When the temperature drops below 30 degrees, open water fishing is usually the last thing on my mind. I’m typically sitting in a tree stand waiting for some venison to step into my shooting lane. But the fall and winter provides anglers with the opportunity for some spectacular in-shore fishing for trout and salmon on Lake Michigan. From shore, anyone willing to brave the brutal temps can catch rainbow trout, steelhead, coho, and the holy grail of salmonids — the German Brown Trout.
As Mother Nature begins to tighten her icy grip on the Midwest, the temperatures drop in Lake Michigan triggering the inward migration of trout and salmon. Following the baitfish, they move in close to shore to feed and prepare to make more of these magnificent creatures throughout the fall spawning season.
Chinook are typically the first to come in, followed by cohos, steelhead, rainbows and then finally the browns. September through December gives anglers the chance to catch any of these species along the shores of the greatest Great Lake. And the fishing tactics that will work are just as diverse as the species. Trolling crank baits and spoons, casting plastics and jigs with a snap-snap retrieve, or vertical fishing with a “dead stick” and slip bobber using spawn sacks will all produce fish.
As the Director of Marketing for Clam Outdoors, I just finished a 3-day stint working the Milwaukee Ice Fishing Show, one of Wisconsin’s largest ice fishing and outdoor expos. After meeting thousands of Wisconsin and Illinois residents and discussing the latest, greatest gear for ice fishing, I had the itch to get a line wet. And Eric Haataja obliged.
For twenty years, Haataja has run a guide service out of Milwaukee and consistently puts clients on limits of big salmon and trout, as well as his specialty — Brown Trout. I grew up fishing Lake Michigan around the Chicago and northern Illinois waters, but the brown trout eluded me. The problem was, I was accompanied by several Clam Pro Staffers— Scott Merwin of Lake Osakis Guide Service; Brian Lindberg, walleye tournament pro; Clayton Kettering, ice fishing pro; and Eric Haataja, Guide and Brown Trout record holder. With the caliber of fishermen in the boat, I had my work cut out for me to try and land a brownie.
Launching at daybreak, the air temperature was a brisk 18 degrees. But a west wind was favorable to where we were going to fish in the Milwaukee Harbor. After a short run, we got some lines in the water, and the boys didn’t waste any time showing me how they roll. They started hooking up rainbow trout, steelhead and an occasional gizzard shad. The fish were all around us. And in 25 feet of water, they were feeding everywhere in the water column. We would see an occasional brown bust the surface, and gizzard shad were boiling everywhere around us. We were in the fish for sure.
I had yet to hook up as the rest of the crew landed fish after fish. But when it was finally my time, I set the hook and my rod bent in half. A good fish had inhaled my bait, a spawn bag as it was suspended at about 12 feet. As the fish neared the surface, Haataja yells out “a nice brown”. Now the pressure was on to land it. Once the fish was scooped into the net, I exhaled a breath of relief, and hoisted the trophy to make her famous. The brown, black and red speckles were magnificent in the morning sun. And after a handful of photos, I slid her back into the Lake to fight another day.
A short time later, I hooked into another line-screaming fish as it peeled monofilament off of the spin cast reel. The fish exploded out of the water, as if to see who dared interrupt his morning feeding frenzy, and we were face to face with a ten-pound bull steelhead. After several drag-peeling runs, Haataja boated another photo fish to round out our list. The big steelie gave us a “hook-jaw” smile before we sent him back to breakfast. We were having a multi-species day, not knowing what was at the end of each taught line. The rainbow trout were also spectacular. They were thick, healthy fish and looked nothing like many of the pond-raised trout that are common to stocked inland waters with the tails wore down to nubs.
Our tackle was mostly configured with medium to heavy rods and spin cast reels spooled with 20-pound mono and some braided line with mono leader. During October, November and December you may not even need a boat. There are plenty of fishing spots throughout the Harbor where anglers can cast right from the seawalls. Just be sure to bring a long, extension-pole style net. If you fish from the seawall, you will be about 12-15 feet above the water, and trust me you won’t be able to hoist these fish up without a net. Although the temps were hovering around 18 degrees and a brisk wind brought the wind chill to around zero, we were warm as toast. I’m not sure if it was the incredible fishing action or the brand new IceArmor fishing suits by Clam. Putting my new ice suit to the test, I was more than pleased with its performance, and warmth. If you plan to fish the Milwaukee Harbor or the shores of Lake Michigan in December, you had better bundle up.
Everyone on the boat hooked up good fish, and we had a great time. I was humbled by the experience — both the caliber of fishermen and fish gave me a feeling of gratitude. This trip took place shortly after the death of my mother, which made the experience all the more significant. I like to think that she was watching as I boated my first brown trout – a true trophy to me. To catch and release a brown trout on a cold December morning as the sun crawls over the Lake Michigan horizon was a surreal experience, and one that everyone should try.
If you are looking for a once-in-a-lifetime experience and the opportunity to hook into an elusive brown trout, contact Eric Haataja through his Wisconsin Big Fish Guide Service at www.WIbigfish.com. He’s a great guy and one of the best brown trout fishing guides in the country. For more photos from the trip click through the gallery below…