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Lower Wisconsin Riverway - a World Class River

Updated: Apr 23, 2022

This is the first of some unknown number of posts on some of Wisconsin's World class fisheries. I will try to do so without hotspotting.


I have a thing for flowing water of all shapes and sizes. Lakes are fine but they are not rivers. Lakes are static. A bird's eye view of a lake rarely tells you much - seeing into a lake requires technology, and to be honest, I fish to get away from technology. Sure, you might pick up the subtleties of a point and imagine how it might extend into the lake. Or you might fish a lake clear enough to see the shallow - or even the deep - weed edge. But mostly, knowing what is in a lake requires some technological help.

Lower Wisconsin River
From a recent fishing trip on the Lower Wisconsin

Rivers on the other hand are always changing and they reveal themselves, or at least they provide clues to what lies beneath. Heraclitus said "No man ever steps in the same river twice", or at least that is the legend of the statement. The statement captures the idea that rivers are always changing, shifting, and never the same. However, the secrets of rivers are at their surface for all to see, at least for those that can read these clues. I am generally pretty good at reading theses clues - tons of time on flowing waters has to teach you something, after all. However, the Lower Wisconsin River still befuddles me. It does not give away its secrets - at least not so readily - as so many other rivers do. The clues that the "lower" provides are so much more subtle and more difficult to read. The clues are slight color changes or how the ripples on the water change or surface disturbance gives way to flat, calm water. I think that is part of what draws me to the "lower", it is not easy to read. The difference between a place that holds fish and just another "fishy" looking place still mostly escapes me.


The Wisconsin River


While I have a predilection for flowing water, I have a particular fondness for our state's namesake river. The 430 mile Wisconsin River begins in Lac Vieux Desert at the border with the Upper Peninsula and flows south and then West until it reaches the Mississippi River at Wyalusing. The river, fully contained within the state's boundaries, is called "the world's hardest working river" for good reason. The twenty-six (26!) dams on the river supply water, power, and recreation by creating "flowages" (Wisconsin for reservoir) that range from the many relatively small upper river impoundments to Lake Petenwell, which at over 23,000 acres is the state's largest impoundment. The dam at Prairie du Sac that creates Lake Wisconsin is the last of the river's dams. From here, the Wisconsin River flows without interruption for 92 miles, meandering through a river channel that once flowed the other direction.

Wisconsin watersheds
Wisconsin's watersheds - the Wisconsin River is pretty much "dead center".

As it should be, the state's namesake river bisects the state, it is a defining feature of the state. From the headwaters downstream to about Portage, the course of the river is more-or-less due south, but at Portage, the river takes a turn to the West, towards its final destination, the Mississippi River. The Wisconsin River more or less cuts East from West until it takes this turn. Except for the small bit of Wisconsin that drains to Lake Superior, the area west of the Wisconsin River watershed drains to the Mississippi River and most of the area to the East drains east to Lake Michigan, until you get south to the Rock River and that other Fox River, which eventually meets up with the Rock River, which is itself an Illinois River tributary, which of course is a Mississippi River tributary. That is all to illustrate the idea that rivers and their watersheds are hierarchical. And along this movement to their ultimate destination, they change. They flow in different directions (well, they always flow downstream...), they flow through different landscapes and geologies, and they change in gradient and flow. Our state's namesake river picks up a number of tributaries and the watershed includes some of the best trout streams in the state.

Wisconsin Geological & Natural History Survey map of the Wisconsin river
From the Wisconsin Geological & Natural History Survey - geology of the river.

Source: WisContext, from the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey


Glaciers are the major shaping force of Wisconsin's landscape - so much so that the most recent glaciation is named the Wisconsin Glacial Episode. The oldest rock in the state - the Canadian Shield of Northern Wisconsin (above as the Northern Highlands and Precambrian uplands) is as old as about 2.8 billion years and as "young" as 541 million years ago. The youngest bedrock in the state are the Devonian rocks around Milwaukee and points north along the lake for a short distance that were last created around 359 million years ago. Then there is nearly a 360 million year gap to the glacial till that covers much of Wisconsin. The extent of the Wisconsin glaciation - shown in gray on the map above - is short of past glaciations but it is important to understand that just because an area was not glaciated in the last glacial advance does not mean that the area was not affected by the Wisconsin glaciation.

Northern Wisconsin River flowage
The penstock dam at one of the Wisconsin River's smaller flowages.

