Steelhead (?) Fishing (?)

I am the very model of a modern trout fly an-gu-lar

I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral…

Sometimes fishing is just that. Sometimes there’s no catching. But anyone who fishes knows that it isn’t just about the fish all of the time.

I had some fishing-related business to attend to in the Milwaukee area the last couple of days, and that’s not just a slick way of saying that I went steelhead fishing. I mean, I did that too. But one of my main reasons was to attend the Southeastern Wisconsin Trout Unlimited (SEWTU) meeting Tuesday night, among other things.

I managed to spend some time on Oak Creek, which is probably one of my favorite steelhead tributaries. It’s small, it doesn’t hold the numbers of fish that Milwaukee or Menomonee do. Then again, it wasn’t blown out like Milwaukee was this week, either, nor was it home to a Brewers home stand like the Menomonee. Which explains why it was busier than normal. As I approached the stream I noticed a guy in dirty camo gear carrying a heavy black garbage bag swiftly away from the stream and back to his truck. In any other context that’s a “call-the-police” moment, but not when the steelhead are running.


I think it’s necessary to try and describe steelhead fishing for those who haven’t. Steelhead fishing is… let me qualify that, Milwaukee steelhead fishing is… I think the best way to describe it is to say that it’s like being in a relationship where the sex is awesome, if you’re willing to put up with all the other crazy bullshit. Like combat fishing conditions where there’s an angler around every bend and twenty deep at every dam and major obstruction. Cockteasing fish that refuse every swing of an egg pattern. The repetitiveness of working the same pool or riffle over-and-over again (I’m impatient and I like to move). But when you hook into a two-and-a-half foot fish… man, it’s the best damn thing in freshwater.

So with that in mind, let’s talk ephemeral flowers now…


Man, the ramps seem to have popped out of nowhere. I mean, Christ, wasn’t it still snowing last week? Ramps are awesome though. When my wife and I lived in West Bend I would sneak over to Regner Park on a mid-week morning and dig up a few ramps, bulbs and all, for some culinary goodness. My tip: make a potato-and-leek soup, and replace the leeks with ramps. You can easily identify ramps because they smell strongly of garlic (break off a piece of the leaf; you’ll agree). The bulbs look like tiny onions, and they can be used as a substitute for such. I didn’t pick any of these.


I can definitively say that I saw hundreds of trout (lilies). Yeah, that’s right, hundreds and hundreds of trout (lilies). Named for the speckled appearance of their leaves. And here’s trout lilies in bloom…




Bloodroot has a very unique seven-toothed leaf and distinctive white flower. The name probably comes from the fact that broken stems or roots from the plant ooze a reddish liquid that can cause a chemical burn on human skin. Historically it was also used to dye cloth red.


Finally, may apples, which neither ripen in May nor are apples. Each plant produces a since fruit that ripens to a yellowish color in late summer. The ripened fruit is edible, I believe, but I never tried one. The unripened version is toxic. Ask me how I know (hint: I read it in a book).

Like I said, sometimes you don’t catch fish. It’s days like this that it’s nice to have information on vegetables and minerals.

Tuesday night was definitely one of the better speaker presentations I’ve seen at a TU meeting. The guest speaker was Ann Miller. If that name sounds familiar then maybe you own or have borrowed a copy of her Hatch Guide for Midwest Trout Streams. It was an eye-opening presentation for me. It wasn’t necessarily ground-breaking stuff– mayfly and caddis life cycles, etc.– but some of it was “slap-your-forehead–why-didn’t-I-think-of-that” variety material. This coming from a guy whose philosophy up until this point has been “nymph 90% of the time” and then proceeds to use the same half dozen patterns repeatedly.

Her talk focused on the nuances in anatomy and behavior between different mayfly and caddisfly nymphs, as well as stoneflies, really reinforced the need of “matching the hatch” for nymphs as well, and extending that phrase to include matching the ecological niche, matching the substrate, matching the environment, etc. Judging by the number of attendees who lined up to buy her book at night’s end, I wasn’t the only moisture farmer turned fledgling Jedi-trout-master (ya know, because Obi-Wan said “you’ve just taken you’re first step into a much larger world…” ah, screw it).

I bought the book, too.

My final stop on this fly fishing city tour was this afternoon, right before I headed back to the Madison. I dropped by Trowbridge Elementary school to witness an event that has never before happened in the history of Milwaukee. Yeah, bet you’re jealous now.

This all goes back nearly two years when SEWTU formed their inaugural education committee. At the time chapter president Mike Kuhr was interested in expanding the Trout in the Classroom program, which is a national effort by TU to introduce trout biology and conservation to primary school students who otherwise may not get exposure to trout or coldwater fisheries. Basically the class gets hooked up with a big ‘ol fish tank, and working with the DNR they get to raise trout from fry to fingerlings before releasing them at the end of the school year.

Yeah, I know, it’s awesome. Kids these days get all the cool stuff.

For a number of years now there’s been a Trout in the Classroom program going on at the Waukesha STEM Academy, and Mike thought it would be of great benefit to bring it another city school district. I suggested a school within the Milwaukee Public School district. It seemed to make sense: integrate the Trout in the Classroom project into the state’s largest school district, to a student population that otherwise might not have experience with coldwater fish. It also helped that I had a number of contacts with teachers in MPS (I used to work summer rec programs when I was an undergrad at UWM).

We then got an interested party in one of the high schools, got funding from the SEWTU board of directors, got the initial okay from the DNR… and then, just before the 2013-14 school year started, learned that our teacher took another job outside the school district. So then began a rush to find someone else willing to take on the project ASAP. I got in contact with another teacher-friend of mine at Trowbridge and he was in.

It took a lot longer than we expected… getting the gear, getting the proper licensing from the Department of Agriculture (you need to be a “fish farmer”), and finally getting the rainbow trout. But finally, they were delivered today. Since I was in town I kinda wanted to see this… and it was just fantastic. Two dozen second graders visibly excited to finally fill that big ‘ol fish tank, asking questions to the DNR fisheries biologist, lining up to take turns at putting fish in the tank.

So they weren’t fry by this time, but instead fingerlings with parr marks still painting their sides, about a hundred in total. Eventually they’ll be released into a local pond when the school year ends*. I was very happy to see it take place.

I must admit that, beyond getting in touch with a few old friends, I had little to do with the heavy lifting that was needed to get this project off the ground. Mike, Rick, and Boyd on SEWTU’s education committee really put in a ton of work behind-the-scenes to bring this full circle. Just another reason that I’m happy to be a member of Trout Unlimited.

My only regret was not taking any photos of that fully stocked tank. I’m sure some of the photos that were taken will eventually end up online. I’ll post a link when they do.

*Due to DNR policies regarding fish diseases (notably VHS), these rainbows cannot be stocked in any designated trout stream. They’ll be released in a local urban fishing pond with predictable results. Still, I’m willing to be they’ll leave a lasting impression on those kids long after they’ve made the swim to the great Trout Stream in the Sky.


Author: chesleyfan

I work, I fish, I write.

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