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Why not Wisconsin? Fly Fishing Edition

I am old enough to remember Barry Alvarez becoming the Wisconsin head football coach and Don Morton and the veer offense before "The Emperor" took over the football program. I remember when Dave McClain took the Badger football team to a few bowl games and what a huge deal that was. Wisconsin was overlooked, under-performing for too long before Alvarez changed things.

Barry Alvarez: We beat Purdue, and we went 6-0. Now we’ve got our first bowl game locked up. And somebody in the media talked to Joe Panos — and I would never let them talk past the next week. One week, the New York Times had us ranked No. 1, and I wouldn’t even talk about it. One of the media asked Joe at the press conference, “Would you even think that Wisconsin would have a chance to win the Big Ten championship?” And Joe’s response was, “Why not Wisconsin?” And I think that sent a strong message to all the other guys. We’re not bullshittin’ around. We’re pretty good.

Much like Wisconsin football, for fly fishing, Wisconsin is not bullshittin' around. We are pretty good, as you will see as you read on. These are the good old days!

So, Why Not Wisconsin?

For most anglers, Wisconsin is a "lake state" - and we are certainly that - but the state has so much more to offer. The state has over 10,000 lakes and borders two Great Lakes. Wisconsin is among the leaders in the number of fishing licenses sold with nearly 1.3 million licenses sold in 2021, good for sixth place. Considering the first three spots are Texas, California, and Florida which are also the top three in population (just flip Texas and California) and Wisconsin is twentieth in population; that is pretty impressive! Of those 1.3 million licenses buyers, a bit more than10% buy an inland trout stamp (about 130,000 most years but COVID has changed that...) and the state sells a very similar number of Great Lakes salmon/trout stamps. Without much question, Wisconsin is a "warmwater state" but there are some great coldwater fisheries.

Wisconsin / UP border "lake"
The view from my campsite along a Wisconsin / UP border "flowage" (Wisconsin for reservoir).

From the East coast of Wisconsin to the West "coast", the state is full of great opportunities for the fly angler. The state is water-rich and the diversity of those waters is spectacular. Most people know the state best as a "lake state" as the glaciers created over 10,000 inland lakes. But the lack of glaciers in part of the state created what is probably the greatest density of spring creeks in the world. The state has nearly 1,000 miles of Great Lakes shoreline on two different Great Lakes. Only Michigan is more synonymous with the Great Lakes than is Wisconsin. Vilas County is one of the most dense collections of lakes in the world - and one of them, Lac Vieux Desert, gives rise to the state's namesake river which provides an amazing diversity of warmwater opportunities. Madison, the state's capital city, began at the isthmus between Lakes Mendota and Monona, part of the Yahara River / Madison chain of lakes. The Missississippi and St. Croix rivers and their tributaries provide an amazing diversity of warmwater opportunities and, in their headwaters, coldwater fisheries abound. The diversity of opportunities is amazing - there is something for everyone - and quite frankly - very few states have the diversity of angling opportunities that Wisconsin offers.

There are three main watersheds in Wisconsin - though you could condense that to two as Lakes Michigan and Superior are ultimately connected as they - and all the Great Lakes - drain to the St. Lawrence River. First, a bit of perspective about the watersheds and the distribution of aquatic resources. The state's eastern border is Lake Michigan, Green Bay, and then the Menominee River makes up a significant portion of the border with the Upper Peninsula (to think people once went to war over Toledo). Then the UP/Wisconsin border becomes a hodgepodge of straight-ish lines and rivers until Lake Superior becomes the northern border. And the western border begins with a straight line that runs into the St. Croix River which then dumps into the Mississippi River. And then to the south, well, there had to be a border somewhere, right? And it was once south of what is now Chicago - good thing it changed as I am not willing to become a Cubs fan!

Wisconsin HUC8 watersheds
At a finer resolution - HUC8 Watersheds - for Lake Superior (blues), Lake Michigan (greens), and the Mississippi River (browns).

