It’s not Chicken Fried Steak: CFS and Other Streamflow Data Explained

Typical Average Water Levels During the Year

If you are new to paddling in or on a kayak, canoe, or SUP, you have probably been sticking to lakes and easy sections of slow-moving rivers. Once you’ve passed the beginner stage, you’ll probably want to start paddling faster moving creeks and rivers. Maybe you want to start camping overnight on sandbars on some of these waterways. Maybe you are ready to try your hand at some easy to moderate whitewater. In each of these cases, knowing the water level can be a crucial piece of the puzzle when planning a fun, successful, and, most importantly, safe trip. How does one go about finding out this crucial piece of information? The answer is to check out the U.S. Geological Survey’s Waterwatch website.

For Wisconsin data, you’ll visit Once on this page, you’ll see the Wisconsin map with colored dots all over it. These correspond to the current streamflow’s relationship to the historical data. Black means the current levels are above the 90th percentile for that day of the year historically, while red means the current levels are below the 10th percentile for that day. Looking at this map will give you a quick look at the way current water levels compare to the historic levels around the state for that day of the year. Because average flows vary over the course of the year (resembling the diagram at left) what is black in July could be the same level that is red in April. Therefore, you must dig deeper to understand the data in context.

USGS Wisconsin Waterdata Home PageClick on the dot corresponding to the river you wish to explore in more detail. That can be tricky on this map, because it requires knowledge of which dot corresponds to which river or creek, and some are very closely packed together. On a phone, this can be even trickier because the site has no mobile-friendly version. Once you are on the page for the waterway you have chosen, you’ll see two important graphs. They might be preceded by the water temperature graph, which is important to anglers and early or late season paddlers.

The first important graph depicts the “discharge” data for the past week. The screenshot at left shows the data for the gauge at Muscoda on the lower Wisconsin River as of July 26, 2019. This data is expressed using the mysterious “CFS” measurement that you’ve probably heard your more experienced paddling friends mention. This stands for “Cubic Feet per Second.” It is a measure of how much water is passing by the gauge each second. You’ll note that there are yellow triangles for each day on the graph. Those triangles depict the historical median flow for that day of the year. The triangles are your first useful clue as to how to translate the current CFS into meaningful information. Even if you don’t actually know what CFS corresponds to flows that are too high, too low, or just right, a couple easy conclusions can be drawn based on the time of year. If it is spring snow runoff season and flows are well above the median, it is safe to say that only expert paddlers (and maybe not even them) should be on the water. Similarly, if the CFS is well below the median flow in mid to late summer, it is safe to say that water levels are too low for paddling. At the time of this writing, the gauge is reading 26,600cfs, which is about 6,600cfs above the most flow I would ever consider paddling. At the current level, the water is flowing fast with lots of unpredictable swirls, and nearly all sandbars are covered. This makes for a boring, short, and slightly dangerous trip. Note that the flows have varied widely over the past week.

The second important graph depicts the “gauge height” in feet. This usually corresponds to how deep the water actually is where the gauge is located. I write usually, because there are a few gauges across the state that clearly do not correspond to actual water levels. The Ontario gauge on the Kickapoo is one example. It might read 10 feet normally, but the water where that gauge is located is rarely over three feet deep. The screenshot at right depicts the graph for the same lower Wisconsin River gauge at Muscoda in the week leading up to July 26, 2019. Note one important difference between this graph and the discharge graph. The discharge graph shows a logarithmic scale while the gauge height graph is a linear scale. Both graphs have a similar shape to the flow data. Because a typical streambed gets wider the higher you go, each additional inch of water represents a disproportionally larger amount of water passing the gauge. One thing to note about this graph is that it will typically show the National Weather Service action and flood stages for this gauge. If current levels are above the green line (action stage), it is rare that conditions are safe for paddling. If they are close to or above the red line (flood stage), definitely stay off the water.

There are waterways where I use the CFS reading and others where I primarily look at the gauge height. It all depends on my experience and which metric makes more sense. For example, I always use the CFS reading when looking at the Muscoda gauge pictured above. On the other hand, when planning to paddle the Kickapoo, I use the the gauge height graph for the LaFarge gauge.

The LaFarge gauge helps demonstrate another important phenomenon. You may have noticed the smooth graphs from the Muscoda gauge shown above. The reason those are so smooth and gradually rising and falling is because the gauge is about 44 miles downstream from the Prairie du Sac dam. Between the dam and the gauge, there is one major river and numerous major and minor creeks that add water to the Wisconsin River. This makes for a fairly smooth transition. The two screenshots at right show the two graphs for the week leading up to July 26, 2019 for the Kickapoo River at LaFarge. The Kickapoo watershed is notoriously “flashy,” which means it rises very quickly during and after a major rain event. That happened where you see these graphs rise sharply over the course of less than a day. The water levels went from just over 4 feet to just over 12 feet. The river also comes down very fast, but not as quickly as it rose. As a frame of reference, I personally won’t paddle the river when that gauge is above 5 feet, and I wouldn’t recommend anyone do it above 6 feet. Too fast, too dangerous, and not that fun. Note that the highest level this past week was just below 4000cfs. That would be suicide to paddle at that level. However, 4000cfs would only be inches deep on the lower Wisconsin. The width of the streambed makes a huge difference in what the CFS readings mean in practice.

Despite how fast the levels rose and fell on the Kickapoo, the graphs were also fairly smooth. Take a look at the screenshot at left which depicts the graph for the past week on the Black River. Notice how choppy and angular the graph appears? This gauge is only about 500 feet downstream from the dam at Black River Falls. When gates on the dam are opened or closed, the levels recorded at this gauge rise and fall very quickly, leading to the choppy graph. Safe paddling levels for the lower Black, in case you wondered, are 2000cfs and below.

Now that I’ve thrown a lot of terminology, geometry, and math at you, you might be wondering how you can use the CFS and gauge heights to inform your choice of rivers to avoid or paddle. Beyond experience with different levels, there are some resources to help you out. The two main conclusions you are looking to reach for any stream you plan to paddle are whether the levels are too low (which means you might have to get out and drag your boat often) or too high (dangerous, too fast, no sandbars to camp or hang out on). There are four main online resources from which you can glean this information.

The first is the American Whitewater page for Wisconsin. This has a listing of most of the rivers people commonly paddle in the state. Because the focus is on whitewater, river sections that have no whitewater at all won’t typically be included here. However, since there is a quick whitewater run just below the Prairie du Sac dam, the Muscoda gauge on the lower Wisconsin is included here. In the screenshot shown at right, the page currently shows the level at the Muscoda gauge as the same 26,600cfs you saw in the USGS graphs. The streams are color coded red (too low), green, and blue. Currently the lower Wisconsin is blue, which means too high for safe paddling. This will also show the rate of change in the levels. If you click on each river, you’ll get additional descriptions and photos of the rapids.

The next resource is the Wisconsin Trail Guide website. This site has descriptions of each section of the major rivers in Wisconsin as well as PDF guides and maps you can download and save to your device or print and laminate. If there is a gauge on the river (not all rivers have a USGS gauge), the bottom of the page for that river will have a description of what each CFS level means for paddling. At right is a screenshot of that description for the lower Wisconsin River. You will see that most of the descriptions match with assertions made in this article. These guides are a helpful way to translate that information.

Because both of the previous resources have gaps or limitations, the next important resource is Miles Paddled. The guys at Miles Paddled have reports on most navigable creeks and rivers around Wisconsin as well as some lakes, flowages, and marshes. They also have some reports on waterways in Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota. They always mention what CFS/height data was available for the day they paddled. Sometimes there is no gauge on that section of water, so they always provide reference USGS gauges for nearby rivers or visual gauges. An example of a visual gauge would be in the report I submitted to the site for the Flambeau River. There is no gauge, but there is a big boulder right next to the put-in. Whether it is visible or covered gives paddlers a good sense of how high the water is. In addition to providing the actual data, they always give advice on whether that level was too high, too low, or just right.

There is one additional resource, and that is to check out the Facebook pages of paddling clubs and Meetup groups. When I post photos from trips with my two main groups, Mad City Paddlers and the Madison Area Outdoor Group, I also include the relevant CFS and/or gauge height information for the waterway on that day. In the description, I always mention what I thought about that water level.

Thanks for reading, and I hope this didn’t make your head explode. Hopefully the resources I shared will help you have fun and safe trips on Wisconsin waterways!

Posted in 2ndMost: Fishing, 2ndMost: Outdoors, 2ndMost: Paddling

Self Bailing Scupper Plugs

Do you own a sit-on-top kayak and want to keep water out while letting water drain out after a wave hits you or your paddle drips water in the cockpit? Check out my fairly elegant solution to create some self-bailing scupper plugs for my Emotion Stealth Angler 11 fishing kayak.

