Great Lake Tributaries
Wisconsin tributary fishing can be divided into two regions (Superior & Michigan) and divided again into two seasons, the Spring Run and the Fall Run. The reason it’s called a “run” is because the fish are “anadromous” meaning the fish swim up rivers in order to spawn and then spend most of their lives in large bodies of water like an ocean or a Great Lake. It’s when they make the runs up the rivers that they become the target of the fly angler.
Lake Michigan tribs can be almost magical when the conditions are right. The number and size of the fish make this type of fishing very addicting for some people. Salmon and Trout are maintained through stocking programs, there is no significant natural reproduction of Salmon or Trout in Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan tribs. In the early 60’s Wisconsin’s DNR started stocking Steelhead and Salmon in Lake Michigan in order to curb the exploding alewife populations and since then it has turned into a great fishery.
Spring time fishing on Lake Michigan tribs will typically start in March and run thru early May, that is when the Ganaraska and Chambers Creek Steelhead will make their run up the tribs. Condition of the water in the tributary plays a big role in when the fish start their runs and when the peak will happen. Temperature and flows are the biggest factors. The fish become more active when the water temps get into the upper 30’s and low 40’s. An active fish is more likely to take a fly. Ganaraska and Chambers Creek are not the only fish you will find in the springtime, you may also find Brown Trout or a Skamania Steelhead. No one is quite sure why these other strains run in the spring it may be that they just followed the other Steelhead in from the lake or they missed the chance to spawn last fall and need to do it now. The runs of each species will over lap each other, so don’t be surprised if you see more then one species in the river.
Spring run Brown from a Lake Michigan trib.
The last few years the DNR has worked on stocking a few different strains of Rainbow Trout. Arlee and Kamloops strains of Rainbow Trout have been stocked in Lake Michigan the last few years. The reason for these strains is to give the pier and shore fisherman more fishing opportunities. Some of these strains have also been showing up in the streams during the spring and fall. Time will tell if these new strains will become important to the fly fisherman.
Fall fishing on Lake Michigan tribs will start mid September and keep going until things ice up. Typically the first fish to show are the King Salmon (AKA Chinook salmon) they will show up in the tribs in great numbers. The DNR stocks more Kings than any other trib run fish. One thing about Kings is that they are not necessarily picky about which trib they will run up. So you will find them in many of the tribs that don’t get stocked with Kings.
After the Kings get going you will see Coho Salmon and some Steelhead show up, although their numbers will be far fewer than the Kings. Following them is the Brown Trout. Some of these Brown Trout are a different strain, that are anadromous and they are also much bigger. My opinion is that they are the best fish of the fall run. They can be easier to catch, run up the tribs in good numbers and are great fighters! As with the spring the runs will over lap, which can make for exciting fishing when you have Coho and big Brown Trout in the same river.
BoB_K working a fall run salmon
Lake Superior trib fishing is unique because some of the fish are wild! Just like much of the scenery. The Brule River has a run of Steelhead that naturally reproduces along with stocked Salmon and Trout. You won’t find many urban type fishing areas like you may see on the Michigan tribs, the streams are wild and remote. The Bois Brule in Douglas County has been fished by three US Presidents and has a long history.
The spring runs of Lake Superior tribs mostly consist of wild Steelhead or stocked Steelhead. The odd mixed up Brown or local resident Brown or brookie may also be caught. When the snow pack melts you want to keep an eye on the water levels. The water levels can get so high that many of the tribs can be un-fishable, but on the other hand the run off is one thing that can trigger the run. Use USGS web site to check on the Brule and other Lake Superior tribs.
Fall runs on Lake Superior tribs generally start in August. Most years the lake run Brown Trout will be the first to enter the rivers followed by Chinook Salmon, Coho Salmon and fall run Steelhead. Many of the techniques used for these different fish are similar. So the fall fishing can be exciting because you are still not be sure what you have hooked until you net it. In a normal year fishing will slow down by late November.
Don’t forget your shotgun because the upland hunting on the north shore in the fall can be a blast.