The Wisconsin River begins in a glacial landscape and as such, the river had to make a new channel. The river then cuts through the terminal moraine north of Merrill and enters an older channel it had cut earlier. South of Stevens Point, the river flows through what was once Glacial Lake Wisconsin where it cuts a new channel through the sandy sediments of the former lake bed. Castle Rock and Pettenwell Lakes cover part of this glacial lake bed today and aerial images show the many former channels that the river had cut and abandoned in this glacial lake bed. The Baraboo Range causes the river to cut through the terminal moraine twice more - once as it turns east, north of the Baraboo Range and again as the river turns west, south of the range. At Prairie du Sac, the river is dammed for the last time at Lake Wisconsin. Below this dam, the river flows through an old channel but one that once flowed in the opposite direction. The ancestral Wyalusing River drained to the St. Lawrence Seaway through a channel that has been buried under glacial till.


For more about the Wyalusing River and how geologists determined that what is now the Lower Wisconsin once flowed the opposite direction, read the WisContext article and watch the University Place video.


The Lower Wisconsin River


Downstream of the Sac dam, the "Lower Wisconsin" travels west through the Lower Wisconsin Riverway, which encompasses nearly 96,000 acres, approximately 45,000 of which are publicly owned. The riverway, a political as much as a geographic designation, was created in 1989 by Act 31 in an act bipartisanship (yes, that used to happen...) and the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board was created to manage the riverway. I applaud those that had the foresight to protect the river valley and have created a unique recreational opportunity within a short drive of millions of Midwesterners. The riverway protects not only the river and its riparian area but also minimizes visual and audible disturbances to river users. I have no idea if anyone has quantified the economic benefit of the riverway designation but it has to be immense.

Lower Wisconsin River view
The Lower Wisconsin River - sand as far as the eye can see.

The Lower Wisconsin provides a unique recreational resource but it also provides an area for a number of rare plants and animals. The sandy landscape creates some unique - desert-like - environment such as the Blue River Sand Barrens which is home to prickly pear cactus and some of the state's rare turtles, snakes, and lizards. For a fantastic view of the unique species and landscapes of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway, visit, "A Wisconsin Waterway - a Global Gem".


The Fishing


Holy shit, would he get to the fishing already!? Sorry, I can't help myself sometimes. The setting of the river is important and the geologic and glacial history is pretty fascinating. The setting and the geologic history is central to the story of the lower river's unique Smallmouth Bass fishery.


I have camped, hiked, canoed, boated, waded, swam, fished, and recreated on the Wisconsin River from near its headwaters to Wyalusing where the river meets up with the Mississippi. It is a fantastic river that changes in its nature as the landscapes it flows through change - and of course, we change the river with those 26 dams. I have caught smallmouth, Sauger and Walleye, Northern Pike, catfishes, and other fishes throughout the length the river. I enjoy it all but it is the lower that I most covet because of its unique nature.

Me with a lower river Smallmouth Bass
Yours truly with a Lower Wisconsin River Smallmouth Bass on a 2015 trip with Black Earth Angling Co.

What makes the lower river so unique is all that sand. It also makes the river tough to read, difficult to navigate, and the fishing is far from easy. I have an easier time fishing the upper river where "the spot" is easier to locate and understand. Much of the upper river is a lot like any number of Wisconsin's other rivers and finding "the spot" is easier for me - look for current breaks, rocks, wood, depth, shadows, and other features. Crayfish are probably the forage that most anglers associate with Smallmouth Bass even if, like me, crayfish are generally your last choice of flies to fish. Not only do crayfish relate to rocks but so do baitfish and of course bass use them as current breaks.

Wolf River
The Wolf River - a trout stream and a pretty good bass fishery - is loaded with fish-hiding boulders.

Unlike your "typical" smallmouth stream or river, the lower river does not have a lot of crayfish which makes up the majority of the diet for smallmouth in most water bodies. So, in the Lower Wisconsin River, minnows - Emerald Shiners (Notropis atherinoides) in particular - make up the bulk Smallmouth Bass diets. Unlike other bass fisheries where you cast to boulders, wood, and other current breaks, the fish are spread out, and you catch a fish here and there; in the Lower Wisconsin bass tend to be more concentrated. And this would be fine but on the lower river, the spots are subtle and at times differentiating a productive spot from an unproductive one is difficult and I am mostly guessing.