I would first like to give a little credit for the kernel of this idea to DIY Fishing. He has a simpler solution for anyone who has scuppers with a decent amount of vertical material to hold the scupper in place. Check out his video on that DIY scupper plug solution.

My solution uses a similar PVC reducer bushing, but I wanted something that would be sturdier. I also think the nylon mesh he uses would get pretty gummed up with debris (such as duckweed) in some of the places I paddle. He also mentions that you want your super ball to sink, which I don’t think is correct. I think you do want the ball you use to be pushed up to seal the plug, and that will happen more easily if it floats. The weight of any water in your cockpit will push the ball back down so it will drain back out.

It should also be noted that my kayak has a unique scupper style. There are wells on the top and bottom, but the half inch holes are actually molded into a thin layer of plastic (about 3/16″). If the vertical surfaces of your scupper holes are more than an inch in depth, this solution may not work for you.

Supply List

  • PVC Parts for Self Bailing Scupper PlugsNibco Schedule 40 PVC Bushing 3/4″ to 1/2″ – UPC 039923134363 – you can use any size that fits your boat – the smaller dimension of this bushing should match the diameter of your scuppers. The outer dimension is actually irrelevant for this piece.
  • Nibco Schedule 40 PVC Male Adapter 1/2″ to 3/4″ – UPC 039923131683 – again, use any size that matches your boat. The smaller dimension should match the diameter of your scuppers, while the larger dimension should be slightly larger than the balls you plan to use. Most balls are just under 3/4″ in diameter. The ones I used are that size, so 3/4″ was the right dimension for this adapter.
  • Nibco Schedule 40 PVC Socket Cap 1″ – UPC 039923136824 – the size of this cap will be the next size up from the larger dimension for the male adapter. If you end up using a 1″ ball, you’d need the 1″ adapter and 1.25″ socket cap, for example.
  • Super balls – I used 3/4″ bouncy balls from Wal-Mart, UPC 890968922045. These float as I recommended above.
  • Aqua Seal or other silicone marine sealant.

Tools Needed

  • Razor blade holder with blade
  • Rubber mallet or hammer
  • Hacksaw, coping saw, or Dremel
  • Drill with 1/16″ or larger bit
  • Adjustable crescent wrench or pliers (either needs to be able to open about an inch)

PVC Parts for Self Bailing Scupper PlugsMaking the Self-Bailing Scupper Plugs

Step 1: Remove barcode labels from your PVC items. Don’t worry about removing adhesive residue, as this helps keep the assembly together later on.

Step 2: Cut the bushing down with your hacksaw, coping saw, or Dremel so that only the octagonal head is left. It still has enough threads on the inside.

Step 3: Cut the threads down on the male adapter to about half an inch with a saw or Dremel. If the vertical part of your scupper is thicker than mine, you will cut less off (or not cut any off at all). You may need to find a male adapter with a much longer set of threads on it depending on how your scuppers are shaped. Err on the side of making this too long instead of too short. I had to redo this step on a couple plugs because I didn’t allow enough thread to start the bushing nuts. You can trim the excess later with a coping saw, sandpaper, or Dremel.

Step 4: Shave off any material on the outer edge of the thick part of the male adapter if necessary. The ones I bought had little tabs that needed to be removed. I used a Dremel for this.

Step 5: Drill about 4 holes in the top of the socket cap and four more about 1/16 inch from the top along the sides. I staggered mine to hopefully create a smaller chance that all holes become plugged with debris, mud, etc.

Step 6: Use a Dremel to shave some of the material off two sides of the socket cap if needed. I needed to do this so the whole assembly would fit inside the scupper channel underneath the kayak.

Step 7: Use your razor blade to trip any burrs or excess material, paying careful attention to cleaning up the threads on the bushing and male adapter.

Step 8: Insert your bouncy ball into the male adapter.

Step 9: Push the socket cap onto the smooth end of the male adapter. This requires some force to get the socket cap to seat all the way onto the male adapter. Use a mallet or hammer if necessary. There is no need for any adhesive, as these socket caps are designed to be tight on the adapter.

Step 10: Check that the threads on the bushing nuts you created screw onto the threads on the male adapters without too much difficulty. If the nuts don’t screw on easily, inspect and clean them up with your razor blade.

Step 11: Push the finished assembly minus the bushing nut up through the bottom of the scupper hole. Use a mallet or hammer to push it all the way through to the top if necessary. You may need to clean up the molding around your scuppers if there is any excess material from the manufacturing process. I used a wood boring drill bit to clean up those holes. Sandpaper or a Dremel will also work.

Step 12: Dab some Aqua Seal or other silicone marine sealant on the underside of your bushing nuts. You can also dab some on the threads of the male adapter that are protruding out through the scupper holes.

Step 13: Screw the bushing nut onto the thread of the protruding male adapter. Use an adjustable crescent wrench or wide jaw pliers to tighten the nut onto the threads. The sealant will fill any gaps in the threads and create a seal between the nut and the upper surfaces of the scupper. Trim any excess threads from the male adapter at this time.

Step 14: Give your sealant some time to cure. 8 hours is usually enough.

Step 15: Enjoy a drier ride!


Posted in 2ndMost: Fishing, 2ndMost: Outdoors, 2ndMost: Paddling

Monster Brook Trout on the Prairie and Plover Rivers

Check out the latest video of my excursion to the Prairie and Plover Rivers. ‘Uge Brook Trout!

Posted in 2ndMost: Fishing, 2ndMost: Outdoors

Spinning for Trout on Black Earth Creek

Check out the latest video from my 2nd Most Fishing series. This footage was from my outing to Black Earth Creek in Mazomanie, WI, on April 12, 2017. I landed two 12 inch browns and one 20 inch brown in a couple hours on the water. I used a #4 Panther Martin in rainbow trout pattern. I usually do not have much success with that pattern, but I was running out of options after losing three gold blade with black body spinners in the trees. I have learned that using snaps seems to result in more lures lost in trees.

Posted in 2ndMost: Fishing, 2ndMost: Outdoors

Close the Loophole in the Congressional Accountability Act

Check out my latest video editing, animation, and sound design project. I even did the voiceovers for all characters. The animation explains why Congress needs to close a loophole in the Congressional Accountability Act. They need to add all sections of USERRA section 4311, including subsection C.

Posted in 2ndMost: Politics

Spinner Fishing For Trout on the Peshtigo River

Here’s a much overdue post with the video of my excursion to fish the Peshtigo River for trout on the second weekend of October 2016. The footage was shot at McClintock County Park in Marinette County, Wisconsin. I didn’t catch any fish, but I got some video of one of the most beautiful and interesting spots in Wisconsin.

Posted in 2ndMost: Fishing, 2ndMost: Outdoors

Star Wars: Rogue One Review

I finally saw Star Wars: Rogue One yesterday morning, and below is my review of the satisfying if imperfect film.

The Good

First of all, the film is visually stunning. It’s a bit on the dark side (nooge) early on, so occasionally it is difficult to make out the action. As it moves on, that becomes less of an issue and the beautiful or otherwise stunning settings take over.

The aerial combat cinematography and choreography are a feast for the eyes as well. This is one thing that continually improved technology will always add to Star Wars in years to come. The sight of a hundred TIE fighters scrambling at once is not something one will easily forget. My favorite shot in Return of the Jedi of the TIE fighters coming at the Falcon is weak tea compared to everything you see in Rogue One.

The story is solid overall and mostly served by all the scenes along the way. There is plenty of red meat for fan boys, as numerous characters from the original trilogy make cameos or are featured prominently in the action. The only issue here is that they stand out so much at times that they feel like they are only there to get oohs from the fans.

The Bad

For parents looking to take their kids, I suggest avoiding it if possible. This film is uber-violent. There isn’t a lot of actual blood, of course. Lasers cauterize wounds, after all. I am pretty sure the body count in this movie is one of the highest of any in cinema history. Combine that with some of my other observations below, and you have a movie that most kids under about 13 will have trouble comprehending, much less truly enjoying. I seriously recommend not letting anyone under 10 see it at all for now. I know the pressure will be difficult.

What is this fetish for placing text with the name of the location in the establishing shot for a scene these days? My favorite is when they place “Paris, France” over a shot of the Eiffel Tower or “Washington, DC” over a shot of the U.S. Capitol. If you are going to use such a recognizable monument, there is no need for the text. Anyone not educated enough to know what is on screen probably won’t be helped along by the extra exposition. Rogue One does this to an extreme. While none of us will recognize what any of these planets are the first time we see them, almost every time the location was hooked at the end of the previous scene. “We’re going to Jedda” or something similar is spoken, and a few seconds later we are on Jedda in the next scene with text that reads, “Jedda.” Thanks.

