I must admit that a sense of rage had begun to wash over me by mid-November. It had become readily apparent that my annual late fall assault on Milwaukee area tribs would be significantly hampered. Mother nature dealt us a cruel blow last fall by locking up the usual spots at a ghastly early date. I arrived in late March dead set on a rematch with the finned foes of beer town. To add insult to injury, my timing was off yet again, and I was shut out from my chrome filled dreams (see rule #23 Right time, right place).
I look forward to this trip as an attempt to squeeze in one last bit of sanity before fully switching over to winter mode. I eagerly tied up a mess of new flies and was dying to soak them in a bath of cheeseland PCB’s. But would my plans ever come to fruition? The wintery mix was in full effect upon departure from the greater Twin Cities metroplex. We all know that the actual act of angling is only one part of the equation. Between the daydreaming, planning and preparation, not to mention potential afterglow of a job well done, any fishing trip worth its salt will last for weeks if you play your mental cards correctly.
The greatest impediment to my angling success was the plummeting mercury. I made an early A.M. run downtown to do a quick survey of a half dozen spots. Depending upon the location of the thermometer, numerous meteorological sources were touting temperatures hovering between 10-14 degrees. This is where we separate the men from the boys. A few days earlier (and the two days following my excursion), I saw temps reaching into the mid to upper 40′s, but I wasn’t so lucky. Multiple online sources declared that many of the popular tributary spots are locked up for the season. Prior to my departure I stewed on how to approach the declining situation. I could sit back and decree “woe is me,” or I could fight the good fight. I chose the latter. I surveyed every nook and cranny of remaining open river water last year in search of transients, with little to show for my effort. This year I loaded up an armada of gear and chose a different path.
The truck was loaded with two 8-weight rods, a 9′ Steelhead rod and a 7′ medium spinning rod (gasp). I must confess that I am not much of a pier rat. If anything I generally opt to fly fish rivers to a fault. I vividly remember the first time I fished the Milwaukee harbor back in the late nineties. A friend of mine lived in a high-rise condo above McKinley Marina. I had a few hours to kill one afternoon and I decided to grab a spinning rod and small assortment of lures just see if I could coax anything into my clutches. The ultra-high breakwalls and giant, rip-rapped banks of the area felt foreign to me. The scale of the whole experience made me feel like a fish out of water. I didn’t even sniff a bite that day, nor has my interest in solving the riddle been a priority. It’s only out of necessity that I’ve begun to gain proficiency in other aspects of Great Lakes angling. I’ve had a handful of winter jaunts the last few years in pushing the envelope of what’s possible with a fly rod in the extreme cold, and no amount of Stanley’s Ice Off Paste will really make it a doable endeavor. In my experience, iced up guides are only part of the problem, iced up leaders and flies are just as frustrating. Welcome to the wonderful world of winter fly fishing. If temps push up into the 20′s it can be a rewarding experience, otherwise it becomes a grueling game of diminishing returns.
I decided to flip the script this time and start with the spinning rods and work my way to fly fishing as the day warmed up. I’m sure the purist may deem this strategy as cheating, and that’s okay by me. You see fishing is like music. There are unlimited forms and styles utilized to bring a fish to hand, and that’s what makes it great. Perhaps fly fishing is the equivalent of a Wagner Opera or the uniquely American Jazz music. Does that make the lakefront spawn soaker “Gangsta” Rap or Country & Western? I’ll let you fill in the blanks, but more to the point, it’s all good in my estimation. Deep down in places we don’t talk about at parties, we all know that Kenny Roger’s The Gambler kicks some serious ass. The “fly or die” mantra is a torch that I’ll let the dogmatist carry, and I say that full well knowing that the Wagner Opera is perhaps my favorite form of angling expression.
