March 1, 2024

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A Guide to Salmon Fishing on the Wisconsin River

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Did you know that Salmon fishing in Wisconsin offers some of the best angling opportunities in the Midwest? The state provides access to Lake Superior in the north and Lake Michigan to the east. Several rivers and streams flow from inland sources into these enormous waterways, providing the migration highways Salmon need.

Photo courtesy of Fish-On Guide Services of Wisconsin

While Wisconsin experiences lots of fishing pressure, the Department of Natural Resources maintains an extensive stocking program. Anglers in the state catch up to 200,000 Coho and 300,000 Chinook annually! And that’s without mentioning the Kokanee, Pink, and Pinook Salmon you can take a shot at when fishing here.

With an early catch-and-release season starting in January and a general season extending from May through October, you can fish almost year-round. If you’re new to angling or Salmon specifically, I’m here to help. In this guide, I’ll run through everything you need to know about Salmon fishing in Wisconsin. Let’s get started!

Types of Salmon in Wisconsin

The “Badger State” is full of several different types of Salmon. Let’s quickly learn about each of them.

Chinook Salmon

A woman in a camouflage coat holding a large Salmon aboard a fishing charter in Wisconsin near sunset on a clear day, with two trolling rods and open blue waters visible behind her
Photo courtesy of Homewrecker Sport Fishing Charters

Anglers in Wisconsin land between 200,000 and 300,000 Chinooks annually. You’ll hear locals call this popular species a variety of names, such as Blackmouth, Chin, King, Magnum, Schawytscha, Shaker, and Spring Salmon.

These fish grow in the 20–35 inch range and weigh between 5 and 35 pounds. The state record for Chinook was set in 1994 out of Lake Michigan waters, a massive 47.5″ monster that weighed nearly 45 pounds.

Chinooks stand out from other Salmonids in their black or gray-colored mouths and black gums. Couple this with the blue or luminous green colors on their backs and heads, and you have a colorful fish. And when it comes to battle, they fight hard but will wear down quickly.

Coho Salmon

An angler wearing a coat and baseball cap holding a small Coho Salmon aboard a fishing boat in Wisconsin, with the sun setting in the distance behind him across the water
Photo courtesy of Nolan’s Guide Service

Coho is the next most caught species in the state. They also have alternative nicknames, including Blueback, Sea Trout, and Silver Salmon.

They’re smaller when compared to Chinook Salmon, averaging 11–26 inches in length and weighing between 5 and 12 pounds. You might hook into a larger specimen though, considering Wisconsin’s state record came in at 26 pounds 1.9 ounces, measuring 38 inches long in Lake Michigan back in 1999,.

Their white gums and slightly forked tail fins let you know you caught a Coho. The species has a steel-blue colorization along its back with light green, bright silver sides, and a white belly. They’re highly aggressive and attack hard with their initial strikes.

Other Salmons

A woman on board a fishing charter in Wisconsin, holding a large Pink Salmon with a few trolling rods behind her on a cloudy day
Photo courtesy of Twenty Four VII Charters 2

Kokanee are popular due to their color change from silver with a black back to red bodies and green heads. You’ll find these in select locations like Florence Lake or Upper Bass Lake (home of the 2007 state record). These landlocked versions of the Sockeye fight hard for their size, but they’re smaller – around 20 inches long, at most, weighing between 3 and 5 pounds.

Pink Salmon – also called “Humpbacks” – are the smallest species in the state. They average about 3–5 five pounds with darker tops and a pronounced hump (especially on males). Wisconsin’s current record Pink Salmon is 2 feet long, weighing 6 pounds and 1.9 ounces.

Pinook is a naturally occurring cross between Pink and Chinook species. These hybrids should be on your radar, as larger specimens have been redefining state records. A larger version of Pinks that fight like Chinooks, the current record as of August 2022, is a 12 lb, 7.4 oz fish out of Lake Michigan measuring 29.5 inches.

Wisconsin Salmon Fishing Basics

So, now that we’ve covered the different types of Salmon in Wisconsin, how exactly can you catch them?

Understanding Salmon Behavior

Migration patterns are critical to success when Salmon fishing in Wisconsin. These fish get introduced into rivers that feed into the Great Lakes. Young Salmon head into the lakes and stay for several years, while mature specimens return to the rivers and tributaries to spawn before dying.

Salmon move back into the river systems in the fall. For example, waterways near Milwaukee tend to see Chinook move upstream in September and October, while Coho begin to arrive in October and November.

