Wisconsin's Open-Water Winter Trout

Twenty-six miles of Milwaukee River meander north and south from where Eric Haataja fishes in waders, another cloud of river bottom carrying downstream as rubber soles shuffle in a dance with the steelhead. A sole dance is a soul dance when a man loves the river, and the rainbows say "yes" so often, even in December, to his invitations to move about together on a gravel and mud floor.

Six times over the course of an hour the steelhead sting a homemade spinner. The dance progresses; Haataja opting for a careful two-step and begging to lead, the fish preferring a break dance that just might snap the line. Three times the fish wins and takes that freedom. Three times, Haataja wins and the fish is given its freedom anyway. But while the outcome still hangs in the balance, water breaks and current flows and sun sparkles off fish that only on occasion show themselves. Haataja smiles.

When the winter river angler packs safety first, then the proper gear, the expectation should be to catch fish. On the Milwaukee River that means steelhead, as well as walleye, smallmouth, pike and browns.

"Steelhead are fairly easy to catch if you have the right tackle and rods," Haatja notes. "I fish for a living and fish for just about everything. Every fall and winter, I have at least ten outings where we catch 20 or more river steelhead. It's a big, fighting fish and right at the top of my list. Spring fishing in these rivers is fabulous."

A longtime professional guide and charter captain, Haatja thinks that within ten years the Milwaukee River will surpass even the famous Root River in Racine as the premier Lake Michigan tributary for steelhead. Each spring, the Root, the Milwaukee and two dozen other Wisconsin tributaries from Marinette to Kenosha call anglers from throughout the Midwest to fish world-class Great Lakes’ rainbow trout. In winter (provided the water remains open), in spring and in fall, the rivers hold rainbows thanks to the Lake Michigan Steelhead Management Plan adopted by Wisconsin two decades ago.

According to Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Fisheries Biologist Matt Coffaro, three strains of steelhead introduced to Lake Michigan "run" or migrate upstream to spawn at different times of the year. Skamania, Chambers Creek and Ganaraska steelhead collectively assure excellent fishing opportunities for the shore and wading angler year round on the Big Lake's rivers.

Because Lake Michigan stream habitat is not conducive to successful natural spawning, sustaining the steelhead species requires a helping hand from the DNR at egg collection stations on the Root and Kewaunee Rivers. Rainbow eggs are collected and grown into six-inch "smolts" at the Kettle Moraine Springs Hatchery in Sheboygan County. The young fish then "imprint" on the specific tributary of release, spend each summer on the big lake battling charter captains and recreational anglers, then return again annually to their home stream to spawn. And the cycle continues.

"I was on the original Steelhead Plan management team in 1988," says Coffaro. "We had some very good rainbow trout fishing but we were looking for better performance and better fishing opportunities. The Skamania, Chambers Creek and Ganaraska strains gave us what we were looking for because each runs and spawns at different times. We also did an assessment of the streams so that the right strain of steelhead was matched with the right tributaries."

"In essence, the Steelhead Management Plan stretches out the opportunity for the anglers fishing the rivers," Coffaro says. "Weather permitting, we often see good tributary fishing through winter and right into May."

Domestic brown trout and the more recently introduced Seeforellen brown trout are no "second choice" fish. Seeforellens are a fantastic fighter that can be caught in the harbors from shore at weights greater than 20 and even 30 pounds. Haataja, in fact, is a regular visitor to the Milwaukee Harbor throughout the winter months and caught a near-record 30-plus pound Seeforellen brown there one New Years Day.

"The harbors will often stay open through the winter," says Coffaro. "The fish are there for the taking. Being from Milwaukee, and having played around here as a kid, I still can't believe today how you can catch these fish on the rivers and in the harbors of Lake Michigan. It's really something."

For updated information on southeast Wisconsin brown trout and steelhead opportunities contact the DNR Lake Michigan Hotline at 414/382-7920. For a great day on the water, contact Eric Haataja and Big Fish Guide Service at 414/546-4627 or www.wibigfish.com.

WISCONSIN LAKE MICHIGAN STEELHEAD STREAMS
(North to South)

  • Menominee River
  • Peshtigo River
  • Oconto River
  • Heins Creek
  • Hibbards Creek
  • Whitefish Bay Creek
  • Schuyler Creek
  • Stony Creek
  • Ahnapee River
  • Kewaunee River
  • East Twin River
  • West Twin River
  • Little Manitowoc River
  • Manitowoc River
  • Silver Creek
  • Seven Mile Creek
  • Pigeon River
  • Sheboygan River
  • Black River
  • Sauk Creek
  • Milwaukee River
  • Kinnickinnic River
  • Oak Creek
  • Root River
  • Pike Creek
  • Barnes Creek

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