Dec 10, 2018

Fly Fishing Wisconsin’s Fall & Winter Trout Season

By Jeff Treu

It’s more difficult for me to get around as well as getting myself motivated to get out and fly fish during the cold days of late fall and early winter. In spite of this, I found myself wading the cold December waters of a Wisconsin Lake Michigan tributary on a windy 23-degree day.

The blowing wind wrapping around my hood was a reminder of how cold the air was as it swept across my face, and chilled the exposed finger tips protruding from my wool fingerless gloves. A necessary evil I needed to endure in order to get a good grip on the icy fly line, to help me work the big streamer through the deep pool.

Although the water was warmer than the air, I could still feel its penetrating cold through my waders. The extra layers of clothing were barely a match for the air or water on this day.

The silver lining being I had the stream all to myself. Of course, I did. Who else would be out here on a day like this?

Big opportunity

I began wondering if I was the only one who would have believed I wasn't really crazy. Then a sudden pull on the streamer as it swung along the bottom of the dark pool, and suddenly all my nonsensical thoughts of the cold were gone.

I was more worried about keeping the steelhead – or to some, a migratory rainbow – that attached itself to the end of my leader from making a quick run downstream and busting my knuckles on the free-spinning reel handle in the process. The click-and-pawl mechanism now produced its familiar song as the fish continued to head for new territory. It’s what I’ve come to expect from a steelhead: electric, hard fighting and unpredictable.

This time luck was on my side and I was able to beach it, get a quick photo, and safely release the fish to grow bigger and to provide a memory for someone else again someday.

The fish was not uncommon in size, or for that matter, that it was in the river at this time of year. However, it was a bit uncommon to be fly fishing for trout in Wisconsin when the inland trout season is typically closed.

The difference was that I was fishing one of Wisconsin’s tributary streams that dumped into Lake Michigan. Many of these streams and rivers are open to fishing year-round from the mouth up to the first dam or fish barrier. Always check the state’s fishing regulations concerning the waters and species you desire to fish, because there are exceptions.

The early fall brings salmon into many of these rivers, but this window of opportunity is short as these fish quickly spawn and then decay to the point of dying a few short weeks afterward. By early November, many of these streams have begun to transform into trophy trout fisheries. Big migratory brown and rainbow trout now enter these streams. The urge to spawn and the availability of food mostly in the form of eggs and flesh from the spawned and dead salmon cause the migratory drive of these big trout to kick in. And so the journey begins from the big lake to the streams and rivers.

There are other factors like water levels and temperatures that factor into the migration equation. Rising water and falling water temperatures at this time of year almost always bring some fresh fish into the many inland water systems. The brown trout are late fall spawners and many remain in the larger rivers well into winter and even in many cases until spring ice out. Steelhead will enter the streams and rivers in November and December as well. Many winter under the ice to become some of the first late winter and early spring spawners, which are followed by another wave of steelhead that enter these same rivers to spawn in the spring.

Braving the elements

Fly fishing at this time of year is all about the weather. It’s about how well you, your body and especially your toes and fingers can hold up in this cold weather environment.

You will also have to deal with the problem of your line guides plugging with ice and finding open river water to fish. Always avoid iced over stretches of river for obvious safety reasons. Streams with good ground water – although few and far between – offer open water fishing. Stretches of river below dams usually stay open most of the winter.

Fishing in cold weather and cold water necessitates a few changes in gear. Other than the obvious, more layering and warmer clothing, the biggest focus should be on your wading gear.

This time of year I trade in my lace-up wading boots for a pair of breathable, insulated bootfoot waders. Usually only my toes get to the point of being intolerably cold and the insulated attached bootfoot solves this problem. Neoprene waders are also an option, but I find the breathable bootfoot’s lightweight and easier to walk in.

Target bigger rivers and stretches of pleasant or unseasonably nice weather. Avoid the fast water and look for deeper slots, runs or pools.

There are really two fly fishing options this time of year. The first for those that like to drift fish a nymph, wet fly or egg pattern. The other, for those like myself that like to swing a streamer or Spey-style fly. Regardless of your preference, you will need to fish slow and deep. Fish are lethargic in water temperatures in the mid-30s, so patience and attention to detail can pay big dividends. If you’re willing and prepared, fly fishing at this time of year can lead to not only some memorable trout, but also some rewarding winter days pursuing a passion instead of having to wait for the warm weather of spring to fish open water.

I think we are truly blessed to have the opportunity to fish for these migratory species right here in the Badger State. If you get out and feel the same way about these tributary fisheries, consider contacting your local fishery managers and state legislators.

Although several of these Lake Michigan tributary fisheries are still fairly productive, sadly the trend has been declining since about 2012. The return of fish to these streams is directly dependent on stocking, and the number of fish stocked has been steadily decreasing since about 2008. Reasons are many, but your enjoyment and participation in this fishery could once again put an emphasis on its value to the fishing public.

So don’t store your fishing gear just yet. There are surely still some mild days ahead and big trout waiting for you to pay a visit.