Milwaukee Fishing: Your Ultimate Guide
Feb 16, 2021 | 9 minute read
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Depending on who you ask, Milwaukee’s name originates from a Native American word that means “Rich, beautiful land,” or “Misfortune happens.” While the city does possess rich and beautiful lands, we think they pale in comparison to its aquatic offerings, which include Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River. “Misfortune happens”? Nope – not when you embark on a Milwaukee fishing adventure!

A view of Milwaukee's city skyline at dusk, with Lake Michigan in the foreground

As well as providing direct access to two brag-worthy fisheries, the impressive species that swarm Milwaukee’s waters make this locale well worth a visit. Depending on when you head to the Badger State, you’ll find huge Salmon, tasty Trout, and everything in between. It’s a real “who’s-who” of famous freshwater game fish!

And then there’s all the ways you can catch ’em. Plumb the depths of Lake Michigan’s offshore waters for that trophy catch. Wade the Milwaukee River for a “back-to-nature” experience. Or combine a visit to this exciting city with an afternoon of fishing alongside the whole family. It’s up to you!

Before you grab your rods ‘n’ reels, take a look below. We’ve highlighted our favorite catches in Milwaukee, the best ways to fish here, and some “can’t-miss” hotspots…

What can I catch in Milwaukee?

Infographic showing top catches in Milwaukee, including Chinook Salmon, Coho Salmon, Brown Trout, Lake Trout, Steelhead, Carp, Walleye, and more

Salmon

There are two types of Salmon on offer in Milwaukee, and we’ve decided to cover them both. Why? Well, they’re both worthy angling opponents in their own unique way. Chasing ’em along Lake Michigan is a real bucket-list adventure, and fishing in Milwaukee gives you the chance to do just that.

A man holds a large Chinook Salmon on board a charter boat on Lake Michigan

Firstly, there’s Chinook Salmon. Also known as “Kings,” these royal fish possess hard-fighting attitudes and the ability to grow to huge sizes. They’re joined by their slightly smaller cousins, Coho Salmon. Smaller, yes – but the fight they put up pound-for-pound is no less exciting! Both species also taste pretty incredible. Not hard to see why they’re a top target, right?

When it comes to getting the most out of Salmon fishing in Milwaukee, it’s all about timing. July–September are the hottest months for Chinook Salmon fishing, with the annual Salmon run taking place in September. Coho Salmon season begins in spring, around March, and is strong until early June. It tapers off a little before picking up again in late fall.

Two men hold two Coho Salmon on a charter boat with Lake Michigan behind them

Local anglers recommend hooking Salmon with slightly different techniques, depending on where you’ll be fishing. On Lake Michigan, trolling is your best bet. Heading to the Milwaukee River or its tributaries? Drift fishing takes first place.

Trout

When it comes to Milwaukee’s favorite fish, there’s one species that’s a real contender to the Salmon’s throne. We’re talking about Trout, of course! If you don’t immediately equate these fish with exciting angling action, head down to Milwaukee and get ready to change your mind. Both Lake and Brown Trout inhabit the waters here – and they’re ready to do battle.

A man holds a large Lake Trout aboard a charter on Lake Michigan

Lake Michigan is known for its excellent fishery, and for good reason. Huge Lake Trout inhabit its deeper waters, with trophy varieties showing up between late June and September. Visit during these months and you’ll be in for a fight against 40+ lb specimens. Make sure you bring some heavy tackle! Top your hook off with Minnows or Salmon eggs, and wait for the bite to hit.

If Lake Trout take the trophy when it comes to size, then Brown Trout are all about the thrill of the chase. These finicky fish are easily spooked, and make anglers work hard to experience their excellent game qualities. Our advice? Use light spinning tackle aided by spoons, spinners, and plugs. Cast carefully and quietly, and prepare yourself for the ensuing battle.

A happy man holds a Brown Trout on a charter boat with water behind him

Lake Michigan isn’t the only Trout fishing hotspot near Milwaukee. The Milwaukee River also provides ample angling action and is an especially popular spot for keen fly fishers. March until early May is the prime time to cast a line.

Steelhead (Rainbow Trout)

Okay, maybe we could’ve included Steelhead in our Trout section – but we think these fish deserve their own spotlight. Also known as Rainbow Trout, they’re a firm freshwater staple all over the US. This is especially true of Milwaukee! Why? Because it’s home to two incomparable Steelhead fisheries – Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River.

A man and a child hold a Steelhead aboard a boat

We think the Milwaukee River often gets slightly overshadowed by mighty Lake Michigan, but not so when it comes to Steelhead fishing. Although you can find a strong number of Steelhead inhabiting the lake, they’re even more plentiful in the river, as their spring run starts there in March. This waterway is also full of deep pockets that Steelhead love to hide away in.

If you’re a fly fishing fanatic, a day chasing Steelhead on the Milwaukee River is something you won’t want to miss out on. These fish are extremely responsive to flies, especially if they’re large and rigged on sinking lines, and this technique allows you to really feel the fight they put up.

A man and a child hold a Steelhead up to the camera with the river behind them

Heading to Lake Michigan for your Steelhead instead? You can hook ’em on light tackle from shore between late spring and summer. When they flock to the lake’s deeper waters, trolling with live bait such as shrimp, worms, or crayfish is a tried-and-true technique.

Carp

If you’re looking for a fishing adventure that’s just pure fun, then Carp’s the target for you. Head down to the lower parts of the Milwaukee River, where the waters are warmer. You’ll find plenty of big Carp splashing around! Sunny shorelines close to weed growth are especially productive spots, with the fish coming close to the surface of the water.

A man holds a Carp with fishing gear and the river behind him

These fish have a somewhat shaky reputation in Milwaukee. They’re notorious for their ability to alter and damage ecosystems, and are considered an invasive species. However, this means you can target ’em in some seriously exciting ways, and feel good about doing your bit for the local waterways, too. Let us introduce you to a local way of catching Carp…

Spearfishing or bowfishing! Yep, going after Carp with a fishing bow or a speargun is a popular technique. Just make sure you check out the regulations for the stretch of the river you’ll be fishing in. Spearfishing is generally not allowed within the city limits of Milwaukee, but is legal in nearby counties such as Ozaukee. Trust us – it’s worth the short journey!

And the Rest!

A man stands on a boat holding a Bass with water behind him

Although these are our favorite catches in Milwaukee, they’re by no means the only fish you can catch here. The superstars we outlined above are joined by a pretty impressive supporting cast, including Walleye, Bass varieties, and tasty Panfish such as Yellow Perch and Crappie.

How can I fish in Milwaukee?

There’s a whole host of ways to cast a line in Milwaukee. Generally, the type of fishing you’ll be doing will depend on where you choose to go. An angling adventure out on Lake Michigan’s offshore waters, for example, looks very different from a city-based river trip! Let’s find out more…

On a Boat

If your idea of fishing in Milwaukee is all about exploring Lake Michigan, then hopping aboard a charter boat is a must. You’ll want to make sure you get the most out of the lake’s vast waters, and there’s no one better to show you the ropes than a local guide. You’ll also be able to cover plenty of ground by using fishing aids like outriggers and downriggers.

A charter boat on Lake Michigan at dusk with the Milwaukee skyline in the background

Due to its size, local guides and captains treat Lake Michigan as more of an inland sea than a lake. This is definitely reflected in the charter vessels on offer along Milwaukee’s waterfront! You’ll see an array of impressive sportfishing boats that are perfectly built to tackle this body of water.

If you’re choosing to fish one of the lake’s tributaries, including the Milwaukee River, your mode of transportation might differ slightly. Rather than souped-up sportfishing machines, you’re more likely to encounter traditional drift boats, perfect for cruising down the river and chasing your target species.

On Foot

Good news for those of you who’d rather not hop aboard a boat – both Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River are excellent shore fishing locations. You can fish Lake Michigan a mere five minutes from downtown Milwaukee, using one of the many piers or state parks, and stretches of the Milwaukee River that run through the city are prime for wading.

