Updated: Sep 29, 2021
This is the second in the series about World class fisheries.
Let's get the argument about what is northern Wisconsin out of the way first. Typically this argument is about which highway marks where the north begins. My answer is Highway 64 though an argument can be made for Highway 29 but there is no way in Hell that Door County is northern Wisconsin. I think that a geologic and landscape definition is more apt. When I think of the "northwoods", it is the Northern Highland - the Precambrian rocks of the Canadian Shield. Northern Wisconsin feels sort of "Canada-ish" and that is because they share the same rocks; the granite, quartzite, and other igneous and metamorphic rocks of the Canadian Shield. Most of the rest of the state has sedimentary bedrock - limestone, dolomite, and sandstone. Then add in the Lake Superior Lowland as it is north of the Northern Highlands. That is probably how to best define northern Wisconsin - by its geology and landscapes rather than by its highways.
For most, fishing in northern Wisconsin means going to a lake. Personally, I prefer our state's many amazing rivers. Some of the best smallmouth, musky, and Walleye rivers in the World might be (from west to east), the St. Croix, Chippewa, Black, Wolf, and Menominee Rivers and their tributaries. There are some pretty good trout streams in those watersheds too but for me, when I go north, Smallmouth Bass are where it is at. Each of these rivers begin in the Northern Highlands and flow through other provinces, providing great smallmouth fishing along their lengths. For others, it might be the rivers' musky or walleye fishing.
Many of these rivers have been impounded and some of the state's best fisheries are "lakes" like the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage, Chippewa Flowage, Lac Courte Oreilles, and others of northwestern Wisconsin. The Wisconsin River has 26 dams that create a number of impoundments from small impoundments to Lake Petenwell, the state's second largest inland lake. And High Falls and Caldron Falls Flowages on the Peshtigo River and the several Wisconsin Public Service impoundments on the Menominee and Wisconsin Rivers provide excellent "flowage" fishing, if that is your thing.
Overview of the Rivers of the Northern Highlands
As the name suggests, the Northern Highlands are high in elevation. In general, the Northern Highlands are the high point in the state and the landscape slopes downward from the Northern Highlands. This means that the Northern Highlands are the headwaters for many of the state's rivers. I will take a bit - but just a bit - of time to introduce each river and watershed below.
St. Croix and Namekagon Rivers
The Namekagon is the major tributary to the St. Croix and together the two rivers are part of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, one of the state's overlooked gems. The St. Croix starts in Upper St. Croix Lake near Solon Springs, not far at all from the headwaters of the Bois Brule River. The Namekagon begins in Lake Namekagon and flows a bit over 100 miles before it meets up with the St. Croix River. The upper Namekagon is a trout river of some fame, known for its abundant hatches and large Brown Trout. But what the rivers are probably best known for is their wilderness settings and diversity of warmater fishes such as Walleye, Smallmouth Bass, Muskellunge, and the sturgeon for which the Namekagon, "river at the place abundant with sturgeons", is named.
One of my great memories is a five day, four night trip on the Namekagon River within the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway with my dad. I had not been back to Wisconsin for more than a couple of years after living in West Virginia and Oklahoma for nine years so it was a welcome reminder of the greatness of Wisconsin. There were days where we encountered one bridge and one other canoe. Just an amazing experience in a wilderness setting. We covered a bit more than 30 miles in those days so it was quite a leisurely trip where we saw all the northwoods wildlife you would expect to see with massive sturgeon swimming under our canoe being a major highlight. I caught my largest ever smallmouth - taped at twenty-two and a quarter inches - not on a fly rod but on a Heddon Tiny Torpedo in Black Shore Minnow. A trip for the ages!
And then we visited the bars of Hayward and experienced more wildlife. Hayward - along with Hurley and Hell - may no longer be one of the toughest places on Earth as it once was but it was an interesting adventure.
Chippewa River Basin
The Chippewa River and its tributaries - the Couderay, Thornapple, Flambeau, Jump, Yellow, Eau Claire, Red Cedar and Eau Galle Rivers - are "Musky Country". These rivers and their tributaries are classic Northern Wisconsin. Their waters have the orange-brown colored watered due to tannins in the water and the poor buffering capacity of the Northern Highland geology. A few of the rivers have some great whitewater - the Chippewa and Flambeau in particular and some of the others at the right water levels - so pick your floats after some research.
