MILWAUKEE (MCT) - The fish surged 30 yards downstream, aided by a tongue of strong current, and gave no indication it would soon stop.
Since I had employed the two most desirable strategies - a tightened drag and deeply bent rod - with little result, there was no choice but to activate the emergency plan: Follow the fish.
I held the rod high and began a clumsy, splashing foot race with the fish. The odds weren't in my favor.
The fish had already taken me to the backing and had a sizable head start. At last glance my yellow fly line knifed through the water and disappeared perilously close to a downed tree.
And of course there was the obvious: I was a wader-encumbered man stumbling mightily in an effort to catch an animal doing what nature intended - swimming - in a river.
March Madness was alive and well.
While hordes of sports fans were glued to couches and bar stools last weekend watching college basketball, I joined a legion of anglers outdoors in celebration of another eagerly-awaited spring tradition: steelhead fishing in Lake Michigan tributaries.
Winter runoff helps draw steelhead (rainbow trout) into the rivers that line the Wisconsin shore. These annual spawning migrations provide some of the best angling opportunities of the year for shore and wading anglers.
For waddling anglers, not so much. My long-shot bid to catch up to the fish ended quickly. The fish, which I estimated to be a steelhead in the 10-pound range, continued to power downstream and snapped the leader as I struggled through knee-deep water.
I didn't despair.
The sun was out, the air was mild and I was spending part of Easter weekend looking for silver treasure that no chocolate egg, no buzzer-beating Cinderella-making shot, could ever equal.
My quest had started with a survey of rivers in southeastern Wisconsin. The conditions in and around most Lake Michigan tributaries last week were great - if you were a snowshoer or a white-water kayaker.
The Milwaukee River upstream of Capital Drive was roaring with brown water, pushing high on its banks, making it all but unfishable. The Root River in Racine was a bit high and more than a little crowded.
I circled back to the Menomonee River in Milwaukee.
It's a steelheader's alteration of the Goldilocks theme: too high, too low, just right.
And sometimes the stream with the best conditions is the one in a city's back yard.
Two days after a major snowfall, the Menomonee had not yet received a major slug of snowmelt and was in surprisingly good shape. The current was moderate, certainly not in flood stage, and the water ran slightly off-color, like a dark tea. The only significant negative was the temperature - about 37 degrees, cold enough to keep the fish relatively sluggish and less active than an angler would like.
So not perfect conditions but certainly fishable. Very fishable.
A quick glance at the river proved, in fact, steelhead were in the river. A pair of fish, dark against the lighter gravel bottom, finned in the current along Henry Aaron State Trail east of Miller Park.
In recent years, about 500,000 steelhead have been stocked annually in the Wisconsin waters of Lake Michigan by the DNR. The stocking covers a geographic range bigger than some European countries, spanning from Sister Bay in the north to the Pike River in the south.
Depending on conditions, steelhead can be found in the Menomonee River from its mouth up to Menomonee Falls. Most of the fish, however, are found in the mile of river downstream of Miller Brewing Company. Near the brewery the river flows through a channelized concrete riverbed that increases its velocity and provides little to no current break. The fish prefer to stay below this stretch in water that offers more natural river conditions, including slack water behind rocks and in pools.
The Menomonee is a river of contrasts, but rarely has that been more evident than last weekend.
As it flows to the lake through an industrial valley, the river witnesses graffiti-lined walls and abandoned factories. Its water is sullied by discarded shopping carts and urban runoff.
But, too, the river meanders past stands of hardwoods and newly restored banks. Last weekend the river was dressed in its Easter finest: The sun dappled like diamonds in the riffles, marshmallow snow blanketed the banks and striped the trees.
"A lot of people in the Milwaukee area don't know how good it is here," said Randy Hembrook of Neosho, one of about a dozen anglers fishing the Menomonee on Sunday near Miller Park.
Hembrook, a third-shift worker, tries to fish area rivers for steelhead two or three times a week this time of year. Like me, he decided the Menomonee offered the best chance last weekend.
"Once the water warms, we might get a bunch more action," said Hembrook, fishing large spey flies with a 13-foot fly rod. "For now, we might just pick up a fish here and there, but it's great to get out anyway."
My next action came later that afternoon. Casting a black stonefly nymph, I saw the flash of a fish and lifted the rod. The weight at the other end was pleasingly lively.
The fish took line upstream, then down, then settled into a stubborn posture in the pool at my feet. I was able to gain line over the next two minutes and work the fish - a 3-pound steelhead - into the shallows. I plucked the hook out of its mouth and took a few photos, then turned it into the current until it swam off.
I reeled in my line and began the hike back to the truck, satisfied with my choice of madness and reassured that, even in a dingy industrial corridor, the beauty and resilience of nature can shine through.
© 2008, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
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