010
Here's a look at some of our state's better trout streams that can provide good fishing year in and year out, regardless of stocking levels.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
There's good news and bad news in Wisconsin's inland trout fishing picture for this season. Fortunately, the good news outweighs the bad. Let's consider some of the good news first.
Wisconsin has over 10,000 miles of streams that trout call home, and most of these remain in good shape. Our state's trout fishing regulations were completely revamped a year ago, reducing the number of stream categories from five to four, simplifying category-five regulations and adjusting regulations on certain streams. These new regulations have been in place for a year now, and it appears they are working well.
Habitat work continues to improve water quality and holding cover, adding miles of trout water each year. Since 1980, over 800 miles of trout water have been added, according to the latest edition of a Department of Natural Resources publication, Wisconsin Trout Streams.
Copies of the trout regulations are available at license outlets. The regulations guide, trout stream maps and Wisconsin Trout Streams can be downloaded from
Now for the bad news.
Heavy rains last spring caused many streams to overflow their banks and made fishing next to impossible for weeks at a time. Except in a few cases where runoff caused excessive siltation, there was no serious damage done.
There were, however, several massive manure spills that caused major fish kills on high-quality trout streams that will take years to recover. Trout were killed in one mile of Smith Hollow Creek and 12 miles of Willow Creek in Richland County, and 10 miles of Otter Creek, a Lafayette County tributary to the Pecatonica River.
The worst news, however, was that DNR budget cuts pulled the plug on hatchery production of trout for stocking in inland streams. In a cost-saving measure, some brook, brown and rainbow trout raised at the Nevin, Osceola, St. Croix Falls and Bayfield hatcheries were stocked as small fingerlings in June 2003 instead of as large fingerlings in fall 2003 or in spring 2004 as yearlings, as originally planned.
Wisconsin's fish stocking database is now online. Log onto
www.fishingwisconsin.org, look under "Wisconsin fish" and click on "fish stocking" to read a stocking report for a given body of water and fish species. The database will indicate which Class 2 and Class 3 trout waters are stocked.
Fortunately, those cuts affected only about 10 percent of state trout streams, where stocking is necessary to provide good fishing. In the vast majority of state streams, natural reproduction is adequate to maintain a fishable population of trout.
Wisconsin has three distinct trout seasons. The regular season opens at 5 a.m. on the first Saturday in May and closes on Sept. 30. There is an early season on selected streams that opens on the first Saturday in March and closes on the last Sunday before the first Saturday in May. In the early season, only artificial lures with single, barbless hooks may be used, and all fish must be released. There is also an extended season on a few streams from Oct. 1 through Nov. 15, during which only artificial lures may be used and all trout must be released. All three seasons apply to certain stretches of some streams, so check the regulations and look for signs at access points.
Let's look at some of our state's better trout streams that can provide good fishing year in and year out, regardless of stocking levels.
BOIS BRULE RIVER
Known as the "River of Presidents" because five sitting U.S. presidents have fished it, the Bois Brule is undoubtedly Wisconsin's best-known trout stream. Rising a few miles from the headwaters of the St. Croix River, the Bois Brule flows north through Douglas County to empty into Lake Superior.
Early explorers caught brook trout here by the ton. There are still wild brookies in the upper reaches, but rainbow and brown trout become more prevalent farther downstream. Several wide spreads on the upper river give up some monster browns to night-anglers each season.
The Brule has two distinct characters. For 30 miles it meanders along, first through dense alder swamps and a cedar bog, then through wooded uplands. In its last 19 miles, the river makes a headlong dash over rock ledges for Lake Superior. Canoeists love the upper river, and so do trout anglers. The lower river is left to kayakers and steelheaders.
Although the Brule River State Forest surrounds the river over its entire length, most of the shoreline is in private ownership, and access is limited to several road crossings and state-owned landings. Access points on the upper river include Fishermen's Landing on Highway P, Stone's Bridge on Highway S and Winneboujou Bridge at Highway B. Most anglers canoe the river, stopping to fish along the way. Season dates and regulations vary along the river, so check before fishing.
Contacts: Brule River State Forest, (715) 372-4866; Brule River Classics, (715) 372-8153.
