Fall can be a tough time of year for choosing where to spend time. With so many outstanding bites going on—and then the allure of bucks and birds—the difficulty is choosing just where and how to spend our limited time. After all, you can’t be everywhere at once…
One of the bites we absolutely love—and have taken part in a few times over the past two decades—is fishing Wisconsin’s Sheboygan River in October.
Whether you want to use spinning gear with a plug, in-line spinner, or spawn bag—or have some skills whipping fluff (streamers and tube flies primarily)—or like drifting spawn with a center-pin rig—you can catch big Lake Michigan king salmon, cohos, steelhead, brown trout, and even lakers all in the same day.
Even better, come lunchtime, nearby Frankie’s Pub offers a great selection of cold Wisconsin brews and the biggest BLT we’ve ever eaten in our life. You heard right: It’s stacked with a full pound of bacon. Please don’t tell our doctor.
Many, many years ago, we first learned about the Sheboygan bite from our buddy, and longtime, licensed charter captain, Pat Kalmerton, whose company runs trips daily through fall on the river. We’ve fished plenty with these crazy fish-catching badgers and they’ve become lifelong friends. Our advice: Hire them for a day or two and learn the system; then break out on your own.
Since we’re getting close to October, we spent some time talking with Pat to get the skinny on this fall’s run, picking his brain as far the how, when, and where of the bite.
“The Sheboygan River is already starting to turn on and it’s only going to get better,” says Kalmerton.
“The king salmon are starting to stage in the lower river, meaning the deeper river adjacent and connecting to Lake Michigan. Down there you’ve got the harbor, the marina, and some deeper holes; then, a little ways up river it starts getting shallower.”
He continues: “Once we have a good rain, those are going to shoot up the river. Right now they’re ready to go and staging in the lower river. As soon as we get a really good rain and even a west wind, everything should align perfectly and they’ll shoot up to spots that are little more accessible to anglers on foot in waders. Then you can target ‘em by sight. You’ll actually see the fish fighting for the redds.”
Turns out Kalmerton’s crew—Sheboygan’s Wolf Pack Adventures—has already been running groups of anglers up to 15 this September and folks are catching fish.
“It’s been all hands on deck lately. Some of the anglers are comfortable with a fly rod fishing streamers, while others are drifting spawn or beads under floats on spinning gear. We also catch loads of fish having our clients cast plugs on spinning gear. You can still catch ‘em on spinners, but plugs catch a ton and are super easy to fish,” offers Kalmerton.
Virtual Angling: Pat, what are the best access points on the river?
“So, out of Sheboygan, you have two river systems: the Sheboygan and the Pigeon. The Pigeon River is open all the way through, and the Sheboygan is accessible to where the Kohler property starts. Now, as long as your feet are wet, you can certainly wade or pull a drift boat, canoe, or kayak, but you cannot access this stretch of the river through the Kohler property unless you’re a member. Of course, my charter company Wolfpack Charters has a membership and we can go anywhere with clients. So we go right up to the dam and work the whole bottom part of the river. But if you want to fish on your own, you can access the river through King’s Park or work from the 14th Street Bridge. There are a lot of options to get out on fish-holding spots. You just need to look at the map and plan your day.”
Sheboygan River ‘Grand Slam’
“By mid-October, visiting anglers can hit a Grand Slam just about any day. So, we’re talking brown trout, steelhead, lake trout, king salmon, and coho salmon. Right now the fishing is pretty much for kings but as the weather changes we’ll get more steelies and cohos coming up, too. Get into that mid-October as the water starts cooling down and you’re gonna start seeing everything move up. The cohos will even stick around past ice-up and you can catch ‘em during winter. That can be fun. Of course, the best coho fishing is during the height of deer season. We’ll get some really big cohos that are dark with that red stripe on the side; just super healthy and they taste fantastic. The kings? Well, you can smoke ‘em, but you wouldn’t want to grill ‘em. They’re pretty beat up and mushy, but a heck of a lot of fun. Some guys will turn ‘em into jerky, too.”
Virtual Angling: What about the lake trout?
“For the most part, Lake Michigan’s lakers live up on the reefs and spawn out in the fall, then do what they do. But we do get a few that come into the river system. You can’t really target them specifically but you will catch ‘em while you’re fishing for everything else,” offers Kalmerton.
Of course, one of the great things about the fall Sheboygan run is being able to throw some fish in the cooler. The limits are a combined five fish of all species, but there are no size or gender restrictions. Everything’s pretty much fair game: kings, cohos, browns, steelhead, and lake trout.
“You can keep 5 fish a person and there are no size restrictions,” says Kalmerton. “As fall progresses, the kings get kind of mushy so you’ll want to smoke ‘em if you keep any.”
In terms of size structure, the Sheboygan River fills with big Lake Michigan fish. German brown trout can reach 20-25 pounds with even bigger freaks caught each year. Cohos run 7 to 10 pounds and most kings fall between 25 and 30 pounds. And the steelies run the gamut from fish you shouldn’t feel bad eating to monsters for photo and release.
Where to Stay & Eat in Sheboygan
Frankie’s Pub & Grill: Home of the “Big Ass BLT” featuring a full pound of premium Wisconsin bacon for under $15 with fries and all that… The monster Frankie Burger is also awesome.
Affordable Lodging: Harbor Winds (right on the river)
Upscale Lodging: American Club (comes with Kohler property access pass for fishing)