Wisconsin River Bassin'
September 30, 2010
Our namesake river undergoes profound changes between the northwoods and where it eventually meets the Mississippi River. This is especially true when it comes to smallmouth and largemouth bass. (July 2006)
Photo by Robert Sloan
Our namesake river sees quantum change in both character and spirit from its headwaters in the northwoods at Lac Vieux Desert on the Upper Michigan border and its confluence with the Mississippi River south of Prairie du Chien at Wyalusing State Park just across from Iowa -- 427 miles away!
The Wisconsin River has been called the "hardest-working river in America," with a number of power-generating dams attempting to harness its serpentine course to the Mississippi and eventually the sea.
Winnebago Indians once described the genesis of this water, "springing from the path of a great serpent that lived in the northern forests by the big lake leaving for the sea. Its great body created grooves in the earth that filled with water on this journey, with lesser tributaries formed by lesser serpents scurrying to get out of the way."
Father Jacques Marquette and fur trader Louis Joliet are credited as the first white men to traverse the Wisconsin River in 1673, centuries before great dams created our state's two largest reservoirs -- Petenwell and Castle Rock.
The sometimes turbulent, sometimes sleepy Wisconsin was our state's first superhighway hundreds of years before we became a state. The Chippewa called this place Wees-konsan, meaning "the gathering place of waters." To the Menominee, it was Wisc-coh-seh-a, "good place for a home." The Winnebago tribe called these root-beer-colored waters Wees-koos-erah, which meant "river of the flowery banks."
Modern superhighways like Interstate 90/94 and I-39/U.S. 51 can get us to any point on this river from any point in Wisconsin in less than five hours. You can pursue over 100 species of fish. Topping the list are muskies, walleyes, bass and panfish, but giant sturgeon and catfish swim here, too. You never know what species of piscator will stretch your string in the Wisconsin River, although tailoring a presentation to be species-specific certainly enhances your chances of making your fishing dreams come true.
After over 40 years of fishing this river from near the giant wooden tubes that channel flow around Grandfather Dam in the north to the deep sandy holes on the Wisconsin's lower end, I find myself contemplating the majesty in and along the "river of the flowery banks" as much as casting.
If you want to catch bass here, it's not all that tough -- provided you can gain access to the water. There are dozens of boat ramps along these 427 miles. Recreational boating is popular on Castle Rock, Petenwell and Lake Wisconsin, where high-powered boats not pulling skiers usually are probing wood or weedy backwater cover for largemouth bass.
Overall, the Wisconsin River offers better fishing for smallmouth bass than largemouths, with the very best action on these brown bombers found in stretches of the river that require considerable effort to access, both near the headwaters and far downstream.
Maybe it's just a "river rat" spirit, but I've always seen the flowages as a means to get up into the river, away from the personal watercraft and pontoon boats. If you're one of those bassers who feels compelled to turn his ball cap around backward when moving from spot to spot, the following article may not be what you're looking for. But if you understand the joys of sharing a watercraft with a buddy wearing a red hat, read on.
As a self-professed river rat, I've never seen a problem with being "up the creek without a paddle." If you're upstream from the boat launch, gravity and the current will eventually bring you back downstream. Herein lies some wisdom for fishing a river from a boat powered by the "iron wind," especially when it comes to fishing the upper Wisconsin River above Wausau.
Laws of physics tell us that a boat traveling downstream will experience less resistance from the water than a boat plowing against the current. If you can get upstream, you should be able to get back down, even if the river level drops quickly from a lockmaster shutting down flow from a dam upstream. There is nothing wrong with heading downstream powered by more than paddles or oars if you know where the next boat access is and have a contingency plan for taking out there. But fail to plan and you can plan to fail. Motors break down. River levels fall.
The best platform for bassin' on the Wisconsin is a flat-bottomed boat powered by a jet-drive outboard. This watercraft will travel downstream on little more than a heavy dew. But three downsides of the jet are poor handling characteristics at low speed, virtually no performance in reverse and a voracious appetite for gasoline. The upside is, you can get to where the fish are with fair expectations of getting back to where you came from.
About 20 years ago, I was guiding a retired physician at the Wisconsin Dells. A couple of Flatlanders knew I guided these waters and proceeded to follow us from spot to spot, edging a little closer every time we moved. After about the third move, my client asked the anglers in this deep-V powered by 175 horses if they wanted to get in the boat with us. I cautioned this duo that we were about to move again and they would be wise not to follow because the water was shallow and treacherous.
