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Badger State Trout Fishing

Badger State Trout Fishing

Wisconsin anglers just may not appreciate how much quality fishing we have for brookies, browns and rainbows. And then there's the beautiful scenery!

Wisconsin trout fishing expert Chris Halla casts a fly on a Grant County spring creek. The Holstein cows apparently don't mind sharing their turf with anglers. Photo by Dan Small

By Dan Small Wisconsin is a trout fishing mecca, with nearly 3,000 trout streams that course for over 10,000 miles through some of the prettiest country in the Badger State. Years ago when I lived in Bayfield County - fourth only to Marinette, Forest and Shawano counties in total miles of trout streams - I calculated that I could fish a different half-mile of stream three days per week for over a decade and still not fish all the trout water!

There were years back in the 1970s and '80s when I did fish for trout three or more days per week, but I ended up going to the same two or three streams because, then as now, I enjoyed fishing familiar water. Whether you like wading through waters you've fished many times or prefer to explore new streams, Wisconsin offers plenty of opportunities to do both without traveling far, no matter where in our state you live.

Perhaps the best news in Wisconsin's trout picture is that regulations have been simplified. Ever since the Department of Natural Resources went to the five-category system of classifying trout streams a decade or so ago, anglers have complained about the complexity of the rules.

"We found we could simplify things while still maintaining quality fishing," says DNR fisheries director Mike Staggs. "We eliminated the old Category 1 (10 bag, no size limit), reduced the number of different Category 5 special regulations and made the regulations the same on each stream where possible. We also adjusted regulations on some streams where our review indicated the old regulations weren't working."

As a result of the changes, 546 fewer waters are listed in the current trout regulations guide. Category 2 streams, marked in yellow in the regulations booklet, have a minimum size limit of 7 inches and a daily bag limit of five trout, regardless of species. Category 3 streams, marked in green, have a minimum size limit of 9 inches and a daily bag limit of three trout. Category 4 streams, colored blue in the guide, have a 12-inch minimum size limit for browns and rainbows, and an 8-inch minimum size for brook trout, with a daily bag of three trout. Category 5 streams, marked in red, have special regulations that vary by specific water. This group includes tributary streams to Lake Superior and Lake Michigan that support spawning runs of trout and salmon. It also covers streams with fly-fishing-only and catch-and-release stretches, as well as certain lakes that harbor trout.

Waters are listed alphabetically by county. If a lake or stream does not appear in the listings, refer to the category listed immediately following the county name for "all waters not listed." Special regulations for Category 5 streams are detailed in the listings.


The latest edition of DNR publication Wisconsin Trout Streams lists 254 more streams and 809 more miles of trout water since 1980. Most of these are located in the southwestern and west-central parts of the state. Staggs credits improved farming and land-use practices, expanded trout habitat improvement work funded by trout stamps, and increased stocking of wild-strain trout.

Trout regulations guides are available at all license outlets. The regulations guide, trout stream maps and Wisconsin Trout Streams can also be downloaded from

In addition to the regulations categories, all Wisconsin trout streams are placed into one of three classes for management purposes.

Class 1 streams are the highest-quality waters, with sufficient natural reproduction to sustain wild trout populations at or near carrying capacity. Generally small headwater streams, these waters are not stocked with hatchery trout. They make up 40 percent of Wisconsin's trout stream mileage. Class 2 streams may have some natural reproduction, but stocking is required to maintain a sportfishery. These streams have good carryover of adult trout and often produce larger fish. They comprise 45 percent of our state's trout stream mileage. Class 3 streams are marginal trout habitat with no natural reproduction. They require annual stocking to provide trout fishing, because there is generally no carryover from one year to the next. Class 3 streams comprise 15 percent of the total trout stream mileage.

Wisconsin's nine trout hatcheries and two cooperative rearing operations produce almost 2 million trout each year for stocking in inland lakes and Class 2 and 3 streams. Legal-sized yearling trout are stocked just before and during the early part of the trout season to ensure a good return of stocked fish.

Where survival conditions are good, fingerling trout measuring 3 to 6 inches are stocked in late summer or early fall. Fingerlings are less expensive to stock and more likely to survive to their second year or beyond. Trout spawned from wild parents have been stocked in some Class 2 streams and have shown better survival than domestic hatchery trout. Wild trout now comprise about a third of the total trout stocked in inland waters.

