Aug 10, 2017

“WORLD-CLASS”, FOR NOW…

By: Jeff T.

The brown seemed too big, way too big for the small fly that was the link between it and the end of my leader, and absolutely too big to rocket out of the water not once, but 3 times. I was worried about a couple things, the obvious, like would my tippet break or my small fly pull free. Also, the not so obvious, like would I be able to get a picture of this fish with the fly I tied secured in the corner of his mouth and then quickly and safely release him to grow even bigger.

The story does indeed end with me landing and quickly getting a memorable photo of a 34 plus inch brown trout before it swam off. The fish was thick across the back and deep in body, well into the teens in pounds but there were even bigger fish in the river.

Was I fishing for the sea run browns of Patagonia or maybe the sea trout of Iceland, no, for the most part those trips were outside of my budget. Plus, there was really no reason to contemplate such a trip or try and justify the expense, when these fish swam in waters relatively close to home. I am talking about the Wisconsin tributary waters of Lake Michigan and Superior.

The entire eastern shore of Wisconsin from the Illinois border north to the border of the upper peninsula of Michigan is home to many tributaries large and small that receive runs of brown trout, steelhead and salmon. Rivers like the Root, Milwaukee, Sheboygan, Manitowoc, Kewaunee, Oconto, Peshtigo and Menomonee along with many others, all to some extent receive runs of fish. 

Not to leave out the northwestern part of the state that borders Lake Superior. Many fine tributary streams are located here as well, the most notable, the Brule River. Sometimes referred to as the “River of Presidents”. Grant, Coolidge, Hoover, Cleveland and Eisenhower all visited the river with Coolidge spending the summer of 1928 staying on the river and fly fishing for its trout.

Historically, before Wisconsin received its statehood designation, most if not all of its tributary waters flowing into lake Michigan and lake Superior were free flowing streams (without dams), which had yet to experience any significant changes. The Great Lakes were for the most part an unspoiled cold water fishery. Species like brook trout, lake trout, whitefish, lake herring, lake sturgeon, perch, pike, bass and walleye even grayling and Atlantic salmon in some parts of the Great Lakes made up the bulk of the fishery that used the waters of the lakes and their tributaries. 

Much has changed since then; dams, pollution from many different sources, habitat loss, and invasive species issues, have all added to the degradation of water quality. For instance, the Bay of Green Bay, although still a great sport fishery, is more of a warm water species fishery than it once was, and our Lake Michigan brook trout have all but disappeared as well as some of the other species mentioned. However, awareness, regulation and cleanup efforts have helped improve much of the water quality over the last several years.

A major change took place when an explosion in an invasive species population, known as the alewife, were partially responsible for fishery biologist stocking Pacific salmon, rainbow and brown trout. Although records exist indicating that rainbow trout and brown trout were stocked into Lake Michigan as early as the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the majority of stocking of these new species into the Great Lakes began in earnest in the 1960’s. This in turn created a new era of salmon and trout sport fishing that continues to this day. 

There are many differences between the trout and salmon fisheries of the waters of the Badger State. The two species themselves are completely different. The salmon, chinook and coho, and as of late some pink salmon offer more opportunities as a fishery of the open waters of lake Michigan and Superior. There is natural reproduction occurring in some streams, this being supplemented by lake wide stocking. The salmon spend most of their 2 to 4 years of life in the open waters of the lake providing mostly summer boat fishing opportunities. At the end of their life cycle, they return to enter a tributary stream in the fall to spawn and within a few short weeks they die. They do offer a short window of fishing opportunity to the stream angler when first entering the streams. 

The trout, especially the brown and rainbow (steelhead), in a lot of ways offer a different fishery than that of the salmon. The lake trout are different in that they are mostly pursued as a lake species. Although the brown trout and steelhead are pursued and caught in the open waters of the lake as well, they could be considered the meat and potatoes species that a large user group of fisherman are interested in. It is estimated that the lake charter industry comprises about 15% of the lakes fishing user groups. The rest of the fishing population is comprised of private boat fisherman, shore, pier, harbor and stream or river fisherman. 

To this larger user group the brown trout and steelhead are especially important. These two species, along with brook trout (not all that long ago) provide numerous opportunities to the inshore angling community. These trout are 2 to 3 times longer lived than the salmon and can be found for the most part near shore, in harbors and streams, and rivers during all 4 seasons of the year. Furthermore, they don't die after spawning and can return to the streams and rivers both fall and spring several times during their life cycle. The ability to spawn repeatedly offers greater sport fishing opportunities to inshore anglers. 

Current information suggests that not a lot of successful spawning occurs in the warmer waters of many of the eastern Wisconsin streams. However, that’s not the case for all streams, especially some of the small spring fed streams and cooler larger streams to the north. The Brule River being a prime example of a self-sustaining fishery. There is currently a joint WI DNR/UW Stevens Point telemetry study underway on several small eastern Wisconsin tributary waters. This study is to evaluate steelhead habitat and natural reproduction. To date, there has been some natural reproduction noted in all 6 streams in the study. 

Overall fish populations of the lakes and their tributaries are considerably less than the glory days of stocking during the 80’s and 90’s, this being due to many reasons and issues which would require an additional long article to cover. A simple and broad answer would be a forage base decline of the waters of the lake, mainly alewife, and to a lesser degree, smelt, has required less predatory fish (trout and salmon) be stocked than in the past. This stocking had helped to sustain a fishery that does not have the water quality available to sustain itself by natural reproduction alone. 

There are some things we can do to help preserve this world-class cold water fishery we here in the Badger State have enjoyed and should be able to enjoy into the future. As mentioned earlier, studies are being done to determine streams with natural reproduction and then possibly incorporating special regulations to protect these nursery streams. Of course, as of late we have seen some old dam removal and other habitat improvements, which help to decrease water temps. Additionally, making our preferences known to fishery biologists should facilitate new strategies and fishery emphasis for future fishery management. 

With less fish available today, daily bag limit reductions should be considered. This has already been the case on Lake Superior’s steelhead and coaster brook trout as well as Lake Ontario's, salmon and steelhead. Catch and release, although not for everyone all the time, is a great way of preserving fishing opportunities and is common practice on many tributary waters. However, maybe the single biggest impact we can have is to contact our local legislators and let them know how important this world-class cold water fishery is to us. Tell them that we want to keep it that way, right here in our backyard.

Jeff Treu