Species At This Location:
Bass Smallmouth

Floating the Chippewa in northern Wisconsin  
by Paul B. Downing

Location:  The Chippewa River is located in northern Wisconsin. It offers great fishing for muskie, smallmouth, and northerns. The resort town of Hayward is just to the west at 45.012752, -91.484654.  GPS notations in this article are WGS 84.

General Description: 

Northern Wisconsin is world famous for its muskie fishing. The world record muskie, a 69 pound monster was caught in Chippewa Flowage, a lake near Hayward. This monster is on display in town at the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame (www.freshwater-fishing.org). Lakes filled with muskies surround the town and attract fishers from around the world. Many fishers regard the muskie as the ultimate fresh water game fish in the US and this part of Wisconsin as the best place to pursue them. When one thinks of northern Wisconsin, one thinks of fishing for muskies in those wonderful lakes.

It never occurred to me that muskies would be found in the streams that lace the area. But I learned that fishing for them in the many streams dotting the area is excellent so I explored doing a float trip. It took me a couple of years to arrange my schedule but finally last summer I was planning to float the Chippewa River with Wendy Williamson of the Hayward Fly Fishing Co. (www.haywardflyfishingcompany.com, 888-325-2929).

I arrived at the shop only to find her husband Larry Mann alone. There was a problem.  Wendy had been up all night with her daughter who had delivered their first granddaughter in the wee hours of the morning. I told Larry I understood and hoped I would be able to fish with Wendy some other day. "Oh no," Larry said," the trip is still on. Just come back at 10 and Wendy will be ready." Sure enough, there she was at 10 sipping coffee and organizing the trip with guide Eric Huber who would be handling the boat. Her daughter and granddaughter were resting comfortably and would not miss her for the day. Still worried I was imposing, I offered to skip the trip but Wendy was eager to go so off we went. Larry slipped out of the shop to visit his new granddaughter.

The Chippewa is a slow moving shallow river. There are several sections, each offering populations of smallmouth, muskie and northern. The slow current, brown water, boulders and shoreline structure combined to produce an attractive fishy looking stream. The water has a brownish cast caused by tannic acid from all the pine trees along the shore.

 Our drift boat slipped into the dark water and floated slowly with the current. Wendy had given me a brown streamer to try. She tied on a perch colored streamer. Shortly, Eric had us lined up to cast to shore.  Doing my best, I landed casts next to boulders and trees, hoping for success. It came quickly. Landing my fly near a boulder, I let it sink for a couple of seconds then started the strip. The fly stopped. The water bulged. I set the hook on a strong resistance. I was into a big fish, hopefully a muskie. But the fates were not with me. One strong head shake and the line went slack. No fly. The muskie had cut the line with its razor sharp teeth. Had I missed my chance at a big muskie? I was starting to understand the fascination and the frustration that is muskie fishing.

The Granddaughter Fly

My shoulders slumped in disappointment at the lost opportunity. But the day was not over, not by a long shot. Tying on another streamer, I continued plying the shoreline. This fly produced a couple of nice smallmouth and a small northern. My shoulders were straight and my smile was broad. Wendy's perch fly produced nothing.

Time to change. Looking through her fly box, Wendy pulled out a pink streamer jig. She had had success with this fly before. It looked like the flies I use for Sockeye Salmon in Alaska. Pink fur and crystal flash trailed from a bead chain eye. Fishing a pink fly to commemorate the birth of her granddaughter; we all agreed that it was most appropriate. We dubbed it the granddaughter fly.

Most days such hunches don't work. Today this one did. Quickly Wendy was into a nice smallmouth, then another. Meanwhile, I caught nothing. When she landed a good northern I'd had enough so I asked for a granddaughter fly. We both fished that fly for the rest of the day with good success

Wendy and I caught a good number of smallmouth, some small muskies and a couple of northern. A 20 inch muskie is a fun fish but it is not anywhere near a trophy. A good muskie is over 36 inches. A trophy has to be over 50 inches. Still, even the small muskies we caught were treated with respect bordering on reverence as they were released. These fish are just too well respected to kill.

Muskie are called the fish of 10,000 casts supposedly because it takes 10,000 casts to catch one. That is because over the years fishers have learned that these wonderful fish can be more than a bit frustrating to catch. Stories of monster fish following a fly or lure only to turn away at the last second permeate the north woods towns. Go to any tackle shop or local bar and you will hear many such stories. But do not give up hope. Muskies are still a challenge to catch but they are far more common than they used to be and many more are caught than there were 20 years ago. I think there is one primary reason for this. Up to the 1980s, most fishers who caught a legal muskie, one over 36 inches, would keep it. The population of big fish was diminished. Now few fishers kill muskie. These great fish are so revered that most consider it a sacrilege to kill them. So now the rivers and lakes of northern Wisconsin are teeming with trophy muskie.