I enjoyed the scenes that had alien dialogue, because I at least had subtitles to understand it. My biggest beef with this movie is that most of the human dialogue was unintelligible. It was one big overly fast broken English marathon. The only reason I could understand any of Donnie Yen’s lines was that he mostly repeated the same line over and over. Thank God for all the Nazis err Imperial officers and stormtroopers: I could always understand their stately British accents (officers) or Midwestern American dude accents (stormtroopers). Luckily, we all know what is supposed to happen in this movie, so we really don’t need to understand the dialogue. It mostly just gets in the way of the action.

For a movie that is one long McGuffin, a few surprises would have been nice along the way. As mentioned above, the main issue this movie has conceptually is that we all know what eventually MUST happen. The film struggles with generating realistic suspense given that we all know how it has to end. A half hour could have been shaved off, and it wouldn’t have made the experience any less satisfying.

I don’t inherently have an issue with the presence of CG Tarkin or Princess Leia, but the technology still isn’t good enough. They did a good job blending Tarkin into the scenes, but Princess Leia was just plain creepy. I thought a scene in Frozen had just been inserted into the film. Since Cushing’s Tarkin was already wooden and creepy, that wasn’t an issue with his character. My main issue with the CG Tarkin is that they tried to recreate him without using Peter Cushing’s voice. Why bother recreating him digitally if you aren’t going to recreate his voice? It is very odd and jarring to hear another voice come out of that skeletorious face.

My Kingdom for a Steadycam

My last criticism of Rogue One is a directorial decision. There was way too much handheld camera work in this film. I don’t usually get motion sickness from handheld work in movies, but I did get a little green at a couple points while watching Rogue One. I told one of my good friends to take some Dramamine before he watches it, since he gets motion sickness quite easily. Once the climactic parts of the plot get going, the parallel editing helps alleviate this. The aerial combat photography is smooth if not still a bit dizzying. Earlier in the movie, all the shaking and bouncing does make it hard to focus on what is occurring on screen.

My Recommendation

Go see it, even at full price, but bring the Dramamine if you get motion sickness easily. If you are an alien and have never seen A New Hope, you better watch that first as well. You really won’t understand what is happening and why without it because the camera work, lighting, and dialogue won’t help you in the first hour of the film. The director does assume you know all this, even if he doesn’t do a great job of using your knowledge.


Posted in 2ndMost: Movies and Television, 2ndMost: Reviews

Packers Playoff Clinching Scenarios for 2016 Week 16

For those of you who love the Packers and numbers, here are the Green Bay Packers playoff clinching scenarios for Week 16 of the 2016 NFL season.

First of all, it is important to note that if the Packers win out, they will win the NFC North and be, at worst, the 4th seed. If the Giants, Seahawks, and Falcons lose out or have ties and a few other outcomes, the Packers could still be as high as the 2nd seed. One more win by the Seahawks clinches the 2nd seed for them.

The Packers can clinch a playoff berth this week if all of the following events occur:

  1. Packers win at Minnesota Vikings (which eliminates Vikings, Saints, and Panthers from playoff contention)
  2. Washington Redskins loss or tie at Chicago Bears (which eliminates Redskins from playoff contention)
  3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers loss at New Orleans Saints (which ensures that Packers will, at worst, tie the Bucs’ record)
  4. Atlanta Falcons win or tie at Carolina Panthers (which would also eliminate Carolina from playoff contention plus clinch the NFC South for Atlanta, ensuring that the Packers don’t have to go up against Atlanta in a wild card tiebreaker, which they would lose based on head to head)
  5. Packers clinch strength of victory (SOV) tiebreaker over Tampa Bay

Without laying odds or otherwise using ELO or other methods of calculating odds, the pure probability that the first four events happen (while neglecting the very small probabilities that ties will occur) is roughly 6.25% – So you’re saying there’s a chance…

In this case, I took a look at all games that would affect this scenario so you know which teams to root for this weekend.

Assuming outcomes 1 through 4 above occur as detailed, and again assuming no ties (because they are rare and it would take two or three to actually affect the SOV calculation enough to matter), I tabulated the entries for wins and losses for each team Green Bay and Tampa Bay beat (9 wins against 8 teams each). This includes the assumption that Green Bay beats Minnesota (hurts GB’s SOV) and Tampa Bay loses to the Saints in Week 16 (Which helps TB’s SOV), while Green Bay loses to Detroit (which actually helps GB’s SOV) and Tampa Bay beats the Panthers (which hurts TB’s SOV) in Week 17 to force the record tie. It also includes the assumptions that Washington loses to the Bears (which helps GB’s SOV more than TB’s SOV) and Atlanta beats Carolina (which hurts TB’s SOV) in Week 16.

Once those assumptions are entered for this scenario, I then calculated the worst possible outcomes for Green Bay in Week 17 (to see what they must overcome). First, I removed the games that have no impact on either team’s SOV, either because both teams beat them or because the outcome adds 1 win and 1 loss to the the calculation. Thus, the following Week 17 games have no impact on this calculation:

  • ATL-NO
  • KC-SAN

Minnesota-Chicago has a minor impact – either outcome adds or subtracts the same net losses because both teams beat Chicago but the Packers beat them twice. However, a Minnesota win adds a couple thousandths of points to TB’s SOV. Thus, I assumed the MIN win in Week 17

I then assume all unique teams TB beat win and all unique teams GB beat lose in Week 17:

  • SF over SEA (adds 1 loss to both TB and GB SOV but 1 win for TB SOV)
  • IND over JAX
  • WAS over NYG
  • DAL over PHI
  • TEN over HOU

Factoring these Week 17 assumptions in with the Week 16 assumptions we already made, the combined won-loss-tied records for TB and GB would actually be tied at 62-78-1 (both teams beat Seattle, which has the tie on its record).

This leaves six Week 16 games whose outcome was not already assumed above. To clinch the tiebreaker, four of the six games would need to break the Packers’ way. At least four of the following outcomes must happen:

  • LA over SF (anything could happen here)
  • DEN over KC (unlikely)
  • CLE over SD (doubtful)
  • JAX over TEN (doubtful)
  • DET over DAL (possible, Dallas might be resting starters)
  • HOU over CIN (probable)

Unfortunately for the Packers, I think only two or three of these are likely. I doubt Denver, Cleveland, and Jacksonville will win their games.

If the Packers have three go their way, however, they at least guarantee they can’t LOSE the SOV tiebreaker to TB. I think Green Bay would probably win SOS if SOV was tied at the end of the season. It is also pretty unlikely that the 49ers beat Seattle (unless Seattle is resting starters) and Dallas beats Philly (Dallas clinched the 1st seed tonight and probably will rest starters in Week 17) in Week 17, so the Packers would probably win the SOV tiebreaker anyway as long as two of the six games above go their way in Week 16. And again, this is all assuming they don’t win out to win the NFC North or end up a game ahead of the Bucs.

To Make a Long Story Short…

This weekend, Packer fans are rooting for the following teams to win:

  • Packers (durrr…)
  • Bears
  • Saints
  • Falcons
  • Rams
  • Broncos
  • Browns
  • Jaguars
  • Lions (assuming the Packers win)
  • Texans

Of course, a Packers loss and Lions win allows the Lions to clinch the NFC North. Thus, we’ll obviously be rooting against the Lions on Monday if the Packers do happen to lose on Saturday. That won’t completely eliminate us from playoff contention, but we’d be back to needing a lot of help unless the Bucs and Redskins both lose as well.

Posted in 2ndMost: Green Bay Packers, 2ndMost: Sports

Getting Geared up for Some Trout Fishing

Members of my outdoor group and Cabela’s customers often ask for my advice on selecting gear for trout fishing. I decided to put together a little primer to get them started. Hopefully this will be of use to you if you are looking to do some trout fishing in the upcoming season.

I’ll focus first on the gear you’ll need whether you decide to use spinning tackle or flies. Then I’ll cover optional gear that can improve your experience. I’ll then discuss rods, reels, lures, and other essential tackle. I’ll highlight the specific items and models I own or recommend with photos and links to help you find these items. It is possible to spend a lot of money, but getting into the sport requires no more than a $50 outlay plus appropriate fishing license – if you already hike, camp, or do other types of fishing, you likely have some of the basic gear already.

Gear Essentials

Whether you plan to fish with flies, lures, or live bait there are items you will need for all types of fishing.

Fishing License

A Wisconsin Resident fishing license will cost you $20. To fish on cold water trout streams (any stream shown in color on the trout regulations map), you will need the inland trout stamp, which is $10 extra. If you want to fish on any Lake Michigan or Lake Superior tributaries downstream of the first impassable barrier (dam, lamprey barrier, etc.), you will need the additional $10 Great Lakes stamp. Anyone under 16 years of age does not need a license to fish in Wisconsin. You can purchase a license online at Go Wild. You no longer need the printed license – your driver’s license serves as your license.

