The character of the Kinnickinnic River, once the fetid armpit of Milwaukee’s watershed, has improved so dramatically in recent months that trout and salmon are now winding as far as two miles up this blue ribbon to respawn. The previously putrid river, now clearing as the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District demolishes the concrete panels that once lined its banks, presents a fresh challenge for game wardens: stopping would-be poachers from nabbing the fish as they flop, thrash and wiggle upstream in the spring and fall.
Good as they are to eat, the meaty trout and salmon are actually trying to complete an important mission – the perpetuation of their species. Sadly, the eggs they lay rarely produce fish due to high sediment loads and water temperatures. Sisyphus, anyone?
So what’s legal? Hook-and-line fishing. All else is verboten. “People have come up with some creative ways to catch these fish during spawning runs,” says Thomas Burzynski, a fisheries technician at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “Snagging, netting, spears, gas … it’s an issue.”
Enter the river police. A volunteer unit called the River Patrol (basically a neighborhood watch for babbling brooks) has some 300 members in southeastern Wisconsin who’ll keep an eye on the Kinnickinnic, says Kevin Mickelberg, a DNR regional warden. Fines include $423.90 for unlawful spearing and $745.50 for illegal use of nets in inland and outlying waters.
But why are these ever-so-tempting “lunkers” struggling up the KK?
Many were stocked by the DNR and are acting on instinct. Trout and salmon normally use an uncanny homing ability to return to their own spawning pool or one nearby, often coming within feet of their birthplace. Without concrete barriers, the KK is wider and slower, allowing fish to make headway by weaving between deep, slow pools and stretches that are fast and narrow. More demolitions may let fish get all the way to Jackson Park, but without the removals, no dice. Not even for the Michael Phelpses of the fish world.