I’ve been an insomniac for the better part of my adult life. There’s a fair chance that these sleepless tendencies started as a result of my addictive approach to recreational activities. I always toss and turn with anticipation the night before a fishing outing or a ski/snowboarding trip. Friday night would be no exception to the rule. I found myself rehashing stream reports and rechecking weather conditions on my iphone just biding my time until the assault began.
The target of this Saturday morning raid would be Milwaukee’s best, the brown trout. No disrespect intended to the fine steelhead and salmon of beer town. I’ve had many quality Milwaukee steelhead and salmon outings, but the last two Thanksgiving trips in search of brown bliss have come up empty. The payback’s a bitch rule was in full effect. The primary purpose of this visit was to “give thanks” for family and friends and to celebrate my lovely wife’s 40th birthday on Friday. The healthy dose merriment would preempt any grandiose plans I had for many or lengthy fishing excursions. I just couldn’t convince Mrs. Adrift that the best birthday gift I could give her would be to relieve her of my presence for the better part of the day. She granted me a reprieve for a dawn departure prior to our journey back to the Twin Cities.
We had nearly record high temps in the lower to mid-sixties on Thanksgiving day. Comfortable fishing conditions to say the least, but that wasn’t the case for me. The mercury plummeted over the next 36 hours to a cozy 21 degrees with 10-20mph winds. I exchanged a few messages earlier in the week with fellow Adrifter™ Pat from Madison, who planned to fish the Milwaukee the previous day but opted out due to the frigid temps and wicked windchills. This had me questioning my sanity, but like a kid in a candy store I couldn’t help but indulge.
Not everyone is wired to appreciate the finer points of the Milwaukee River. Like it’s little brother the Menomonee it’s a little rough around the edges but can produce some jaw dropping results. I was a little apprehensive about fishing a Saturday morning during a holiday weekend. The popular spots last year were being pounded to death in the warm weather, but the icy conditions on Saturday kept things manageable. I planned to fish two specific holes upon my arrival just before dawn. I popped in and started working my way downstream to the first spot. A few zombie kings were immediately visible in the usual riffles. Within ten minutes two local fellas lumbered their way down the bank and took up residence on my intended run. Welcome back to the rough and tumble world of combat fishing I told myself. I did a 180 and began to work my way upstream to plan B.
I was alternating between swinging streamers and nymph rigs. There was a surprising number of fish in a variety of locations. The reports I read and the river gauges indicated that the water levels were extremely low. This made it easy to spot fish in most instances. Shallow riffles held fish in and around old salmon redds. Deeper seams, runs and classic pocket water locations were holding a mix of zombies, browns and chrome working their way up. When I arrived at the first spot upstream I watched a fish chase my streamer a good five feet on the swing before rejecting it at the last moment. A few minutes later I foul hooked some moldy chum. I proceeded to let pressure off of the fish and with a few quick jerks of the rod I released the big King to complete her inevitable life cycle. The next pool was deeper with heavy flows so I couldn’t see any inhabitants. I quickly connected with a dink coho that put up a surprisingly respectable fight. Technically the skunk factor was swept aside, but this wasn’t exactly what I was looking for.
I hopped out of the stream and walked up the bank to my plan B spot. As I approached I noticed two guys fishing the run. Despite my predawn arrival I had been beat to the punch by my angling brethren yet again. To add insult to injury these guys were in the process of landing a nice Steelhead. A few quick pics of the quality specimen and it went back in the drink. I spent a few minutes shooting the shit and trading Milwaukee and Driftless war stories with these Chicago anglers. I’ll call these two fellas Jim and Tim. The reality is that I am terrible with names and what transpired next erased any memory I have of their actual names. My spirits were lifted by the sight of fresh chrome, but I had brown on the brain. There will be plenty of time to chase Steelhead in few months when I come back I told myself. I asked Jim and Tim if they’d seen any browns. Jim’s immediate response was, “you’re not one of those fly fishing bloggers are you?” To which I replied, “no worries bro.” While I didn’t immediately announce my identity as a blogger, I am a man of my word and the contents of our discussion will remain sealed, as if it’s attorney client privilege. Though I will add that it wasn’t an earth shattering revelation for anyone who fishes this area. I don’t mean that as a knock on Jim and Tim as they seemed like helluva nice guys and agreed to share the spot with me.
I put in just upstream of the fellas as they continued to drift egg patterns. I was swinging one of my chartreuse Sloppy Joe patterns. It appeared as if there were 3 or 4 fish holding downstream of some abandoned salmon redds in faster water. I had no way of knowing if these were browns, steelhead or salmon, as this spot was the deepest and best one that I had seen so far. The last time I fished it was in much higher spring flows, so it was interesting to see it more exposed at the low rate of 159 cfs. I quartered a few casts to the general vicinity of the deeper tailout but got no response. I tied a bunch of new flies in the usual steelhead colors but chose to switch to a reddish brown Sloppy Joe with an orange tail. I initially tied this as more of a crayfish pattern, but thought maybe the orange tail would serve double duty as an egg. This logic may not add up as crayfish are probably scarce this time of year, but I surmised that instead of a standard Egg Sucking Leech pattern perhaps this fly would mimic an egg stealing crayfish or critter?
The results were immediate. I watched a fish turn and attack the fly. The water was deep enough that I couldn’t identify the size or species I was grappling with. Jim and Tim noticed me battling the beast and came upstream to assist in the action. I handed my net to Jim and we worked our way down into the heavy flows in the heart of the run. I was unable to raise the fish to get an inspection. After about 5 minutes a giant tail flashed by. Jim yells to me, “I think you got a big King on,” based upon the XL size of the tail flash. At that point in the battle I relaxed and felt a little deflated. There was no evidence of mutant looking zombies in this run, but maybe I was mistaken? A few minutes later she flashed by again. My brain couldn’t quite process what I was seeing. “Holy shit, is that a brown, I exclaimed?” A few minutes later we steered the fish into gentle flows and Jim did a masterful job of landing the beast in my completely undersized net.