Be sure to check on the regulations in your state before venturing out on the water. In Wisconsin, the early catch and release season runs from 5:00am on the first Saturday in January until the first Friday in May. The general season runs from the first Saturday in May until October 15. An extended catch and release season is open until November 15 on various Lake Superior and Green Bay tributaries. Be sure to consult the regulations book to make sure you know any special regulations that govern a particular stream. During the early and late seasons, only artificial lures may be used on inland streams.


Hats can serve three purposes when on the water: sun protection, rain protection, and warmth. I usually wear a baseball cap when fishing, which allows me to attach my GoPro camera to the bill. Baseball caps will help keep your head warm in cooler conditions. However, many trout anglers will wear a wide brim hat in all but freezing conditions. Two excellent wide brim options are the Outback Trading River Guide Mesh Hat and the Outdoor Research Seattle Sombrero. The River Guide hat is great for sunny/warm conditions, as the mesh allows air to flow over your noggin. Because it has Gore-Tex and an insulated lining, wear the Seattle in moderate to cold conditions, especially when it is raining. In freezing weather, a good knit cap or skull cap, such as the Under Armour Infrared Beanie, will do the job. I’ll sometimes combine a baseball cap with an ear warmer headband so I can still use my GoPro clipped to the bill.

sunglassesPolarized Eyewear

Most sunglasses will do a good job protecting your eyes from all the UV bouncing off the water when fishing. Even on an overcast day, your eyes will get very dry and itchy due to sunburn if you don’t protect them.

Polarized lenses add the benefit of filtering out a good portion of the light reflected off the surface of the water. This is a crucial component of safe wading in a trout stream or river. Being able to see rocks, drop offs, submerged timber, and other riverbed features may not only save your life, but it will help you spot the places where trout will be hiding.  Being able to see your lure, worm, or fly might allow you to change your retrieve if you see a fish following it.

Today you can get a pair of decent polarized sunglasses for as little as $20. Practically every sporting goods store will have them, and any Wal-Mart or convenience store probably has some, too. When you are ready to get serious about the sport, I recommend investing in a better pair. Serengeti, Revo, Maui Jim, and Ray-Ban all make great sunglasses. I currently wear a pair of Costa Ballasts, and they are pretty amazing.

Upper Body Clothing

Avoiding overheating or hypothermia is pretty important. In a less extreme sense, the more comfortable you are, the more you’ll enjoy your time on the water. That means you’ll fish more often!

As always, layering is a good idea. In all seasons but the summer, air and water temperatures can change very quickly and widely. I recommend wearing a lightweight moisture-wicking base layer, such as the Under Armour Heatgear Undershirt, in all weather conditions. Add a fleece or fishing shirt over that. My favorite fishing shirt is the Columbia Bonehead long sleeve shirt. It can be worn in hot conditions or layered with baselayers and a fleece vest or parka in cold conditions. Your outer layer in cool or cold conditions can be either a fleece vest, such as the Cabela’s Snake River Fleece Vest, or a parka. I am on my second Columbia Whirlibird Parka, and I love it. The only drawback to a full size parka is that it will get wet if I wade deeper than my thighs and don’t have it tucked into my waders. The way to avoid that is to go with a wading jacket, such as the Simms Guide Jacket. There are certainly far cheaper models on the market. Wading jackets are cut a little shorter so there is less chance of submerging the hem.


Lower Body Clothing

What you wear to cover your lower body when fishing for trout will vary widely depending on air and water temperatures. You will want to keep your lower body dry when the combined air and water temperature is below about 120 degrees F. Most people don’t like to “wet wade” under any conditions. You don’t even have to wade in a stream in order to fish for trout. However, wading in a stream makes landing and releasing fish much easier, and it is far easier to keep spinners and other crankbaits deep enough to catch fish.

In cold conditions, your base layers will be identical regardless of whether you wear waders or not. Start with an Under Armour, Heat Last, or Cabela’s MTP wicking layer. In temps below freezing, add a fleece layer. If you will be wearing waders, you can stop here. Normal fleece lowers work fine, but consider something like the Cabela’s Fleece Wader Pants, which have stirrups so the pants won’t ride up as you don your waders. If you aren’t wearing waders, almost any long pants will do. However, I usually go with a lightweight convertible pant, such as the Columbia Silver Ridge. These can be converted to shorts as the day gets warmer.

In warmer conditions, you might still wear a thin wicking layer, which can help keep you cool. Convertible pants or shorts work just fine. I sometimes wear my swim trunks when wet wading. The main drawback to wearing shorts or swim trunks in the summer is that your legs can get pretty scraped up from tall grass, bushes, and nettle while getting to the stream. This is where convertible pants come in handy. Wear them long while walking to the stream, and zip off the lower legs before wading. They are light enough that you can just wear them in the stream, too. They’ll dry quickly once you are out of the water. The only drawback is that the current will tug harder at your legs.

In cold or warm conditions, you may decide that you prefer wearing waders. Again, if the combined air and water temperature is below 120 degrees, waders are mandatory.

wadersYou have essentially four categories of waders to consider:

Neoprene waders will help keep you warm, so a fleece layer is unnecessary. However, they don’t breathe so your base layers will typically be soaked in sweat when you take them off. A wicking layer is a must. Neoprene waders are usually less expensive than breathables and will stretch a bit as you move.

Breathable waders are just that – they allow moisture to pass through the material. They are usually made out of Gore-Tex, but some brands have their own waterproof-breathable material. Cabela’s Dry-Plus is an example. Most breathables are not insulated, so you would need a fleece layer or long underwear underneath them in colder conditions. Some hunting breathables will have Thinsulate insulation to help keep you warm.

The next decision to make is whether bootfoot or stockingfoot waders are right for you.

The total cost of bootfoot waders will usually be less than stockingfoot waders, even though the waders themselves might be more expensive. Bootfoot waders are bulkier and less suitable to walking great distances before or after wading in the stream. They are also tricky to get the right fit. If you are particularly tall, short, thin, or fat, you’ll have great difficulty finding a pair that fits your feet and your body. Being “big” with small feet or “small” with big feet is an even bigger problem. Usually the size of the wader (girth and height) increases with shoe size.

When purchasing bootfoot waders or wading boots, I recommend “lug sole” rather than “felt sole” boots. Felt is impossible to clean thoroughly and allows invasive hitchhikers to be spread from stream to stream. Moreover, many states are beginning to outlaw felt soles for that reason. Wisconsin’s ban will be coming soon.

Stockingfoot waders will increase your total cost because you’ll need to buy a pair of wading boots to wear over the neoprene stocking. However, they are superior in comfort when hiking and wading over distance. They are also easier to get the right fit because the stocking will accommodate a range of shoe sizes. You then just need to get a wading boot that fits your foot. Simms even has a custom wader program where you can send your measurements, and they’ll make a pair that should fit perfectly. This is great if any of your measurements are above the 90th percentile or below the 10th percentile.


If you purchased stockingfoot waders, you will need a wading boot. Cabela’s has boots starting at $80, but they are often on sale, and the Bargain Cave will have even better deals. I recommend sticking with an inexpensive boot like this unless you are ready to commit to the sport long term. At that point, I recommend investing in the Simms G3 Guide Boot. It is the most expensive boot on the market, but it is worth every penny to be that comfortable all day. I’ve worn about 6 other models, and there truly is no comparison.

There are two other options for wading and keeping yourself dry: hip boots and rubber boots. Hip boots will allow you to wade thigh deep without getting wet. The LaCrosse Big Chief is a good option. Rubber boots will allow you to wade shin deep while keeping dry. The LaCrosse Grange is one of the most popular rubber boots on the market. As you will note, hip boots and rubber boots are almost as if not more expensive than waders. Moreover, it is not uncommon when wading in a stream to reach a spot that is belly deep with high banks. Without chest waders, you would have to walk back until you can find a spot to get out of the stream and walk around the deep spot. I recommend sticking with waders unless you already happen to have a pair of hip boots or rubber boots.

If you plan to fish from the riverbank and not wet your feet when there is snow on the ground, you’ll need a good winter boot. If the snow is deep, you’ll probably need snowshoes, so a winter boot should have a snowshoe strap lip on the heel and d-ring for gaiters just below the laces. I own a pair of Cabela’s XPG Snow Hikers and have been pleased with them so far.

If you decide to wet wade in warmer conditions, a pair of old sneakers is sufficient to protect your feet. Sandals, such as the Keen Newport H2 will work to protect the soles of your feet. However, you will get small rocks pinned between your feet and the sandal. I recommend a pair of water shoes, such as the Simms Currents, or a pair of neoprene paddling shoes/boots, such as the NRS Kicker Remix Wetshoe. The Kickers will also help keep your feet warm. Spring creek water will still be as cold as 50-55 degrees in the summer. To combat cold feet and protect your feet the best while wet wading, you can wear your wading boots with a pair of neoprene guard socks. You’ll wear a pair of wool or synthetic hiking/wading socks underneath the guard socks. The guard socks themselves insulate your feet while keeping grit and rocks out of your wading boots.

storageStorage Boxes/Cases

You’ll need something to store lures, flies, split shot, hook, and swivels. Nothing will ruin a nice day on the water like being without small items whose supply you just exhausted.

