Stephen Rose and I met up Saturday on the Milwaukee River to see if we could land a big migrating salmon. The tour of the Milwaukee River was eye-opening and interesting.
Our first stop was downtown Milwaukee. We met up at around 6:30am on Kilbourn Street and pulled our waders on within view of the Bradley Center. We were getting strange looks from those who were awake for the sunrise. We walked in our waders to the canoe launch pier at Pere Marquette Park and wet our lines. Stephen was using a spinning rig and I was fishing with a fly rod.
We fished for twenty minutes before realizing our chances at catching anything were very slim. The rule of thumb for catching migrating salmon seems to be that you have to see them to catch them. Well, there weren’t any salmon stacking up in this section of the river, so we moved on.
Next stop, just upstream of East Locust Street where there is a spillway. We thought perhaps the fish would be stacking up under the spillway to make their leap upstream. We saw big fish, but only about a dozen. Two other fishermen bugged out when we showed up and it didn’t look like their luck had come.
We fished here for about an hour before deciding to seek out better water.
Keep in mind, we had never tried this before. We had never seen salmon runs, seen or heard how to fish them, and we are not at all familiar with the Milwaukee River.
Our next stop was Estabrook Park. I had read about this spot on the river being popular with salmon fishermen. We parked on the north side of the park and found a very unpleasant scene.
We fished for a short while but we were so turned off by the junk we left for another location. Now if you’re going to fish Estabrook Park, fish it from the Capitol Drive Bridge upstream. Looking posthumously at the satellite images of the area and hearing from other fishermen on the river later in the day, the south side of Estabrook Park is far nicer and the salmon sightings there were very common and frequent. Now you know, and so do we!
Having no luck we decided to head up to Port Washington, where there were reports of salmon in the marina and into Sauk Creek. When we arrived, we found an almost still creek holding perhaps 50 very beat-up fish. The lack of rain made the creek impassable for the salmon. I would guess after a bit of rain this creek rises and the fish are able to get upstream to spread out, but we’ve been in a 4-week drought, so they were stuck in a 50-yard long section, fighting each other and trying to avoid being snagged by treble hooks. More than one fish had a lure hanging from it’s tailfin.
It wasn’t quite as crowded as a Disney fishing cartoon, but it was close. I tangled lines with the guy in the camo. He was very polite about it, thankfully.
One thing that struck me was that the fish being caught out of this spot, the fish that looked like they had lepresy, were being taken to eat. I heard more than one person say they would smoke the fish, but can the meat be any good? These fish are really rough-looking. How good can the meat be? If you know that it’s good, please tell me.
Another anecdote… A guy fishing in the marina said last week a person fishing in the creek was snagging fish and keeping them, which is illegal. You must “fair hook” the fish in the mouth to take it. If you hook it anywhere else you must release the fish. The gent by the marina said the fine is $750 for taking a fish that wasn’t fair hooked. WOW!
Here is a glimpse of the scene at the outlet of the river…
It’s a different kind of fishing than the kind I’m used to, which is in lovely spring-fed creeks in coulee country. The guys did finally get the fish and the net out of the water. The fish that were caught in the lake looked much healthier than those stuck in the creek. I think I would have eaten one.
Here’s a view of the salmon stuck in the creek.
We were not into the vibe in Port Washington that day. I love Port Washington, just not that spot on that day.
I will say, though, it was neat to observe the salmon in the creek doing their thing. They are big, mean predators whose hormones are driving them to survive for as long as possible. There was a lot of thrashing and fighting among the fish in the creek. I’m sure they’ll be happy to move upstream when the water rises (we had about 2″ of rain since Saturday, so that should help).
We ate lunch then drove down to Grafton, where I’d heard the salmon could go no further. The Bridge Street Dam there is where we fished. It’s a scenic spot with very good salmony-looking water, but we didn’t see any fish. I don’t think there’s been enough rain to allow the salmon to get up the river this far.
Stephen did find a few fishing lures, including a choice “John Deere” brand spoon.
The exciting news, according to my dad, is that the dam downstream of here in Lime Kiln Park, is being removed, and there will be a fish ladder installed at the Bridge Street dam, all in an effort to allow fish to pass further up the river. So in a year or two there should be some real opportunities to catch big lake fish in this stretch of the Milwaukee River. It will open up 158 miles of river to fish passage.
There was talk of taking out this dam altogether, which would have been really cool in my opinion, but it was voted down in favor of a fish ladder. Cool.
After some coffee at the Alterra shop in Grafton we drove up to the Cedarburg Bog, where I was sure we’d at least catch fish. Well, all we caught was this bluegill. I caught it on the first fly I made, a buzzer. That was it for our luck on the Cedarburg Bog. This is a cool place to visit, by the way.
I drove Stephen back to his car in Milwaukee and was headed back up to Cedarburg where my kids were staying with my parents, when I decided to try my luck at one more spot on the Milwaukee River.
Klesch Park is a place I had read about in the DNR fishing reports, so I thought it would be worth a look. It is a nice stretch of river with clear-running water. There is a 5-foot dam, below which salmon stack up. Downstream of the dam there is a good variety of shallow water and pools. The density of fishermen wasn’t too bad.
This sure beat the scene at Estabrook, and was way more pleasant than Sauk Creek. I spent about 30 minutes working on my casting form, using a roll cast to put the fly across the river to drift downstream into a hole where I’d seen salmon jumping.
Here’s video of a salmon swimming in the shallows.
I was absentmindedly casting when I felt a firm tug on the line. Fish On! I started to reel the fish in but it swam hard and spun my reel around in the opposite direction. This was my first experience with a fish that was strong enough to take line from me. Every other fish I’d ever caught was small enough that I could just muscle it in to my net. Not this one.
I fought it for about 10 minutes before I saw that I’d hooked it by the dorsal fin. I think this may have made it even more difficult to reel in because I couldn’t turn it’s head toward me. Here’s some video.
You can hear my reel spinning to let out line, and you can hear my line twanging under tension. You can also hear me grunting, trying to hold the fish.
The fish finally tired enough for me to bring it in. Even though I didn’t fair hook it, it was an exhilirating fight! And what a good looking fish.
Salmon fishing in the river is an interesting experience. There is the distinct odor of rotting fish, and indeed there are lots of carcasses lying here and there. We found busy fishing spots, but we also found sections of a pretty river in an urban landscape. As with most things, experience goes a long way. Now that I know where salmon are likely to be found, we should be able to land some salmon a bit more quickly next time out.
The experience is not as poetic or beautiful as fishing for spring creek trout in the coulees, but the tug on the end of the line is not something I’ll soon forget. I’ll be back for more as soon as I can get away!