Archive | February, 2011

What is a Flowage?

The Willow Flowage, Oneida County, Wisconsin

Typical flowage


Typical western USA dam, stream, and reservoir

Typical Western USA dam & reservoir

Over the years, I’ve discovered that when I speak of a flowage, many folks from outside the Upper Midwest have no idea what I’m talking about. This is especially true for people who live west of the Mississippi River. We can resolve this confusion very simply by first comparing a flowage to a more common term – a reservoir.

Reservoir is the term used to describe a man-made impoundment of water created by damming a river, thus causing a large lake or reservoir to back up behind the dam. The river that was dammed continues to flow at a moderated rate, through and below the dam. The reservoir exists above the dam. Reservoirs are common in the Western and Plain states. They are normally used in mountainous or flat, arid land to control flooding. The bottom content of reservoirs are normally sand, gravel, silt or rock.

A flowage is very similar to a reservoir. A flowage is also man-made and is formed by damming a river, thus causing a water impoundment to back up behind the dam. Several factors make flowages different from reservoirs. Flowages are common in the northern Midwest where woodlands and low terrain have been intentionally flooded, either to control flooding, to generate hydro-power, or to form a recreational area in a remote location, or all of the above. Once flooding is complete, the bottom of flowages often consists of brush, timber, natural lake basins, natural creek, stream, or river beds, rock, sand, or mud (mostly in the lake basins).

Follow the link below to see a detailed map of he Turtle Flambeau Flowage. Note the original lake basins, which are shaded in dark blue. Note the river and channels which connect the lake basins. These were the features of the land before this area was flooded. These features remain today, though they are under water.

Turtle Flambeau Flowage map

Wisconsin has many flowages and few, if any, reservoirs. All of the flowages are popular recreational areas. The larger flowages are the famous Turtle-Flambeau Flowage in Iron County, which is a damming of the Flambeau River. The Rainbow Flowage in Oneida County is a damming of the Wisconsin River. The Willow Flowage in Oneida County is a damming of the Tomahawk River. The Chippewa Flowage in Sawyer County is a damming of the Chippewa River. The Gile Flowage in Iron County is a damming of the Montreal River. There are numerous smaller flowages throughout the northern part of the state.

The most popular recreation on the large flowages is fishing; whether that be on open water or through the ice in winter. My family confines our fishing to flowages. Why? Because flowages offer a wider variety and abundance of fish-holding structure versus lakes.

Think of a lake as a soup bowl. The shoreline gradually drops off and the water level becomes deeper as you move towards the center of the lake. Fish-holding structure may consist of shoreline weeds, occasional rock piles on the bottom, or a point, if there is an island in the lake. The water in Northwood’s lakes are generally gin-clear, allowing for light penetration to depths as much as 20 feet. This could allow for deeper weed bed growth if bottom content is suitable for plants. When compared to the huge flowages, lakes are relatively small with limited structure for holding fish. So they offer less opportunity for finding fish. Additionally, the clarity of the water is a problem.

On the other hand, large flowages are extremely diverse for bottom content. The natural lake basins, streams, creeks, and rivers that were flooded are all under water but easily located with a fish-finder’s LCD display. Flowages are dotted with hundreds of islands. Brush, stumps, and logs are everywhere with most being under water. The Turtle-Flambeau Flowage holds an abundance of rock with some underwater rocks being as big as a small auto.

Another characteristic of a flowage, versus a reservoir, is that the water is “stained”. The water in most reservoirs is clear, blue, or slightly green. The water in flowages is stained due to tannic acid. Tannic acid comes from decaying timber and flowages usually contain an abundance of decaying stumps and timber. Tannic acid is harmless, odorless, and clean. I’ve had guests say that the water is dirty; which it isn’t. Tannic acid in a body of water improves fishing because it decreases light penetration. Fish do not care for sun or light.

Hopefully, you now understand the difference between a flowage and a reservoir. A flowage is flooded low land or timber land. A reservoir is flooded high land or mountainous area. Note the photos of each that are contained within this post.

