At Rushing Waters Fisheries, fresh rainbow trout isn’t just on the restaurant’s menu. It’s swimming in the 50-plus ponds spread across this sprawling property in southeast Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine State Forest. And it’s yours for the taking.
What’s the catch? As much as you want.
Grab one of the free-to-use fishing poles, bait, bucket and net and try your luck plucking a trout out of the public fishing pond, open year-round. A Wisconsin fishing license and trout stamp — $20 for one-day for out-of-staters — aren’t needed. And there’s no admission fee for the 80-acre compound. You only pay for what you catch, and it’s $8.75 a pound.
Staffers will clean your trout for you. If you want to eat your triumph on-site, you can opt for the “hook and cook” option offered 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday. For an additional $11, they’ll cook your catch — pan-seared or beer-battered — and serve it with a slew of side dishes at the rustically stylish Trout House at Rushing Waters restaurant. Or you can take it home.
Don’t worry if you’re not exactly Ernest Hemingway when it comes to angling.
“You usually have something on the line within 45 minutes to an hour,” said Rushing Waters manager Peter Fritsch.
That was an understatement the summer morning I was there. I followed a three-generation posse from suburban Milwaukee: Gary Paul and his son, Sam, who wanted to take Sam’s toddler, Theo, fishing for the first time.
Theo was captivated by the bucket of night crawlers while his dad and grandfather baited the hook and cast the line. The trio tended to reel in their line every time the bobber twitched. When they finally landed a 1-pounder, they turned over the rod to Theo and grabbed the net.
Elapsed time: 15 minutes.
Don’t tell Theo, but luck and skill had little to do with this. The third-of-an-acre fishing pond is usually stocked with about 9,000 serving-size rainbow averaging three-quarters of a pound.
The catch-and-eat feature at Rushing Waters is a smaller component of an enterprise that has about 750,000 live fish on-site at any given time and which wholesales roughly 6,000 fish per week to the likes of Whole Foods and Mariano’s.
“This,” Fritsch said, “is the largest rainbow trout farm in Wisconsin.”
Trout: A fish tale
There are good reasons trout — particularly rainbow — can command $12.99 a pound for fillets in Chicago stores. Like brook and brown trout, the rainbow’s lifestyle requires clean, flowing water in streams, rivers or ponds. The tasty fish is in great demand.
Bob Haase, a septuagenarian from Eldorado, Wis., has been fishing for trout since he was 16. He said his state is overlooked as a trout nirvana, despite having hundreds of miles of trout streams. Haase is the education chairman of the Wisconsin chapter of Trout Unlimited, a national nonprofit conservation organization.
Though he prefers “brookies,” Haase said rainbows put on a better show: “When a rainbow takes the bait, it will dance around on the water’s surface. Those acrobatics make them a fun fish. Brown trout, in comparison, will stay down a bit more.”
Another plus: “Clean, cold water is a requirement for trout; if the water warms above a certain temperature, the fish will not survive. Rainbow can tolerate warmer temperatures, in the lower 60s. That’s why they’re easier to raise commercially.”
Rushing Waters’ Palmyra operation also makes, packages and wholesales smoked trout as well as trout spread (a fish-plus-cheese appetizer that tastes better than it sounds). These, and other goodies, can be purchased at the farm store adjacent to the restaurant.
Angling for market share
About a two-hour drive from Chicago, Rushing Waters, N301 County Road H, can be found near Palmyra via a series of increasingly smaller roads that bob and weave through the Kettle Moraine area. Many visitors combine a fishing visit with hiking, biking or other outdoorsy activities in the hilly region. (There’s a hitching post across the street from the fish farm; a horse trail is just down the road.)
From the street, Rushing Waters looks like a collection of pole-barn machine shops where doorknobs might be manufactured. A small building toward the back is all that remains of the small fish farm Madison-based investor Bill Graham bought in 1994. Three years later, Graham hired Fritsch, who’d just wrapped up a fisheries biology major at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point.
Fritsch: “This was before the local food movement. But Graham knew it was coming.”
Rushing Waters now has 56 ponds. Eggs are hatched in sheds, netted into fingerling tanks and then moved to outdoor ponds. Through their “teen” stage and beyond, the rainbow are carefully seined and advanced from one pond to the next: Pond population is segregated by size because larger trout love to eat smaller brethren.
The trout eat all-natural food pellets that look like the kind of stuff you’d find in a dog bowl. Throw a handful into any pond, and watch the fish swarm for it.
Because the fish spend their entire lives on Rushing Waters acreage, they’re considered private property. As such, guests of the fish farm do not need fishing licenses. Even so, the fish, water and processing are regulated by the state.
The ponds are fed by water from springs and artesian wells; that water eventually flows into a few fish-free settling ponds, where “suspended solids” — uneaten fish food, fish poop, etc. — sink. The cleaned water flows into the Bark River, a tributary of the Illinois-bound Rock.
Eat it there
At the public pond stocked with mature rainbow, you capture your catch with the provided fishing tackle — no personal equipment is allowed. Another rule: No catch and release. You land it, you buy it. When you’re done, take it inside for weighing and paying.
The Trout House restaurant opened in 2013 in the same large building that houses visitor check-in, a small store and the processing area that’s off-limits to the public but visible through a wall of windows. A second Trout House location debuted in August in Delavan near Lake Geneva.
The original Trout House — evoking the feel of an old-school Wisconsin supper club — has about 20 tables and a good-sized bar well stocked with Midwest craft beers. It’s open for lunch and dinner Wednesday to Saturday and for brunch Sunday, and the menus cast a far wider net than just trout.
Dinner entree options include shrimp scampi, beef tenderloin and fettuccine Alfredo, while Wisconsin cheese curds, a smoked-fish-and-cheese board and – extraordinarily good – a trout tapenade served with crackers are some of the small plates. Thursdays are all-you-can-eat crab nights.
The restaurant takes reservations for any day except Friday evening during the popular fish fry, when you can expect an hourlong wait.
That’s when the guests are biting.
John Bordsen is a freelance writer.