The 100-mile-long Namekagon River is part of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. Its upper reaches in Bayfield and Sawyer counties offer superb trout fishing and harbor some of the biggest inland browns of any stream in the state. Despite all the stories he wrote about the Bois Brule, Gordon MacQuarrie's favorite stream was the Namekagon. Famed trout writer Ernie Schweibert also picked the Namekagon as one of his all-time favorite rivers.
The river begins at a roller dam on the outlet of Lake Namekagon. Trout water starts below Highway M where several springs and tributaries enter the river. You'll find wild brook trout from here down to Pacwawong. Below Pacwawong, brown trout are the dominant species. From its headwaters downstream to Phipps, the river is wadable. Deep holes make wading treacherous from Phipps down to Lake Hayward. There are fewer, but larger, trout from Hayward down to the Sawyer County line. A few small, brushy tributaries in Sawyer County also hold brook trout.
The Bayfield County stretch is open during the regular season. In Sawyer County, rules vary, so check the regulations booklet. Below Lake Hayward, the river is open year-round, with artificials-only catch-and-release fishing from Oct. 1 to the first Saturday in May.
Contacts: St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, (715) 483-3284; Pastika's Sp
orts, 1-800-244-2159 or
The largest trout stream in Wisconsin, the Wolf River offers topnotch fishing for large brown trout, with some brook and rainbow trout thrown in. The trout water runs for 34 miles in Langlade County from Pearson downstream to the Menominee Reservation. The Hunting River and several other tributaries also hold brook trout. The harvest season opens here on the first Saturday in May, but the Wolf is open during the early season and during the extended season for catch-and-release fishing with artificials.
The Wolf runs high and mighty in spring, so bring a wading staff. Some stretches are easier to fish from a rubber raft than by wading. Huge boulders and deep holes provide cover for big browns throughout the river. There is good access at state-owned frontage along Highway 55 and at several bridge crossings.
My most memorable trip on the Wolf was a float I did with Herb Buettner, who owns the Wild Wolf Inn just north of the Menominee Reservation. Herb and I floated in a raft he designed downstream from Hollister for several miles on a no-kill stretch one warm afternoon and evening in early June. We caught a few nice browns before sundown, then got into a mess of heavy fish during one of the wildest fly hatches I have ever witnessed. We dragged ourselves off the river long after dark, wet and exhausted, but grinning from the fabulous fishing action.
Contact: Wild Wolf Inn, (715) 882-8611 or
Among the many "P" streams that flow through northeastern Wisconsin, the Pike is generally considered to have the most consistent trout fishing. Anglers who prefer the Pine, Popple, Peshtigo or Pemebonwon may beg to differ, but hey, we don't all want to fish the same rivers now, do we?
The Pike is deep and narrow compared to the other rivers, and it holds its temperature better in summer. Designated a Wild & Scenic River by the state legislature, its banks are protected from development. The river dashes through a mix of hardwood and conifer uplands, with some of the wildest rapids of any river in the state.
Between the whitewater stretches, the Pike and its branches offer great fishing for rainbows, browns and brookies. Several season dates apply here. The entire river is open during the regular season. The main-stem stretch from Highway V to Highway K is also open during the early no-kill season.
The North Branch begins at the confluence of K.C. and McIntyre creeks south of Highway 8 near Dunbar and flows for 30 miles to the main stem. This is all wild brook trout water, with a series of falls and plunge pools that hold fish. Walking trails along the river provide good access.
The South Branch flows along Old County Road A and Benson Lake Road to join the North Branch near Amberg. It flows through swamps, then becomes a freestone stream in its last several miles. There is access at road crossings.
Contacts: Tight Lines Fly-Fishing Company, De Pere, (920) 336-4106; Gander Mountain, Green Bay, (920) 491-9110 or
The Rush River rises north of Baldwin in St. Croix County and flows south through Pierce County to join the Mississippi River near Maiden Rock. Along the way, it passes the speed bumps of Martell and El Paso. Fished more heavily by anglers from Minnesota than by those from Wisconsin, the Rush has 25 miles of trout water that holds some big browns. DNR surveys have found trout well over 20 inches, indicating that there is good survival of stocked fish and, some argue, a sign of natural reproduction.
