Every spring in southeastern Wisconsin, rising water temperatures activate certain fishes’ instincts to leave Lake Michigan and migrate up river. Several species, including big trout called “steelhead,” make the run upstream to find gravel beds. That’s where the females deposit eggs and the males then fertilize them.
It is not a private affair.
The annual odyssey draws scores of anglers, including to the Menomonee River, in the heart of Milwaukee. Mike Bersch of Milwaukee is one of them.
"It’s right in the shadows of Miller Park, the Menomonee Valley. There’s a lot of industry that is or was around here, but in general it’s still just as wild of a stream as it was a hundred years ago," says Bersch.
He and his brother are working part of the Menomonee River due east of the ballpark. They’re standing in about two feet of fast-flowing water, casting their lines toward the deeper pools. In some, you see steelhead trout – three feet long. Dennis Bersch describes this as almost “world class” action.
"Well there’s a lot of people who spend thousands of dollars to go out west, you know fly out west and hire a guide, and fish for migratory steel head and other species, and we have it in our own back yard," Bersch says.
About a half-dozen fishermen are out on the river, spaced 30 yards apart. As I approach one just upstream, he cautions me to move slowly and quietly through the crystal clear water.
"The fish can see just like you can see the fish. So, if you’re too close, you go to cast, they see your arm move and they spook." says Bill Meyers of Richfield. He's trying to entice a strike from several –so far, uncooperative steelhead trout.
He and his buddy, John Knitter of Milwaukee are using fly fishing rods outfitted with fluorescent green line. Bill says it helps them pinpoint where they cast their artificial lures called “flies”.
"With a fly fishing outfit the line itself is the weight so if you get enough line out it will move the object on the end. So, we can throw stuff that’s the weight of a fluff ball and you can throw it 50 feet because the line is the weight that moves it. So it allows us the opportunity to do things like that are small that look like the natural bugs and stuff that occur here in the river. And that’s what the fish see as food," Meyers explains.
Despite the size of the steelhead trout –some up to 10 pounds, the fish can be delicate eaters. So Mike Bersch says you need a good sense of feel to know when one has taken the bait.
" You’ll feel just a little bit of a tug and you’ll notice that the line will change its pattern as its floating down the stream, and then you pull it back and get set for a good fight depending on the size of the fish you’ve got," Bersch says.
I ask him how you land the fish without a net.
"Because the water is shallow enough you can actually get right up next to your feet to where you can actually reach down and grab it," Bersch says.
The “fight” Mike mentions, is one reason steelhead are a popular target for fishermen. Friends John Knitter and Bill Meyers say in spring, they notice anglers come to this stretch of the Menomonee River in shifts.
"People will come down here before work, dress up back in their work clothes and go to work, and after that the retired guys show up for a while and in the evening again, the guys that were working all day –guys and girls," Knitter says.
Bill Meyers says there's another attraction to spending part of the day at the river.
"The best part is, that’s one of my best friends standing right there. So, even if we don’t catch any fish, we still get to enjoy each other’s company and then we get to go over to TGI Fridays to have some lunch and a beer," Meyers says.
Soon, the Department of Natural Resources will begin removing a concrete barrier upstream. That change will eventually open up miles of additional spawning and fishing possibilities in the Menomonee River north to Currie Park and beyond.
Fish are prevented from moving further upstream now due to a concrete channel liner that blocks their passage. The liner will start to be removed soon through the joint efforts of public agencies and private contractors.
UWM fish biologist Tim Ehlinger says once the barrier is gone, fish will have access to many more miles of upstream habitat. Ehlinger says that includes the fish visible in the river now as well other native species.
The removal of 2,000 feet of concrete liner will be done in stages.