They replied something to the effect, "It's a free river, man!" I said, "You're absolutely correct, but please be careful." We headed downstream past the cable right down the middle of the river rather than hanging tight against the right bank where the channel flows. Two minutes later, this pair followed essentially in our wake, shearing off the lower unit of their big outboard after hitting a long run of rocks. They were unhurt and asked if we could tow them back upstream. My reply was something like, "Sure, when I'm done guiding." They asked where the next boat access downstream was, and they were told Pine Island, which was a good four or five miles downstream. I also advised them that the county road that led back to the ramp where they launched was only about a half-mile inland. Their boat was gone when Doc and I eventually headed back upstream.
This was back in the day before cellular phones and DeLorme's Wisconsin Atlas & Gazetteer -- two of the three items you don't want to traverse the Wisconsin River's nether reaches without. The third item is insect repellent with plenty of DEET. The DeLorme map book is an incredible reference for locating some of the more obscure access points on the Wisconsin, especially on the upper river -- with ready access to downstream salvation if you bust a paddle.
Retired guide Todd Koehn and I launched h
is jet-powered flat bottom at one such spot just south of Rhinelander a couple of years ago. It took my 4x4 truck hooked to his 4x4 truck to pull the boat out of the river at days' end -- a worthy tradeoff for moving a half-dozen muskies up to maybe 40 inches and dancing with maybe 50 smallies up to 20 inches!
Back in Koehn's guiding days, he would hit the river with about 15 lures -- a dozen No. 4 and No. 5 Mepps Black Fury spinners and maybe three topwater baits. Over the years that we fished together, he added a bag of Chompers' plastic-skirted Hula Grubs and a small selection of Flatfish to his tackle selection. It's hard to beat large in-line spinners like the Mepps Black Fury for smallmouths in the shallow rock-strewn upper Wisconsin above Merrill. These lures look like crayfish to smallies, walleyes and the occasional muskie that cruise these waters. They track in the smallie's strike zone most of the time, and hang up less frequently than crankbaits or even jigs.
A major key to success when chasing bass in rivers -- especially in water less than 5 feet deep -- is to cast upstream, retrieving your lure with the current. Fish in a river system lie facing into the current because this orientation requires less effort to maintain position, and the river brings food to them. Most of the action you'll see in this kind of habitat is due to a striking rather than a casual attempt at feeding. You can't reel faster than a smallie can come out of cover and strike an in-line spinner.
A topwater lure like the clear Heddon Tiny Torpedo is a great change of pace that gives your weary hands a break. The Flatfish -- especially the X-5 with red, brown and yellow spots -- is a secret weapon known to few bass and bass anglers on the upper Wisconsin River. If you're ever around Antigo, you should ask Koehn if he has any in the boat.
Those waters that lie above Merrill have all the components of a "kids, don't try this at home" adventure. Probably the best way to experience this part of the Wisconsin is from a canoe, but with extreme caution. You won't have trouble negotiating the right fork of the Wisconsin at a little island south of Rhinelander at normal summer pool. But the left fork is Whirlpool Rapids, a Class IV run that eats boats and kills people. The Wisconsin falls 435 feet between Lac Vieux Desert and Merrill, flowing through some very wild country.
Some of this water is at the other end of this spectrum, especially around Tomahawk where the waters of Lake Alice, Lake Mohawksin and the Spirit River Flowage add flavor and temperance before the river necks down again just north of Gilbert. There is only one marginal boat launch located off Highway 107 in the run of river between Grandmother Dam and Grandfather Dam about 4 1/2 miles downstream, with access between Grandfather Dam and Lake Alexander just above Merrill even more limited.
Posey Rapids and Bill Cross Rapids between these two points are tough to negotiate during good conditions. When you're working the tailwaters below Grandfather Dam and the lockmaster turns off the spigot, the trip back downstream illustrates the wisdom of always heading upstream when under power. The run of river between Grandmother Dam and Bill Cross Rapids has my vote as both having the best smallmouth fishing and most scenic stretch of the entire Wisconsin River.
The stretch between Merrill and Brokaw is a little more subdued, but has plenty of bass. This is a great float trip for those new to the upper Wisconsin. You won't be alone out there, especially on the weekends.
Just downstream is Wausau, where the Wisconsin sees considerable change in character, slowing down at Lake Wausau and the Mosinee Flowage, and really putting on the brakes when reaching the Big Eau Pleine Reservoir and Lake DuBay. If you're looking for a solid retirement income, open a propeller repair shop somewhere between Mosinee and Stevens Point. DuBay is a fish factory, full of walleyes, smallmouths, a few largemouths -- and stumps.
Lake DuBay and the Biron Flowage downstream at Wisconsin Rapids at the halfway point between Lac Vieux Desert and the Mississippi could offer the best bass fishing of the entire system. But we'll never know because a minefield of wood waits just under the stained waters of DuBay, and a knob called "Lower Unit Rock" on the Biron Flowage finds new victims every week, even though it is fairly well marked.