Spawning fish are more aggressive and will hit lures, but their focus on spawning makes them harder to catch. It’s also worth noting that the general fishing season winds down as the fall spawn approaches.

Wisconsin Salmon Fishing Techniques

A view across the open waters of one of the Great Lakes in Wisconsin on a sunny day towards a fishing charter, set up with downriggers and outriggers, with some anglers casting their line off the deck of the boat
Photo courtesy of Salmon Chasers

Fishing from the bank can be productive when hunting Salmon during migration. A drifting technique uses the current to move your bait or lure. Try casting upstream 45 degrees and drift to 45 degrees below your position, using weighted items that will bounce along the bottom.

If targeting Salmon by fly fishing is your thing, pack plenty of reaction flies for the state’s Great Lakes tributaries. Those lake-run brutes will hammer streamers you dead-drift or swing.

Out in the Great Lakes, trolling is the go-to technique for taking on Salmon. The summer conditions push these fish into deeper waters. Cohos stay more shallow than Chinooks, so setting downriggers to half the water’s depth is a wise way to start. Many charter services set up additional planer boards to troll nearer the surface – don’t hesitate to imitate them.

Wisconsin Salmon Fishing Bait

A closeup of a Salmon fish on the end of a fishing line, having taken the bait which is visible above its mouth, with a yellow boat visible as a blur in the distance across the water

Local anglers love using spawn bags, single eggs, and beads to fish for Salmon. Various shrimp work well in fast-moving waters, and you can always fall back to artificial minnows like the Berkley PowerBait Pro Twitchtail on a size 8 or 10 hook.

Four-inch plastic worms can handle multiple casts when drifting, and jigs with dressings imitating local food sources work nicely. Spinners and lures matching local prey item colors will get strikes if you put them close to the fish.

If you want to stay on the surface, use crankbaits like the Thunderstick. When fly fishing for migrating Salmon, leeches, egg patterns, woolly buggers, and loud-colored fly patterns are known to produce strikes in active waterways.

Wisconsin Salmon Fishing Gear

Salmon hit and fight hard, so you want a medium-heavy to heavy rod. Shoot for at least 7 feet in length – or more if you plan to drift fish so you can mend more easily.

If you’re new to Salmon fishing, stick with a spinning reel. It is easier to learn and won’t produce as many tangled messes. Those with experience might look into a baitcaster when drifting for better control. Spin-casting reels are a nice compromise between backlash and precision control.

Having the right line between you and the fish makes all the difference. When trolling, monofilament is still popular due to its stretching ability. Shoot for a 20–30 lb test. If you’re floating with the current in the boat, you can drop to 15–20 lb lines. Switch to copolymers in the 15–25 pound range when you head inland to drift.

Local Wisdom and Expert Tips

An aerial view of a fishing charter on the deep waters of one of the Great Lakes in Wisconsin, with a number of anglers casting a line off the deck of the boat
Photo courtesy of Maritime Charters

A top tip if you’re new to Salmon fishing in Wisconsin (or in general) would be to hire a charter or guide. They’ll get you to the fish and can often equip you too. Learn to work your drag to reel in more Salmon. It needs to be loose enough to allow a fish to tire itself out running but firm enough to turn the fish when needed.

If you’re gearing up for fly fishing, increase the size of your flies for Salmon compared to those used for other Salmonids like Trout. A good hook size range will be between 12 and 2.

When to Go Salmon Fishing in Wisconsin

Fishing from January through March is slow, so you might want to wait until at least April when the action increases. Fishing is in full swing when the general open season starts in May, and you’ll have plenty of opportunities for all Salmonoid species into October.

Two women wearing baseball caps and winter jackets standing on a fishing charter and holding a Salmon each, while a man casts his line behind them on a cloudy day on one of the Great Lakes
Photo courtesy of Bay Lake Charters

Many charters and locals note seeing more Coho action in the lakes during May and June. The Chinooks (King Salmon) take over the Great Lakes action from July through October. Meanwhile, Pink Salmon will be accessible around other Salmonids between May and August on the Lakes.

By August, you might see Chinook Salmon runs starting in the rivers. Spawn migrations peak in September and October for these fish. Coho arrive a bit later than their cousins, with October offering peak spawn migrations. Pink Salmon rule rivers and tributaries in the earlier months of June and July. Kokanee Salmon are surprisingly accessible all season in the limited waterways they call home.

