Combat fishing for lake salmon

For all of the wonderful fishing opportunities that abound in Vermont, one thing the state does not have in abundance is salmon fishing. Yes, there is some good fishing for landlocked salmon in some of the bigger lakes and their tributaries (including Champlain), but despite all of the restoration efforts there are almost no ocean-run (anadromous) Atlantic salmon that still spawn in New England waters.
So, many of Addison County’s avid anglers make regular fall and winter pilgrimages over to the Great Lakes to fish for Chinook and Coho salmon and steelhead (an anadromous variety of rainbow trout) that spawn up the tributary streams from October through late winter. Pulaski, in upstate New York, is one popular destination, where anglers can cast in knee-deep streams for fish that spend a half dozen years growing massive in Lake Ontario. At just over four hours’ drive from Addison County, it’s a convenient weekend destination.
Milwaukee is slightly less convenient, but two years ago I learned to my surprise that it also boasts some excellent salmon and steelhead fishing in its Lake Michigan tributaries. This past weekend I was doing library research in Chicago and Milwaukee. In between, when the library in Chicago closed at noon on Saturday and the one in Milwaukee opened on Monday morning, I had some time to ply the Milwaukee River for some of those fish.
Pat Ehlers, at the Fly Fishers Fly Shop in Milwaukee, suggested I try Kletzsch Park in the town of Glendale, about a half dozen miles upstream of downtown Milwaukee. I had been there once before, two years earlier, also on Pat’s suggestion. There is a waterfall in the park, manmade by the looks, about four feet high. When there is a good water flow, after a heavy rain, the salmon can make it over the falls. When the water is low, they get stuck there. About every four or five minutes, spectators on the banks can watch a fish make an unsuccessful leap up the falls, before falling back.
Low water or high, the fish still stack up in the pool right below the falls and all along the gravel shallows for a couple hundred yards downstream on both sides of a small island that sits midstream. On my previous visit, in October of 2008, I had caught five nice king salmon in about four hours of fishing. The largest and last one was 42 inches long and broke my rod. So I decided to take Pat’s advice again and return to the same spot.
I arrived at the park at 6:15 a.m., a full 45 minutes before dawn, hoping to beat the crowds. I failed. There were already eight fly fishermen who had waded over to the east side of the island, and another half dozen or so spin casters along the shore on the west side. At least a dozen more were spread out along the river downstream of the island. It was going to be what is known as “combat fishing” — a term that implies more metaphorical combat with other fishermen than it does with the fish.
Navigating along the shore of the island in the pre-dawn light, I staked out my 20 yards of river between two other anglers, tied on a fly by flashlight, and started casting.
Within a few minutes, anglers on both sides of me were hooking up. Despite the moniker “combat fishing,” it’s actually quite congenial. Anglers cheer for one another, move out of the way when somebody else is playing a fish, and volunteer to help each other net. (That was good for me, as I didn’t even have a net.)
Chinook salmon, also known as king salmon, are well-named. They are the biggest of the five species of Pacific salmon, and can get much bigger than Atlantic salmon. Genetically, they are capable of growing to over a hundred pounds. Last I knew, the world record caught on hook and line weighed 125 pounds, and I’ve read they’ve been taken in nets pushing 200 pounds. They don’t get that big in the Great Lakes, but they can still regularly reach 40. Most of the fish I saw were about three feet long, plus or minus three inches, but there were definitely some that were over 40 inches.
They are also good jumpers when they are still fresh, before their spawning run has taken too much life out of them. Five or six full twisting leaps from a fish was not uncommon. When a 20-pound fish does that just a few feet in front of you, it is impressive. Of course at 20 pounds, they don’t need to leap to put up a fight. The first time I hooked one, I thought I was snagged. My line stopped moving. I lifted my rod and nothing happened. It felt like I was on the bottom. I lifted harder. Suddenly a fish exploded from the water and my reel started buzzing as the fish took off upstream with my fly.
Over the course of the day, I landed five fish, and hooked another four or five on which I executed the famous long-distance release technique. Some were fair-hooked, meaning they actually took my fly in the mouth. This is more an act of aggression than an attempt to eat, as salmon essentially don’t consume any more food once they begin to spawn. (When the spawn is over they die anyway.) But there were so many fish in the river that accidentally hooking some in the fin was unavoidable. I’d cast to some likely spot, and a fish spooked by my line would dart away, rubbing along my line as it went until it had succeeded in hooking itself. A 20-pound fish hooked in the fin is next to impossible to turn, so most of the ones that I foul-hooked were never brought in. (Some of them still have my flies in their backs.)
As fun as it is to hook and play a fish that big, the combat fishing aspect of the sport is somewhat less appealing. I wouldn’t trade what we have in Vermont for what they have in Milwaukee. On the other hand, despite the crowds, I wouldn’t mind a short-term swap two or three days a year.

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