Just downstream are Petenwell Flowage, Castle Rock Flowage and finally Lake Wisconsin, with every one of these slow-moving stretches having a common thread that is a universal key to success on all fish species: the old Wisconsin River channel.
If you take a critical look at the best fishing spots on every flowage along the 427 miles of the Wisconsin River, you'll see that virtually every one of them is in close proximity to the old river channel. True, some great largemouth fishing can be found quite a distance from this archaic artery, but a solid fish-catching strategy involves finding the old channel and working out from there.
Essentially, the middle half of this great river system is flowages, with brief glimpses of the wild, rocky river in the 25 percent of the system north of Merrill and vast sandy flats in the other 25 percent from the Prairie du Sac dam to the Mississippi found in between. The lower Wisconsin River is a perpetually evolving sea of sand at the opposite end of the spectrum from the boulders in its northern reaches -- with the time-sculpted Dells in between.
As noted earlier, any time you can find rocks on the lower Wisconsin, it's wise to stop and make at least a couple of casts. This is especially true during low-water periods typical in midsummer. On a rising river, smallmouths tend to move to woody cover. Because the lower Wisconsin is almost entirely sand based, there are often scour holes directly downstream from woody deadfalls and snags that tend to hold fish. Large tandem spinnerbaits are a great way to locate aggressive fish when they are relating to this kind of snaggy habitat, following up with a lightly weighted tube jig or grub body.
Just downstream is Wausau, where the Wisconsin sees considerable change in character, slowing down at Lake Wausau and the Mosinee Flowage, and really putting on the brakes when reaching the Big Eau Pleine Reservoir and Lake DuBay. If you're looking for a solid retirement income, open a propeller repair shop somewhere between Mosinee and Stevens Point.
Since water will follow the natural law of following the path of least resistance, new spots emerge as old spots fill in, thus making navigation difficult and boating sometimes dangerous. There are stretches of the lower Wisconsin where you can wade for a quarter-mile or more essentially from bank to bank in water only ankle-deep -- only to have the very next step take you into water far over your head. Erosion of sandbars is almost always at a diagonal vector to direct downstream flow, with the trailing edge of a sandbar a great place to throw tube jigs or grubs, especially in pumpkinseed, yellow, chartreuse and white hues. Bass often herd river shiners or shad toward steeply breaking sandbars, making it a good idea to keep a rod rigged with a topwater lure like the Devil's Toothpick -- particularly one with a chrome back and orange belly -- ready to toss into the melee.
Channels tend to run in close proximity to some kind of shoreline, either one of the main riverbanks or a midriver island because these barriers have greater resistance to gravity than those tiny grains of sand. Every steep break holds the potential for smallies to push bait toward an easy ambush point.
Although you can cover a great deal of water in a controlled drift downstream, casting at "fishy looking" spots, the most effective way to catch bass in the lower Wisconsin is by anchoring up. You may have to move several times after anchoring up on a promising trailing edge of a sandbar. The most efficient way to change position is to anchor up short, then play out more rope until you find the optimum spot.
The key about casting upstream and bringing the lure back with the current that works on the upper Wisconsin holds true on the lower river, with a slight variation. Smallmouths have probably been using the shelter of that piano-sized boulder at midriver in the Bill Cross Rapids north of Merrill for thousands of years. Their cousins that live near Pine Island outside of Portage may find an affinity for a certain hole that has developed over the summer. But they will change location in that hole based on changes in current flow, light penetration and other factors -- thus the need to change the orientation of your boat until the "sweet spot" is located. Getting it right can mean the difference between hooking into a couple of fish or a couple dozen.
Wearing a red hat is usually not a liability when anchored up on a midriver sandbar. But get close to shade on a calm day here or in the northwoods and it's wise to give your partner your favorite Badger cap, which is the universal beacon for a deerfly rendezvous. Herein lies the recipe for a memorable day on an essentially wild river: plenty of broad-shouldered bronzebacks with a buddy who does a truly awe-inspiring red-hat Macarena!
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Chuck's Sport Shop, Tomahawk, (715) 453-3101.
Merrill Visitors Bureau, (715) 536-5594.
Wisconsin Rapids Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1-800-554-4484, or www.visitwisrapids.com.
Petenwell and Castle Rock, www.nekoosawisconsin.com, or online at www.juneaucounty.com.
River's Edge Resort, Wisconsin Dells, (608) 254-6494, or online at www.riversedgeresort.com.
Ray's Riverside Resort, Sauk City, (608) 643-3243.