When the bite wanes at these family fishing destinations, there's always something else in the area that's fun, entertaining and exciting that has nothing to do with fishing! (June 2009)
Taking time to look beyond the title of this story, you must hold some interest in sharing Wisconsin's fabulous fishing opportunities with your family.
For sure, the state of Wisconsin -- where along its western border the Mississippi River offers big discoveries for families seeking wide adventures -- is blessed with dozens of escapes in the great outdoors, from the Northwoods to the shorelines of our two Great Lakes to the root-beer-colored waters of the Namekagon River and our namesake Wisconsin River. And when the bite wanes at any of the venues listed below, there's always something else fun, entertaining, maybe even exciting, to do in the area that has nothing to do with fishing!
"Ol' Miss" is the second longest river in the U.S., annually sharing its backwaters, sloughs and mainstreams with hundreds of thousands of Badger State outdoors enthusiasts.
Among the feats of waterway engineering that helps keep the big river's shipping channel clear is the strategic placement of riprap along the river's shoreline and on its islands. These rocky fingers include "wingdams" placed perpendicular from the shoreline extending toward the channel. "Closing dams," too, are placed parallel to the main river to cause flowing water entering the river to flow parallel to the mainstream for some distance before rejoining the river farther downstream.
These areas, and the backwaters that are often found around them, can congregate fish of many species in unbelievable numbers. Most wing dams appear on good river maps. Watching for riffles off the main channel is a better way to locate them. Riffles are always on the downstream edge of a wing dam. Use your electronics to keep the boat over them in about 8 feet of water. Probe the upstream side of the wing dam first making long casts toward the riffles. If you get snagged up when casting from upstream, allow slack to "belly" the line. The current will free your lure about 60 percent of the time. Fish are often ready to pounce on a bait once it comes free from the rocks.
A great place to start your adventure is the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa. No, it's not in Wisconsin proper, but after a visit across the river, you and your family can take a seat on the fishing barges in place across the river from Dubuque at Lynxville, Genoa and Alma. Cost is about $15 per day. Tackle, lunch and other amenities may also be available. Bring a stringer or fish basket to hold your catch.
For more information about fun outdoors on the Mississippi River, contact the office of the Upper Mississippi National Fish & Wildlife Refuge in Winona, Minnesota (the refuge extends into parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois), phone: (563) 873-3423, or online at www.fws.gov/midwest/UpperMississippiRiver; Capt. Hook's Bait & Tackle in Genoa, phone: (608) 689-2800; and the Grand View Motel, overlooking the Mississippi River in Ferryville, phone: (608) 734-3235, or online at www.grandview-motel.com.
Wisconsin Dells, a small town on the scenic Wisconsin River, has been a tourist "Mecca" for decades. Its perpetual carnival atmosphere all summer long offers kids lots of fun riding everything from a giant pirate ship to go-karts to the famous Wisconsin Ducks amphibious vehicles, while slurping down a diet of foot-long chili dogs and cotton candy. Cheesy souvenirs are available everywhere.
Ancient rock formations, which give the Dells its name, still stand on the Wisconsin River, where giant catfish and smallmouth bass hide in the shadows of Hawk's Beak and other towers of limestone. Try tight-lining a piece of fresh cut bait on the bottom, using a pyramid sinker fished Lindy Rig style for big catfish. Smallmouth bass are often hiding in the shadows of rocky towers and aggressively strike small in-line spinners or topwater lures.
The natural wonders of this place are located about a mile outside of town on County Road A, just past the Big Chief go-kart track. The Wisconsin Ducks only venture a half-mile or so into the river, downstream from the entry point of Dells Creek. Below that you'll find great fishing and riverine adventure clear down to Lake Wisconsin, a great summer getaway in its own right.
River's Edge Resort is located 1 1/2 miles south of downtown Wisconsin Dells along the banks of the Wisconsin River. Cabin, pontoon and fishing boat rentals are available. The restaurant has a great steak at a fair price and a huge aquarium with many fish species indigenous to the Wisconsin River. A quick glance at the aquarium is a wonderful barometer of fish activity on the river.
If walleyes are cruising the mid-depths instead of hugging the bottom, get out on the river and cast a crankbait instead of a jig. A high barometer pushes walleyes to hug the bottom, calling for a slow retrieve with a small bait like a jig. If fish in the aquarium are cruising off the bottom, try a more aggressive approach, casting a crankbait.
For more information about family fun and area lodging/accommodations in Wisconsin Dells, contact the Wisconsin Dells Chamber of Commerce, phone: (608) 254-8560, or online at www.dellschamber.com; or River's Edge Resort, phone: (608) 254-7707, or online at www.riversedgeresort.com.
If you want to get back to nature rather than back in line for a refill on a giant Slurpee on Wisconsin Dell's main drag (or downtown Minocqua, for that matter), the Presque Isle Lake area is your perfect destination.
Presque Isle is a good half hour off of U.S. Highway 51, the Northcountry's undesignated "interstate highway" for vehicles with Illinois plates. You'll hear loon music, rather than traffic in the morning, on the many great fishing lakes in the area.
Presque Isle is a clear, deep lake. Natural bait presentations tend to work better here. Van Vliet Lake, part of the Presque Isle system, is a much smaller lake with considerable color in the water. Lures finished in fluorescent colors and those that make a lot of noise usually trigger strikes on Van Vliet, especially when targeting the edges of submergent weeds.
A couple of back roads a little farther off the beaten path leads you to Michigan's Upper Peninsula and the fabulous Porcupine Mountains. Let the kids skip some stones or kick off their shoes and wade along Superior's shoreline, while you wet a fishing line. Look for places like the Namakagon River, where the tributary picks up considerable color on its way to the big lake. A distinct mud line extends far out into the lake before the tributary water mixes with ultra-clear Lake Superior. The edge of this mud line i
s an outstanding place to cast small crankbaits or spoons for trout, salmon, walleyes or northern pike, depending on time of year.
If you awaken to a rainy day, it's just a short drive to the tourist-thick venue of Eagle River. The Northwoods Children's Museum and The Imaginarium Science Discovery Center here will keep the kids occupied for hours. When the rain breaks, take them out for a few hours of fishing on the nearby Manitowish Waters chain of lakes. A live-bait presentation under slip-bobbers next to visible structure is the most effective way to get hooked up on any one of these lakes.
For more information about area fishing venues, family entertainment and overnight accommodations, contact the Presque Isle Chamber of Commerce, phone: (207) 764-6561, or online at www.presqueisle.com.
The intersection of State Highway 27 and U.S. Highway 63 is ground zero for Wisconsin's Northwoods experience. Head in any direction from this waypoint and you'll drive past several good fishing lakes, family friendly resorts and topnotch supper clubs.
Hayward's fishing reputation has been built around muskies for decades. But taking kids out in a boat and waiting for the fish of 10,000 casts to respond to your offering is a surefire way to turn kids away from fishing for life.
For young anglers to get hooked on this sport, they need continuous action. Panfish are the obvious choice. Nelson Lake is beyond a doubt the best panfish water of more than 40 lakes in the Hayward area. You won't catch a muskie in this 2,500-acre lake, but chances are a northern pike will scare the daylights out of one of the kids attempting to reel in another crappie or bluegill here.
If catching a muskie tops the agenda on a trip to this area, check out 676-acre Winter Lake. Hooking up several muskies in a day on the water here is not uncommon. Tangling with a fish over 40 inches long from this water is a feat worth bragging about.
If your young anglers have progressed to the point where fishing trumps eating, head the family RV toward the 15,273 acres of the legendary Chippewa Flowage. Experience tells me the best way to hook up with a big muskie on the Chip is to head out there looking for crappies around the bogs and sticks. So much for your crappie!
For more information about fishing, family entertainment and area accommodations, contact the Hayward Lakes Visitors and Convention Bureau, phone: (715) 634-8662, or online at www.haywardlakes.com.
Taylor County is not a traditional tourist destination; therein lies the charm of this place. From Merrill on U.S. Highway 51 in Lincoln County, head west on State Highway 64 into Taylor County. Be forewarned: That drive will take a while.
The Chequamegon National Forest covers nearly 50 percent of the county, which is awfully near the geographical center of Wisconsin. Two major flowages, Chequamegon Waters and Mondeaux, lie within the boundary of Chequamegon NF. Chequamegon Waters holds a local reputation as great crappie and northern pike water, and you've likely not heard that before. Local folks are pretty much content with keeping the reputation "local."
You'll hear even less talk about Jump River and Black River. These two small streams are ideal for float-fishing from a canoe. Put your young angler in the bow with a clear Heddon Tiny Torpedo on an outfit spooled with 20-pound-test line. Keep a camera handy while steering from the back. Nobody will believe the smallmouths and muskies your youngster caught came from a glorified creek in Taylor County.
Miller Dam Flowage (aka Chequamegon Waters) borders the Chequamegon NF. Several trailheads offer easy hiking for even the youngest children, providing a great opportunity for discovering the Wisconsin outdoors.
For more information about Taylor County fishing venues, family activities and area accommodations, contact the Medford Area Chamber of Commerce, phone: (715) 748-4729 or online at www.medfordwis.com.
Remember how much fun you had catching bullheads when you were a kid? Bragging rights as Wisconsin's bullhead capital are still up for grabs, but Lake Nokomis near Tomahawk could claim the title easily with little chance of ever needing to defend this crown.
You don't have to be a pro angler to be a hero in the kids' eyes on this lake just outside of Tomahawk. Stop by Chuck's Sport Shop and spend about four bucks on hooks, split shot and night crawlers. If you have a fishing pole, you are now a serious player, especially on waters below Nokomis Dam.
Last summer I stayed overnight in Tomahawk. Two hours fishing below the Nokomis dam produced about 80 bullheads, several smallmouth bass, as many walleyes and a 30-inch muskie!
Nearby, the "Muskie Mile" of the Wisconsin River -- between Lake Alice and Lake Mohawksin -- is probably better water to target if you would rather catch muskies. Lake Alice is full of stumps, snags and hungry panfish. Fifteen lakes and flowages lie within a half-hour's drive of Tomahawk, with good to exceptional family fishing opportunities. Spirit Flowage is just south of town. Willow Flowage is to the north.
Tomahawk is a city of parks. Best of the bunch is Bradley Park, where you can picnic under 200-year-old red pines, while watching otters frolic in the river nearby, as deer try to sneak quietly through the woods.
For more information on the fishing venues, family activities and accommodations in the Tomahawk area, contact the Tomahawk Chamber of Commerce, phone: (800) 569-2160 or online at www.gototomahawk. com.
The Wisconsin River, Lake DuBay and Big Eau Pleine Reservoir all offer great fishing getaways just a short hop from Wausau, one of the most modern and progressive cities in our state.
Breakfast is a good way to start any memorable day on the water. Rib Mountain Inn offers the best breakfast within a hundred miles. Several of the best fishing guides in the area are here just about every morning, providing a great opportunity to find out where the hottest bite is happening.
Lake DuBay produces 50-plus-inch muskies every year. The lake's riverine stretches are great places to probe for smallmouth bass, some of which have substantial dimensions. And you might tangle with a nice northern pike or walleye.
But the real draw here is the whopping-big crappies. Some of these slabs grow to an honest 15 inches. Foot-long crappies are just nice fish! These slabs seldom venture far from the old river channel. Look for fish holding along the channel edge while casting a minnow, set 12 to 18 inches under a slip-bobber, toward stumps and deadfalls along the adjacent shallows.
The Wausau/Central Wisconsin Convention and Visitor's Bureau is a wealth of information, offering an annual book of things to do over 100 pages thick. Wausau hosts many fes
tivals, concerts and similar events throughout the year. Horseback riding, canoe floats and similar activities are readily available. Boutiques and shops keep even the most ardent shoppers busy for days.
For more information about area fishing, family activities and entertainment, and area accommodations, contact the Wausau/Central Wisconsin Convention and Visitor's Bureau, phone: (715) 355-8788 or online at www.wausaucvb.com.
Washburn County tops my personal list of family vacation areas. More than 240 lakes offer fishing across some 30,000 acres of water in this portion of northwest Wisconsin.
For sure, fishing in Washburn County can be tailored to both the angler's experience level and the amount of effort he is willing to spend. Plenty of lakes and rivers offer kids a ball catching panfish, and ol' Dad can slide out at dawn or dusk with serious potential for getting his string stretched by a real horse.
The Namekagon River is an outstanding stream to experience in an inner tube. Bring at least one fishing rod rigged with a small topwater bait. Any fishy-looking back eddy or boulder has the potential for producing a scrappy smallmouth bass.
The MacKenzie lakes are great multi-species destinations with plenty of panfish and bass. Catching northerns is a simple matter of dragging a big in-line spinner behind the boat next to weeds.
Many of the area's smaller lakes have limited access or car-topper only access. Mystery Lake -- a tiny thing -- takes a little effort to experience from a canoe, but the whopping big bluegills that dwell therein are worth it. Rooney Lake produces some very nice largemouth bass. But access is better on Lipsie Lake, which is also a good bass and panfish lake.
Spooner boasts the world's largest muskie hatchery, a worthwhile side trip if you come to town. Spooner is also home to a major rodeo. This year's event is scheduled for July 9-11.
For more information about fishing, family fun and entertainment, and accommodations, see the Washburn County-Spooner area Web site at www.washburncounty.com.
PIKE LAKE CHAIN
The Pike Lake chain of lakes in Bayfield County are just close enough to the beaten path to draw some tourist attention, especially from fishermen.
Muskies, panfish, walleyes and smallmouth bass are the major fishing attractions in the chain's clear waters, where natural presentations and downsized lures tend to work best. If winds are calm and you have good polarized sunglasses, this is a great place to sight-fish for muskies. One of the most effective baits here is a salt-and-pepper Lindy Tiger Tube.
The Pike Lake Chain is located just south of the friendly village of Iron River. It is tough to navigate the entire chain from a single boat ramp, but there is decent access for even large boats at either end of the chain.
If your plans for this summer include the big water of nearby Chequamegon Bay, keep the Pike Lake Chain in mind. On days when it's too rough out on the bay, the sheltered waters of these lakes are outstanding destinations.
Lake Owen, about an hour's drive south from Iron River, is exceptionally clear and home to both largemouth bass and smallmouth bass. Much of this lake is ringed with fallen trees that are clearly visible 8 to 15 feet below the surface. Think "finesse" in your presentations with a jumbo leech or small topwater lure in natural colors. Either can produce amazing results. Catching and releasing 50 bass is just an average day on Lake Owen.
Both the Pike Lake Chain and Lake Owen are an hour's drive from a ferry that can take you out to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Leave your vehicle on the mainland and rent bikes to explore the incredible beauty of Madeline Island's bike trails, then stop for ice cream or lunch at one of several dining establishments.
For more information about fishing in the Pike Lake Chain and family entertainment and accommodations in the area, contact the Iron River Area Chamber of Commerce, phone: (800) 345-0716 or at www.visitironriver. com.
You see, you don't have to travel far and wide to discover great family fishing venues. Fun in the outdoors with hook and line in hand lies awfully close to home, where you and your family can create great memories in a year where most Americans are struggling to find something to smile about.