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Spring Steel on Lake Michigan Tributaries - Part II: Steelhead Streams

By Dan Small - April 1, 2012
Read Spring Steel on Lake Michigan Tributaries - Part I: Tackle and Tactics

Rainfall and runoff vary up and down the Lake Michigan shoreline, so the spring steelhead run may be in full swing on one river before it starts somewhere else. The southernmost rivers - the Pike, the Root, the Milwaukee and the Menomonee - usually see the first new fish in early March, and the run progresses up the shore to end in Door and Marinette counties sometime in May. Steelhead run up nearly every stream that feeds Lake Michigan. Some are crowded with anglers, others virtually unfished.

Kenosha's Pike River is a small stream that doesn't see as much pressure as the larger Root River in Racine. Get on the Pike in Alford Park just above the mouth or farther upstream where it crosses County Highways A or E. The Pike muddies up quickly after a rain, but clears in a few days. For local information, contact the Kenosha Area Chamber of Commerce: (262) 654-1234.

Guide John Matenaer coaches as Brad Small fights a steelhead on the Sheboygan River.
The Root River boasts the largest steelhead run of any Lake Michigan tributary. There is good public access in Lincoln and Colonial parks, and you can watch DNR fisheries crews take spawn in April at the Root River Steelhead Facility in Lincoln Park. More steelhead are planted here than on other streams to ensure that enough mature fish will return to supply eggs for future stockings. For local information, call the Racine Chamber of Commerce: (262) 634-1931.

In the Milwaukee area, the Milwaukee River, Menomonee River and Oak Creek are all worth fishing. The Milwaukee offers plenty of room, especially if you avoid the dams at Estabrook and Kletzsch parks, where steelhead and anglers tend to congregate. Above Kletzsch, fish are spread out along miles of river up to the dam in Grafton. Get on the river at bridge crossings in Milwaukee and Ozaukee counties.

In the shadow of Miller Park, the lower Menomonee offers good steelhead action, but the removal of a concrete drop structure and 1,400 feet of concrete has opened up 16 more miles of stream to migratory fish all the way to Menomonee Falls. Holes along the Menomonee River Parkway in Wauwatosa should hold fish if there is adequate runoff to bring them up.

Oak Creek needs a good rain each spring to blow out the sandbar at its mouth, but once that happens, this little stream fills with steelhead and anglers. For information on Milwaukee area streams, call the Fishin' Hole hotline, (414) 481-9090 or the DNR hotline for southern Lake Michigan, (414) 382-7920. For guide service, call Eric Haataja, (414) 546-4627,

Port Washington's Sauk Creek gets a good run of fish, now that a couple dozen lunker structures have been placed in the lower reaches to improve holding cover. DNR biologist Brad Eggert says the structures give steelhead a place to hide while they wait for increased flows to move upstream. Get on the stream at bridge crossings in town. The Sheboygan River flows through the famed Black Wolf Run golf course at Kohler, where it is off limits unless you purchase a River Wildlife membership. Some anglers launch canoes or belly boats at a public access above the Kohler Dam, portage around the dam and then keep their feet wet as they fish through the Kohler property. You're better off buying a membership or fishing public water in Sheboygan from the I-43 bridge downstream to Taylor Drive.

The Pigeon River flows through the northern section of Sheboygan, where it is accessible at road crossings, parks and Maywood Environmental Center. A smaller stream, its level fluctuates rapidly with runoff. When it is at moderate flow and fairly clear, fishing can be tremendous. At low or high levels, forget it. For guide service on Sheboygan area streams, call John Matenaer, (920) 254-4628,

The Manitowoc is another stream that depends on runoff to hold fish above the harbor. My favorite stretch is way upstream at Lower Cato Falls County Park. It's a long walk down a wooden stairway to the river, but once there, you can fish upstream or down in relative seclusion. A bit farther north, the East and West Twin Rivers are also good spots to try. The dam in Shoto is a popular spot on the West Twin, but you'll find better fishing and less competition downstream. On the East Twin, several road crossings from Mishicot down to Manitowoc provide access. For local information, try the Manitowoc-Two Rivers Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (800) 627-4896.

Guide Eric Haataja and Ted Kirkpatrick caught and released these steelhead on the Milwaukee River.
The Kewaunee, like the Root, is home to a DNR egg-taking facility, so it boasts a heavy steelhead run. Public access here is good off several bridges where the river crosses county highway C. The Kewaunee offers a wild setting, reminiscent of the Lake Superior streams. There are some very deep holes, so wade carefully.

Near Algoma, the Ahnapee River and Silver and Stoney creeks all have decent spring steelheading. Heading up into Door County, you'll also find steelhead in a number of smaller streams, most notably Whitefish Bay, Hibbards and Heins creeks. For information on these streams, call the 24-hour hotline operated by Kevin Naze: (800) 626-3090.

Along the west shore of Green Bay, the Oconto, Peshtigo and Menominee rivers are all good steelhead streams. The Oconto is wadable from the dam at Stiles downstream to Oconto. There are several access points along Stiles and North River roads. Steelhead also run up the Little River, a trib that joins the Oconto at Funk Road. The Peshtigo and Menominee are large rivers with bank fishing access in town below dams. For local information, try the Oconto County Economic Development and Tourism, (920) 834-6969; or the Marinette Area Chamber, (715) 735-6681.

Don't be surprised to see a few out-of-state plates along the more popular streams. With the possible exception of Michigan, to enjoy steelheading of the quality offered by Wisconsin's Great Lakes tributaries, you'd have to travel to the Pacific Northwest or east to Pennsylvania and New York's Lake Erie and Ontario tribs. Fortunately for us, we've got great steelheading right in our backyard.

Author Dan Small
Dan Small
Dan Small is host/producer of Outdoor Wisconsin on Public Television and Outdoors Radio. He is also contributing editor of Wisconsin Outdoor News. He has written several thousand articles for national, regional and state-based outdoor publications since 1972. Listen to his syndicated weekly radio show on stations throughout Wisconsin and here on Lake-Link. For more information visit
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