Northwoods Fishing

Fishing the Northwoods

Photo of Scott Reed

Scott Reed – Author

This post is for the sportsmen among you. I love to fish as do my wife and three children. So if you have no interest whatever in fishing, bypass this post and read another.

When the children were adolescents and in their teens, we used to live in Waupaca, Wisconsin about 200 miles south of here. We made frequent weekend trips to the Northwoods to fish.

It got to be an obsession. It seemed like every spring and summer weekend began with the same conversation. Want to go up north this weekend? We all loved outdoor recreation and our best opportunity for that was up north. Waupaca was a small tourist area with a few lakes. We lived on twelve acres on a river. But Waupaca did not have the opportunities that up north did; the opportunity to get out on the water and into the wilderness, or the opportunity to camp on a remote island.

If we had nothing planned for the weekend, we packed the boat and truck and headed up north. Sometimes we did this several weekends in a row and didn’t bother to unpack the boat or truck. Each weekend was a new adventure and we were hooked – line and sinker.

We fished several of the best know walleye lakes like Nelson Lake in Sawyer County or Big and Clear Lakes in Vilas County. And then we gravitated to the huge flowages like the Chippewa Flowage near Hayward, Wisconsin and the Turtle-Flambeau in Iron County. Once we fished the big flowages, we never went back to fishing lakes again.

So what about fishing? Most folks think that fishing means sitting in a boat on a lake while staring at a bobber in the water waiting for something to happen. If that sounds boring to you, it is. That’s not the kind of fishing that I’m talking about.

I can probably explain to you why I love to fish best by telling you what I enjoy about the sport.

  1. I love being on the water. I love water so much that to this day, we have always lived on water of some sort.
  2. I love being surrounded by wilderness. Nothing but trees and forests as far as the eye can see. Wilderness is totally natural, untouched, and exudes solitude. The cry of loons on the water and the smell of fresh cedar on the breeze takes me away to someplace else.
  3. Fishing to me is a challenge and I love challenges. If you like eating fish, you can either go get some out of the grocery freezer and go get them in a lake yourself. Finding them and catching them is far more challenging and fun.
  4. I like boats, fishing poles, tackle, lures, baits, and the challenge of figuring out what combination of each will produce results. I have the finest of all of these. I treat my fishing poles like a fine crafted work of art. My reels are more valuable to me then a finely crafted Swiss watch. Even members of my family are not allowed to touch my poles or reels.
  5. I like to study fish habits and understand what makes them do what they do. Where would they be on a particular day? Why are they there? Where do they live? Where do they feed? What are they feeding on? I keep a log of all this.

Weather plays a big part in fish location. Is the wind right? What structure is it blowing into? That’s where the fish are. Too much sun drives fish to the bottom. They don’t like sun. They like wind because the associated wave action breaks up the light penetration into the water. They feed ahead of cold fronts and while the front passes, they head for the bottom. They don’t like thunder and lightning. They like low barometric pressure and dislike high pressure. It’s easy for them to feel this on the water’s surface. They like warm or warming water but must live in cold water. So they migrate into warm water to feed and then back to their cold water home.

That’s what fishing is to me and more. Spend a day on the water with me. Once you tie into your first smallmouth bass or keeper walleye, you’ll be hooked too.

There’s plenty to do in the boat. I fish from an eighteen foot Alumacraft that is outfitted with everything that will give me an advantage on the water. It’s big and heavy so I don’t worry about rough water, wind, or lack of space. My fishing boat holds four persons in comfortable upholstered fishing seats; one for the driver, two side-by-side mid-ships, and one on the forward fishing platform. I have electronic graphs or fish finders forward and rear. They are equipped with GPS and mapping software so you can find your position anytime. There’s a huge trolling motor in the bow that deploys itself in the water and back out with the push of a button. You can program the route that you want to fish and let the trolling motor take you there without touching it. There’s a live well on the port side, a built-in worm box and aerated minnow well in the front and another in the back. Dry storage is under the fishing platform in the front. Everything else that you need is onboard somewhere in compartments.

