Sunday, March 29, 2009

Of rivers, fish, and men

I fished the Milwaukee Friday and Saturday. The flow level was over 1500 cfs on Friday and fell to 1440 cfs on Saturday. Water clarity was as good as it ever gets. Friday was rather balmy, while Saturday proved why we in the Midwest say of the weather, "If you don't like it, just wait ten minutes..."

Saturday began with winds that kept switching direction from Northwest to West to North to Southwest, finally settling on howling from the north and bringing snow showers.

To me and a few die-hards, the river comes alive at over 1000 cfs. It roars and froths and pushes against your legs. One wades with caution and moves slowly lest the water sweep you away. The fishing and casting were challenging. Just getting one's fly to the proper place is hard enough in a river that is the size of the Skagit, but add the cold wind to Valhalla, and every third cast goes awry. My double spey sailed, while my reverse double was awful.

Some of the best structure of the river is hidden under these wild spring flows. Knowing the river intimately gives one the confidence to swing flies in areas that we know must hold fish. The water temps were against us for such heavy flows, with daytime temps in the sub 40 degree zone.

I fished alone on Friday and managed a nice small fresh buck, but on Saturday we convened the ancient order of what has been referred to as the "Milwaukee boys." Today this shifting group of veteran two handed addicts included Dave P., Joe S., Barry R., Brian K. and myself. We ran into Carl and a friend on the river.

All in all, we landed two fish Saturday, and missed several more. I was very lucky to hit this nice fresh chrome hen of the Ganaraska strain in a waist deep boulder garden. I went to strip the line and take a step, and soon as I moved the fly, she pounced upon it. Good juju! Barry landed a nice fish in a run upriver several hours later. Joe S. showed me how the short slot water game is played as we fished from shore with tiny casts to pocket water.
Brian K. showed how neither wind, snow, rain, or blustery winds can stop his graceful casting. Dave P. hucked out his signature deep running "Stuff that he just makes on the river."

The river had a decent number of fish in it, and we saw several porpoise, but with the heavy flows and cold water, it was the rare hot fish that would rise and smash the swung fly that is our peculiar passion.

We all fished different flies and styles as befits our different personalities, but took time out to sit on the bank and marvel at what we had in this river. This is what we love.

Then the snow and wind drove us off, and we retired for pizza, beer, and fishing stories.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Classical Angler goes international

Wow. I had no idea of the wide distribution of readership of this blog until I utilized a visitor tracker.
Check out the map image.
For now, before the rain and snow mix blow out the river so that even us die hards are forced off of it, I am going fishing. Look forward to some pictures of the Milwaukee at 1,500 cfs.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Two new fly designs

Getting back to the subject of tying and fishing classic flies for steelhead, here are two new fly designs.

The first is an unnamed Spey/Dee fusion inspired by Bob Blumreich, a Wisconsin fisherman, guide, and expert dresser of classic flies.
I used bronze mallard wings in a Spey style, while the throat and butt are more of a Dee style. The hackle is dyed black blue eared pheasant, followed by dyed red golden pheasant, followed by dyed blue guinea fowl. It is designed as a clear water winter fly.

The second fly is designed as a waker. A modification of the bomber, it exposes the hook gap more, and has a more forward profile. The butt is of peacock herl, the body black dyed deer hair, the wing is black bear, and the hackle is dyed red golden pheasant. I added the hackle in order to have a little contrasting color and provide movement.

Estbrook Dam Hearing

Last evening myself and around a hundred other citizens attended the informational public hearing on the issue of repair or removal of the Estabrook Dam held by the Milwaukee County Supervisors board on Parks, Energy, and the Environment.

It is always good to attend these hearings, whether one is interested in obtaining more information, or just to make one's voice heard.

The county board certainly received many impassioned opinions from both sides of the issue. Many citizens exercised their right to speak during the public comment section of the meeting. Comments were limited to two minutes each.

South East Wisconsin Trout Unlimited, the Milwaukee Riverkeeper, the River Alliance, and yours truly were among those advocating for dam removal.

The meeting did get a bit tense, and as I got up to speak, someone had to be cautioned by deputies, but all in all, it was a peaceful and very informative meeting.

Here is the short speech I presented to the County Supervisors:

I came here tonight as an avid supporter for removal of the Estabrook dam.

I spend countless hours every year on this river fishing, boating, hiking, photographing, exploring, and writing about this wonderful resource. From its trout stream headwaters, all the way to its estuary, very few people know this river as intimately as I do.

Thus, I came with the purpose of presenting the ecological and environmental reasons why we would all benefit from the dam’s removal, much as we previously benefited from the removal of the North Avenue dam when we saw several miles of river emerge from suffocation, and spring back to life.

