Mar 10, 2018
A New Season...Wisconsin Tributary Waters
By: Jeff Treu
The robbins and red wings have not yet returned but there are signs. And, as the sun seemingly begins its slow seasonal journey northward across the sky, winter finally begins to ease its stranglehold. Ice begins to melt and crack, crunching and scraping as it all eventually starts to move downstream with the ever increasing flow of water. Warming temperatures and southerly breezes dispatch the last of the remaining snow patches. Muddy spring runoff the color of milk chocolate aided by the first precipitation of the new year in the form of rain instead of snow, has rivers and streams rising quickly. The dirt and debris filled waters break free the ice's remaining grip along the shoreline, lifting it clear and then like a large conveyor belt, transporting it all to the lake.
Within a few short days the rivers have been transformed. Now still high and off colored, not quite ready for the fly fisherman but already communicating with the steelhead or migratory rainbows that, "The time has come." Those that haven't already entered the rivers months earlier to winter under the ice, now begin the journey upstream to join their brethren for the seasonal spawning run.
At best water levels will start to clear and slowly drop within a few days, inviting the fisherman. At worst, weeks may pass depending on spring weather, keeping the rivers in flood stage and the fisherman at bay. The steelhead, however, will not wait. As soon as the ice goes out, those that wintered under it will be the first to spawn. Deeply colored fish that have already spent plenty of time in the rivers just waiting for this day. Almost immediately they are joined by fresh chrome spring run fish driven unknowingly to complete the same journey for the same reasons.
So it begins, both small and large tributaries, flowing into Lake Michigan and Superior, will start to see the migration of what is the Wisconsin spring steelhead run. Steelhead are no strangers to cold water, early on after ice-out the number of fish entering these tributaries gradually increases. The trend naturally starting in the Badger state’s southern streams and working its way north, as rivers ice-out and begin to warm.
This can be a challenging time for the fly fisherman. Cold temperatures, high water, relentless spring rains all contribute to the degree of angling success. For most fly fisherman, challenge is part of the equation, if it wasn't, they probably wouldn’t attempt to fish under these conditions. But the steelhead is a special fish who doesn't care about what the conditions may be or even whether he busts your knuckles on the reel handle as he makes a screaming run downstream. He has more important matters to tend to at this time of year. So the fly fisherman makes an exception, trading the pleasant days of late spring and early summer, to chase this remarkable fish, in the usually remarkably bad conditions of late winter and early spring.
Early season demands keeping toes and hands warm, insulated waders and gloves are the norm. Standard fly fishing tackle would include the use of sink tips with spey flies and streamers, as well as weighted nymphs and egg patterns under an indicator. For those willing to endure the difficulties that come with early season steelhead, the rewards can be great. The new arrivals are the freshest fish of the season. Many are still chrome with only a hint of an iridescent pink stripe. The fish are powerful and electric at the end of an anglers line, often aided in the battle by the heavy currents of spring.
As the moody and unpredictable weather of March mellows, April then ushers in midseason. The time when trees are budding, grass is beginning to green and water levels are coming down while water temperatures are going up. The steelhead spawn is now in full swing. Fish are on gravel redds in prime runs of rivers and streams. It’s a time of overlapping, when some fish have already finished spawning and are starting their migration back to the lake, while others have only begun.
This is a more pleasant time for the fisherman and a time to seek active fish. It is best to leave spawning fish to their task and seek out those that have yet to begin or have already finished. These will be the most active fish and are most likely to be interested in a correctly presented fly. This is true especially with receding water levels, increased visibility and warming water temperatures. Search out deeper runs, pools and their tailouts which are the typical holding water of these active fish. Under these conditions, it’s now easier to control fly presentation. Furthermore, the steelhead metabolisms, now in sync with the warming waters, are more likely to cooperate with the fly fisherman’s way of thinking.
By the end of April into May, the season starts to wind down and, for the most part, spawning activity has ended. There is still a short window of opportunity for "drop back fish," steelhead that have begun their journey back to the lake. Fish recovering from the spawn, hungry, aggressive and likely to take a big fly swung in the current. This new season will shortly come to a close and the stream and river angler will have to wait until late fall to once again be reintroduced to the steelhead.
The steelhead may indeed be considered by many fly anglers to be the Badger state’s greatest sportfish. Speed and power combined with unpredictability and the ability to jump anytime and many times, along with its iridescent beauty makes this sportfish well worth the sometimes long distance travel, as well as the numb fingers and toes. Not native, but introduced to the state’s waters long ago, it has now become an integral member of Wisconsin's sport fishery.
Sadly, numbers and returns to many of the Badger state’s rivers and streams of this great fish have steadily declined over the last several years. Increased catch and release practice along with new management strategies could once again bring the steelhead back to prominence in Wisconsin waters. But, like many issues, it will take the public's voice contacting local fishery managers and state legislators alike. Which will also require the creation of an advocacy on behalf of this great sportfish. Once again the beginning of a “New Season” here in the Badger State……