The purpose of my predawn survey was to access the ice situation in the harbor. I ran to a few spots and was emboldened by what I saw. The lake was only partially frozen over, providing ample opportunity to chase tail. The quality dawn and dusk Brown Trout bite was in full effect, and I wanted to be in a prime spot as soon as the sun awoke from her slumber. At one access point just south of the Milwaukee River mouth I saw a mysterious 10′x10′ concrete slab amongst an endless ribbon of large rip rap. It looked like the perfect spot to stop and make a few casts. I grabbed my gear and made a dash for the shoreline. I gingerly chose my footing on the big rocks knowing that icy footholds were my worst enemy. After carefully reviewing the situation I made my way to the comfort of the gently sloping slab. I stepped onto the concrete and instantly yelled “oh shit.” A Zamboni couldn’t have made a better sheet of invisible ice. Instantly I fell into full waterslide mode, only at the end of this ride was the deadly confines of an icy Lake Michigan. I flopped off the slab and went for a full “can opener” as I splashed into the predawn drink. You might think that thoughts of Leonardo DiCaprio’s heartfelt Titanic goodbye may have came to mind, but it didn’t. As luck would have it the water wasn’t particularly deep, and a little invention known as Gore-Tex™ really worked it’s wonders. The cold water rushed into the vulnerable areas, but I must have watched too much Bear Grylls over the last decade, because I swiftly got back to shore and began shedding my dangerously wet clothing. Fortunately I came prepared for such a predicament. I ran back to the car and cranked up the heater to warm up while I unearthed my backup set of apparel. I chose to dress more for ice fishing than in my usual cold weather wading gear. I had my waders and boots in my bag, but figured it would be best to stay out of the water when it’s 10 degrees outside. The best laid plans…
Taking an unexpected dip is standard operating procedure most of the time, but it’s better left for the warmer months. After the shock of it wore off I was able to refocus on the task at hand. I moved further south covering several miles of both popular and out of the way spots along the lakefront, rarely pulling out my camera to document the trek. Sadly my low tolerance for a lack of bites reared it’s ugly head. I often exhibit the tolerance of cocker spaniel puppy. The most promising of spots garnered me nothing more than the peace and solitude of the predawn shoreline. Minus a dog walker or two, I had the entire stretch to myself. A light snow began to fall which gave it an almost a magical north pole type vibe. That alone made this trek worthwhile. There’s something great about finding solitude amongst millions of sleeping citizens, it’s one of my favorite things about urban angling. You don’t have to physically go to the predictable “beautiful places” to find greatness, beauty is in fact in the eye of the beholder.
I hopped in my car and proceeded to cover a few more spots, spending no more than 15-30 minutes per location. I saw a few cruising fish and watched a few mammoth browns porpoise from their murky depths. These seem to be the fish that get harassed, but rarely caught by shore bound anglers. While I was energized by the mere sight of such beasts, seeing wasn’t exactly believing. Eventually I found a shallow tapering flat and heard another monster jump in the distance. I walked down the shore figuring a cast in the direction of the splash would be met with utter silence. My intuition was dead wrong. I pulled on my rod thinking I was hung up on some dying weeds, but soon felt the telltale thumps of an angry brown. In short order the drag was warming up my frozen fingers as the fish tested the limits of my wimpy monofilament. Eventually I was able to get the fish closer to shore for further inspection. It was exactly the kind of fish that Milwaukee is known for. The beleaguered stocked trout of Lake Michigan are sometimes considered second class citizens to their wild counterparts in other locales. It makes complete sense to me that the wild vs. hatchery debate is an important one in west coast circles, but here in the midwest it’s more of cookies vs. cakes discussion. They’re separate, but both are delicious in their own ways. The truth of the matter is that the majority of trout streams in our beloved Driftless are the same byproduct of artificial insemination. But I digress. As the beast got closer to shore I soon realized the error of my ways. A good portion of the shoreline had a thin shelf of freshly formed skim ice on the surface that was barely visible in the flat light. As I attempted to win the final battle he stopped dead in his tracks, thrashing violently as a gesture to show me who’s the boss. The ice blocked his forward progress only 10′ away from my net in water only a foot deep. I briefly considered wading out anyway, since I was intimately aware of the repercussions. In the blink of an eye he made the decision for me as the line snapped. Hindsight is 20/20 and I surmised that the abrasion from the ice was too much to bear. It was early in the campaign and I was already down one fish, and a cache of wet clothing. The regular expletives were echoing in my head.
I moved to a deeper spot, electing to break up the ice shelf with my net prior to casting. I deposited my offering in about 15′ of water when I was greeted with the same “dirty dishrag” bite as the previous fish. In cold water sometimes it feels more like you are dragging a wet towel than the conventional take. I stood on the pier and easily brought the fish to the surface for what I figured would be the coup de grace. He porpoised to the surface splashed a few times in the plate tectonics-like ice debris field and quickly came unbuttoned (before I could net him). I had succeeded in breaking up the ice this time, but failed to adequately clear the chunks from my lane. I put my offering right back in the spot and to my surprise got a second fish to commit. Like clockwork another average-sized trout surfaced, gave me the finger and went back to his abyss. Sonuvabitch! The execution portion of this equation was not working out. I worked the area for another half hour thinking I’d hit paydirt, but it wasn’t meant to be. At one point a dude in a pedal kayak cruised by wearing a coldwater survival suit, with his trolling rods fully vibrating. Either he just stepped out of Walter White’s meth lab, or he’s even crazier than I am. It’s reassuring to know that some go to greater lengths than I do to tame these creatures.
