Fly Fishing Wisconsin's Fall Salmon Run
Author: Jerry Kiesow
Once thought of only as a Northwest and Alaskan fish, the midwest now has it's share of slabside salmon.
This fish was definitely different than the one I had landed twenty minutes earlier. This one took off! Where the last Chinook was large, 40 inches 26 pounds, it was lethargic. Essentially, dead weight. This fish was running me down the bank and out of line all at the same time. When he cleared the water, even though almost 100 yards downstream, it flashed silver in the sun.
I had no choice. I could no longer follow it, the water ahead dropped into a massive hole and the bank was too steep to climb. I put on the brakes and prayed the tippet would hold.
Believe it or not, I am standing in one of rivers which feed Lake Michigan in southeast Wisconsin. It is September, and the Chinook salmon are making their annual spawning run up this and many other streams in the lake's watershed.
My plan, which was working, was to interrupt a few of these monsters, momentarily, do battle with them on my fly rod, then release to continue the propagation of their kind.
A little history
For readers not cognizant to what has been going on in the mid-section of our country, principally the Great Lakes, and specifically my home lake, Lake Michigan, over the past 40 years, allow me to fill you in.
There was a time, before the Welland Canal was constructed in the early 1800's, when the Great Lakes had a marvelously balanced and diverse fish population. The canal changed that. It may have been good for commerce, but it allowed exotic species to invade our freshwater oceans, upsetting the balance, thereby requiring innovative solutions to bring back a failing fishing industry.
One of those exotics was (is) the alewife. Alewife are a small baitfish, and to make a long story short, they upset the natural balance of things. To control the alewife, which die, float on the surface, smell and litter our previously inviting sand beaches, in the 60's the Wisconsin Department of Natural Recourses, as well as the other DNR's from other Great Lake states, imported Coho and Chinook salmon from the Pacific northwest. Both species took hold, and did (do) a proper job on controlling the alewife, creating, in the process, a new and magnificent fishery.
Most fish are taken by private and charter boats out on Lake Michigan, beginning in spring and accelerating throughout the summer. But come Autumn, when the mature four year olds charge up the rivers feeding the lake, landlocked individuals are given the opportunity to latch on to a few of these feisty, finny fishes.
Most fishers use spawn sacks and spinning tackle, but each year sees more and more individuals casting flies.
Should you choose to go
If you would like to give this fishery a try with the fly rod, here are a few suggestions.
Because Chinooks can and do run quite large, twelve to twenty pounds are common; an eight or nine weight rod is preferred. That does not mean it is required. I have caught a number of these fish on my old fiberglass seven weight. Our rivers are not that big - long casts and double hauling is not required.
Lines? Most of the season I use a weight forward floating line. Occasionally, in high water, I attach a sinking head or a sinking leader.
Speaking of leaders, when the water is high and rolling, a five footer is sufficient, if the water is low and clear I use a nine-foot, sometimes adding another three feet of tippet. In all cases I go with 1X or 2X tippets. Generally, I prefer heavy tippets, as it does not wear the fish out as much as lighter line.
My fly boxes are full of flies of course, but, if the truth be told, most never get wet. They are there because somewhere I read that they work, so I tie them and carry them - just in case my regulars are not producing.
In the early season, pre-spawn, I start with natural colored Woolly Buggers, brown and black, #4 or #6. I also have a black, tinsel chenille egg fly I tie that works very well. I think it takes on the look of a bug rather than a rotten egg. If the fish are not taking the naturals, I switch to a chartreuse Woolly, or an orange and red marabou streamer.
Once the fish are spawning, which does not take long, I switch to egg flies, all colors, and egg sucking leaches. As the fish begin to die, white Woollies or Zonkers, with a touch of pink are my first choice. For a complete selection of flies, click here
Where to fish? I check out any river or stream that flows into Lake Michigan all the way from the Illinois border north to Gills Rock at the tip of the peninsula and back down on both sides of Green Bay.
Some are better than others, but those full of fish are usually also full of people.
Concerning fish numbers, there are times when the fish are so numerous that when one lifts the fly to recast, it is not uncommon to foul hook a fish in the back or tail. For that reason, I use barbless hooks. A fouled hooked fish can be "shaken off" easier from a barbless hook.
How this fishery operates
The idea of fishing spawning salmon is not a concern in Wisconsin. Wisconsin has no natural reproduction of the species. Why? You may ask?
Dammed rivers + too warm water temperatures in summer + too cold in winter + silt + toxins = improper and/or not enough food after the fry's egg sack is gone = poor water quality = no reproduction.
Therefore, our DNR collect the fish at specific places as the fish move up the rivers to spawn. They strip the females of their eggs, and the males of their sperm, and take over from there in hatcheries. When the fingerlings get to be about two inches long, they are stocked into the lake and its streams.
In Lake Michigan, they grow rapidly, 18 inches the first year. When they mature in four years, they head into the rivers to reproduce and die, as their ancestors have always done.
Because of all of the above, we can take fish off the beds with a clear conscience.
Scene one, the culmination
My tippet held and the "Chromer" turned. It took three more runs, each a bit less powerful than the prior, before I could begin backing up. Finally, I got him onto a gravel bar, panting - he and me. As I released the tension, the barbless egg fell out of the corner of his hooked jaw.
I eased him into a shallow pool at the base of the bar to rest a bit before giving him CPR by the tail. Two minutes and he was off, back into the flow, looking for some female ready to redd.
The runs begin with Chinook salmon in September followed by Cohoes in October. Most of the time there is an overlap and some of each can still be found in late October when the Steelheads and Browns come in.
Now, when it comes to Steelheads and Browns.......that is a whole 'nother story.
Your complete source for more Cabela's News, and updated hunting and fishing articles.