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Next for Wauwatosa: Fishing Mecca?

Removal of the concrete channel below Miller Valley will allow lots of lunkers to swim through the length of Wauwatosa, providing exciting angling opportunities.

Wauwatosa is a magnet for business, huge, medium and small. It's a destination for shopping and dining, with a growing collection of stores and restaurants second to none in Southeast Wisconsin.

With extensive parkways, and bike lanes being painted everywhere else — and with the addition next year of the final day of the nation's biggest criterium bike racing series — Wauwatosa is becoming paradise on two wheels.

What can we do next?

How about becoming a sport fishing focal point?

No lake, no problem. A river runs through us, and in the not too distant future, it should teem with salmon and steelhead during spring and fall spawning runs. More than that, it could become a haven for sought-after native gamefish.

On Thursday, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District spent just two hours videotaping scenes from the fall chinook salmon run, posted above, in the neighborhood of Miller Park and a bit upstream. They had no trouble at all getting footage of plenty of monster fish.

Similar scenes should play out each autumn through the length of Wauwatosa and possibly as far upstream as Menomonee Falls in coming years, according to MMSD staff.

Impediment to a piscine urge to visit the Village

Most of those fish want to get to Wauwatosa via the Menomonee River, said Dave Fowler, a senior project manager with the district. But few of them can under "current" conditions.

"There's still a stretch of concrete channel above Miller Park, and from the Wisconsin Avenue bridge up to the Miller Brewing Visitor center, the grade is too steep. There's no cover, nothing to break up the flow and give fish a place to rest," Fowler said. "It's too much work for them."

Each year, a few salmon and steelhead trout do make the trip, but not enough to attract anglers.

The sewerage district already has in hand a $2 million grant from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to remove that stretch of deteriorating concrete channel and replace it with a bio-engineered bed designed for fish passage and habitat.

But MMSD hasn't been able to move forward with the project yet because the modifications to the stream have to be part of a package of approvals from agencies including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the municipalities involved, Fowler said.

"We have to file what is called a conditional letter of map revision," Fowler said, "and it includes all watershed flood management modifications taking place upstream as well."

That process is under way now, Fowler said, and once it is approved, MMSD can proceed — probably beginning next spring or mid-summer.

"We have the grant, and the design is done," Fowler said. He estimated the work would take from eight to 12 months to complete, depending on the conditions engineers find under the concrete bed.

"If we find contaminated soils, it could slow things down," he said.

Fish for all seasons may find the Menomonee friendly

So, don't break out your fly rod yet, except to practice casting for perhaps the spring or fall of 2014. Then, expect highly accessible stretches of the river, in Hart Park, especially, as well as Hoyt Park, to become hotspots.

Steelhead trout, considered by many anglers to be the premier fighting prize in stream fishing, run in the spring to spawn and live to re-enter the lake for summer feeding. Many steelhead return in the fall to follow the salmon spawning runs, feeding voraciously on their eggs.

Two species of salmon make up the fall runs — first coho, beginning sometimes as early as late August, and then the king of the salmon family, the chinook.

Alas, unlike steelhead, salmon do not survive spawning and their eggs won't hatch in the warm-water Menomonee. So, there's no worries about catch and release. However, physical changes that salmon go through during spawning make them considerably less palatable than "bright" fish caught before their reproductive hormones kick in.

In any event, Lake Michigan salmon in Milwaukee waters, especially fully mature ones, should not be eaten more than once a month, and never by pregnant or lactating women. As top food chain predators, their fat stores concentrations of PCBs, mercury and other contaminants.

They are, though, great sport to catch.

Hope for a return of other fishing favorites

Aside from those species, which are non-natives in the Great Lakes, other gamefish will likely make their way up the Menomonee.

In fact, it is one of those that is more the focus of the GLRI grant and the DNR in facilitating improved fish passage, simply because it is native.

"Northern pike is the target species," Fowler said. "With improved water clarity in Milwaukee Harbor, we've been seeing northerns, muskies and smallmouth bass repopulating the estuary.