With more miles of trout streams than anyone could fish in a lifetime, you could almost throw a dart at a state map and stick a stream worth fishing. To help you refine your choice, though, let's look at a dozen of the best from all over the state.

Grant County Spring Creeks
Grant County has only 63 miles of trout water, but some of the finest spring creeks in the Midwest.

Spring creeks maintain nearly even water temperatures throughout the year and are cool enough even on hot summer days to keep trout active. Three of the best are Big Green River, Blue River and Castle Rock Creek, all located in the northern part of the county, a short distance from Fennimore. These are all Category 5 streams, with special regulations that vary from one stretch to another.

The Big Green River flows northwest along Highway K from near Fennimore to the Wisconsin River. From Highway 133 upstream to Highway T, only artificial lures can be used, and all trout caught must be immediately released. Upstream from Highway T, the daily bag limit is three trout, but only trout between 10 and 13 inches may be kept.

The Blue River flows north from near Montfort to the Wisconsin River. From Biba Road upstream to Snow Bottom Road and upstream from Bluff Road to the headwaters in Iowa County, the size limit is 12 inches and the da

ily bag is two fish. The stretch from Snow Bottom Road upstream to the county line is an artificials-only, no-kill zone.

Castle Rock Creek, also known as Fennimore Fork, flows northeast from just east of Fennimore to the Blue River. It is broader than either the Big Green or the Blue, with alternating gravel runs and slow pools shored up with riprap. From Witek Road upstream to the second Highway Q bridge, the size limit is 12 inches and the daily bag is two trout. The stretch from the second Highway Q bridge upstream to Church Road is a no-kill, artificials-only zone.

West Fork Kickapoo River
The West Fork of the Kickapoo is a good example of a coulee stream where trout fishing has improved dramatically, thanks to habitat improvement and catch-and-release regulations. Manmade habitat structures coupled with a rock-rubble bottom, deep holes and plenty of snags give brown trout a lot of places to hide and grow big.

The West Fork flows south along Highway S in Vernon County from the county line just south of Cashton to Readstown, where it joins the Kickapoo proper. From Highway 82 upstream to Highway S and Bloomingdale Road, the West Fork is a no-kill, artificials-only Category 5 stream. Above and below that stretch, it is a Category 3 stream. Flyfishers love the no-kill stretch, while spin-anglers do well on big trout below Highway 82. Several small tributaries offer good brook trout fishing. It's a good idea to release the brookies, because they will hit nearly anything and provide sparkling action.

Black Earth & Mt. Vernon Creeks
These two Dane County streams offer topnotch trout fishing less than a half-hour from downtown Madison, so they are heavily fished. Natural reproduction sustains good numbers of wild browns in both, while rainbows are stocked in the lower stretch of Black Earth Creek. Mt. Vernon also has wild brookies. Easements and state-owned land along both streams provide good access from the highways that border them.

Black Earth Creek meanders west through farmland along Highway 14 between Cross Plains and Black Earth, then on to Mazomanie and the Wisconsin River. Its water is often slightly turbid. Except for a no-kill, artificials-only stretch from Park Street upstream to South Valley Road, Black Earth Creek is Category 3 water. Tributaries Garfoot and Vermont creeks also harbor browns and brookies.

From the confluence of two brook trout streams, Deer Creek and Frye Feeder, Mt. Vernon Creek flows southeast through hilly farmland along Highway 92 to join the Sugar River near Highway A. Springs keep its water cold and clear even in summer. The bottom varies from sand and gravel to clay in the lower portion. Deep holes and woody debris provide good cover for big browns.

Kinnickinnic River
The Kinnickinnic flows southwest from central St. Croix County into Pierce County at River Falls on its way to the Mississippi. The upper river flows through miles of farm country, but fences keep cattle out of its clear water. Natural reproduction sustains a high population of browns. DNR easements and road crossings provide good access. The lower river flows through a steep, wooded canyon. Trout here are less abundant, but larger. Public access is limited to Glen Park below the dam in River Falls and the Highway F crossing in Kinnickinnic State Park. The entire river is a Category 5 stream, with a daily limit of five trout under 10 inches, or four under 10 inches and one over 14 inches.