The simplest tackle boxes are Plano Pocket Stowaway boxes. Nearly every sporting goods store, hardware store, and big box store with a sporting or hardware department will carry these. Menard’s has them for the lowest price I’ve seen. You’ll often get these with larger tackle or tool boxes. I have a pair of these I use when fishing with spinning tackle.

If you commit to learning to fly fish, my favorite fly boxes are the Scientific Anglers fly boxes and Tacky Day Pack series. I am gradually shifting from the SA boxes to Tacky because they are thinner and the self healing silicone is the best material for attaching your flies.


You’ll be constantly tying on new swivels, lures, flies, or hooks as you try new techniques and lose these items to fish and snags. Thus, being able to quickly clip something off your line or clip the tag end of a knot is very important. A simple nail clipper will do the job, but you can get nicer ones that also have additional features such as a needle for cleaning up the eye of a hook or a nail knot tool. I currently use a pair of Simms Nippers, which have the unique feature of replaceable blades.


A good pair of pliers or forceps is one of the most important tools you can carry while trout fishing. Being able to pinch down the barbs on hooks or spinners (which is required in some states, especially during catch and release periods) is a key reason you’ll need a pair. The uniformly important reason to have one is for removing hooks from trout you’ve caught. Trout will manage to entirely swallow spinners and crankbaits that move quickly and barely fit in their mouths. A normal pair of needlenose pliers is sufficient for pinching barbs and reshaping or fixing hooks. However, I do recommend a surgical hemostat or forceps designed specifically for fishing. Even needlenose pliers can be too blunt an instrument for getting a hook out of a trout’s gill area. I own the previous version of the Rapala Plier/Forceps Combo. The pliers are excellent and the forceps haven’t failed me yet. They come with a lanyard for securing the forceps to your vest.


Trout are very sensitive to temperature and pressure changes. Just like with smallmouth bass, a front that brings a sudden pressure shift can instantly shut activity on or off. Trout will only be active and/or feed at 40 degrees F and above. This is partially because insect activity is very minimal below that temperature. Above 65 degrees F trout will again get sluggish. Moreover, fighting an angler at 65 to 70 and above can be fatal. The lactic acid buildup trout experience from the trauma of being hooked, fought, handled, and released is no problem in cold water. When it’s warm, that buildup will kill a fish 10 minutes after you release it even if it seemed fine as you released it.

As mentioned above, you’ll need to stay dry when the combined air and water temperature is below 120 degrees. Your car or watch’s thermometer or smartphone will tell you the air temp, but you’ll need a thermometer to know the water temp.

For all these reasons, knowing the temperature of the water is crucial to your success and comfort. Almost any analog or digital thermometer will work. I use the Fishpond Swift Current Thermometer. I also have a thermometer in my Casio Riseman Watch. It takes longer to get a reading while submerging my hand for a couple minutes. The watch also alerts me to changes in barometric pressure.


You’ll need a way to keep your nippers, pliers, and/or forceps handy but prevent them from getting lost in the water. You can simply use some paracord or rope to attach these items to your vest or pocket, zippers, or loops on a shirt or jacket. However, there are plenty of lanyards and retractors on the market that will keep the items out of the way when not in use.

Water Bottle/Hydration Bladder

Staying hydrated, especially during the summer, can be a challenge. You can drink small amounts of stream water, but anything more than a few sips here and there will eventually get you sick. The only exception to that is the most remote mountain streams when fed primarily by melting snow. No matter how clear and clean a stream appears to be, it will have plenty of cysts and bacteria in it.

I carry a bottle of Gatorade or a wide mouth Nalgene bottle filled with water when I’m out on the water. Another good option is to put a hydration bladder (such as a CamelBak) in a rear pocket or pouch in your fishing vest. A number of newer sling packs have a hook and pouch for hanging your bladder inside, such as the Umpqua Zero Sweep. You could even just wear a small hydration backpack, such as the CamelBak MULE.

Optional Gear


In cold conditions, having a standard pair of gloves to wear while walking to and from the stream is helpful. However, there are plenty of gloves on the market specifically made for anglers. Specifically, fingerless gloves are a good compromise between warmth and dexterity. I have a pair of Cabela’s Guidewear 1/2 Finger Fishing Gloves. They take the edge off in cold conditions but still allow me to tie knots, handle fish, and manipulate line and reels. In warm conditions, you may want a pair of gloves to shield your hands from the sun. Simms Solarflex Guide Gloves are a good choice.


It is important to carry everything you need for a few hours of fishing on your person. I sometimes cover miles of a river or stream in a day, and the last thing I want to do is stop fishing just because I am missing or exhausted the supply of something I need.

A good fishing vest is one of the best investments you can make. You can get a decent vest on eBay or Craigslist for as little as $10 or $15. Fishpond and Simms make the best higher end vests. I currently wear a Fishpond Sagebrush. It has tons of storage space without being bulky because of the mesh construction. The mesh helps keep me cool when it is hot outside, but doesn’t add bulk if I am bundled up in cold weather.

Another option instead of a vest is a sling pack. These are becoming more popular. Simms, Umpqua, and Fishpond all make very good packs.

If you will be fishing out of a kayak, canoe, dory, or fishcat or paddling to spots and wading in swifter current, you might prefer a fishing PFD (life jacket) in those situations. I have the Stearns Hybrid fishing PFD. It has open shoulders so I can flycast and paddle without my movement being restricted. It also has a built-in fly tray, retractor, and many lashpoints and pockets. Another great option is the NRS Chinook.


I usually carry my net with me while fishing for trout. I only bother using it on bigger fish to make sure I can land them successfully. There are tons of nets on the market. Cabela’s, Frabill, and Fishpond all make good nets. Just make sure your net has a rubber or rubber-coated basket to protect the trout’s slime layer. Nylon or cloth baskets will remove much of it. The basic net I recommend is the Cabela’s Rubber Landing Net. Normally $40, this net is always on sale for $20. I was pleased with mine until I upgraded to the Cabela’s Burl Handle Landing Net. This net has a rubber-coated cloth basket. It looks beautiful, and I’ve enjoyed it thus far. On my wish list is an upgrade to the Fishpond Nomad. These nets have carbon composite handles and look gorgeous.

If your net does not come with a lanyard and/or net release, that is something you will need to purchase. Fishpond, Simms, and almost every other fly fishing vendor make good net releases and lanyard. I prefer magnetic releases. The magnets are strong, and they make it easy to attach and detach your net from your vest’s D-ring.

accessories_optionalWading Staff

When fishing in swift current or streams with rocky beds, a wading staff might save your life. Having a third leg can be very helpful. In Wisconsin, fishing on the Flambeau, Wolf, and Peshtigo Rivers demands a wading staff. You can just use a trekking pole for this purpose if you already have one or two of those. I own a Hammers Wading Staff, and I have been pleased with it so far despite some bad reviews I’ve seen of it. The Simms Wading Staff is clearly the best one on the market, but it’s pricey.

Waste Disposal

I have run into plenty of lures, hooks, bobbers, and fishing line left on trout streams over the years. I guess it’s excusable when it is up in a tree or on a far bank and the angler didn’t have the means to wade (another reason why being able to wade is important). But most of the time, a person could have easily picked up their mess.

You can always put your excess line and other waste in a pocket, but there are two good options on the market. The Fishpond Piopod is an acceptable option. It can be hard to feed line into it, however. For this reason, I upgraded to the Monomaster. This item has a spindle with brushes on it that catch line and allow you to spin and roll it up inside.

drypakWaterproof Case

If you plan to bring your smartphone, camera, or iPod on the water to listen to music while fishing, take photos, or record your GPS track, you’ll want to protect it. You can also store matches, currency, toilet paper, and your identification or fishing license in a waterproof case. Pelican makes great waterproof hard cases in various sizes. I have a couple of those. When trout fishing, I usually protect my phone with a Dry Pak soft case. These come in various sizes and allow you to manipulate your phone through the front plastic. You’ll need to get their camera case if you want to take picture while protecting the device. I have a Galaxy S5, which is already waterproof. I don’t have to worry that much if I take it out to take pictures.

Sunglass Strap/Float

A lanyard for float for your sunglasses is always a good idea. For whatever reason, few sunglasses float. Thus, keeping them on your head is helpful. There are tons of sunglass straps on the market. Chums and Croakies are two notable brands. I have a hides H20 Retainer. The float can be removed if you don’t need it.


