If you know where to look, our rivers and streams provide some outstanding fishing for brookies, browns and rainbows. Our trout expert points you in the right direction. (May 2006)
Wisconsin is one of the Midwest's premier trout-fishing destinations, with over 10,000 stream miles of trout habitat in dozens of watersheds throughout the state. Many out-of-state anglers come here to fish for trout, while relatively few residents take advantage of our great trout fishing, preferring instead to focus on fish with hard scales, sharp teeth or big mouths.
Some setbacks in recent years -- most notably manure spills and budget cutbacks -- have knocked trout-fishing opportunities down a notch or two, but Department of Natural Resources' coldwater fisheries ecologist Larry Claggett said Wisconsin's trout fishery is resilient, and he's optimistic about trout fishing in the Badger State this season.
State budget cuts in 2003-04 had a minor impact on trout fishing last year. Fewer and smaller fish were stocked in the 10 percent or so of streams that are normally stocked each year, and some anglers no doubt abandoned those streams last year in favor of unstocked streams, which could have increased the harvest of wild trout. Funding for stocking trout was restored last year, but the impact won't be fully felt for another year or so because hatchery officials had not anticipated more money would be available, and so they raised fewer fish than they had in past years. Stocking should be back to normal in 2006, Claggett said. Stocking information is online at www.dnr.state.wi.us/org/water/fhp/fish/pages/stocking.
Although heavy rains last fall and snowfall early last winter helped recharge many watersheds, low water levels caused problems in a few streams in 2005. Industrial pumping for a gravel-washing operation affected several small streams near La Crosse last year, Claggett said. These streams are important spawning tributaries to major watersheds, so the pumping is currently under review. In Portage County, the Little Plover River actually dried up last year when high-capacity wells pumping water for irrigation and a municipality drew down the water table there.
"We found pools with dead fish," Claggett said. "They'll come back, probably, but it took a hit for sure. It's not a big stream to begin with."
After a major revamping of trout fishing regulations a couple of years ago, Claggett said only minor changes will appear in the 2006-07 regulations booklet, which is available at all license outlets. In one statewide change, the cost of an inland trout stamp went from $7.50 to $10.
"This was mainly an inflationary increase to allow us to keep doing the work we were doing before," Claggett said. "All interest groups supported the increase."
Revenues from the sale of trout stamps and conservation patron licenses raise over $1 million each year for stream habitat work. Since the program began in 1979, it has funded improvements on more than 600 miles of stream.
DNR fisheries biologists monitor fish populations and habitat quality on an ongoing basis in streams across our state. That data, some of which is available online, provides a good snapshot of trout numbers and sizes in most major streams.
Despite tight fiscal times, the state continues to purchase land and easements to provide access to trout streams. Over the years, the DNR has acquired almost 120,000 acres of fishery lands and stream easements, and all can be found online at www.dnr.wi.gov/maps. Click on DNR Managed Lands.
Here's a look at some of Wisconsin's top trout streams and what you can expect from them this season.
Wisconsin's Coulee Country -- also known as the Driftless Area because the last glaciers bypassed it and thus it is without glacial deposits, or drift -- is home to dozens of fine trout streams. Rich in nutrients and fed by numerous springs, most of these are small hill-country streams that flow through a mix of wood lots and farmland on their way to the Mississippi, Wisconsin or Rock rivers.
Numerous stream-improvement projects have been conducted in the area in the last several decades by DNR fisheries crews and private groups. A large-scale project called the Driftless Area Restoration Effort (DARE) will continue this work. Funded by a conservation grant from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Sport Fish Restoration Fund and coordinated by Trout Unlimited, DARE will support trout-stream improvement in Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota, as well as Wisconsin.
Driftless Area streams offer some of the best fishing for big wild trout you'll find in Wisconsin, and three Grant County streams are among the best of them. The Big Green River flows northwest along Highway K from Fennimore to the Wisconsin River. The Blue River flows north from Monfort to the Wisconsin River. Castle Rock Creek -- also known as Fennimore Fork -- flows northeast from Fennimore to the Blue River. Sections of all three have special regulations with larger size limits and no-kill artificials-only stretches. I have seen brown trout up to 28 inches caught and released on the Castle Rock.
Contact: Grant County Tourism, www.grantcounty.org.
Three Vernon County streams are also among the top trout waters of the Driftless Area. Timber Coulee, a tributary to Coon Creek, flows west along the Vernon-La Crosse County line. Major in-stream habitat work has produced good holding cover for big trout. Trout over 12 inches must be released, so there is a good chance you'll catch a "photo fish." The North Fork and South Fork of the Bad Axe River and numerous small tributaries offer miles of good trout water accessible at numerous bridge crossings between Viroqua and Genoa. The Kickapoo River, most notably its West Fork, also harbors some big trout. The West Fork Sportsmen's Club has done a lot of work on portions of the river. A long stretch of the West Fork above Highway 82 is no-kill artificials-only water.