Each fishing trip creates its special moment. On this trip I remember one fish in particular. A log laid partly submerged jutting out from shore and bending downstream. It looked like a perfect hiding place for a fish. I cast to the pocket in front of the log. One strip and the fly stopped. The water boiled as a fish took the fly just inches below the surface. I was hard onto a good fish. The slashing take made us think it was a muskie. I sure hoped it was. It dug for the bottom. It ran to the center of the river. Then it turned and headed back to its hole under the log. I stopped it just in time. I now had the upper hand. Guiding it toward the boat, I searched the water to see if it was indeed a muskie. I saw a tail but the water was too dark to tell if it was a muskie. It saw Eric's net and decided it did not like the idea. Off it went. But that was its last effort. It came to net. Eric lifted a very nice 30 inch northern pike out of the water. Not the muskie we were all hoping for but a great fish just the same.

Wendy & 30 inch Pike

As we completed our drift down the Chippewa, Wendy beamed. She explained that this was one of the best days of her life. A new granddaughter and a wonderful day of fishing; what could be better? What a great day of fishing. Wendy and I had caught a number of nice smallmouths, a couple of northerns, and half dozen small muskie. Even Eric got a chance to fish and caught several bass. I had missed my chance at a big muskie but that is muskie fishing. I really do not know if I would have had more fun catching that fish than I have dreaming about it.

Fishing is better some times of the year. Bass are active in the river from spring through summer but they migrate to the deep water of the lakes by mid-September. Muskie fishing is good in June through early July then tapers off in the warm water days of the summer. However, your best chance at a trophy muskie is in the cooler water from mid-September to the end November when the season ends.

Larry tells me that your choice of flies is relatively less important than getting the fly in front of the fish. Still, he likes crayfish and frog patterns for bass. When the bass are in the shallows, big deer hair and foam bodied surface flies can be a real treat. Muskie are mostly interested in bait fish so streamers are the most common fly used. However, muskie will take big surface flies. It has never happened to me but I can just imagine the thrill of seeing a monster muskie come to the surface and engulf a fly.

Wendy and Larry float seven stretches of the Chippewa, two stretches of the West Fork, ten stretches of the Namakagon, and seven stretches of the Flambeau, each about 8 miles long, so there are more opportunities to fish than most fishers could get to on one trip. The water is shallow and the big boulders are hard to see in the dark water, so motors tend not to last too long.  Drift boats or canoes are best for fishing the rivers. But the rivers are not all the fishing in the northwestern part of Wisconsin. The 3500 lakes dotting the landscape offer great fishing for smallmouth, largemouth, northerns, muskies, walleye, and panfish.

 One day I fished Lake Owen with Matt Bolen, the 14 year old son of the president of the Cable, Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce. We caught several of the big smallmouths the lake is known for. Then we fished two coves where we caught all the hand size bluegills we wanted on poppers. Talk about a blast from the past.

Lake Superior's Chequamegon Bay near Ashland, just a short drive north, offers great trophy smallmouth fishing throughout the summer, with June, when they are in the shallows after spawning, being the best time for fly fishers. A 20 inch plus bass is quite a treat to catch. Salmon and steelhead runs out of Lake Superior extend the season in both spring and fall.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the leading tourist attraction in the area. The scenic Apostle Island National Lakeshore attracts tourists from around the world. Here waves crash onto limestone cliffs capped with lush green forests.  The islands abound in the history of the early fur trade, commercial fishing, and maritime development. The ill-fated Edmond Fitzgerald sunk near here, just a few miles from safe harbor. Scenic light houses warn lake traffic. Tours of the islands leave from Bayfield which offers great museums, food, golfing, kayaking, and lodging while visiting the islands. Great resorts, run by warm friendly hosts, sit on the edge of most of the area's best fishing lakes.

A couple of weeks are barely enough time to sample the waters of northwestern Wisconsin. With all the other attractions in the area, it makes a great family vacation destination too. Either way, you won't be sorry you made the trip. You might even catch a big muskie. I left a couple.

Size:  There are at least 200 miles of floatable river including the Chippewa, the Namakagon, and the Flambeau.  This float was about 8 and one half miles.

Species: Muskie, smallmouth, and northern pike

Fishing Methods:
The Rivers can be fished with flies or lures with great success. Being shallow, floating lines are all that is needed for fly fishing. You will need at least a 7 weight rod and heavy leader. Many use a wire tippet to stop the muskie and northerns from cutting the line. Shallow running lures are the ticket for conventional gear fishers.

 Hayward is way up north so the weather can turn bad at any time. Early season is typically wet with cool temperatures. Summer is warm and mostly sunny. Fall gets brisk. It is no accident that many of the photos you see of big muskies feature fishers in heavy cloths as fall is the time for big muskie.


     Muskie: The last Saturday in May to the end of November

     Smallmouth Bass: The first Saturday in May to the end of November

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