From the high volume of weather related Facebook posts in the last few weeks, I’m pretty sure that we’re all more than a little tired of being polar vortexed. I get it. It’s cold and snowy outside, no pics needed, I’m scraping my car windows just like the rest of you. From an angling perspective, my first indication that things were turning south was when I was locked out of the Milwaukee River in late November. The uncharacteristically icy conditions left me scrambling for green pastures, and I was dead set settling the score. I made plans back in February for a late March Steelhead trip to Milwaukee. As winter wore on without any sign of spring I ratcheted up the vise time, poured over maps, researched new gear, and clung to every turn of the river gauges. To a certain extent this behavior was both preparation and a smoke screen to convince myself that I’d be fishing under ideal tributary run conditions. As we all know, this brand of angling comes down to timing. Not being a local, I usually only get one Lake Michigan shot per season, and I’m forced to play the cards that I’m dealt.
Fully caffeinated, I arrived at legal time to test my mettle on the highly trafficked confines of the Menomonee River. I hadn’t fished the Menomonee in the last few years, but decided to start my assault on Brew Town in the belly of the beast near Miller Park. As I wandered through predawn brush I spied two headlamps feverishly moving to intercept my position. This is standard Milwaukee behavior. If you’re an early riser you can limit the amount of angler interference, but there’s always a crew of hardcores attempting to beat you to the punch. I went right for the jugular by giving the camo clad warriors a hearty, “good morning.” In no time one of the fellas whipped out his high-powered spotlight and was scanning the well known gravel bar for redds and/or fish. An interesting tactic I thought to myself, but quickly left them with a “good luck guys,” and proceeded further upstream. They seemed surprised that I willingly gave up my position on the gravel, but that’s not how I roll. In the past I’ve caught a number of fish in the adjacent deeper pools upstream and downstream, but just leave the fish alone that are actively “working their magic.” In some ways I feel sorry for the Steelies that choose this as their love den, since they’re bound to be ogled by every Tom, Dick and Harry hellbent on sealing the deal.
Milwaukee had a good soaker a few days before my arrival which forced all of the gauges to spike. I was counting on this rain to push a fresh load of fish, but I had yet to see to see direct evidence of such events. I spent an hour or two swinging and nymphing the usual spots with no sign of aquatic life. At this point my worst fears had come to fruition. As online reports had indicated, the run hadn’t really begun in earnest, and it was evident by the receding waters that there were few, if any, fish moving up. Just to rub a little salt into the wound, the water clarity wasn’t particularly good. By trouting standards she was still running a little muddy. After poking and prodding every nook, cranny and current break with a variety of offerings, I chose to swing some of my biggest and gaudiest patterns just cover more water. I was eager to check out the work done at the new Three Bridges Park section.
It was more of an exploration of the new park, than it was about patiently working for a fish. I must confess to having a love/hate relationship with Milwaukee. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but Minneapolis and Milwaukee couldn’t be more different. In Milwaukee you regularly feel like you’re fishing in an episode of Scooby Doo. It’s hard not to be distracted by rummaging through the haunted remnants of the industrial revolution. There’s both a sense of respect for the past and a level of dissatisfaction that we haven’t yet cleaned up our act. You just might swing up a dirty diaper, or interrupt a graffiti tagging session, but that’s all part of the allure. I can’t say enough good things about Three Bridges Park, and the habitat improvement efforts in general on the Menomonee. Unlike the excessive cookie cutter efforts plaguing the Driftless, this is money well spent. Once they remove the concrete channels above I-94 it will allow the fish to run free, and spread the angler pressure out from the Miller Park parking lot section.
