Chapter History

An Unusual Beginning


Rumor has it that the Southeast Wisconsin chapter of Trout Unlimited (SEWTU) got its start in Milwaukee in the late 1960’s when a woman named Mary Stewart Simpson had the desire to bring Trout Unlimited’s conservation mission to Milwaukee.


However, Mary feared that men would not join a group headed by a woman. In those days, it was unheard of for a woman to take the lead in what was thought of as a man’s domain. So Mary did the next best thing, she successfully lobbied her husband Joe Simpson to start the chapter in her place.


Joe pushed through the idea with a small group of friends and acquaintances, and in no time, the fledgling chapter was off to a start with Joe serving as the SEWTU’s first president.


SEWTU was actually the third Trout Unlimited chapter in Wisconsin, following the Wolf River Chapter in northeastern WI and the Southern WI Chapter, which was and still is headquartered in Madison, WI. These original three chapters actually predate the Wisconsin State Council of Trout Unlimited, which was not formed until 1970.



The Early Days


In the first years, the chapter focused on establishing themselves and building the membership rolls. The group held regular meetings at Fuzzy Thurston and Max McGee’s steakhouse, The Left Guard. Early activities included fly tying, fishing classes, and operating a booth at the Milwaukee Sport Show to promote the ideas of cold water conservation. 


Following in the footsteps of Joe Simpson, early chapter presidents included men like Jack Walworth and Don Tebay.  The early members deserve a huge amount of recognition for the effort they put in to building the SEWTU Chapter, as well as building the Wisconsin State Council.


The 1970’s and early 80’s saw the chapter grow and flourish. By the early 80’s, the membership roster had grown to over 200 members, giving the chapter enough muscle to take on significant projects, both in the home territory of southeastern WI, as well as collaborative efforts with other chapters around the state.



Early Conservation Efforts


Our early efforts included tight collaboration with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on projects at Paradise Springs, Bluff Creek, Allenton Creek, and Rosenow Creek. 


In addition to “typical” stream conservation work, the SEWTU has also collaborated with the WI DNR on various dam removal projects. Quentin Swain, one of the chapter presidents, was one of the first conservation leaders in Wisconsin to call for the removal of the North Avenue Dam, just north of downtown Milwaukee.  When this dam removal was accomplished, miles of the Milwaukee River were opened and have become an important salmon and steelhead fishing destination. 


Fund raising was also a real focus and was successful enough that the chapter was able to donate a dredge to the DNR. Many of the fund raising activities involved hosting famous fishing and conservation personalities like Joan and Lee Wulf, Dave Whitlock, Jack Dennis, Dave Ruetz, Lefty Kreh, John Shuey, Robert Herbst, and Gary Borger.



Leaders and Locations Over the Years


Over the years, chapter meetings have been held at a variety of establishments in and around the Milwaukee metro area.  These have included Eddie’s Club B, Kalt’s, Clifford’s Inn, Schlitz Audubon  Center, Bavarian Wurst Haus, Thunder Bay Grill, and Charcoal Grill.  In every case and every venue, the idea has been to conduct the business of TU along with forging friendships and telling fish tales!


Over the years, chapter leadership has included a number of outstanding people.  In some cases, some of these men have contributed not only to the SEWTU Chapter, but have also served leadership rolls on the WI State Council and even at the national level.  Tom Sopkovich, Dave Beckwith and, currently, Jon Christiansen have all served TU in national leadership rolls.



Current Efforts


Recent years have seen chapter membership grow rapidly, with the current roster now numbering over 900 members.  This growth has occurred even though the original chapter territory has been reduced as other chapters have started in counties that were originally part of the SEWTU region.  The WI State Council now has 21 chapters with over 3000 members.


With larger membership, it has become possible to tackle ambitious projects.  Of course, chapter members continue to work with WI DNR on local streams, but the fact is that southeastern WI is not blessed with an abundance of cold water trout streams.  For this reason, SEWTU collaborates with other chapters on various streams and rivers across the state.  We are able to bring our manpower to some areas where the local chapters might not have the advantage of large populations of trout anglers.


Two rivers of focus for us are the Milwaukee and Menomonee rivers. The Menomonee River is being opened even as this account is being written.  Salmon and steelhead will now be able to swim through 20 miles of free flowing water from the river’s mouth at Lake Michigan through the heart of Milwaukee.  A large majority of the 20 + miles flows through public land, allowing great access for fishing and other recreation.  This effort, too, has taken place partly through the efforts of SEWTU Chapter members and officers, like Bob Boucher, Henry Koltz and John Knitter.


One of the most noteworthy recent projects was the restoration of a long reach of Camp Creek near Viola, WI.  That project, along with a variety of community outreach and education activities, resulted in SEWTU being named the National Chapter of the Year in 2009 by TU.


Of course, chapter members continue to participate in stream conservation projects around the state:


  • River cleanups
  • Fly tying classes
  • Fly fishing classes
  • Trout in the Classroom programs in local schools
  • The Milwaukee Sport Show
  • The WI Conservation Congress Spring Hearings
  • Clean water advocacy activities
  • Fishing outings


But perhaps one of the most noteworthy activities in recent years has been leading the Milwaukee area effort for Project Healing Waters. 


This nationwide organization encourages US military veterans through fly tying classes, and fishing outings.  SEWTU members took the lead in establishing and leading the Milwaukee chapter at the VA Center and the effort has now expanded to a second group of vets at one of the local universities. 


All of these activities, whether conservation, clean water advocacy, community outreach, and improving fishing skills, all in the name of cold water and trout fishing, have brought together a group of people from diverse backgrounds, ages and ideas. Great friendships have been and continue to be forged through the SEWTU.  That might actually be the best outcome of all to come from the Southeast Wisconin Chapter of TU!