Aerial photo of Northwoods lake called Lake of the Falls in Iron County

Northwoods Lakes, Lakes……and more Lakes

It’s a rainy day here in the Northwoods. So I’m housebound and feel inspired to share something about the 1,000’s of lakes that dot the Northwoods landscape. And I’m going to give you something to download – a complete guide to ALL of the Wisconsin lakes. More on that later.

When the glaciers rolled through here during the ice age, they scraped out thousands of giant potholes which filled with water which ran off when the glaciers melted. These giant potholes became lakes and swamps. The water from the giant glaciers had to go somewhere so 100’s of rivers and creeks were also formed to drain the area of excess water.  The mighty Wisconsin River, which eventually empties into the Mississippi River, is one of those. The Wisconsin River has its origin at Lac Vieux Desert in Vilas County. Other scenic and famous rivers are the Flambeau in Price County, the Namekagon in Bayfield and Sawyer Counties, The Chippewa in Ashland County the Manitowish in Vilas and Iron Counties and so forth. The names of these Rivers come from the Indian tribes who inhabited this area and still do.  Canoeing and camping on any one of these notable rivers will get you back in touch with your life and nature. You won’t want to leave.

Have you ever thought of a place that just draws you there; nags you for years and years? I graduated from an Illinois high school in 1968. I was born in Illinois. But Wisconsin beckoned. So I left Illinois when I was eighteen and never went back.  I’m an outdoor enthusiast and the Northwoods of Wisconsin was always on my mind. I went to college in Wisconsin and married a Wisconsin girl. Since then it seems like we just keep moving north into more wilderness and more fascinating places.

But back to lakes. What county has the most lakes than any other county in the State? I’ve already mentioned it. It’s Vilas County. Take a look at it on a Wisconsin map. You can hardly drive a quarter of a mile without seeing yet another lake. If you want to sample the Northwoods, head to Vilas County. Interstate highway 39 will take you there. When you drive through Manitowish Waters, you’re there. Turn due East to see the core of the county and some pretty amazing scenery.

The lakes in Wisconsin come in two varieties; gin clear and stained. The lakes in Vilas County are all gin clear natural lake basins. Stained waters are typical of flowages. If you don’t know what a flowage is, read my post titled “What is a Flowage”. Some folks first encounter with stained water leaves them thinking it’s dirty; not fit for swimming. Nothing could be further from the truth. Stained water is the color of tea. The color comes from decaying timber left in the water when the flowage was created and the low land was flooded. Tannic acid released by decaying timber produces the tea color. It’s clean.

The Northwoods lakes and wilderness comprise the northernmost counties in the State. Beginning on the east side of the State, Florence, Forest, Vilas, Oneida, Iron, Sawyer, Ashland, Price, Lincoln, and Langlade Counties are where the majority of the State’s lakes reside. Officially, the Wisconsin Northwoods starts at Tomahawk, Wisconsin and consists of all points north.

Back to some tips for visitors and then I’ll tell you what and why I’m giving you the following. If boating, skiing, tubing, and just hanging out on the water is your forte, visit one of the gin clear lakes in Vilas County. Remember, a lake over 300 acres is best. Lac Vieux Desert and Trout Lake in Vilas County are huge. If fishing, wilderness views, solitude with no other boat traffic is your choice for recreation, visit one of the flowages. Fishing is better in stained water since there is more structure to fish and the fish come up shallower because the stained water protects them from the sun.

The majority of the lakes in the Northwoods are considered walleye lakes but also hold pan fish, musky and northern pike. The flowage that I live on, the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage in Iron County, is a “walleye factory” but the smallmouth bass are becoming even more abundant and are much more fun to catch. Additionally, there are perch, rock bass, black crappie, northern pike, pan fish, and a good musky population. Needless to say, this is my favorite body of water for any type of recreation on water.

The Turtle-Flambeau is considered to be the most hazardous body of water in the State. That’s because when they built the dam and flowage in 1926, the water backed up behind the dam and flooded thousands or acres more quickly than they had anticipated. Loggers, who were clearing timber in the flood zone, had to get out of there quickly, due to rapidly rising water, and many stands of trees were left uncut. So standing timber below the water line became a hazard. Stump fields, and rocks as big as a Volkswagen, yet under a couple of inches of water, are also a hazard to navigation. We went out with a fishing guide for ten years and learned how to safely navigate the flowage and now we traverse any portion of it without worry of water hazards.

I could ramble on this subject for pages and pages. But I’ll save those thoughts for another post.

Now here is what I have for you. The following Acrobat .pdf files can be downloaded quickly by clicking on one of them to open it. Then within Acrobat Reader, select the icon that looks like a diskette to save the file to your HDD. Repeat for all seven files. These manuals contain ALL of the lakes in Wisconsin grouped within county and sorted alphabetically by county. The important information that is provided for each lake includes:


(NOTE – use the index file for an explanation of codes used for some of the following)

  1. Area – the size of the lake in acreage
  2. The maximum depth of the lake
  3. The Mean depth – average depth
  4. Whether there is public access to the lake and what type of access that is
  5. Whether there is lake map available
  6. Lake Type
  7. What kind of fish are predominant in the lake


So for whatever recreation that you may have in mind, you should be able to find the perfect lake with this information. Have a great trip!

Wis Lake Guide Index Wis Lake Guide counties A-C Wis Lake Guide counties D-J Wis Lake Guide counties K-M Wis Lake Guide counties O-P Wis Lake Guide counties R-V Wis Lake Guide counties W

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