But… Then, the other day, I went and sat by this dam for an hour, reread your work-group report and all the historical documents, and realized the larger issue before us.

This dam is a boondoggle, pure and simple.

It does nothing to prevent flooding, instead it actually increases flooding potential for those living upriver.

It degrades water quality, prevents fish migration, and poses hazards to those living and recreating downstream.
Its sole purpose is to create an impoundment upstream so that a very vocal few can continue to recreate in an historic still-water environment.

Meanwhile the dam is falling apart, and we are now faced with the choice of spending millions of dollars for repairs and ongoing maintenance costs, or to simply remove the dam.

Let’s do the right thing for the 950,000 taxpayers and voters of Milwaukee County that are slowly becoming aware of this issue.
This is our chance to remove the dam, and get out from under the perpetual financial and physical liability it places on us, and as an added benefit, help restore our river to something we and future generations can be truly proud of. Thank you.

Erik Helm,
Shorewood, WI

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Found in a river

Sometimes I am amazed at what one finds in rivers.

Today I explored the Menominee River at Hart park and waded it about a mile downstream.

Right in Hart Park I found a tombstone in the river. Odd. The dates and plainness of the stone may point to a tragic end in WWI, however 46 is a little old. One thing is for sure, He died during the year of the Somme offensive. A time when the souls of the dead lay thick in the air. As one song puts it "An entire generation lay butchered and damned."

I am lucky to alive, as my grandfather flew in the Imperial German Air Force in WWI; before parachutes, and when gas and oil tanks were directly in front of the pilot. Shot down three times, he had enough of the experience of war. He never wanted to talk about it. If he had not volunteered for the air force, he most likely would have died in the trenches. If he had not come to America, he would have died in Russia in WWII, like all the rest of his family. He came to America as an orphan.

So, back in the river, I whistled the tune "Willie McBride", and sitting beside the gravestone, paid a little homage. Warning. This is a very powerful song.

Lyrics-traditional Irish

Well how do you do Private William McBride, Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside? And rest for awhile beneath the warm summer sun, I've been walking all day and now I'm nearly done.
I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen When you joined the great fallen in 1916; Well I hope you died quick and I hope you died clean, Or, young Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?

Did they beat the drum slowly, Did they play the fife lowly? Did they sound the Death March As they lowered you down? Did the band play "The Last Post And Chorus?" Did the pipes play "The Flowers Of The Forest?

Did you leave 'ere a wife or a sweetheart behind? In some faithful heart is your memory enshrined? And although you died back in 1916, In that faithful heart are you forever nineteen?
Or are you a stranger without even a name, Enclosed forever behind a glass pane, In an old photograph, torn, and battered and stained, And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame?


Ah the sun now it shines on these green fields of France, The warm summer breeze makes the red poppies dance, And look how the sun shines from under the clouds; There's no gas, no barbed wire, there're no guns firing now. But here in this graveyard is still No Man's Land, The countless white crosses in mute witness stand To man's blind indifference to his fellow man, To a whole generation that was butchered and damned.


Ah, young Willie McBride, I can't help wonder why,
Did all those who lay here really know why they died? And did they believe when they answered the call, Did they really believe that this war would end war?
For the sorrow, the suffering, the glory, the pain,
The killing and dying were all done in vain, For, young Willie McBride, it all happened again, And again and again and again and again.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ode to rivers

To know a river is a patient undertaking.

Rivers change, and we must recognize the changes and adapt to them. We must ebb and flow with understanding as the river does. We must spend as much time watching them with our eyes and ears as we do playing in them. While sitting on their banks taking in the fiery reflections of a sunset, we may come to know ourselves.

A river never sleeps. It is timeless. It flows like our lives. It has a birthplace and a destination. Does it have memories, dreams, regrets? Unlike our lives, a river never stops flowing. Watching its constancy renews us. There is hope and youth in rivers.
Rivers speak to us, if we listen carefully we can hear their trickles, mummers, and roars.

Thoughts are born in their midst, along with insects. Poems swoop with evening swallows, memories are stirred by dragonflies, and the wind whispers through willows the meaning of life.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The river will find a way...

A quote sent to me by a friend of our rivers...

"Men may dam it and say that they have made a lake, but it will still be a river. It will keep its nature and bide its time, like a caged animal alert for the slightest opening. In Time, it will have its way; the dam, like the ancient cliffs, will be carried away piecemeal in the currents."
- Wendell Berry

The photo is of the dam on the Milwaukee River at Estabrook park. The debris buildup and ice jam can be seen beyond the concrete dragon's teeth.