If you plan to fish at or near dawn or dusk (or at night where permissible by law), a headlamp is a great item to keep in your pocket. It frees your hands up to manipulate your gear, land and handle fish, and avoid walking into trees. You can get functional head lamps for as little as $10. I currently use a Cabela’s XPG headlamp, which is actually made by Princeton Tec.


If you are fishing during the early catch and release season, a pair of snowshoes might make your day a lot easier. I’ve been in my waders and wading boots while trudging through deep snow a few times. Needless to say, I’m lucky I didn’t have a heart attack. Snowshoes vary widely in style and cost. The pair that is currently on my wishlist is the MSR Lightning Explore. These have ratchet buckles, which are way easier to get on and off.


If you will be using snowshoes, you’ll want a pair of winter boots with snowshoe lips on the heel and d-rings below the laces to help secure a pair of gaiters. REI, Outdoor Research, and Cabela’s have good gaiter options. Being a bigger guy with solid calves, I need the Mountain Hardwear Pinnacle Stretch XT to fit over my lower legs. All other brands don’t fit me.

Whew! That wraps up the gear you’ll need or want regardless of what tackle you choose to fish for trout.

Selecting Rods and Reels

When angling for trout, there are four basic systems you can use:

  • Spinning rod and reel for drifting live bait
  • Spinning rod and reel for presenting artificial lures (spinners, crankbaits, and jigs)
  • Fly rod and reel for drifting live bait
  • Fly rod and reel for casting and presenting artificial flies

Whether you are presenting live bait or artificials, the rods and reels you will select for each style of fishing will be roughly the same.

Spinning Rods

When selecting a spinning rod for trout fishing, there is a key tension of which to be aware. Many trout anglers will use the lightest tackle possible so that fighting small fish is more fun. However, long fights on light tackle will fatigue smaller fish enough that they are likely to die after release. Even if you will be keeping fish, you are still likely to fight some trout that are under the size limit. Therefore, I recommend using a medium weight (AKA medium power) rig so you can get fish in quickly and increase the likelihood they will survive.

Considerations when selecting your rod are as follows:

  • Rod length – longer rods for larger streams and rivers, shorter rods for smaller creeks. Choose a rod between 5’6″ and 7′ in length.
  • Handle construction – cork or foam/synthetic? Cork usually adds $10 to the price of a rod.
  • Number of pieces – 1 piece rods are difficult to transport and store, 2 or 4 piece are good for travel.
  • Rod action – Faster actions allow longer casts, especially when it is windy.
  • Rod weight or power – ultralight through medium (discussed above)

I generally recommend a 6’6″, 2 piece, medium weight, fast action, cork handle spinning rod as a good starter. A rod like this will work for using live bait or artificials. The two rods I specifically recommend are the Berkley Lightning Rod LR662MS (cork handle) and Shakespeare Ugly Stik GX2 USSP662M (foam handle). Both retail for around $40 and match the specs above. Watch for Cabela’s sales and bargain cave specials, and you can pick up either of these or better rods for even less money. Obviously there are more expensive rods on the market, but they are overkill for trout fishing.


This length, weight, and action are also suitable for bass and walleye fishing. Thus, you don’t necessarily need a new rod for trout if you already own a spinning rod. The medium weight also allows you to successfully land much larger trout if you are lucky enough to induce them to strike. I prefer cork because it is self-healing and naturally antibacterial. Foam and other synthetic handles get pretty nasty over time. The 6’6″ length is long enough to get good leverage on longer casts, especially in windy conditions, but short enough that you won’t get tangled in too many branches on small streams. 2 piece rods travel well – 4 piece rods are usually a bit more expensive and unnecessary unless backpacking or traveling by plane.

Spinning Reels

It is possible to spend a lot of money on a spinning reel. Because you’ll rarely hook into anything in northern waters that will run on you, most of the extra features and quality that money will be overkill for inland trout. Thus, going with a basic spinning reel of moderate quality is your best bet when getting started.

siennaI generally recommend the Shimano Sienna series when getting started. Regardless of the brand and model you choose, you’ll want something with one of the following in the model number:

  • 100/1000
  • 150/1500
  • 200/2000
  • 250/2500

I recommend getting a reel that has 250 or 2500 in the model number. This will typically hold around 140 yards of 8 lb test line, which I use on my trout, bass, and walleye reels. This will allow you to use the same reel for going after all northern species except Pike and Musky. My specific recommendation would be the Shimano Sienna SN2500FE. It will typically run about $30, but you can often get it on sale for about $20.

If you spend more money on a spinning reel, the two major improvements will be in quality of the construction (more metal, less plastic) and smoothness (more ball bearings).

Spinning Combinations

There are numerous rod and reel combinations on the market from Cabela’s, Shimano, Shakespeare, Abu Garcia, and Fenwick. Combinations will often save you about $10 to $20 compared to separately purchased rod and reel. Cork handle combos are harder to find, but there are plenty of foam and rubber handle combos available. You can often get these for $30 to $40. You’ll usually get reel that is inferior to a Sienna with these combos. However, adding a Sienna or better reel is a good upgrade to make after you commit to the sport and gain experience.

When it comes to spinning rods and reels, you can always go lighter than my recommendations if you want every fish to seem like a monster. The cost of that enjoyment is an increase in the amount of trout mortality you may cause. It’s up to you.

Line for Spinning Rigs

When selecting line for trout spinning rigs, I usually go with 8 to 10 pound test clear monofilament. Most trout  anglers seem to prefer 4 to 6 pound test. The heavier line serves three purposes:

  1. I can use the same line when fishing for bass or walleye without respooling or needing spare spools.
  2. The increased strength is helpful for retrieving lures if they get snagged.
  3. I can land fish more quickly to reduce mortality.

You can certainly use anything from 4 to 10 lb test in any color, including fluorocarbon or braid with a mono leader. The main advantage braid gives you is rarely realized on a trout stream – increased casting distance and toughness. Clear mono seems to be the most stealthy as well. I use Berkley XT 8 or 10lb on my trout reels.

Fly Rods

If you decide to try your hand at drifting worms with a fly rod, just about any rod and reel in a 4 weight or above will work. However, if you plan to learn to fly cast using artificials, you’ll need a decent rod. A good rod will cast better and reduce the fatigue you’ll experience from casting all day.

Considerations when selecting a rod for trout angling on a fly include:

  • Rod length – Longer rods cast more easily and are suitable for larger rivers, shorter rods are good for smaller streams.
  • Rod weight – The size of the flies you will use, the size of the trout you expect to catch, and wind conditions dictate the weight of the rod. For trout, 1 through 6 weight rods are typically used.
  • Rod action – slow through ultra fast – the faster the action the easier the rod casts long distances and punches flies into wind. Faster actions are typically stiffer the closer you get to the butt.
  • Number of pieces – Most modern rods are 4 piece, but you can get 1, 2, 3, and 6 piece rods. The more pieces, the more compact and easier a rod will travel. Both 4 and 6 piece rods are small enough for backpacking or plane travel.

My general recommendation for a beginner would be a 5 weight, fast action, 9 foot, 4 piece fly rod. You should be able to get this configuration in just about every fly rod series on the market. Two excellent starter rods would be the Cabela’s TLr 905-4 ($140 but often on sale) and the St. Croix Rio Santo 905.4 ($130). You’ll be able to fish for trout in almost all types of streams and weather conditions with this configuration. You can even throw poppers and bass bugs with a 5 weight rod.


Spending more money on a fly rod will increase the quality of the materials and construction and generally improve the action and castability of the rod. Lower end rods tend to be slow through medium action. Once you gain some casting skill, you will be able to tell how much better and easier your casting can be with an expensive rod. Most outfitters will let you test rods on-site to get a better feel for each rod. The next step up from the rods I recommended above would be the Cabela’s Theorem and St. Croix Imperial series. Beyond that, you are into real money with rods from Sage, G. Loomis, and Orvis.

flyreelsFly Reels

When fishing for inland trout (as opposed to steelhead and other anadromous trout), the quality of your fly reel is fairly irrelevant. Unless you hook into fish longer than about two feet, you won’t use your reel to fight it. Most of the time, you will just strip your fly line in to land a fish. Your reel is mainly for line storage.

Most reels you’ll purchase to match a 5 weight rod will be designed to hold 5 or 6 weight line. A good basic reel is the Cabela’s Wind River #2 ($40 or less). I owned one of these for a few years and was perfectly happy with it. Another excellent starter reel is the Ross Flystart #2 ($50). The next step up in quality is the Cabela’s RLS+ 2 ($130 or less), which you can get as part of a combo with a decent starter fly rod for $170 or so. I currently have an RLS+ 1 on my 4 weight rod and have been pleased with it so far.

As you spend more money, you’ll get better materials, better drag systems (important for fish that run such as steelhead and salmon), and more beautiful finishes.