Twin Cities anglers tend to be fixated on the North Shore and the Brule, and what’s not to like about the Brule? With its close proximity and wild fishery, it may be the finest river in the region. It’s a recurring theme in fly fishing. Everyone wants to date the prom queen, and for good reason, she’s smokin’ hot. Sometimes it takes a change in perspective to see past the warts and appreciate the inner beauty of the wallflower. It’s not the Menomonee’s fault that she’s been in an abusive relationship. I covered almost two miles of the not so mighty Menomonee with no hookups and no fish sighted. I had the entire Three Bridges section to myself. By the 15 other cars that I counted back near my vehicle, I can only assume its hard to teach old dogs new tricks. Anglers lined the popular redds area (where I fished predawn) like a picket fence. I heard one stogie chomping guy exclaim to his fishing partner, “it feels pretty damn good to be out, too bad there aren’t any fish in here.”
I put a number of new flies through their paces, including a seedy little nymph I’ve deemed the “Bill Clinton.” A few weeks ago I stumbled into Mend Provisions to pick up a few things. I whipped up a few prototype stonefly nymphs in a rainbow of flashy colors, but wasn’t completely satisfied with the results. My intent was to purchase a few packs of tungsten hot beads and some other items that might improve the look of my patterns. I showed Mike a few of my poorly executed offerings including my take on an egg sucking stonefly. I pointed out my usage of a Hareline Dubbin Reel Egg in one version. Mike was quick to dismiss it as “cheating.” He proceeded to tell me that he’d never carry those in his shop and stated “if you’re going to use that you might as well use a spawn bag.” Initially I was caught off guard by the comment since I’m an ardent supporter of all forms of free expression, including angling. I recalled that I first used these faux eggs many years ago when Matt from The Fly Fishers gave me a handful of his egg and stonefly patterns after I helped him CPR a great looking buck on the Menomonee. My gut reaction was to cross examine his statement, “so a rubber leg is okay, but a rubber egg is not?” But I know better than to piss on the carpet when you’re a guest in someone else’s home. The fact of the matter is that Mike is a super nice guy and runs a good joint. If you haven’t supported your local shop, check it out. Our difference of opinion is one of the things that I love most about this sport. We’re all just loaded with opinions and convinced that our way is the right way. Fly fishing comes with a heavy dose of “let’s just agree to disagree, then clink a few drinks.” It’s like old school politics. Our exchange only served to bolster my resolve to fish this fly. It’s well documented that I’m a sucker for fishing anything that might ruffle purist feathers. I even tied a few using dumbell eyes and orange UV ice dubbing balls that are wrapped in a material resembling spawn bag netting. I robbed the material from Barbie’s dress in a long forgotten toy box. What encompasses my stonefly/egg mutant “cheater” fly better than one of the most polarizing “cheaters” in US history? Tired of those lazy “cat poop” rubber legged stonefly patterns? Tie yourself up a chubby little #4 Bill Clinton and become the master of your Steelhead domain.
I reassessed my situation for the following morning, surmising that a run south was in order. Admittedly I was still a little apprehensive about my chances based upon the river gauges. The plan was to arrive predawn at the Pike River, hoping that the fish to angler ratio would be in my favor. The good news is that it was Monday morning, the bad news is that it was Monday morning. I had the river all to myself, but I’d venture to guess that this little gem got pounded into weekend submission the previous 48 hours. As the sun came up I was able to determine that the water clarity was worse than the Menomonee. The Pike’s water level was fantastic, but unfortunately she resembled Nestle Quik. The gauge had almost returned to pre rain levels, but clearly it was going to take a few more days to run clear. My excitement quickly turned to disappointment as I knew that it would be tough to find a bite. I worked downstream for awhile picking apart any fishy looking holding lies. I flipped my offering tight to logjams hoping I could find a high water hidey hole. After the exercise in futility the day before I decided I needed switch gears and run and gun to find fishable water.
You might think that the beloved Root River would be my first choice of Southeast Wisconsin Steelheading, but it’s not. She was still running over 500 cfs and the water had yet to recede to more comfortable levels. I decided to do a quick flyby nevertheless since it was on my way to other destinations. I drove to the weir and looked for a porta potty so I could relieve myself of my heavy burden, but sadly was locked out. I walked around a bit and threw a few casts downstream from the prohibited section just for good measure. I managed to grapple with a few snags, but was no worse for the wear. My timing on the Root was clearly a bit premature based upon the good fishing reports from last week. Apparently the rain that was wreaking havoc on my trip proved to produce a successful push of fish, I was just a few days early for the parade.