"The Crash"


I can think of a ton of descriptors for "the crash", a term coined by Kyle Zempel (Black Earth Angling Co.) to explain the unique phenomena - unique to the Lower Wisconsin River - where schools of fishes work together to force minnows into areas where the fish can more effectively feed on them. This causes minnows to break the surface as they attempt to escape the mouths of feeding Smallmouth and White Bass. It is some of the most exciting and unique fishing you will ever experience. The fish are "busting" minnows one minute and the next, the river goes quiet. It also makes fishing the Lower River difficult. Crash spots are few and far between and on a river as large as the Lower Wisconsin, there can be significant travel distance between spots.

A potential crash spot
A potential crash spot - deep water, a steeply sloping bank, and woody debris. They don't all work out...

Crash spots are closely guarded secrets - as they should be - as they are tough to find and always changing. What I can gather - and trust me, I am no expert here - crash spots are some combination of depth (4 feet or more of water), a steep slope that baitfish can be corralled towards (steep banks, backsides of islands), and some sort of current break (woody debris, an eddy, slower currents along the bank, etc.). The problem is that along the lower river, there are a lot of places that generally fit that description but some are total busts and others concentrate more fish. But of course even that is too simple as the spots change with river flow and depth. With the crash being a short-term event, being in the right place at the wrong time occurs at a high frequency. Fishing the crash is not easy.

Kyle's (old) jet boat
A jet boat is without question the way to go on the Lower Wisconsin.

Like many that fish the lower, most of my experience is out of a canoe, an effective vehicle for downstream transport but a rather poor fishing platform, particularly when using a fly rod. Quite honestly, fishing out of a canoe with a fly rod sucks under the best of conditions and the current on the Lower does NOT make for the best of conditions. My best DIY success on the lower river has been wading or walking sandbars looking for fish along dropoffs using the canoe for transport. Without question a boat with a motor, a good anchor, and the ability to be rowed upstream to slow your downstream speed is the way to go on the river. A rather specialized piece of equipment which is why a guide, your own boat, or a good friend with a boat (Thanks, Ben!) is the way to go.


I have not taken a lot of guided trips and most of them have been chasing Smallmouth Bass on bigger rivers. Most of those have been on the Lower Wisconsin where a boat is near necessity. The Lower warrants at least a trip or two with a guide. The shifting sands and channel make navigation difficult. I am always amazed to be cutting nearly perpendicular to the river to stay in the channel and not run around on one of the river's many sandbars. The places you want to fish are relatively few and far between so the ability to move from spot to spot quickly is a huge advantage. The Lower is subtle and reading the river is difficult and takes practice. I am NOT good at reading the Lower Wisconsin River - but I am happy to learn from those that are. I have a lot of learning to do...

Me with a good smallmouth
A good sized Lower Wisconsin River Smallmouth Bass

There are other rivers in Wisconsin and elsewhere where I have caught larger Smallmouth Bass, maybe even more bass, but there is nowhere else like the Lower Wisconsin River. The abundance of sand, lack of rock and crayfish, and the abundance of minnows creates the conditions in which "The Crash" exists. It is simply some of the best and most interesting fishing you will ever experience. It will test your skills - your ability to cast quickly and accurately. And it can test your patience. A really good crash may last, on and off, for a half hour to an hour and you can start at the surface, then fish an unweighted streamer, and finally, finish with a fly like a Clouser Minnow that you can fish more deeply. When they are really going, you can work over the pod and a couple of anglers can catch 20 or more bass. Other crashes might be quite fleeting and the fish get wise to anglers over the season.


Be good to the river - the fish have a tough life battling the current and compared to other smallmouth fisheries, the bass are hard fighting but shorter lived. Free the fighter!


Links

Wikipedia - Wisconsin River

A Wisconsin Waterway, a Global Gem

Aldo Leopold Foundation - Geologic History of the Wisconsin River

Dams of the Wisconsin River

WisContext - When the Wisconsin River Flowed East

University Place (Video) - Did the Ancient Wisconsin River Once Flow East?

FLOW - Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway

Black Earth Angling Co. (Facebook and Instagram) - The Crash

My blog on the Most Memorable Days of Fishing, How to Get the Most out of a Guided Trip, Hire a Guide or Do it Yourself?, Northern Wisconsin Warmwater Rivers, In Praise of Smallmouth Bass

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