I thought I’d entertain you by showing a few outtakes of our attempts to photograph this fish. Clearly this fish had just moved upriver and was staging to spawn. It’s too bad there’s no successful natural reproduction in the Milwaukee River. This girl was still a little unruly, full of eggs and difficult to lift. If I tried to hoist her for a grip and grin shot she’d refuse to cooperate. The funny thing about fishing photography is that it often deceives the viewer about the true size of the fish. I sometimes joke that I can make small fish look big, big fish look small and everything in between. In a few of these frames she doesn’t even look very long, more like a fat largemouth bass. If I would have held her closer to the lens in typical “make fish bigger” fashion she’d be even more impressive. In most of the pics I chose to go more conservative and rested her on my leg while Jim snapped away. I don’t know why but when I look at these pics it appears as if I’m “air guitaring” a big brown trout. That sort of behavior should be outlawed in most states.
I claim temporary insanity anytime I catch a big fish. I know many purists can’t stand a fish pic that touches the bank. Feel free to skip this portion if you’re in that camp or a card carrying Peta member. My brain went into cruise control after landing this fish. I marched upstream to calmer flows putting the beast on the bank to get a quick size estimate. For many, the measurement of an angling experience is calculated in inches and pounds. My propensity to measure every catch can vary from day to day. Sometimes I measure them all, other times not so much. For a few years I didn’t measure or photograph any fish. That wouldn’t make for entertaining blogging now would it? For me it’s more about the memories than the exact size, but I felt this fish warranted further examination. Earlier in the season I had a small tape measure in my pack for occasions like this. At some point this summer I took it out after it was looking a bit rusty. Usually I use marks on my net to determine length (I’m too lazy to pull out a tape measure for every fish anyway). It seems like most Lake Michigan pier rats and trib hardcores think in pounds. I’ve never been able to estimate a trout in pounds with any accuracy. I’m an inch man I suppose (insert joke here). On Wednesday I added some fresh 3/4″ electrical tape marks at one inch intervals on the end my net, in hopes that I’d connect with a good fish. I overestimated a good trout earlier this summer by not having better reference points and vowed to do a better job next time I caught a beast. It’s not uncommon in Milwaukee to catch fish in excess of 30″ and I should have been prepared, but decided I’d just wing it if I got lucky. This dandy 21″ spring creek brown looks like bait compared to it’s lake run cousin in the same net. My best estimate is that this fish is around 33 1/2″. See the pics and come to your own conclusions.
What does she weigh in pounds, that’s a good question? I really have no idea, 18-20lbs.? A few regulars I know put it right at the 20lb mark. Feel free to comment/estimate below if the mood should strike you. It’s certainly not one of the true giants that roam Milwaukee harbor, but a quality fish nevertheless. Given my extremely limited time on the tribs this year, I’ll take it.
We revived the girl and sent her on her way. It was high fives all the way around for the three amigos. I was so stoked that I ignored the slow leak in my waders and the constant deicing of guides. I even dropped my rod in the river which turned my Lamson into a solid brick of ice. I spent another half hour nymphing a few runs in search of steel to complete a Milwaukee slam (if there is even such a thing)? My heart just wasn’t in it though, as I had accomplished what I set out to do. I’ll attempt to settle the score with the lake run rainbows later in the spring.
The “beast” of my youth was the infamous low rent red and blue shields offered up by the Miller Brewing Company. As it turns out Milwaukee’s Best isn’t only soaking the livers of it’s inhabitants, its found in its waterways.
Editor’s Note: Why can’t we all just get along? My ethics seem to be under scrutiny by some anglers as a result of this fish being posted on Moldy Chum’s Slab of the Month contest. This is not unexpected as there’s no shortage of opinions amongst my angling brethren, and I respect everyone’s right to express their thoughts. I am certainly not trying to hide the fact that this fish was spewing eggs (if that wasn’t clear by me showing it and writing about it). I sent two pics to the Chum. One showing eggs, one without (they chose the latter). I think it’s worth pointing out that this fish wasn’t sitting up on a visible redd. It was holding in a deeper hole well downstream of skinny gravel that contained salmon redds. This spot was one of the deepest I found in the ultra low water conditions on the Milwaukee, since drought conditions have gripped much of the midwest this year. Here’s a pic of a typical run on the lower Milwaukee that morning (since most of my critics have no first hand information about this fishery). The spot was deeper than above link and fast enough that I couldn’t conclusively determine the size or species that was in the holding lie. For all I knew it could have been a male Steelhead like the one caught ten minutes earlier by the other guys, or a Coho like the one I just landed. I mentioned that I hoped it was a brown, but that is simply a reflection of my personal goal of catching a big brown as they’d been elusive in previous outings. We snapped a few pics and sent her on her way to lay her eggs (which will never come to fruition as there is no successful natural reproduction on the Milwaukee). It’s a well known that Great Lakes big browns lurk downstream of salmon redds, here’s a link to a Field & Stream article outlining the concept. It turns out that this fish had to be staging, as opposed to feeding on salmon eggs, but I had no way of knowing that when she was caught. You mess with the bull you get the horns, as the entire concept of fishing a spawning run is invading in the “bedrooms” of these fish. If you think it’s unethical to land and photograph a hen who turned out to be staging or even spawning in a typical deeper holding lie, then I suggest you avoid fishing spawning runs altogether, because it’s possible you might just catch one.
Tight lines, y’all!