Early mornings and late afternoons might offer an advantage when fishing for Salmon in Wisconsin. The key here is that the water is colder than the rest of the day. Night fishing is an option for Salmon fishing, but remember those obvious visual challenges. If you are fishing during the hottest parts of the day, look for fish in deeper water in the Lakes.

You might think that the size of the Great Lakes means you need to pay attention to tidal forces. On the contrary, scientists say that these waterways are non-tidal. So that’s one less thing to worry about!

Where to Go Salmon Fishing in Wisconsin

Wisconsin provides access to Lake Superior’s south shore, and you’ll find plenty of charters here. The Apostle Islands north of Bayfield, are popular with those trolling for Coho. It’s worth noting this is a good area for Pinks too. Target a charter trip here between ice-out and the end of May.

A view across the water towards a tower in a lake with a fishing charter passing nearby at sunset on a summer's day
Photo courtesy of Fish-On Guide Services of Wisconsin

The mouth of the Brule River sits a few miles east of Superior. This waterway is considered a top Salmon spot for the whole Midwest. The upper section between US Highway 2 and the mouth provides prime Salmon territory. You’ll find plenty of torpedo-shaped fish in the fast-moving waters here.

Lake Michigan offers far more shoreline along eastern Wisconsin than Lake Superior does in the north. Cold water wells along the state’s shoreline provide prime Salmon conditions. Salmon charters from Kenosha in the south, around the tip of Washington Island, and into Green Bay will keep you busy. During the migration season, look for boat access to Sturgeon Bay – you’re sure to stay busy with all the fish!

Loooking to go fly fishing? Milwaukee’s Estabrook and Kletzsch Parks offer access to the Milwaukee River and its Chinook and Coho runs. Several bridge crossings in the area provide water access as well. There’s a controlled water flow here, but the only time you might find it hard to fly fish is during the high-volume runoff in the spring.

Chinook fishing is good in the Kewaunee River, east of Green Bay. Two boat launches in Kewaunee and several nearby bridge crossings on Highway C give you water access. The serene surroundings contrast with the urban sprawl around the mouth of the Milwaukee River to the south.

If you want a shot at the state’s limited Kokanee population, head to Lake Florence in Waukesha County. For over 50 years, a naturalized Kokanee population has thrived in this 57-acre waterway that’s just 29 feet deep.

Wisconsin Fishing Rules and Regulations

An infographic featuring the flag of Wisconsin along with text that says "Wisconsin Salmon Fishing Regulations What You Need to Know" against a dark blue background with a vector of a boat and the FishingBooker logo

If you’re ready to try some Wisconsin Salmon fishing, licensing shouldn’t be a problem. Everyone 16 and older needs a license for angling in the state. You’ll also need to purchase an Inland Trout Stamp or Great Lakes Salmon and Trout Stamp, based on where you fish. Wisconsin offers a variety of license packages based on resident status, duration, and exceptional personal circumstances.

Salmon get grouped with Trout in Wisconsin’s regulations. Early catch-and-release season starts in January and goes through early May. The general open season is from early May through mid-October.

You won’t be able to keep any fish you land during the early catch and release. General season daily bag limits are five Salmon, with possession limits of 10. Rules for specific waterways supersede these statewide regulations.

Wisconsin: The Midwest’s Salmon Fishery

Wisconsin provides coast-like Salmon fishing in the middle of the country. You’ll find plenty of variety here, with Chinook and Coho dominating most stringers. Once you understand how migrations and spawns influence these fish, you’ll know when and where to plan your trip.

A man in a baseball cap standing on the deck of a fishing boat and holding an enormous King Salmon on the open waters of a Great Lake in Wisconsin after sunset on a day with sunny intervals
Photo courtesy of Fowl Dawgs LLC

Flowing tributaries and boat trolling will require heavy rods, but you have plenty of baits to choose from. Just keep offerings a bit larger than you would for other Salmonids. While a few inland lakes contain Salmon, most of your fishing spots will center around one of the adjacent Great Lakes and associated tributaries.

Licenses and stamps are easy to acquire and are mandatory for most people 16 and older. Remember, January through early May is catch-and-release, with the general season open from May through mid-October. So get your license, and plan your next Salmon trip to Wisconsin. We’ll see you out there!

Have you ever been Salmon fishing in Wisconsin? Which species did you target? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

The post How to Go Salmon Fishing in Wisconsin: An Angler’s Guide appeared first on FishingBooker Blog.

By: Jon Stewart
Title: How to Go Salmon Fishing in Wisconsin: An Angler’s Guide
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Published Date: Fri, 08 Sep 2023 16:03:54 +0000

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