I have spent time on the Chippewa and Flambeau Rivers across a number of decades. Early trips were mostly canoe and camping trips - a lot like the Namekagon trip but with more whitewater and more signs of other people. Recent trips have been chasing smallmouth with a fly rod. The Chip and Flambeau tend to have long pools with tons of habitat - woody debris, boulders, and drop offs - that are punctuated by rapids. It is classic river Smallmouth Bass fishing. I know little about musky on the fly but do know that the rivers are home to some great musky fishing.
The Black River travels about 190 miles in a southwesterly direction before it enters the Mississippi River at La Crosse. The river has two decidedly different sections. The upstream section - above the dam at Black River Falls - cuts down to bedrock and creates a high gradient river strewn with boulders and bedrock. It is a river section popular with whitewater enthusiasts, particularly at higher flows. The river then enters the Driftless Area where the gradient is reduced (1.7 vs. 6.6 feet/mile in the upper river) and the closer it gets to the Mississippi River, the more it becomes a meandering, lowland river. The downstream section is also favored by boaters but for the more leisurely and scenic trip it provides. Miles Paddled, a phenomenal resource for Wisconsin boaters and anglers, rates all sections of the Black River quite highly.
I will readily admit that is the watershed I am least familiar with but I have a trip in the planning stages for this summer to rectify my overlooking of the river. I have done a bit of smallmouth fishing by wading the river in a few places and many years ago, did a camping trip to the Black River State Forest and ventured out for trout in some of the river's tributaries. The Black River sort of falls in "no man's (or woman's) land". It is the least northern river of the major watersheds originating in the Northern Highlands so most of its flow is through the Central Plain and Western Uplands provinces. Like many others, I have largely crossed the Black River while traveling the interstate to go fish the lakes and rivers "up north" and thought to myself, "I really need to explore this river". Hopefully this summer that finally happens.
I have spent a lot more time and effort describing the river in a post about the Lower Wisconsin River so I will be relative short here.
Where in the watershed you live or recreate probably dictates your view of what the Wisconsin River is as it changes - and humans have changed it - greatly along its 430 mile course through the state. The upper river, through the Northern Highlands, begins as a gentle stream flowing out of Lac Vieux Desert but it picks up gradient, much of which is harnessed by the river's many dams. From the Northern Highlands, the Wisconsin flows into the Central Plain and the remnants of Glacial Lake Wisconsin where two of the largest lakes / reservoirs in the state are created, Petenwell and Castle Rock Lakes are created. (The Chippewa Flowage is the 2nd largest reservoir and 3rd largest lake in Wisconsin.) The Central Wisconsin Basin is home to many of the state's better trout streams. The Lower River is 92 glorious miles of free-flowing river and sand through a deeply incised valley. The Lower Wisconsin River Basin covers much of the Driftless Area and its trout streams and bass rivers.
In the Northern Highlands province, the Wisconsin River watershed and its tributaries such as the Eagle, Pelican, and Tomahawk Rivers and their watershed contain some of the best known lakes for bass, Walleye, pike, musky, and panfish in the state. Vilas County has one of the highest densities of lakes in the world and the county is relatively evenly split between the Chippewa and Wisconsin River watersheds. On the Wisconsin River itself, the many dams on the river in the Northern Highland are typically named after the rapids and waterfalls that they are harnessing to create electrical power. Many of the relatively small flowages created by these dams provide some excellent fly fishing for large and smallmouth bass, pike, and musky. Between the flowages, lie some wild sections of the river that show a bit of the Wisconsin River's true character in this region. And some reaches below the dams offer some accessible wade fishing (but be careful!).
To most anglers, the Wolf River means one of two things - trout fishing or fishing for Walleye and White Bass that migrate through the river and the Winnebago chain. The upper river, above Menominee County, is known by most as Wisconsin's largest trout river. For fly anglers, the upper Wolf is best known for its long history of fly fishing, its fantastic hatches, and the flies originated here to imitate those hatches. Downstream of Menominee County, anglers are attracted to the river's Walleye and White Bass runs and the annual Lake Sturgeon spawning event. Around Fremont, anglers can be so thick that the river can look like something out of a Missouri Trout Park. The lower Wolf River is also known for it flies - simple, unweighted bucktail streamers - but these are fished on a Wolf River rig on spinning or baitcasting tackle.