Desperate to find good water, I thought I’d stop by the lakefront on my way out of town. I’ve never fished the Racine harbor, but figured I’d do a quick search for easily fishable areas. At this point I was just touring and reminded myself of the old adage, “a day on the water, sure beats a day at work,” but quickly dismissed that as a cop out. Getting skunked leaves a bad taste in your mouth no matter what the optimist tells you.
I found an old timer soaking some spawn in search of moby. He spoke with a thick Norwegian accent, and was eager to shoot the breeze. He announced that it had been the worst winter he’d experienced in the 30 years since he’s lived in Wisconsin, and didn’t seem too confident about his chances of hooking up. I inquired about his ingenious use of beer cans as a strike detection device. He set two rods flat on the concrete walkway with several feet of line pulled out from the reel and around the can. If you hear the can clanking on the ground, odds are you’ve got a live one. At one point he potentially saved my ass. I didn’t realize it but there was massive chunks of glacial style ice lining the rip rapped breakwall. The slabs were so large that I didn’t even recognize that I was standing on one that was perilously hanging over the chilly waters. Being sandwiched by a great lakes ice avalanche isn’t on my list of honorable ways to bite the dust. I thanked him for the tip and proceeded to review a gently sloping beach inside of the pier. There was a soothing wind chime melody emanating from ice crystals rhythmically tapping against the shore. The inner harbor clearly had just iced out and would be promising if it wasn’t for the ubiquitous muddy water. Evidently the combination of the wind and the Root spewing it’s contents into harbor would prevent any worthwhile angling endeavors. It was time for Plan D.
I probably should have chosen Oak Creek to start the morning, but I must confess that it’s my least favorite destination in the greater Milwaukee fishing scene. The uppermost section tends to be a circus sideshow and I generally avoid it. It’s actually a nice little valley in the middle reaches with some solid little logjam pools. The stream just isn’t big enough to get away from the crowds, which is usually one of my top priorities. I arrived late morning to the normal volume of looky loos. As I expected from this smaller watershed the stream was in great shape with the slight stain that often works to your advantage. Parachuting in on this creek at this time of day provides you somewhat long odds of hooking up. Any fish that have made their way up has already seen there fair share of delicacies from any number of anglers. I made a single run from top to bottom. Like those that have come before, no fish were spotted, no bites, and nothing to show for my efforts.
I made one last ill fated attempt to redeem myself by running north to the Mighty Milwaukee. If I had my druthers I would have fished the Milwaukee first, but she was the most temperamental of the bunch. The Milwaukee had just fully iced out days before and the levels hadn’t really dropped in earnest from the rain. I popped in at Estabrook mostly just to confirm my suspicions. As expected the flows were heavy and the water clarity was complete shit. I watched a family fully armed with bobbers arrive streamside only to be perplexed by the virtually unfishable water conditions. I attempted to repair my ego by painfully muttering, ”if only I was here next week.”
For some reason I felt compelled to pay homage to the patriarch of Southeast Wisconsin tributaries. At least then I could reassure myself that I did all that I could to complete the journey. For every good outing I’ve had on the Great Lakes tributaries there must be 2 or 3 like this one. The miles I spent traversing these waterways last fall and now this spring serve to bookend one of the worst winters in recent memory. Mother nature is once again a worthy adversary, and my game just isn’t up to snuff. Her message was tagged on the Estabrook dam for all to see. I’d like to say that I’ve come to accept this sort of defeat with grace and humility, but frankly this one sat in the pit of my stomach like a fresh batch of bile. I’m not convinced that I even presented a fly to a fish at any point on this trip. So what’s the point? I’ll leave that for others pontificate. Only time can heal the winter of my discontent.