"Northerns do go up streams, usually to headwaters, to spawn, although they don't like to stay in the streams."

Bass and walleyes, however, will take up residence in streams if they find suitable conditions and tolerable water quality.

"The Menomonee has a lot of good holes," Fowler said. "After we took out the North Avenue dam on the Milwaukee River, we saw northerns, walleyes and bass repopulating the stream and turning it into a really good fishery."

Disclaimer: The Menomonee is not the Milwaukee

Fowler said he expects much the same on the Menomonee, although with the caveat that more fluctuating conditions and water quality on the much smaller stream will present greater challenges to re-establishing native fish populations.

In snowy winters and spring thaws, the Menomonee and its Wauwatosa tributaries, Honey Creek and Underwood Creek, often carry concentrations of road salt toxic to aquatic life.

Native fish populations could become highly cyclical here, developing and then crashing under extremes they wouldn't face on a larger, less urbanized river.

The salmon, anyway, won't care. Their fall runs precede salt season, for one thing. And for another, there is nothing they won't tolerate in their drive to spawn.

unaborted socrates October 08, 2012 at 09:19 PM
You do realize that these fish are half dead when they spawn? Not the most tasty of eating, unless you enjoy eating rotted fish.
Jim Price October 08, 2012 at 09:27 PM
Directly from the story: "However, physical changes that salmon go through during spawning make them considerably less palatable than "bright" fish caught before their reproductive hormones kick in." Yes, I was being polite. They're nasty eating (I did try smoking some – once). But I know people who scoop 'em up by the bushel and keep 'em and eat 'em.
alt ideas needed October 08, 2012 at 10:15 PM
a lot of fisherman practice catch and release. Chinook, also known as Kings, offer great sport fishing up until they become river zombies and perish. However, the brown trout and rainbow trout return to the lake after their spawning. This could be a big deal, considering the world record brown trout was caught just outside of the Summerfesat grounds last year.
Jim Price October 08, 2012 at 11:37 PM
alt, I, too, subscribe to catch and release, even with these "zombie" fish. In fact, I try not to hook into ones that are clearly spawning out. Early in the run, while they're still looking for a redd, they are zombies with an attitude on the end of a line. And you are quite right, the rainbows, steelhead rainbows and browns that follow them upstream are worthy of pursuit and release when they can be reduced to possession. I'm also excited – maybe even a little more – by the prospect of having native northerns and smallmouths (even walleyes if they can find a deep enough hole) inhabiting our stream. Anybody for a Tosa fishing derby?
alt ideas needed October 09, 2012 at 02:06 AM
heck, I'd be happy to see carp
Ray Ray Johnson October 09, 2012 at 12:22 PM
Next come the grizzly bears, following the food. I thought I saw 2 grizzly bears mating near a car when I was driving past Hansen Golf Course on my way to work.
Kiki October 09, 2012 at 02:24 PM
Jim - Are the water levels going to rise with this? Parts of the river seem too shallow for good fishing.
Jim Price October 09, 2012 at 02:42 PM
Kiki, this is a bad year to go by. We've had a historic drought from which stream levels have not nearly recovered yet. Most years, there is plenty of water in the Menomonee to support both the salmon and steelhead runs and native gamefish. The video posted with this story was shot on the Menomonee. As you can see, in their urge to spawn, the salmon will horse their way through a couple of inches of water to get to the next pool. But this is the lowest I've ever seen the river.
Spencer Hoyt October 09, 2012 at 05:37 PM
Sounds like a great opportunity to open up a Rod, Bait & Tackle Shop in the Village! How bout on River Road, east of 68th street? Hmmm...
Jim Price October 09, 2012 at 10:06 PM
Not a bad idea, Spencer, not bad at all. Although, this being Tosa, you might want to expand the concept to Rod, Bait, Tackle & Wine.
Spencer A Hoyt October 12, 2012 at 02:40 AM
@ Jim, FUNNY!
Spencer A Hoyt October 12, 2012 at 02:42 AM
BTW, comments aren't accessible using the Patch App on the iPhone... Can you forward to the IT folks at Patch that can correct this? Thanks!

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