On my blog calendar, February is flowage month. In March, posts will focus on the topic of Places of Interest in the Northwoods. But before we leave the subject of flowages, you will soon find:

  1. How the Turtle Flambeau Flowage was created in 1926.
  2. Why the Turtle Flambeau Flowage has the reputation for being the most hazardous flowage to navigate in Wisconsin.
  3. Other big flowages in the Northwoods that are popular recreation spots.

Another Day on the Flowage – a short story

Grill and Spotting Scope

Dinner time on the shores of the Turtle Flambeau Flowage. Tonight it’s 32 warm degrees outside. So we decided to cook up some bratwurst on the outdoor grill on our deck.

After clearing a path to the grill through two feet of accumulated snow, the grill was lit and we decided to check out the happenings on the Flowage while the grill warmed up to cooking temperature. Our house is built into the side of a hill overlooking the Horseshoe/Townline portion of the 14,000 acre Flowage. So we have a vantage point. We have a tripod-mounted, high-power spotting scope sitting in front of the great room patio doors on the lake side at all times. We can see virtually anything on the lake within a mile of our house. The snowmobile trail from Springstead to Mercer runs right down the opposite shoreline on the ice. So we can see the steady procession of sleds quite easily.

Tonight, a lone ice fisherman was attempting to remove his ice fishing shack from the lake. He seemed to be having great difficulty no matter which direction he went. Since I knew the answer to getting off the lake, I found this to be pretty interesting. The easiest route out of Horseshoe/Townline Lakes is to drive to the nearby snowmobile trail that traverses the ice from one end of the lake to the other, and use the trail, since it leads to the Springstead boat landing, where you can drive out. The trail is packed snow. Our fisherman was attempting to drive through eighteen inches of powder. Worse yet, he was attempting to find a place to get off on the western shore, which is where you will find the deepest snow, due to winds. If he wasn’t a mile away, I would have gladly pointed this out.

My wife had little interest in this. Her focus was on the dinner that I was preparing. So we did a sanity check (which we often do). “Mary, where else can you grill brats on your deck in winter while having the advantage of watching virtually everything that moves on the lake (an expanse of about 1 mile west then four miles north to south)!? She wasn’t impressed. If I was watching a wolf pack on the ice, or even coyotes or an occasional bear, she would have taken more interest. But this was just a lone fisherman.

Now I apologize for this post because it doesn’t adhere to the first rule for blogging – provide useful information that will benefit the reader; something that they can use. And there are only a couple of things that you can use from this post. First, if you need to pull an ice shack off the lake with a 4×4 truck, don’t drive to the western shore. That’s where you’ll find the deepest snow, due to prevailing NW winds in winter. If there is a snowmobile trail nearby and on the ice, the snow will be packed and easy to drive on. Head for that; especially when it leads to a well maintained boat landing.

As for the spotting scope and a tripod, if you live on the shoreline of a lake, you should have one. The tripod cost me $29.95 at The spotting scope is a Barska and was on sale for less than $50. It’s a beauty. I found it via a Google search. As I recall, I bought it directly from Barska’s Internet site. What I really like about the tripod is that it came with an extra mounting plate so I can snap out the spotting scope and snap my digital camera into the tripod in about two seconds. The mounting plates are universal; so I leave one on the spotting scope and the other on the camera.

Back to the lone fisherman. When I took the brats off the grill, he had given up heading for the western shore of the lake and was pointed east. Darkness fell and all I could see were his headlights. His truck and the ice shack were not moving.

The truck and shack were still there in the morning. The fisherman slept in the shack and drove off in the morning, leaving the ice shack behind. I drove out there on my sled and left a note suggesting that he use the snowmobile trail and drive off the lake at the boat landing on his next attempt.

I did have the last word with my wife. She found American Idol more interesting than exploring the vast stretches of the Turtle Flambeau Flowage with a spotting scope while cooking brats on the grill. But my attentiveness to what’s going on around me afforded me the opportunity to help the lone fisherman. I find those opportunities more rewarding than watching television.