Fly Combinations

To save a little money and hassle, you might consider a fly rod and reel combo. These combos will often come pre-spooled with the appropriate backing, fly line, and leader you need to start fishing. Some will come with a case with built-in reel pouch. Other combos will also include some of the other tools and accessories you’ll need. The previously mentioned RLS+ combo is an excellent starter package. It comes with a case and pre-spooled backing, line, and leader.

flylineBacking, Fly Line, and Leaders

If you don’t purchase a pre-spooled combo, you will need backing, fly line, and a leader on which to tie your flies or hooks. Just about any brand will have good options, but my recommendations are below. They all assume a 5 weight, 9 foot rod is what you’ll be loading.

As your casting improves or if conditions dictate, you might consider 9 foot leaders or use tippet to extend your tapered leaders. You might also upgrade to Scientific Anglers Sharkwave Fly Line ($100). It’s truly amazing how much better it casts than anything else on the market. It sounds awesome slipping through your rod guides, too!

If you stop in to the fly shop at your nearest Cabela’s, the fly shop outfitter can help you find all these items and rig up your reel with backing, fly line, and leader for no extra charge.

If you will be drifting live bait on hooks, you can spend less on line and leaders. Your leader can just be a length of clear 4-8 lb mono to which you attach your hook.

Terminal Tackle for Trout Fishing

Once you’ve selected your spinning rod and reel or fly rod and reel and spooled it up with the appropriate backing, line, and/or leaders, it’s time to think about what you will present to trout, how you’ll make sure they see it, and how you’ll detect a strike.

Terminal Tackle for All Situations

You’ll need the following items no matter which of the four basic techniques you plan to employ:

Sinkers – split shot, preferably non-lead, is the most common type of sinker. You’ll need sinkers to get live bait, wet flies, streamers, and nymphs down deep, especially in deeper pools. Some anglers will use split shot to help spinners and crankbaits get deeper. I avoid using extra weight when fishing with spinners because they throw off my casting accuracy.

Bobbers – OK, strike indicators! When using subsurface presentations with live bait or flies, strike indicators will help you keep the presentation at a uniform depth. This will help prevent snags while allowing you to detect a strike. This is especially important when fishing with nightcrawlers or leaches. The fish will tend to swallow the hook if you don’t set it quickly after a strike. The most popular indicators are Thingamabobbers, which come in different sizes and colors. I rarely use indicators since I don’t fish with live bait or nymphs and can usually detect a strike by watching the end of my fly line.

Terminal Tackle for Live Bait

When drifting live bait with a spinning rig or fly rod, you’ll need two things:

  • Hooks – snelled hooks in sizes 4-10. Pinch down the barbs to make it easier to release and avoid killing smaller fish.
  • Bait – nightcrawlers, waxworms, leaches, minnows, crickets, beatles, grasshoppers, or anything else you can skewer with a hook

Terminal Tackle for Spinning With Artificial Lures

When using spinning outfits to fish with artificial lures, there are a number of options. You may wish to put a snap swivel on the end of your line to make changes lures easier and quicker. Swivels will help minimize twist in your line which  in turn avoids tangles and bird’s nests. However, swivels can prevent a spinner from spinning properly. When using spinners, you may wish to use a Duolock Snap or No-Knot Fast Snap instead.

Whether you use a snap, swivel, or tie a lure directly to your line, here are some of the common artificial lures you may employ:

  • luresSpinners – There are many spinners on the market. Some anglers swear by Mepps or Blue Fox, but I have personally had success with Panther Martins. Specifically, I have the most success with Size 4 (3/8oz) Panther Martins with either a gold blade and black body/yellow spots or silver blade and yellow body/red spots as pictured. Size 4 Panther Martins are big enough that you’ll avoid catching too many tiny fish, and they’re easier to cast accurately than lighter versions. You can go smaller on small streams where small brook trout might be all that are present. Cast upstream and retrieve spinners at a slight angle to and slightly faster than the current. Let them sink for a moment before beginning your retrieve. Add split shot 6 to 12 inches up from the spinner to help get it down deeper if needed. I usually don’t bother because of their negative effect on casting accuracy.
  • Crankbaits – Rapala-style crankbaits can be successful, especially for bigger browns and rainbows. One of my students swears by Rapala Ultralight Minnows.
  • Jigs – One of my Trout Unlimited friends has used jigs with nightcrawlers, fuzzy grubs, or bare for years. He seems to catch some sizable fish with those techniques. He retrieves with a normal jigging motion, sometimes just letting it drift and bounce along the stream bottom. I’ve caught a number of steelhead over the years with this technique.

Terminal Tackle for Fly Fishing

fly_terminalThere are three items you may need regardless of which flies you choose to throw:

  • Tippet rings – These small rings can be attached to the end of your tapered leader to make switching or replacing tippet faster and easier. You can also attached a dropper fly to a tippet ring (instead of tying it on the bend of your floating fly’s hook). Wapsi Tippet Rings work well.
  • TippetSpools of tippet will allow you to make your tapered leaders last longer, especially when combined with tippet rings.
  • Floatant – Even perfectly designed and constructed dry flies may need some floatant to help them stay on top of or in the surface film. Gehrke’s Gink is popular and effective.

fliesNow you’re ready to tie on some flies. Here are some of the basic types:

  • Dry Flies – If you notice fish taking on the surface, you may want to go “pure” and throw some dries. I personally prefer dries even if fish aren’t rising because I enjoy the Zen of it. I generally cast Adams, X-Caddis and Elk Hair Caddis, Rusty Spinners, and various hopper patterns in late summer.
  • Wet Flies – There are a number of patterns of wet flies, such as the Partridge and Orange. I don’t usually fish with any wet flies except streamer patterns discussed below.
  • Nymphs – If you want to catch the most fish, nymphs are likely to be the most successful. Patterns such as the Hare’s Ear Nymph, Pheasant Tail Nymph, and Pink Squirrel are popular. I am not results-oriented enough to do any nymphing. I personally don’t like using split shot and strike indicators.
  • Streamers – When I’m not throwing dry flies, I am usually using streamers such as Woolly Buggers and Mickey Finns. Occasionally I’ll throw some Clouser Minnows, especially if I am out of the first two. Clousers are primarily a bass and bonefish fly, but they can yield some big brown trout. You can use split shot and indicators with these or just watch the end of your line carefully. Since you typically strip line in to retrieve streamer patterns and make them act like baitfish, you are likely to feel a strike every time you strip in some line.

Of all the patterns mentioned above, I only tie Adams, X-Caddis, Rusty Spinners, Woolly Buggers, Mickey Finns, and Clousers. I’ll use other patterns I happen to purchase or receive as gifts. There are literally hundreds of common patterns out there, so experiment. I think accurate casting, drag free drifts, and fishing during the right weather conditions will have more bearing on your success than the specific pattern and color. If trout will hit that gaudy #4 Panther Martin, I am pretty sure they’ll hit anything presented properly.

Get Out There!

As with any sport or activity, you can certainly spend hundreds of dollars on equipment. To get out there, you really only need a spinning rod and reel, line, some spinners, a small tackle box, forceps, nippers, and some proper clothing and footwear. You can always fish from the shore even though wading in the stream makes things a little easier.

Buy some of the basics and try it out. Once you’re “hooked,” you can spend some serious coin on all the bells and whistles. There is no shortage of awesome gear to obtain.

Posted in 2ndMost: Fishing, 2ndMost: Outdoors, 2ndMost: Reviews

Choosing a Kayak and other Paddling Gear

Looking to get into the fun and rewarding activity of kayaking? Here’s a primer for choosing a kayak and all of the other gear necessary to enjoying a day out on the water. At the end of the primer is a list of resources for where to paddle plus links to some paddling groups located in the Madison, WI, area.

When choosing gear, I always remind people of the following saying:

You get what you pay for.

That is not always true! However, the following is always true:

You don’t get what you don’t pay for.

Generally speaking, the pricier a kayak or gear is, the more features and benefits it will have. If you are watching your budget, your kayak and paddle are the two items on which to spend money. You will be thankful for it.

Selecting a Kayak

General Kayak Categories

  • Recreational – available in both sit-in and sit-on-top (SOT) models. Features include a wider beam (width) for stability, larger cockpit area for easy entry and exit, and typically run from 8 to 12 feet in length for easy handling.
  • Fishing – available in both sit-in and SOT models. Similar to recreational kayaks but include rod holders and other features that make fishing easier.
  • Whitewater – available in both sit-in and SOT models. Features include a rounder hull for easy rolling, shorter length and increased rocker (curvature at bow and stern) to make turning easier in whitewater, and durable hull materials to resist damage from rocks and other hard surfaces.
  • Sea – Features include a long and narrow hull (typically between 12 and 24 feet) to improve tracking (moving in a straight line), speed, and storage space, and rudder systems to improve the ability to turn the long hull more easily.
  • Inflatable – available in both sit-in and SOT models. Features include portability for easier transport and storage, stability, and forgiving materials to allow the boat to bounce off rocks and other obstructions easily.