Contact: Avalanche General Store, (608) 634-2303.
The Rush River rises west of Highway 63 in St. Croix County and meanders south through Pierce County to join the Mississippi at Maiden Rock. A sizeable stream with miles of riffle-pool water and some delightful scenic valleys and limestone outcrops, the Rush is home to some brown trout that grow to proportions big enough to attract anglers from across the Midwest. Bridge crossings provide good access. Plan to fish on a weekday if you can, because the river sees a lot of anglers on weekends.
The Rush is a fertile stream, with an abundance of insects and othe
r invertebrates to feed the browns, brookies and rainbows that live here. Hatches include Blue-Winged Olives, Sulphurs, Caddis, Hendricksons and Tricos. Spin-fishers should find it an easy river to work, because it is wide and open in most places.
If you can plan a several-day trip, stay overnight in River Falls and spend at least one day fishing the Kinnickinnick River, Pierce County's other great trout stream. All Pierce and St. Croix county streams are open during both the regular and early seasons.
Contacts: Partners in Tourism, Ellsworth, 1-800-4-PIERCE; Lund's Hardware, River Falls, (715) 425-2415, online at www.lundshardware.doitbest.com.
The Mecan is a river of surprises, but none so great as what greeted trouters on opening day in 1994 when a dead hippopotamus was found floating in a deep pool. The critter had escaped from a local game farm/zoo, and the owner shot it on the eve of the trout opener when he was unable to recapture it and feared it would attack an angler. More conventional surprises include an excellent population of wild browns, brookies and rainbows. The browns run big, but they are hard to catch. Night-fishing is popular during the annual Hexagenia hatch in summer.
The Mecan begins at Mecan Springs north of Highway 21 and flows southeast into Marquette County to the Fox River north of Lake Puckaway. There are about 10 miles of trout water in Waushara County and another six in Marquette County. There is good access at bridge crossings and state fishery areas.
Waushara County is home to over 30 more trout streams. The best known among them are the White, Pine and Willow. When conditions are not right on one, you should find good fishing on another.
Contacts: Wild Rose Fly Shop, (920) 622-4522; Waushara County Chamber of Commerce, (920) 787-7272.
Located north of Antigo in Langlade County, the East Branch of the Eau Claire River boasts 17 miles of trout water, most of it loaded with wild brook trout. Abundant holding water and in-stream cover -- together with a rich diversity of invertebrates -- help brookies routinely grow to 12 inches or longer, a rarity these days.
EAST BRANCH EAU CLAIRE RIVER
Located north of Antigo in Langlade County, the East Branch of the Eau Claire River boasts 17 miles of trout water, most of it loaded with wild brook trout. Abundant holding water and in-stream cover -- together with a rich diversity of invertebrates -- help brookies routinely grow to 12 inches or longer, a rarity these days. Chris Halla, author of Wisconsin Blue-Ribbon Trout Streams and as honest a trout fisherman as you'll ever meet, claims he saw several very large brookies here on a September trip. The most productive waters lie between highways 45/47 and 64, Halla said.
Fly- and spin-fishermen alike should do well in the river's runs and pools. Hatches include Hendrickson, Sulphurs, Blue-Winged Olives, Caddis, Cahills and Tricos. Tiny Mepps spinners in gold and copper should draw strikes from eager brookies.
Contact: Antigo/Langlade Chamber of Commerce, 1-888-526-4523, or www.antigochamber.com.
The Plover River rises a few miles south of Antigo in Langlade County and meanders southwest through Marathon County and into Portage County, where its trout water pretty much ends. Along the way, it offers 25 miles of good trout fishing, with plenty of access points at bridge crossings and state fishery areas. Much of the river is wide, making casting easy, but there are a few places where muck makes wading difficult.
In 2004, in cooperation with landowners and Trout Unlimited, the DNR gave the Plover an extreme makeover when it restored nearly a mile of river upstream from Highway 153, according to fisheries biologist Tom Meronek. The work included installing 14 wing deflectors, two islands, three plunge pools and 300 large boulders, along with logs and other woody debris. Several springs were also cleaned out to increase their flow. The work decreased the stream channel from 78 to 50 feet and deepened it from 1.28 to 2 feet on average.
"The river channel had filled up with sediment and widened as a result primarily of past farming practices," Meronek said. "The stream bottom is now a mixture of sand and gravel, and average water flows have increased."
