Down by the River… Urban Fishing is Back!

by David Coles / photo by Andrew Stiff

The fish are biting again in our own backyard – the ever-improving Milwaukee River. Since the removal of dams at North Avenue and in West Bend in recent years, the river channel is narrower, the water temperature cooler, and the current more free-flowing. Though sewage dumping and other problems persist, there is much cause for optimism surrounding this precious resource. To a degree once unthinkable people and wildlife are returning to the river. With increasingly frequent sightings of families of mallard ducks, kingfishers, hummingbirds, deer, croaking bullfrogs, and a multitude of other wildlife, one can easily forget that he is in the middle of a major metropolis. An encounter with a great blue heron is virtually guaranteed anywhere upstream from the old North Avenue dam; curiously, they are now more common in southern Wisconsin than in the more pristine north country. Beneath the water’s surface, significant water quality improvements have laid the ecological foundation required to support healthy fisheries – and the fish are responding. Fifty thousand sturgeon fry were released in the Milwaukee River this past spring, marking their return to native waters after an absence of several generations. Walleye are slowly coming back, and stand to further benefit from the recent formation of an area chapter of Walleyes for Tomorrow. Add to the mix rock bass, catfish, northern pike, and carp for good measure. For most anglers, however, the real excitement stems from the exploding smallmouth bass fishery. The feisty bass are thriving even though not a single smallmouth has been stocked in the river – credit the species’ tenacity and perseverance. At this point the abundant bass tend to be small, but seem to be growing larger each year. While legitimate “keepers” remain rare, very respectable 12- to 14-inch smallies are becoming a common catch. Try pitching spinners near structure — large rocks, downed trees, etc. — or in slower pockets among rapidly moving water. Three of my favorite spots are the extensive and productive rapids beneath the Locust Street bridge, the smaller rapids below E. Chambers Street, and the roughly half-mile stretch north of Capitol Drive. Talk to the good people at A&C bait shop at 314 E. Center Street and they will happily outfit you for an urban fishing excursion. While far from pristine, the Milwaukee River is on the mend, and is certainly worth exploring. Trash remains an annoyance; the excitement of catching a nice bass is often followed by the retrieval of an old shoe or muffler. Do your part and never visit the river without cleaning up at least one piece of junk. From the wilder stretches in the northern counties to the urban commotion downtown, via canoe, kayak, speedboat, or on foot along the banks, get out and enjoy this treasure next door – the mighty Milwaukee River. If you want to get more involved, the nonprofit Friends of Milwaukee’s Rivers (, 476-6042) organizes an annual spring cleanup as one component of their river protection mission. A native east-sider, David Coles holds a degree in conservation biology from UW-Madison. For information on Walleyes for Tomorrow, contact him at . Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 9 – September 2003