I moved deeper into the heart of the marina hoping to find greener pastures (if there is such a thing in the frozen tundra). This is a well documented winter shorefishing destination, so I knew I’d rub elbows with another angler or two. As luck would have it traffic was fairly light, I only saw 2 or 3 other guys wetting a line. Part of the reason I chose to fish the harbor is because you have the ability to spread out over a number of miles of water. I just can’t stand being suffocated by elbow to elbow activities. I decided that the pressure was light enough to give it a go. I spoke with a few different fellas drifting spawn sacs, but nobody was lighting the world on fire. I took up shop as far away from the main marina entrance as possible. Due to my soaking earlier in the morning, and my penchant for dizzy spells (thanks concussion related Vertigo) I decided to fish the docks from a kneeling position with my inflatable wading belt. No need to trip on a slippery dock and take a dip into the partially frozen deeper water. Call me a wuss, but I’m generally overly cautious in potentially perilous situations. After 10 or 15 minutes of casting to deeper water I managed to get my first ice free hit. It proved to not be a world beater on the end of my line, but it didn’t matter, any fish is a good fish if it clears skunk from your cluttered conscious. I was well on the road to recovery after the rocky start to my morning.
There’s just something uncomfortable to me about the ultra long-handled net. Diehard concrete jungle anglers use them wherever fish swim. Years of strapping a reasonably-sized landing nets to my back or carrying one comfortably in my boat has spoiled me. For this outing I chose to test drive the ridiculous uber net. In reality it’s an indispensable tool for Great Lakes breakwalls and bridges. I’ve had a telescoping net in my garage for a number of years that never sees the light of day. I really dislike tangle-prone mesh baskets and almost always choose my rubber ones. As I was looking for an inexpensive solution I came to the realization that my ice dam roof rake uses an almost identical telescoping system. With a slight modification I now have a net that can range from about 5 to 25 feet long and breaks down easily for transport. Sure you don’t need that kind of length, but at least it’s possible, right? I had my standard Steelhead trout net in the car just in case I tired of lugging around the big dog. Quite frankly it wasn’t as bad as I imagined. Just one of the many nuances that nerds like me contemplate on a regular basis.
Now to the task at hand. Encouraged by the fresh coat of slime on my hands, I continued to ply my craft. I spent all morning rotating through a series of different offerings that ranged in size and weight. They followed the prototypical alewife, smelt or shad pattern in a range from pearl white to chartreuse. I tied up a few delicacies for this specific purpose, but for better or worse the two biggest bites of the day came on a tube jig. About 20 minutes after the first fish I managed a second swing and miss close encounter with a brute while chatting with another angler, but all was not lost. A short time later a much more formidable opponent came out swinging. It proved to be another ice-free fist fight in deeper water. Outside of the the first fish that had bested me on the shallow flat, the deep stuff was clearly the ticket. I’ve been shy lately about providing you in any obligatory “make fish bigger” grip-n-grin selfies, but figured the cozy confines of a snowy dock was a good enough to setup the tripod and self timer shot. You’re welcome.
After sealing the deal on a few solid fish, the early morning raid had begun to take it’s toll. I bounced around to a few more spots, but was running on fumes. I had largely accomplished what I set out to do, minus the mighty seeforellens and steelies that have alluded me on recent trips. One thing I’ve learned is that the cold weather will sort of zap your energy. It didn’t help that my legs were fully saturated from my morning swim. While I’m not a native Minnesotan, I’ve really grown to enjoy ice fishing over the last 20 years. This outing was almost more like ice fishing than anything else. I did exchange pleasantries with a centerpinner and another guy rockin’ a hand ice auger. He was ingeniously accessing untapped areas by drilling holes in the ice and fishing from the dock. Different strokes for different folks I suppose. And that’s half the fun of it anyway. I could have chosen to beat my head against the wall and let the fishing gods get the upper hand. I could have retreated in defeat by laying on the couch watching the calories turn to fat. I elected to take a different path, I took the lemons and make lemonade (with a splash of vodka).