Not so dirty little secret; the upper Wolf River is a pretty good Smallmouth Bass fishery and it has been for a long time. The Wolf River has always been a rather seasonal trout fishery dependent upon summer temperatures and precipitation. Some years, the trout fishing would cover most of the summer and in others, by mid-June, the river was too warm for trout. "Back in the day", most Wolf River trout anglers would go other places - like the spring ponds in Langlade County to catch trout. At least this is how I learned to fish this area. I learned a lot about trout fishing from my great uncle George Close (see post on mentors) and at that time, warmwater fly fishing was rather a novelty (more on this below).
While the Wolf River is still a good trout fishery (a bit more on that in the post, Flies of the Wolf River), I mostly travel to the Wolf today for an annual gathering where we get together and chase smallmouth, though an occasional trout or two may be caught, depending upon the year. Many of the same places that trout are caught by wading anglers on the river are home to Smallmouth Bass in the summer. The river can also be accessed by boat but being one of the state's better whitewater rivers, pick your spots and water levels with some care. I wish I could be of more help here but it is outside of my expertise. Use the whitewater books (Paddling Northern Wisconsin) and websites (American Whitewater, Wisconsin Trail Guide, and Miles Paddled) as a guide for the when, where, and how of boating on Wolf River.
Oconto, Peshtigo, and Menominee Rivers
The Oconto, Peshtigo, and Menominee Rivers are the largest rivers of upper Green Bay basin and other than the Fox River, they are the largest tributaries of Lake Michigan. Each of them are fantastic bass fisheries and each of the watersheds have a number of excellent trout streams. The Roaring Rapids section of the Peshtigo River and the Piers Gorge section of the Menominee are some of the Midwest's best whitewater. Of course, of all these rivers, the Peshtigo River is probably best known for serving as a refuge allowing some people to survive the Peshtigo fire in 1871.
Tim Landwehr and the crew at Tight Lines Fly Fishing Company in De Pere totally changed the game for many fly anglers in Wisconsin. And eventually, he wrote what I think is the best book that's been written on smallmouth fly angling. And yes, I totally understand that there were people fly fishing for bass and musky before Tight Lines opened. But without question, warmwater fly fishing in Wisconsin has expanded leaps and bounds over the last couple of decades.
I always thought that "The River" that Tight Lines Fly Fishing Company runs many of their smallmouth trips on was one of the worst kept "secrets" in Wisconsin's fly fishing circles. The Menominee River, the border between Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula is a fantastic fishery in a unique, mostly wild setting. The river is large and while there are a couple of really significant rapids - Piers Gorge of the upper river, Quiver Falls, and the much less safe, Pemene Falls - most of the river is pretty docile. Much of the river is wide enough that you will be fishing one bank or the other but much of the fishing on the Menominee is on the flats adjacent to the deeper channel. You will catch fish in the deeper channel but often the flats have the fish that are more actively feeding.
Like most northern Wisconsin Rivers, these rivers have been altered by dams and their impoundments. Being a solo angler much of the time, my do-it-yourself trips have revolved around the places accessible by kayak where I can "paddle up and fish back" or where I can access places that I can wade fish. The more "river-like" upper reaches of the flowages on both the Peshtigo and Menominee Rivers are great places to explore. I know much less about the Oconto, having fished it mostly for trout and salmon. The Peshtigo and Menominee are great for DIY trips but both have some pretty significant whitewater so some planning is required. Tight Lines Fly Fishing Company runs guided trips in the region and I am sure you would learn in a day what would otherwise take years of fishing in the region.
Wrapping it Up
I did not give up many secrets here, rather I covered a lot of ground relatively quickly. Each of these watersheds are pretty unique and a trip requires a little planning, particularly to find boatable and wadable water in rivers as large as these. Do some homework - the canoe and kayak books and websites are a great place to start - and give these rivers a go. Pick up a copy of Smallmouth Modern Fly Fishing Methods, Tactics, and Techniques written by Tim Landwehr and Dave Karczynski which details some of these rivers but more importantly, provides information about the places where Smallmouth Bass are found and how to fish throughout the water column for these awesome fish.
The fun for me was figuring things out for myself - with a bit of help from friends and my first guided trip. Each of these rivers and their tributaries provide some World class Smallmouth Bass fishing. You have to get out there and enjoy them for yourself.
Books and Websites
Book - Paddling Northern Wisconsin
World Class Fisheries Entries
Ask About Fly Fishing - Dave Karczynski - Smallmouth Bass Strategies