I have gone too far down the path of over-explaining geology and glacial history before so I will point you to posts about the Wisconsin River, springs of Wisconsin, and the Driftless Area, so go read those posts if geology is your thing, as it is mine. (I am not a geologist but I enjoy it as much as my field of biology.) Other than those straight lines along the borders, the state is shaped by glaciers and our aquatic resources show that history. From the northern highlands and one of the greatest density of lakes in the world; to the spring ponds of Langlade County and the surrounding area; to the terminal and interlobate moraines and their lakes, springs, and rivers; to the Driftless Area; and of course the Great Lakes themselves are a function of this glacial history. There is a predictability to where our lakes, large rivers, and trout streams are located.

Glacial history map
Glacial history of Wisconsin greatly informs us about the state's water resources.

For anglers, the geology of Wisconsin has everything to do with where our lakes, rivers, trout streams, and spring ponds are located. Most of our lakes are glacial - which is why there are so few natural lakes in the Driftless (there are a few associated with the larger rivers). It is why Vilas County and the surrounding area has one of the highest densities of lakes on the planet. And glaciers are how Great Lakes were formed (though Paul Bunyan and Babe, his blue ox is a better story).

And lastly, glaciers - or lack of glaciation - accounts for most of our trout streams. Without question, the greatest density of trout streams occurs in two places. First, if one were to overlay the Johnstown Moraine of the Green Bay lobe of the Wisconsin Glaciation (there he goes again...) with the above trout streams of Wisconsin map, they would quickly see that the Central Sands and streams of Northeastern Wisconsin are greatly influenced by the springs from this glacial feature. And of course the karst geology of the Driftless Area creates one of the largest, densest collection of spring creeks in the world, and I've written about that a lot.

So let's get into the nitty-gritty...

Lake Michigan and its Watershed

Let's start at Lake Michigan itself, the 3rd largest of the Great Lakes by surface area (Lakes Superior and Huron are larger) and the 2nd largest by volume (Superior is larger). Without question, when most think of Lake Michigan fishing, they think of trolling for (mostly) non-native salmonids. While I have no interest in getting into the history of when, why, and how King (Chinook), Silver (Coho), Steelhead (rainbow), and other non-native species were added to Great Lakes in this post, let's talk about the fly fishing opportunities for them. I will be the first to admit that my experiences on the Great Lakes are limited. Most fly anglers think of their anadromous runs but there are more opportunities than just the tributaries. During times of the year - mostly the spring and fall - fly anglers can target these anadromous fishes in nearshore waters and within harbors. Most of the rest of the year, they are much better targeted with downriggers and other such trolling gear.

For the fly angler, the best opportunities in Lake Michigan are in the shallow waters, of which there are many. Unquestionable, most fly angler target salmonids within the breakwaters and tributaries but there are many other opportunities. Maybe the most over looked opportunity are carp on the flats - Great Lakes bonefish. I will not pretend to know much about how and where but I do know that there are a great number of shallow flats that hold carp and these fish are a true challenge. And if you are going to catch and release, what better fish to not eat? And there are a great number of other warmwater fishes to chase with a fly rod in the lake's relatively shallower places.

Rafting for Smallmouth Bass
Your's truly casting to Smallmouth Bass in a Lake Michigan tributary.

Most anglers certainly associate the Great Lakes with salmonids but there are great warmwater opportunities. There are amazing Smallmouth Bass fisheries in Lake Michigan, particularly around Door County. Fly anglers can also target Yellow Perch, musky, and other fishes, particularly in Green and Sturgeon Bays.

Second South Branch of the Oconto River
An old - scanned from a photograph - image of one of the many confusingly named branches of the Oconto River, not far from where I caught my first trout.

Moving inland, the Lake Michigan watershed includes waters such as the Wolf, Oconto, Peshtigo, and Menominee Rivers and their tributaries. A quick look at the trout streams map shows that this area is absolutely loaded with trout streams. In particular, part of the Central Sands region are in the watershed and further north and Marinette County has the greatest density of trout streams in the state. The Central Sands region is quite overlooked but it has fantastic hatches and some things unique to it - like a wide-spread Hex hatch, a couple of wild self-sustaining Rainbow Trout populations, and some historic habitat improvement projects and influential papers about those projects by Bob Hunt and others. In the Wolf River watershed, many of Langlade County's spring ponds are one of the most unique fisheries anywhere. And each of those rivers - the Wolf, Oconto, Peshtigo, and Menominee - have fantastic smallmouth and Walleye fishing. Speaking of Walleye, Lake Winnebago and other Fox / Wolf River lakes are also in the watershed. And along with White Bass, Wolf River Walleye are targeted with flies, but generally on a "Wolf River Rig" on a spinning rod. Further south, a number of other Lake Michigan tributaries have good smallmouth fishing. I used to fish the Milwaukee River quite often and it could be very good and there is a ton of access and relatively easy wading.

Lake Superior and its Watershed

A quick look at the watershed map above makes it clear that there is relatively little of Wisconsin that drains into the Great Lakes largest and deepest lake. Without question, this is the part of Wisconsin I have fished the least and know the least about. For an outsider like me, there are three fisheries that instantly come to mind when I think of this area, 1) Chequamegon Bay Smallmouth Bass, 2) the Bois Brule River, and 3) the Hexagenia hatch on the White River - particularly in the Bibon Swamp. I am sure there are MANY more opportunities than this but for those, like me, less familiar with the region, these are the fisheries that have some immediate name recognition. In particular, the Bibon Swamp trip is a bucket-lister for me.

Ontanogan River, Michigan
The Upper Peninsula's Ontanogan River - a larger version of most anything found in Wisconsin's Lake Superior basin.

I am much more familiar with the Lake Superior tributaries in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The lake has a surprisingly small watershed for such a large lake so few of the tributaries are as large as those to the Mississippi River or even Lake Michigan which has a larger watershed. There are some streams that hold Coaster Brook Trout - though not as many as there used to be. The Bois Brule - the river of presidents - is by far the best known of Wisconsin's Lake Superior tributaries and maybe of Wisconsin trout rivers. It holds both wild stream trout as well as anadromous runs, particularly of steelhead and Coho, which survive in the river. In comparison, almost all of Wisconsin's Lake Michigan tributaries get too warm for salmonids to survive through the summer (many of Michigan's Lake Michigan streams produce wild salmonids). And as mentioned above, the Bibon Swamp of the White River for the Hex hatch is a life-list trip for me - despite the fact that the Hex hatch is not among my favorites to fish.

And of course "the big lake" has a number of opportunities. It is a larger, deeper, and colder version of Lake Michigan but like Lake Michigan, a number of shallow and more "fly-friendly" areas exist in the lake. In particular, there are a number of relatively shallow areas on the south side of the lake - Chequamegon Bay, around the Apostle Islands, and the south shore around the St. Louis River and its estuary. Like Lake Michigan, most anglers on Superior are deep trolling for salmonids. For the fly angler, Smallmouth Bass on Chequamegon Bay garners most of the attention. The current limit on Smallmouth Bass is one fish over 22 inches (559 mm) and that season runs outside of their spawning season which is catch and release only (as always, check the current regulations). It is a true trophy fishery. For more on fishing Lake Superior and its tributaries, the Wisconsin DNR has a number of links on their Lake Superior page.

Mississippi River Watershed

Most of the state is in the Mississippi River watershed and I feel like I have covered a lot of this ground in previous posts, particularly my home waters of the Driftless Area. I also wrote about the Northern Wisconsin warmwater rivers and the Lower Wisconsin Riverway in posts about world class fisheries. So I will try to keep this fairly short.

View from Riverside Park, La Crosse, WI
The view up the Mississippi / Black River channels from Riverside Park in La Crosse.