An addition:

With the Woolen Mills dam removal in West Bend on the Milwaukee River a similar impoundment was removed and the river came back to life. Read a testament here

This is what could await us in the stretch from Estabrook to Kletzch Park.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

What am I missing here?

I am confused...

The homeowners along the stretch of river upstream of the dam at Estabrook park on the Milwaukee river have consistently made the argument that the removal of the dam at North Avenue ruined the river, and that the resulting muddy and shallow creek destroyed recreation and ability to paddle.

Here is an excerpt from a letter placed on the Riverotter blog found here. (A good blog with a civil discussion)

From a concerned citizen;

"...Prior to moving here, I lived on/near the Milwaukee River north of the North Avenue Dam.
There, too, as I was working on my property, I would hear the crew boats coming down the river. Shorewood had built a boat house for them and they practiced every Saturday. Then one day the river was gone. The dam had been removed (it seemed overnight and with no notice) and the mighty river and the community it supported became a muddy ugly stream. To this day it is still a diminished river, unapproachable, and abandoned..."

I must be missing something here...

Photos by Erik Helm of the section of river above the North Avenue dam after its removal.

And finally, of a free flowing river in Idaho, fresh from the Rocky Mountains... or is it the Milwaukee?

Notice the similar structures of the water flow and the clarity of the water itself? The fall picture was taken in a low water flow period. Looks like fun boating water to me. Riffles and pools, boulders and spits...all on the Milwaukee River.

I remember the Milwaukee River before the dam removal, and this is a hundred percent improvement. The only activity that is curtailed in this section of the river is the consistent ability to paddle a canoe or a kayak UPSTREAM. Paddling downstream is not a problem as long as flows are above 175 cubic feet per second, which they are in all but low late summer flows. Even then, one can steer their canoe or boat as I do to avoid the shallow riffles, like I would do in any free-flowing river. River level fluctuation is a normal condition. The silty and slow flowing water I remember before the dam was removed is not.
Yes, the river as the citizen remembers it has changed... but for the better.

It is neither "Unapproachable", nor "Abandoned" and in this writers opinion, not a "Muddy ugly stream." I should know, I have fished, hiked, and boated wild rivers in Wisconsin, Michigan, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. When I come home from my adventures, the Milwaukee River is awaiting me, and this beautiful stretch beckons with its abundant and restored beauty. You can find me there in summer evenings. Come say "Hi."

And more...

This from a concerned homeowner quoted in the March 10 article by Lee Bergquist in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel...

If the dam is torn down, "we won't have a Milwaukee River," said Bob Orvis of Glendale, "we will have a Milwaukee stream."

But, the area in question above the dam is not a river now. Instead, it is an impoundment. Does no one get this? Rivers flow. This is what defines them. Rivers speak. The moving water trickles, murmurs, and roars. Impoundments are silent.

I like a good debate, and respect other opinions. But I sure wish those opinions would occasionally be based on facts, not myopic vision. Go see the whole river. From its headwaters as trout streams, to the estuary.

Saturday, March 7, 2009


I fished the Milwaukee River on Saturday. Conditions were beautiful. Water was high and clarity was not at all bad. The water temperature was a bit low at 32.6 degrees, but I still managed to hook a fish. Brown or Steelhead we will never know because yours truly lost the fish after a few seconds. (Dreaded dangle hookup.)

Moving downstream, I waded into the heavy flow of @ 900 cfs, and began to swing a steelhead akroyd in a nice run, when the mother-load of flotsam came down the river from the Estabrook Dam. The ice had broken up and carried with it all of the debris that should in theory be removed by the county in fall. Bottles, logs, basketballs, sticks, more logs, trees, disposable lighters, spray paint cans, and every plastic bag known to man flowed down the river.

The ice and some wooded debris is normal, but this sudden release of litter was amazing to see. In a natural flowing river, the litter would come downstream at it's own pace, not all at once due to the dam. I had to wade to shore on numerous occasions to avoid being bombarded by the urban flotsam. I wish people would not litter.

Look at the first picture (before) and then the second (during the debris deluge).

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Where did it all go? Hey, check out my new rod!

In my small efforts in coalition with other anglers regarding the Dam at Estabrook, I have been both pleased with the concerned anglers coming out of the woodwork to help us, and shocked at the general complacency of fly fishermen. Many of us seem so obsessed with our toys that we rarely see the big picture.

So, I must say what is on my mind…

The Last fish…or fiddling while Rome burns.

Saturday, March 12th 2022, 9:52 am: The last steelhead in North America is caught and killed, silently.

Meanwhile on the Internet forum ‘Steelhead Central’

‘Fishinmachine’ posts: “Dude, my new ultra-switch 4 foot rod is the killa! I can whack the fur at 100 ft.! Steelhead beware…I’s a killa!