A view of a Milwaukee lighthouse on a sunny day reflecting onto the water

Again, it’s all about timing when it comes to getting the most out of your on-foot adventure. If you’re looking to fish Lake Michigan, it’s best to visit between fall and winter, when Trout and Salmon varieties head to shallower waters. This increases your chance of hooking a big fish without having to travel to deeper waters.

On the Milwaukee River, fall is when the annual Salmon run takes place, so visit during this time for plenty of action. A tip from local anglers is to head out early in the morning if you’re looking to target Steelies, Salmon varieties, or Trout. If it’s Carp you’re after, the sunnier the weather, the better!

From a Kayak

Looking to try out a slightly different way of fishing? Then why not cast a line from a kayak? This method of angling is becoming more and more popular, especially for anglers who like to explore freshwater fishing grounds. If you have the strength and stamina to wield a rod and maneuver your own vessel at the same time, it’s seriously unbeatable!

A view of a stone beach with kayaks placed on the ground and the lake in the background at sunset

Although it’s possible to go kayak fishing on Lake Michigan, we generally wouldn’t recommend it. Its waters are unpredictable and can become dangerous quickly. The Milwaukee River, however, is a great place to give it a try. There are kayak launches dotted all along its shorelines, and you’ll encounter anything from Trout to Salmon and smaller Panfish.

Where can I fish in Milwaukee?

Whether you’re looking to cast a line only minutes from downtown Milwaukee, or are willing to drive a little further out, the sheer number of state parks, piers, docks, and marinas will send your head spinning. Below, we’ve outlined some of our favorites.

An aerial view of the Milwaukee River
  • Lakeshore State Park: Perfectly positioned in the beating heart of downtown Milwaukee, this state park offers direct access to Lake Michigan, with extensive shore fishing opportunities. Brown Trout and Salmon varieties are popular catches here.
  • McKinley Marina: If you’re looking to explore the depths of Lake Michigan with an experienced guide, this is where you’ll find ’em! A whole host of charter boats are docked at McKinley Marina, so you’ll have your pick of the bunch.
  • Milwaukee’s Inner Harbor: Milwaukee’s Harbor District has been at the center of the city’s prosperity for hundreds of years. A visit to Milwaukee’s Inner Harbor will take you right into the center of this hub. As well as a slice of history, it also offers up boat launches and shore access to the Milwaukee River.
  • Peninsula Park: Travel half an hour north of Milwaukee into Ozaukee County, and you’ll encounter some excellent Carp-spearing opportunities. Peninsula Park is located right on the banks of the Milwaukee River and is a popular spot for spearos and bowfishers alike.
  • Estabrook Park: This beautiful park is the perfect place for anglers who like to take in some stunning greenery along with top fishing action. You’ll have extensive access to a stretch of the Milwaukee River that’s bustling with Salmon varieties, Steelhead, and even Smallmouth Bass.

Rules and Regulations

Standardized Wisconsin license infographic

Any angler over the age of 16 will need to purchase a valid Wisconsin fishing license, even if they’re fishing alongside a local charter captain. This is a simple process that you can do online, through the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources website. The type of license you’ll need, however, differs depending on where you’re fishing.

If you’re looking to explore Lake Michigan, you can purchase a 2-Day Great Lakes license, which includes Trout and Salmon stamps. If you’re fishing another body of water or tributary, there’s a selection of licenses for you to choose from, including a reduced-rate first-time buyers license. For more information, check out our guide to getting a Wisconsin fishing license.

Milwaukee Fishing: Full of Good Fortune!

An aerial view of Milwaukee's skyline during the day with Lake Michigan in the foregeound

We think it’s fair to say that fishing in Milwaukee has a lot going for it. You can wander down to the waterfront and cast a line into mighty Lake Michigan, with a stunning cityscape as your backdrop. You can step foot into one of its many national parks and lose yourself in nature as you chase your target fish. Misfortune happens? Sure – but only if you don’t go fishing in Milwaukee!

Have you ever been fishing in Milwaukee? What did you catch? Any tips and tricks to share with us? Let us know in the comments. We love hearing from you!

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