Limestone outcroppings and broad valleys provide a mix of scenery for this wide, fertile river that supports good fly hatches throughout the year. The Rush is open during the regular and early seasons. The trout water runs from the St. Croix/Pierce county line downstream at least to Highway 10. Below here, there may be a few scattered big trout.
The Ellsworth Rod & Gun Club has made a lot of in-stream habitat improvements that hold fish, and they also stock additional trout in the river. There is good access at road crossings from Martell to Highway 10. Lost Creek, which enters the Rush below Highway 72, offers five miles of additional trout water. All Pierce and St. Croix county streams are open during both the regular and early seasons.
Contact: Lund's Hardware, River Falls, (715) 425-2415 or
The Kinnickinnick, known affectionately as the "Kinni," is another superb brown trout stream with 25 miles of trout water in St. Croix and Pierce counties. It meaders clean and clear through miles of farmland and lowland forest, from its headwaters down to River Falls. Stream improvement projects installed by Trout Unlimited provide good cover for the abundant trout. DNR easements provide access over private land. Parker Creek, a good brook trout stream, enters the Kinni between Steeple Drive and Highway J.
Below River Falls, the Kinni flows through a steep, forested canyon with a wide valley that offers a lot of room to fish. There are fewer, but larger, trout in this stretch. Access is limited to Glen Park below the dam in River Falls and the Highway F bridge at Kinnickinnick State Park two miles above the mouth.
The Kinni is open during both the regular and early seasons.
Contact: Lund's Hardware, River Falls, (715) 425-2415 or
Of all the coulee streams in Wisconsin's Driftless Area, the West Fork of the Kickapoo in Vernon County is one of the biggest and best.
From Cashton to its confluence with the main stem of the Kickapoo near Readstown, the West Fork offers 24 miles of excellent fishing for wild browns. A rock and rubble bottom, a lot of snags and some deep holes provide good cover, as do a number of lunker structures installed by the West Fork Sportsmen's Club.
There is good public access at DNR easements along Highway S between Bloomingdale and Highway 82. Downstream you can get on the river at several road crossings. All Vernon County streams are open during the regular and early seasons. A long stretch upstream from Highway 82 is catch-and-release artificials-only water.
Contact: Avalanche General Store, (608) 634-2303.
Flowing southeast through Portage and Waupaca counties to its confluence with the Crystal River near Waupaca, the Tomorrow River offers 35 miles of good fishing for wild brook trout and brown trout.
The upper river from its headwaters near Polo
nia to Nelsonville is a tight little sand-bottomed brook trout stream that wanders through tag alders and other dense brush. Get on the river at bridge crossings or fish Poncho Creek along Highway Z. From Nelsonville to the dam in Amherst, the river widens and becomes easier to fish. Several road crossings provide access.
Below Amherst, the river is called the Waupaca River on most maps. It flows faster here, and has a freestone and boulder bottom, with a lot of pocket water. Trout are fewer, but larger, in this stretch. The best fishing occurs from Amherst to the Portage/Waupaca county line, where access is at waysides and road crossings.
The Tomorrow is only open during the regular season. Size limit and gear restrictions vary, so check the regulations booklet.
Contact: Wild Rose Fly Shop, (920) 622-4522.
There are plenty of other Wisconsin streams that offer good trout fishing. Some we have skipped include the Prairie, Plover and Buffalo rivers in central Wisconsin, a host of spring creeks in the Driftless Area west of Madison and hundreds of miles of little brook trout streams that drain the northwoods, not to mention a few tiny gems in both the northern and southern units of the Kettle Moraine State Forest in southeastern Wisconsin. They are all shown on the maps in the trout regulations booklet, so grab your copy and head out and explore them.
(Editor's note: The 4-foot by 4-foot Stream Map of Wisconsin shows over 3,000 streams and 1,000 lakes, and comes with a free guidebook detailing the top 989 select waters. The map is plastic laminated with brass eyelets for hanging. Order online at
www.dansmalloutdoors.com, or send $45.95 to Outdoor Books, P.O. Box 433, Grafton, WI 53024. Wisconsin residents should add appropriate state and county sales tax.