Cold toes and Hot-Butts on the Milwaukee River

Contributing Editor

With its short days and sullen skies, December is a dreary
month. But for a handful of hardy fly-rodders, Wisconsin’s Lake
Michigan tributaries offer some great fishing for a mixed bag
during a time of year when most of us have hung up the rods for the
season.

One of the best of these streams is the Milwaukee River. The
removal of both the North Avenue dam in 1997 and more recently the
dam at Falls Road in Grafton has allowed the river to scour out its
silt-laden bed and opened up miles of runs, riffles and pools to
migrating trout and salmon. The chinook run in September and spring
steelhead run in April attract plenty of attention, but the
late-fall fishing goes largely unnoticed.

I recently fished the Milwaukee with Matt Panosh, who guides out
of The Flyfishers in West Allis, on a relatively mild Sunday
morning, when there were more joggers and mountain bikers than
anglers on the banks of the river.

Cruising high above the river on Capitol Drive, Locust Street or
North Avenue, you’d never know there was anything going on below.
But step into the river and the city fades behind high wooded
banks, where you’re as likely to see a coyote or a whitetail as a
jogger.

Matt Panosh moves quickly from hole to hole, then fishes with
intensity in runs where he’s caught fish before and expects to
again.

“I’ll find a run and fish it Atlantic-style,’ ” he said. “I’ll
make three or four casts, then take a couple steps downstream to
work my way through it. It’s a good way to fish productive water
and learn where fish hide.”

If he hits fish in the first run, Matt said, it’s likely he’ll
hit fish throughout the river because they’re ready to feed. When
he’s fished as far downstream as he wants to, he goes back upstream
and starts over or else hits the holes in reverse order. Either
way, he always fishes downstream.

That Sunday, we covered about a mile of water, but fished only a
few hundred yards of it, moving on when we reached unproductive
shallows or riffles. This time of year, steelhead, browns, coho
salmon, and brook trout all are in the river. Brookies and most of
the browns have spawned by now. They are on their way back to the
lake. The last of the cohos are spawning. Like chinooks, they’ll
die when they finish. A few salmon carcasses litter the banks and
shallows, but gulls and furred scavengers have cleaned up most of
them. Steelhead are moving upstream to reach the gravel beds where
they’ll spawn later this winter or next spring.

Steelhead were our main target, but Matt said he’s caught a
steelhead, a brown, and a brook trout all from the same run on the
same day. If he had found a pod of spawning cohos, he might have
taken a fall grand slam.

Matt tied on an egg imitation and a nymph of his own design he
calls a Hot-Butt Stonefly. It looks like an ordinary stonefly nymph
with its tail-end on fire. Catchy name. Catchier fly, as it turned
out.

The rig is pretty simple: To the end of a nine-foot
weight-forward leader, Matt adds a short length of tippet material
with a surgeon’s knot. He leaves a 2-inch tag end, to which he
crimps a couple coated split shot, which grip the line better than
plain lead shot. Then he ties on a Glo Bug (egg) about 8 inches
below the split shot tag. He ties a 15-inch length of tippet
material to the bend of the egg hook, and ties the nymph to
this.

“The egg serves as an attractor, and the nymph imitates the
natural insect larvae present in the river,” Matt said. “Browns
almost always take the egg pattern, while steelhead usually take
the nymph.”

He fishes this rig on a floating, weight-forward line, using a
9-foot, 7-weight rod or a 13.5-foot, two-handed Spey rod. The
longer rod lets him reach out to fish wide runs or fish from the
bank when the water is too high to wade. The conventional fly rod
is more sensitive to subtle strikes and better suited to finessing
a drift through a tighter lie.

That day, we tried both rods for three hours without a single
take. We watched two anglers catch and release several cohos from a
group of spawners splashing in a shallow side-current.

Finally, after sizing down from a No. 6 Hot-Butt to a No. 8 and
adding more split shot to keep the rig right on bottom, Matt tied
into a steelhead in a fast run. The fish rolled on the surface and
bounced off rocks, but the hook held. When Matt slid him onto a
gravel bar, the Hot-Butt was stuck in his jaw.

Encouraged by this first fish, we crossed the river to try a
hole where we’d struck out three hours earlier. On my third or
fourth drift, I felt a solid take and reared back on a good fish
that made a hard downstream run. I applied as much pressure as I
dared, as he took all my line and 10 yards of backing before
stopping. He made a few more runs before I could steer him to
Matt’s grasp. We both whooped as Matt hoisted another bright male,
the nymph in the corner of his jaw. Hot-Butt had scored again.

The 35-degree water had chilled our feet enough that we decided
to follow the lead of those two steelhead and get something hot to
eat.

“It’s not easy to fish in these conditions, where you have to
dress warmly and come out in the cold,” Matt said.

No, it’s not, but Matt’s Hot-Butts made my cold toes a lot more
tolerable.

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