Chris Halla said the river has good hatches of Sulphurs, Caddis and Blue-Winged Olives, along with Brown Drakes and Hexagenia in summer. The Plover's trout are wary and selective. The upper river supports wild browns and brookies, while the lower river holds mainly browns. The stretch from Highway Z upstream to the outlet of Totten Springs is an artificials-only section, with a daily bag limit of three trout from 10 to 13 inches. This is a good spot to try for a big fish.
Contacts: Gander Mountain, Wausau, (715) 355-5500; Wausau Region Chamber of Commerce, (715) 845-6231, or www.wausauchamber.com.
The Namekagon begins at the outlet of Lake Namekagon in Bayfield County and flows southwest for 100 miles to the St. Croix River. Protected since 1968 as a federal Wild and Scenic River, the Namekagon offers Western-style big-river fishing for outsized browns. The 20 miles from Highway M to Hayward are trout waters, with wild brookies in the upper reaches and mainly browns below Pacwawong. Below Hayward, you may catch a smallmouth, walleye, muskie or catfish.
Protected since 1968 as a federal Wild and Scenic River, the Namekagon offers Western-style big-river fishing for outsized browns. The 20 miles from Highway M to Hayward are trout water, with wild brookies in the upper reaches and mainly browns below Pacwawong.
The Namekagon moves right along and it carries a load of water, so bring a wading staff and watch your step. Several bridges and pull-offs provide access along Highway 63 between Cable and Hayward. There are three Category 5 stretches in Sawyer County with a maze of regulations to promote trophy opportunities, so check the regulations booklet carefully.
Contacts: St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, (715) 483-3284; Pastika's Sports, 1-800-244-2159, or www.pastikas.com.
BOIS BRULE RIVER
The best known of all Wisconsin trout streams, Douglas County's Bois Brule has two distinct personalities. It begins a few miles from the headwaters of the St. Croix and meanders for 30 miles through alder swamp, cedar bog and wooded upland. It changes character abruptly near Highway 2, where rock ledges and clay banks speed it along its last 19 miles to Lake Superior. The headwaters
hold brook trout, the middle miles are some of the best brown trout water in the state, and the lower stretch offers superb angling for lake-run steelhead, browns and salmon.
Many anglers use canoes to fly-fish for big browns at night, but there are abundant daytime hatches as well, and the Brule's trout won't turn up their noses at a spinner or drifted worm.
For its entire length, the river flows through Brule River State Forest, but most of the shoreline is grandfathered in private ownership. Some lodges have stood for nearly a century. Access is provided at bridge crossings and state-owned landings. Camping is available in the state forest. Season dates and regulations vary along the river, so check the regulations booklet before you fish.
Contacts: Brule River State Forest, (715) 372-4866; Brule River Classics, (715) 372-8153, or online at www.bruleriverclassics.com.
The many branches of this fine river cover a large portion of the county by the same name and add up to over 100 miles of what Chris Halla calls "a spider web of prime trout water." Start anywhere on the North Branch, South Branch, First South Branch, Second South Branch or the Oconto itself where these branches finally merge, and you should find good fishing for all three trout species.
If its brookies you're after, try one of the numerous smaller tributaries. If you're into camping, you'll love the North Branch, which flows through the Nicolet National Forest where several campgrounds border the river. Bridge crossings and public fishery areas provide access, but parts of all the branches are rather hard to get to, which increases the possibility of big fish.
In 2004, DNR fisheries and U.S. Forest Service crews removed two logging dams built in the 1880s on the North Branch near Lakewood. Trout stamp revenues funded the project, which received an award from the federal government.
"This effort will improve water temperatures for native brook trout in the previously impounded reach and will benefit downstream areas for five to 10 miles," said DNR Northeast Region fisheries expert Lee Meyers.
Most of the Oconto system is Category 2 water, with a five-fish bag limit and 7-inch size limit. Portions of the South Branch and First South Branch are Category 4. The South Branch from Highway AA downstream to Highway 32 is Category 5, with a one-fish limit (brookies and rainbows, 12 inches; browns, 18 inches) and artificials only. The upper reaches and tributaries are most easily fished with spinning gear, while downstream stretches are more conducive to fly-fishing. Local fly-fishers wouldn't think of stepping into the Oconto without a Pass Lake dry fly, which is a great pattern for prospecting when there is no hatch. Halla said caddis hatches can be awesome as well.
Contacts: Tight Lines Fly-Fishing Company, De Pere, (920) 336-4106, or online at www.tightlinesflyshop.com; Oconto County Tourism, 1-800-297-4343, or www.ocontocounty.org; Nicolet National Forest, (715) 362-1300, or www.fs.fed.us/r9/cnnf.
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We have only cataloged a few hundred of Wisconsin's 10,000 miles of trout water. The trout regulations guide lists them all. Give Badgerland trouting a try this season and start your own list of favorite stretches!
(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).