After determining which category of kayak is right for the type of paddling you plan to do, you next need to determine if a Sit-In or Sit-on-Top model will best meet your needs.

Sit-In Kayaks

Sit-in kayak pros:

  • Lower center of gravity (improves stability and ability to brace)
  • Enhance your body’s ability to help control the boat (using foot pegs, thigh pads and seat backrest)
  • Generally track better and have a higher top speed
  • More “dry” gear storage
  • Paddler remains dryer

Sit-in kayak cons:

  • Legs are restricted (pinning is more of a risk)
  • More difficult entry, launching, and exit from the boat
  • More difficult draining and recovery after flipping the boat

SOT Kayaks

SOT kayak pros:

  • Easy entry, launching, and exit from the boat
  • Scupper holes allow the boat to drain quickly after flipping or hitting standing waves

SOT kayak cons:

  • Higher center of gravity (reduces stability)
  • Less ability to use your body to control the boat
  • Some track poorly and/or have a lower top speed
  • Limited “dry” gear storage
  • Paddler is more likely to get wet while paddling

Selecting a Kayak Paddle

Kayak paddles consist of a shaft connecting a blade at each end. Shafts can be composed of between 1 and 4 sections connected by ferrules. Most paddles have drip rings near the ends of the shaft to help prevent water from running down onto your hands. The shafts of most paddles shift from a circular to elliptical cross section near normal hand positions to prevent the paddle from rotating in your hand. Shafts can vary in diameter to accommodate different size hands. Bent shafts can help reduce wrist fatigue. Some paddles allow the blades to be set at an offset angle at the center ferrule, that angle known as a feather. This helps reduce wind resistance on the blade that is out of the water.

Kayak paddle shafts and blades can be constructed from various materials. Shafts can be constructed from carbon fiber, fiberglass, aluminum, or nylon. Blades can be constructed from nylon-reinforced fiberglass, nylon, or polypropylene. Prices of paddles vary based on length, blade and shaft material, number of sections, shaft style, and blade style.

When selecting a kayak paddle, you should consider the following:

  • Your paddling style (high angle vs. low angle)
  • The type of paddling you will be doing (distance, whitewater, for fishing)
  • The comfort of the paddle in your hands (hand size vs. shaft diameter)
  • Your height and/or torso length and width of your boat (paddle length)
  • Physical condition (bigger blades require more strength and endurance)
  • The price range that fits your budget

Once you narrow down the style of paddle based on the first three criteria above, length of the paddle must be determined. Beam of the boat and paddler height (torso length is actually more precise) can be used to choose a paddle of proper length. The beam of most SOT kayaks is wider than most sit-in models. Therefore, some recommended paddle lengths are:

Paddles for Sit-In Kayaks

Paddler Height Recommended Paddle Length
Under 5′ 5″ 220 – 230 cm
5′ 5″ to 5′ 11″ 230 – 240 cm
6′ + 240 cm

Paddles for SOT Kayaks

Paddler Height Recommended Paddle Length
Under 5′ 5″ 230 cm
5′ 5″ to 5′ 11″ 230 – 240 cm
6′ + 240 cm

Selecting a Personal Flotation Device

A properly fitted Personal Flotation Device (PFD) is required to be immediately available for each person on every type of kayak.

It is important to select the most comfortable PFD possible which will encourage you to wear it at all times while on the water. Look for a PFD that provides ease of motion for paddling and does not interfere with the back rest of your kayak. Try to sit in a kayak similar to your own when trying on PFDs at the store to ensure your PFD will be comfortable in your kayak.

PFDs fall into the following categories:

  • Canoe & Kayak Vest
  • Full Motion Vest
  • All Water Sports Vest
  • Inflatable Vest

If you select an inflatable vest, it is recommended that you select a “Manual” version. The manual version will eliminate the potential for the inflatable PFD to deploy unexpectedly during normal kayaking activities.

Selecting Other Equipment

Using the appropriate equipment will increase your enjoyment while on the water.

Recommended Equipment

  • Personal Flotation Device (required by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources)
  • Hat (preferably with a wide brim)
  • Appropriate footwear (paddling boots, water shoes, sport sandals)
  • Sunscreen/sunblock
  • Sunglasses (polarized) and lanyard
  • Whistle (required by some paddling clubs for insurability of trips)
  • Signal mirror
  • Water bottle/water
  • Proper nutrition (snacks, bag lunch)

Optional Equipment

  • Key Float
  • Dry Bag
  • Cooler
  • Waterproof case
  • Tether ropes
  • Throw rope
  • Rescue knife
  • Folding anchor or anchor chain
  • Rod holder
  • Action camera (attached to hull or selfie stick)

Transporting and Storing Your Kayak

Whether you are going a mile or several hundred miles, you are going to need a safe and convenient way to transport your kayak.

Typically, there are three basic approaches to transporting your kayak when traveling a distance:

  • Put it on the roof of your vehicle
  • Put it in the bed of a truck or inside a car with seats folded down
  • Carry it on a trailer behind your vehicle

There are several options for carrying your kayak on your vehicle depending on the configuration of your roof. Typical roof configurations include:

  • Bare roof – no factory racks, side rails, or crossbars
  • Factory installed side rails
  • Factory installed side rails and crossbars

Some of the options for carrying your kayak on the roof of your vehicle are:

  • Foam Blocks – work well for short trips, not recommended for long distances traveling at highway speeds.
  • Crossbars – options available that attached to a bare roof or to factory installed side rails. Fairly stable and secure for highway speeds.
  • Cradles – options available to carry one or two kayaks. Most stable and secure for highway speeds.

When transporting your kayak, the primary concern is the security of attaching the kayak to your vehicle.  Each kayak should be secured individually with two straps crossing over the top and separate lines connecting the bow and stern to your front and rear bumpers of your vehicle respectively.  Avoid using one strap for multiple kayaks.

In situations where you need to carry your kayak a short distance, such as across your yard or from your campsite to the water, you can purchase kayak/canoe carts. These are durable metal carts with rugged flat-free tires to roll with ease. The carts fold for convenient storage. Pull by hand only – not designed for transport behind a vehicle.

When it is time to store your kayak in your garage or other building, purchase an even-pulling, two rope hoist system. The hoist can easily be operated by a single person and includes a safety release mechanism.

Paddling Strokes

Understanding paddling strokes will allow you to better control your boat and reduce fatigue, making your time on the water more enjoyable.

Your basic paddle stroke needs several things to be efficient:  a fast clean entry, smooth power while the blade is in the water, followed by a quick clean exit.  Developing a regular cadence will help you keep the kayak moving in a straight line (track).

Practice the various strokes below and see how they help you control your boat. Boat control is especially important when approaching features above the water such as docks or shoals and when paddling in close proximity to other boats.

  • Forward Stroke – basic stroke to move the kayak forward. Insert the paddle blade into the water near the bow of your kayak. Rotate your body as you pull the blade along the kayak through the water. Keep your elbows close to your body as you complete this stroke. Lift the blade out of the water and repeat this same sequence with the opposite end of the paddle on the other side of your kayak.
  • Reverse Stroke – this stroke is used to make a quick maneuver to back up your kayak (known as back ferrying). Place the blade of the paddle toward the stern and close to the kayak and pull the blade forward. Keeping the paddle in a more upright position will maximize the power of this stroke.
  • Draw Stroke – this stroke will help you move your kayak in a more sideways motion. Rotate your body in the direction you want to draw your kayak towards. Place the blade parallel to the kayak and pull on the paddle to move in that direction.  As your kayak nears the paddle, move the blade up put of the water and repeat these paddle motions if needed. Be careful to remove the paddle from the water before your hull nears it or you will likely flip over.
  • Forward Sweep Stroke – this stroke is used to move the kayak’s bow in a forward sideways direction. Stretch the paddle out horizontally toward the bow and use a sweeping motion to move the kayak in the forward sideways direction. For example, using the forward sweep stroke on the starboard (right) side of the kayak to move the bow towards the port (left) direction.
  • Reverse Sweep Stroke – this stroke is used to move the kayak’s stern in a reverse sideways direction. Stretch the paddle out horizontally towards the stern and use a sweeping motion to move the kayak in the reverse sideways direction.

Other Resources

Paddling and Outdoor Groups

Publications and Websites

  • Paddling Southern Wisconsin by Mike Svob
  • Paddling Northern Wisconsin by Mike Svob
    The Svob books are considered the starting point for planning any paddling trip on Wisconsin rivers.
  • Miles Paddled
    The contributors to this site give even better information on their trips than can be found in the Svob books. Their Google maps, videos, and extensive trip descriptions are invaluable tools to planning trips.
Posted in 2ndMost: Outdoors, 2ndMost: Paddling

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