Wisconsin Urban Salmon

You fly fished for salmon where?” That’s a question an acquaintance asked me when I described my introduction to fly fishing for salmon in Wisconsin. A few months after moving from Montana to Illinois, my friend, Leon, took me to the Milwaukee River. It was a cool, damp day in October, and the King Salmon were moving into the river from Lake Michigan.

I brought a nine-foot, eight-weight Orvis rod, and I managed to land a couple of salmon which attacked my purple and pink woolly bugger. I also foul-hooked a couple of others. That was inevitable given the number of salmon moving up the river.

What struck me about the stretch of river we fished was its proximity to civilization.

We were fly fishing the Milwaukee River in Estabrook Park, a half mile east of a McDonald’s on East Capitol Drive in Milwaukee, just four miles north of downtown Milwaukee. It seemed odd to fly fish just minutes from the Bradley Center, home of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks. On a more macabre note, we were only five miles from the apartment complex where serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer murdered most of his victims. Then again, I’ve fly fished in Montana within sight of the spot where another serial killer murdered one of his victims. But that’s a story for another time.

Surprisingly, when I walked down the path from one of the parking lots in Estabrook Park to the Milwaukee River, it was if I had been transported to another world. Hardwood and softwood trees lined the river, their orange and yellow leaves fluttering in the breeze. When the morning fog lifted, the sun seemed to set them on fire. Other than an occasional siren, all I could hear was the sound of the river and the chirping of birds. Once I heard a dog bark. A few times, I heard Leon whoop when he hooked into a feisty salmon a few yards to my right. To be sure, the river did not run as clear as the Yellowstone in Montana. But I could easily see the pods of salmon darting their way up the river.

I’ve caught fish miles away from anywhere. But on this day, I caught fish blocks away from anything you might want — restaurants, a major university, a hospital, and even a professional sports venue and concert arena. No, it wasn’t the Yellowstone. But it didn’t need to be. Those urban salmon didn’t realize they were “city slickers.” They didn’t fight any more or less than the “rural” salmon I’ve hooked on the Wilson River in Alaska. Nor did they have more metropolitan tastes than the big browns on the Madison when it came to the flies I was using to catch them.

It was a good day on the river, and I had plenty of time to reflect on it as the rush-hour traffic slowed to a crawl when we drove out of downtown Milwaukee.