For those with a bit of knowledge of the Milwaukee area, they will know that Sunny Slope Road around Brookfield is the approximately the sub-continental divide with waters to the east going into Lake Michigan and to the west, to the Fox (Illinois) River which can have some surprisingly good smallmouth fishing. Moving west, the Rock River is watershed of my youth and while it is not fly rod central, I know of at least one person guiding carp on the fly on the brown-water rivers near my home town of Waterloo (Luke Annear, Freshwater Flats Guide Service). The Yahara River is another Rock River tributary and as it creates the Madison chain of lakes which certainly sees more fly anglers than most Wisconsin warmwaters. Continuing westward, we start moving into the Driftless Area which, while best known for its trout fishing, has some fantastic stream Smallmouth Bass fly fishing. The Sugar, Pectatonica, Grant, Platte, Fever (Galena) Rivers and more all have great and wadeable / floatable fishing for smallmouth and most have trout fisheries in their headwaters.

Driftboat on the Flambeau River
At the end of a great trip down the Flambeau River - one of many great warmwater rivers with great opportunities for the fly angler.

This immense area has it all - from most of the state's lakes to warmwater rivers with some of the best fishing for Smallmouth Bass, Muskellunge, and Walleye - an overlooked fish on the fly rod - anywhere, to the thousands of miles of trout streams. The Wisconsin River watershed alone could keep the fly angler busy for a lifetime. The river and its many impoundments are home to fantastic warmwater fisheries, including White Bass which may be about as much fun as you can have with a fly rod. The Kickapoo River is the largest Wisconsin River tributary and the largest river fully within the Driftless Area. Best known as a paddling destination, the river begins as a trout stream and slowly warms to create a fantastic fishery, particularly for Northern Pike, the muskies' overlooked cousins. Further north, the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway and state and federal lands along the Flambeau, Chippewa, Jump, Black, and other rivers provide fantastic paddle, fish, and camp adventures or day trips. The Flambeau River State Forest is a favorite of mine. A great resource for exploring paddling opportunities is - rivers like "the Chip" and Flambeau have reaches for different experience and adventure levels.

Upper Mississippi River side channel
A small side channel of the Mississippi River. Big Muddy has tons of acres of side channels and backwaters and fantastic multispecies fishing.

I have very much glossed over a ton of opportunities in the Missississippi River watershed - in particular the Mississippi River itself. There are urban fisheries like the Madison Chain of Lakes and wilderness fisheries like in St. Croix National Scenic Riverway and Lower Wisconsin Riverway. There are thousands of miles of rivers, thousands of lakes, and no shortage of flowages for fly anglers to explore.

The Wrap-up

I have merely skimmed the surface of the opportunities for the fly angler in Wisconsin. The diversity of opportunities is varied and substantial. I have largely been "a trout guy" - living in the Heart of the Driftless it is really easy to find great trout water - and hard to pass over it for other opportunities. But there are so many other great options. I did not even get into the panfish and Largemouth Bass fishing that is ubiquitous and often quite fantastic around the state. The state really has something to offer to all fly anglers - from small, intimate trout streams to large, hatch-driven trout rivers like the Namekagon, Brule, and Wolf rivers to the diverse opportunities of the Great Lakes and their tributaries, to some of the best warmwater fishing anywhere.

Why not Wisconsin? I think you are hard-pressed to find a state with the diversity of opportunities and access that Wisconsin offers the fly (or non-fly) angler.


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Geoff Roznak
Geoff Roznak
23 ago 2022

When I talk to people from other areas of the country about fishing I am often struck by how diverse and plentiful our opportunities are. There is certainly great fishing in other areas of this country...but I always find myself saying to myself, "We have it better here." I'm fortunate to live in an area of the state that has excellent fishing for just about every species except salmon...and even those are less than two hours away. Within ten miles of my home, I can catch trout, panfish, bass (both kinds), pike, musky, walleye, catfish, sturgeon...I'm sure I'm missing some. I don't partake of all of those...but the opportunity is there... People often ask if we'll move south when we get answ…

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