Run Timing. For all the tribs on the Great Lakes the timing of the runs can be tricky. The Chinook Salmon are the easiest to predict, the other fish species less so. Things like water temperature, water clarity, water levels, (both the rivers and Great Lakes), will have impacts on when the run will start, how long it will last, and when it will peak.
Most trib fisherman will carry a good thermometer and check the water temperature frequently. When water temps are in the 30°-35° range you will need to work at getting a strike. Cold winter water slows the Steelhead's metabolism, making it necessary to scour the deeper runs. You can catch a fish when the water is 33 degrees! But the fish will not be as active and you will need to put in more hours to hook a fish.
What should you do when the water is in 30°-35° range? Two techniques come to mind: drifting/bottom bouncing natural patterns such as small eggs or nymphs. The other is swinging "obnoxious" patterns that will tick-off a fish. Work the current seams and deep pools where the fish are likely to hold in colder water.
Rising, warming waters in March and April will activate winter hold-over fish, and bring fresh fish into the rivers. When the water begins to warm up to the 36°-39° range the fish will start to become active but the temperature is still not their ideal range. You will need to try cold water techniques and warmer water techniques until you find what is working.
Once the water temperature reaches the 40's, fish will become active and start their spawning rituals. Combine the right temperature with the right water levels and flows and the fishing will be at it best for the spring runs. Steelhead also put on their best show when the temp. and conditions are ideal. Often they will fly out of the water when hooked, make long runs and put up the best fights.
Water temps are not as critical in the fall, but don’t ignore them. Warm summer like weather can slow down the fishing. And a deep freeze late in the fall can also turn off the fishing.
Shawn with a spring run steelhead, note the wool hat and heavy jacket.
Water levels and flow rates
Water levels and flow rates are essential to fishing the Great Lake tribs. In the spring and fall rain events can greatly affect the water levels of the tributaries. As anadromous species, the Steelhead need good water flows to bring the fish in from the lakes. The Salmon species are not as picky about the flows and levels. These flows help the fish to find their natal water. Prior to the runs the fish will stage at the mouths of their tributaries. Upstream fish movements occur when the fish feels the water flows and temperatures are right.
There are a few different theories on what triggers the fish to run. One is Steelhead prefer water levels that have crested and started to fall to more normal levels or flow rates. The peak upstream push will usually occur three to four days after the tributary has crested. Another is the fish will run as the rivers are rising and the fishing will be best while it’s still raining and the water levels are coming up.
And lastly, you can’t accurately predict when they will run up the river or when the peak will occur. The best time to fish is when ever you can! Between work and family you may not be able to get to the river when you want, so go when you can and often as you can.
With the aid of the internet many of our tributaries have USGS recording stations that will give current water levels and flows! They also have historical data so you can compare the current flows to years past. This real-time level and flow data give the trib fisherman an extra edge on deciding which streams to fish. The experienced trib fisherman knows what flow rates will make for the best fishing conditions on the rivers they fish.
Links to some of the USGS sites
List of all sites in Wisconsin.
04087257 PIKE RIVER NEAR RACINE, WI
04087240 ROOT RIVER AT RACINE, WI
04087204 OAK CREEK AT SOUTH MILWAUKEE, WI
04087159 KINNICKINNIC RIVER @ S. 11TH STREET @ MILWAUKE
040871476 HOLMES AVE CK TRB @ GMIA OUTFALL #1 @ MILWAUKE
04086000 SHEBOYGAN RIVER AT SHEBOYGAN, WI
04085427 MANITOWOC RIVER AT MANITOWOC, WI
04085200 KEWAUNEE RIVER NEAR KEWAUNEE, WI
04071765 OCONTO RIVER NEAR OCONTO, WI
04069500 PESHTIGO RIVER AT PESHTIGO, WI
04025500 BOIS BRULE RIVER AT BRULE, WI
04027500 WHITE RIVER NEAR ASHLAND, WI
04027000 BAD RIVER NEAR ODANAH, WI
Water clarity is difficult to find out before you set out. You can make some correlation between water levels and clarity, but they don’t always follow each other. Many times the water clarity will be poor (less the 6” visibility) when the water it running high and fast, but some times the visibility will be 18” or more! When water clarity is poor you may need to work harder to get the fly to where the fish can see it. Fishing buddies can be your best source of information on water clarity. Poor clarity also makes it harder to sight fish.