‘Speygoon’ posts: “Hey machine, way to go. What line you usin on that killa rig?’

‘Limitsout’ posts: “I caught a steelhead on the Wind River last week, it took a glo-bug I tie with glow in the dark yarn and surveyor’s tape . I call it “Obama’s Mama.”

‘Tyinsnob’ posts: “ Has anyone tried peeing on deer hair to make it more yellow and caddis like? Just wonderin?”

‘Gearfondler’ posts: “Hey, I want to start a poll. How many two-handed rods do you own. I have 246.”

Meanwhile, on the gravel bar… The last steelhead twitches once, flicks its tail, and lies silent, the life fading from its eyes.

An old man sits beside a fire in a wilderness cabin, slowly takes out a notebook and writes a haiku:

“Dozens of fly rods

Not environmentally aware

Swinging flies in empty water.”

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Estabrook Dam removal: A call to action

Hijacking this literary flyfishing site is necessary sometimes. This is one of those times.
An urgent call to action to all concerned:

Dear fellow anglers, A vote will be taking place shortly regarding the future of the Estabrook Park Dam on the Milwaukee River by the committee of Parks, Energy and the Environment of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors.

Please join the Milwaukee Riverkeeper, Sierra Club Great Waters Group, Trout Unlimited-Southeast Wisconsin Chapter, and Milwaukee Steelheaders in calling for the removal of this dam.

The impoundment created by the dam creates an artificial pool of stagnant water, degrades fish habitat, prevents fish migration, warms the water, lowers dissolved oxygen levels, and allows sediment accumulation. The sediments are also full of toxic PCBs.
The removal of the dam would greatly improve water quality and fishing opportunities for us.

Unfortunately, we are opposed by a highly organized group of homeowners along the river upstream of the dam, who are concerned with the loss of the impoundment which they refer to as “The largest inland lake in Milwaukee County.”

Please help us in these efforts to advocate for the removal of the Estabrook Dam.
Email, call, and or write to the members of the County committee of Parks, Energy and the Environment, and tell them you support dam removal. If you are an out of state angler, and fish our river, all the better. The parties involved need to understand that this is not a simple local issue, and that the decision they make will effect anglers, nature lovers, boaters, and others who use the river for recreation.

I drafted a simple letter that follows below. Feel free to copy and paste it to form the body of your email or letter. Also feel free to add your perspectives and wording to your request to the supervisors.
The few minutes it will take to send an email, call, or letter will be of enormous importance in helping to restore this vital natural resource, and improve your angling experience. Thanking you in advance, and yours in service to the river,

Erik F. Helm

Here is the list of County Supervisors on the committee:


Parks, Energy and Environment - Committee Members

Gerry Broderick, Chair
414 278-4237

Joe Sanfelippo, Vice Chair
414 278-4247

Elizabeth Coggs
414 278-4265

Marina Dimitrijevic
414 278-4232

Joseph Rice
414 278-4243

Chris Larson
414 278-4252

Theodore Lipscomb
414 278-4257

All of the supervisors have the same mailing address at:
Milwaukee County Courthouse
901 North 9th Street, RM 201
Milwaukee, WI 53233
Phone: 414-278-4222 Fax: 414-223-1380

Sample email/letter to send:

Dear Milwaukee County Supervisor:
As a sports fisher of the Milwaukee River I call on the Milwaukee County Board, and the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors Standing Committee on Parks, Energy, and Environment to take the following actions:

1. Vote to NOT fund repairs of the Estabrook Park dam.
2. Do advocate for the removal of the Estabrook Park dam.
3. Do advocate for the restoration and cleanup of the Milwaukee River from the current Estabrook Park dam location to Kletch Park.

I would like to see the restoration of the wild aspect of this natural river area for current and future generations, and to improve water quality, remove contaminated sediments, remove barriers to fish passage, improve fisheries, minimize flooding, and improve public access to this urban natural resource.

I call for this so that all persons enjoying the river or engaging in recreational activities such as canoeing, kayaking, fishing, or hiking along the river’s edge will have an improved experience in this urban park environment. I believe that the ecological health restored by a free flowing river is of higher long-term value than maintaining the current impoundment created by the dam. As a fisherman, I contribute license revenue to the state of Wisconsin, and to the revenue of the county, city, and state in the form of fees, and patronizing local businesses.
The Milwaukee River is a wonderful asset to the community, and the removal of the North Avenue Dam helped create a fishery that I and many others enjoy.

I urge you to vote for the removal of the Estabrook Dam, which in my view would greatly contribute to our recreational experience.


Full Address: