Around the ‘Baga, it seems that late summer and early fall are when most of us have a chance to get out and enjoy a few days away. It’s also one of the most pleasant times to be on the water, due to a lack of bugs, other paddlers and stiflingly hot weather. The fishing really begins to pick up again for smallmouth bass, walleye, and muskie; and this usually draws me to the water from September to late October.
Some of my favorite places to paddle and fish are located in Sawyer and Price counties
, in and around the Chequamegon Nicolet National Forest
. I have been coming to these waters since I was a boy. My Grandpa and Grandma Hamstra built a cabin in the sixties, centrally located between the Chippewa and Flambeau Rivers
, and it’s been in the family ever since. I can remember paddling the the Flambeau River as a boy with my father and uncle, and being amazed at the number of whitetail deer, bald eagles, and osprey all along the riverway. My real interest was beneath the surface where smallmouth and walleye lurked under logs and rocks. They were so hungry and aggressive that even a 10-year-old, with an old Mitchell closed-face reel on a fishing rod missing the last eye due to a mishap in the car, could easily coax one of them into devouring a 3″ Rapala. The hardest part was keeping the treble hooks from getting caught on every tree along the bank. My father used to say, “I haven’t ever seen a bass in a tree, but if there are any, you guys are sure to catch them.” Nowadays my gear selection has grown, as has my appreciation for time simply spent on the water. The fish don’t even have to bite and I still enjoy every minute. This rarely happens, as all fishermen are sure to tell you, but even the best fishermen get skunked…they’re just too proud to admit it.
Some of my favorite stretches of river are on the East Fork of the Chippewa
. This section of river hops from lake to lake with some fairly dramatic drops in elevation along the way, before dumping into the Chippewa Flowage just above Winter Dam
. Where the river empties into the flowage is an excellent spot for walleye. You can access this section of river from the end of Winter Dam Road, off of Hwy W
. There is a parking area at the end of the road and a short portage on the right hand side that goes down to the flowage. If you launch here, you will have about a mile and a half paddle upstream to the mouth of the river. The current is almost non-existent, so don’t worry about having to work too hard. On the way to the mouth, both banks have produced smallmouth, largemouth, muskie, and northern for us in the past. Your best bet is around the submerged stumps on the opposite bank from the put-in. When you get near the mouth of the river, along the right hand bank, there are usually some tall reeds that hold northern and muskie. You will also notice a small lodge near the mouth of the river. My Delorme Wisconsin Gazetteer shows a public canoe landing there, but I have never attempted to launch, in fear of mistakenly trespassing. Anyway, the paddle up to there usually produces some decent-sized fish.
When you reach the mouth of the river, there is a deep hole about twenty yards out from the last rapid. A jig and minnow or slip sinker rig work well, as do leeches, shallow diving crankbaits, and just about anything else that mimics a minnow, leech, or crawfish. If you really want a challenge, try poling your canoe upstream to reach the numerous small pockets of water holding some of the wildest smallmouth bass in the world. In the fast current they can feel like a tarpon, and the acrobatics they are capable of is mind-blowing. I once had a smallie jump clear over a boulder sticking out at least three feet above the water. The poor sucker landed in about ½ inch of water and was easily landed while flopping around on the rocks. If you don’t want to pole, you can always get out and walk upstream on the rocks. Be careful walking, as the rocks are very slippery. A good pair of felt-soled boots will save you a trip to the emergency room with a busted ankle, not to mention the painful walk out.
If you have been lucky enough to bag some decent walleye and hook a few crazy smallies, the soothing paddle back is reward enough for a hard day’s work. If you are out late enough in the day to view a sunset on your way back, you will paddle directly west into a warm, glowing sun that reflects off the water and causes the fall leaves to radiate various shades of yellow, red and amber. I have witnessed one of the most beautiful sunsets in my life on these waters, where the sun looked as if it was going to literally submerge itself in the water. As usual, the camera was at home that day and I only have my memory of that evening to look back upon.
Another nice section of this river is just upstream from Fishtrap Lake Road, off of Hwy B
. About two miles from Hwy B you will come across a small hydroelectric plant. Just past this, on the right hand side of the road, is a small parking area with a boat landing. The landing leads into a slough just above the hydroelectric plant. You can only go one way, so navigation is simple. A few very large boulders in the middle of this slough may have smallies and walleye resting behind them, so don’t pass them by. When you exit the slough, there is a large dam to your right and open water to your left. Go left! If you go right you will regret it, as the 15-foot drop over the dam is sure to hurt
. This section of river meanders northeast up to Blaisdell Lake
, which is about 3½ miles away. Again, the current isn’t very strong and paddling upstream is almost effortless.
This September we spotted two fawns about a mile upstream. They were just as curious about us as we were about them, and they followed us along the riverbank for about ¼ mile before heeding to mom’s grunts and stamping. This time I did have the camera. Again, smallmouth are common on this stretch of river, but our biggest successes have been with muskie and northern. On your way to Blaisdell Lake, you will paddle through a series of large lily pad and reed patches that offer excellent cover for these toothy monsters. During the same trip where we saw the two fawns, I had about 15 strikes on a buzz bait. We only landed one 36-38 inch muskie, but we hooked into plenty that got off before they could make a mess of our canoe. I call this “catch and release.” Others call it impatience or a bad hookset; they’re obviously fishing for the wrong reasons. Trophy fish are nice for the ego, but a fish released to be caught again is good for the soul. Also, fishing muskie from a 16-foot canoe takes a lot of nerve. Taking out the hooks can easily lead to an upset or a very disturbed fish with razor sharp teeth flopping around by your feet.
These patches of lily pads and reeds continue all the way into Blaisdell Lake. We picked up a few smallies along the way, but mostly muskie and northern. We also saw a small martin along the side of the river searching for dead fish or anything tasty, and was I surprised when he swam right across the river. I never thought of them as competent swimmers, but he was just as fast as any muskrat. I couldn’t help but think that a muskie must occasionally sink its teeth into one of these furry rodents. That same day we also saw a pair of osprey and two immature bald eagles soaring above us, probably jealous of all the fish we were stealing from them.
Once you reach Blaisdell Lake you can continue northeast about 4 more miles, until you reach Sturgeon Bay. This is Blaisdell Lake’s only public access. My grandfather used to tell us there was excellent crappie fishing here, but I’ve never tried it. I’m sure you’ll catch something. In my experience, this lake is not very populated in the fall. The muskie are no secret, so you may run into some other fishermen, but the pleasure boaters and jet-skiers have all retreated. You can have the lake to yourself on a weekday.
That is about all I will divulge of my secret fishing and paddling spots in northern Wisconsin. I will tell you that there are many similar sections of river on the East Fork, and any bridge is fair game for access. The nice thing about all of these trips is that you can put in and take out at the same spot, so no shuttle is required; we usually have only one vehicle with us. If you do decide to visit any of these spots, please respect them. Don’t litter, and if you see any trash, pick it up. Be sure to abide by all the fishing regulations set forth by the Wisconsin DNR.
In my next installment, I will concentrate on the Flambeau and some great spring paddling trips in either whitewater or flatwater. Again, there will be plenty of fish to catch. Salud!