Buffalo River
The Buffalo River holds good numbers of brown trout, including some big fish. The North and South Forks of the Buffalo rise in northwestern Jackson County and flow east into Trempealeau County, where they meet in Osseo, then west along Highway 10 to Strum, where the trout water ends, and on to the Mississippi at Alma in Buffalo County. For 35 miles, both forks and the main stem offer some of the best trout fishing in western Wisconsin for both browns and brookies.

Access is good at bridge crossings and several state parking areas along Highway 10 and Highway B in both counties. The river is Category 4 water, except for a stretch of the main stem in Trempealeau County from Highway O downstream to Town Road, which is Category 5, no-kill, artificials-only water.

Namekagon River
From Cable in southern Bayfield County downstream to Hayward in Sawyer County, the Namekagon - Gordon MacQuarrie's favorite river - offers over 20 miles of superb trout water. The Seeley stretch, between Pacwawong and Phipps flowages, holds some enormous browns.

A wading staff is a good idea, because some holes are over a person's head. The river flows along Highway 63, where there are numerous access points. Wild brookies inhabit the upper reaches from Highway M in Cable down to Pacwawong, while brown trout dominate from here downstream. In warm weather, you can still catch some nice brookies in several tributaries. Above the Pacwawong dam, the river is Category 3 water. From Pacwawong dam downstream it is Category 5, with an artificials-only stretch, a no-kill stretch and a stretch that is open year-round with varying harvest and lure rules. Check the regulations for details.

Plover River
The Plover rises near the Langlade-Marathon county line and flows southwest through eastern Marathon County. Trout water ends at the Highway 153 crossing in Bevent.

Springs keep the river cold in summer, and trout stamp funds have paid for habitat improvement work. It is full of wild browns and brookies, along with stocked rainbows. The upper third is narrow and brushy, while the lower stretch is broad and open. Much of the upper river flows through state-owned land, with good access at well-marked parking lots. Bridge crossings provide access on the lower river.

This is a Category 4 stream, except for a Category 5 stretch from Highway Z upstream to the Totten Springs outlet, where only artificials may be used and the daily bag limit is three trout between 10 and 13 inches.

Prairie River
Probably best known for producing the state-record 9-pound, 15-ounce brook trout back in 1944, the Prairie River still offers good trout fishing.

Rising in three boggy lakes west of Elcho in Langlade County, the Prairie flows southwest along Highway 17 to join the Wisconsin River at Merrill. Two dams were removed in the past decade, so the Prairie now flows freely for the first time in 100 years. Wild brookies are common in the upper main stem and the North Fork, while stocked browns, brookies and rainbows inhabit the lower stretches.

Get on the river at numerous state accesses along Highway 17. The entire river is Category 4 water, except for the Category 5 stretch from R&H Road downstream to Highway 17 in Lincoln County, where only artificials are allowed and the daily bag is one brown trout over 18 inches or one brookie or rainbow over 12 inches.

Wolf River
The northeast is chock ful

l of great trout streams, but the Wolf stands alone among them. From its confluence with the Hunting River near Pearson in northern Langlade County downstream to the Menominee Indian Reservation, the Wolf offers 34 miles of great trout fishing. There are brook trout in the Hunting and several other colder tributaries, but browns and some rainbows take over as you go downstream on the Wolf.

There is good access all along Highway 55. The river is easily wadable from Pearson to Lilly, but from Lilly to the Menominee line, it is a big, brawling Western-style river that many anglers prefer to float in rubber rafts and then get out to fish the prime holes.

Most of the Wolf is Category 4 water from May through September. From Oct. 1 through Nov. 15, the entire river is artificials-only, no-kill water. The stretch from the Soo Line bridge to Drake's Irrigation Hole is no-kill all season.

* * *
No one would pretend that these are the only streams worth fishing for trout, or that they are the very best the Badger State has to offer. They do provide variety, though, both geographically and from the perspective of the kind of water they represent, and they are worthy of at least one trip this season.

(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. To order, send $45.95 to Outdoor Books, P.O. Box 433, Grafton, WI 53233. Wisconsin residents should add appropriate state and county sales tax. Dan Small also has a Web site at:

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