Watching the graphs is a full-time job. So is switching baits. I usually rig three or four rods with what I think I’ll need and change rods depending on what fish conditions we find. Someone needs to look at the fishing map now and then to avoid obstacles in the water or find a sunken river channel, or select the next best place to fish. So fishing is not boring. It’s a team research project.

Here’s a handy piece of information. I fish the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage (TFF) exclusively now. The following link is to an area BBS with current fishing reports by real fisherman. There are many pages devoted to just the Turtle Flambeau but other area lakes are included on more pages. If in the TFF section, look for Donnie Pemble. He’s the most active guide on the flowage and if fishing is good, Donnie will tell you where the fish are. If you join the forum (free), you can post a comment on this forum.

Fishing Forums and Reports

You are going to need a lake map. You can order one online from Fishing HotSpots. They are usually $11. They are big, waterproof, and informative. On the reverse side of a map, you’ll find a guides analysis of what numbered areas on the map are good, when they are good, and even what species you’ll find in that location and what baits to use.

Fishing Hot Spots Website 

So what do you fish with? What attracts the fish? That depends on the body of water. I have several tack boxes full of

Twister Tail fishing lure

Twister Tail



stuff. But I really only use two baits on my body of water; a “twister tail” or a Rapala (see photos). Rapalas in black/gold, black/silver, firetiger, or perch color are the best in the spring when the water is cold. The sinking or diving variety are best versus floating. Shad Raps in the same colors are also effective. You need to get upwind of a rocky point and cast them at the point and retrieve until you feel a fish take the lure. Set the hooks and play out the fish until he is tired. Then bring him alongside the boat and hoist him in.

So what should you expect to catch on the flowage? You’ll hook into some northern pike for sure. They’re everywhere and aggressive. But they are usually small, hard to clean because they have “Y” bones in place of normal ribs. If you ever catch a big one, say around 30”, they are delicious and make great fish burgers.

You’ll have no problem catching smallmouth bass. Just fish with something that has orange in it like an orange jig or a crank bait (Rapala) that has orange in it. Orange is the color of their natural food, which is crayfish. And fish around rocks anywhere. Smallmouth bass love rocks since this is where crayfish hide. You can’t keep them until after mid-June. Some fisherman eat them and some release them. We are in the latter group. They are the scrappiest fish in the lake and they are fun to catch. So out of respect for such an impressive fish, we return them to the lake unharmed to entertain us another day.

Photo of yellow perch


Photo of a walleye.


Photo of a smallmouth bass fish

Smallmouth bass

Photo of a northern pike fish

Northern pike


Photo of a black crappie fish


Walleyes are difficult to catch because they are easily spooked by anything. Furthermore, their location and mood depends on the weather. The limit is three per day per fisherman. There is no size limit but we set a size limit for the family of releasing any fish under 15”. Again, we have respect for the fishery. Our goal is not to slaughter fish but pit our skills against that of the fish. Therefore, we view them as a challenging opponent equal to the knowledge and skills that we bring to the battle and more often than not superior. Walleyes are great eating which is why you can find them on the menu at nearly every decent restaurant in the Northwoods.

Black crappie and perch are going to be difficult to catch on the TFF. Nobody knows where the perch hangout. Once in a great while one turns up on your hook. They are a schooling fish but it seems that you only catch one and there are no others around. There are some big ones in the TFF but I’ve never met anyone that can figure out where they are at. One problem is that they are the first species to spawn in the spring. And that usually happens under the winter ice. So you have already missed the best chance of catching them when they are schooled up.  No size or quantity limit on perch.

Keep in mind that catch limits and size limits vary by lake. So pick up a DNR booklet at your local tackle shop to keep from getting arrested by the warden when you have a fish in your boat that shouldn’t be there.

I don’t musky fish for the king of all lake predators and the top of the food chain in any lake. Doing battle with a keeper musky is like fighting a small shark in the ocean. They are big, heavy, and they can break most any tackle including steel leaders. We catch one by mistake when we are fishing for walleye. We just cut the line and let them go. Again, I would never kill or eat a musky out of respect for the superior specimen that this fish is. They are incredible. Dedicated musky fisherman will put in hours, days, weeks, just to see a musky follow their bait in the water. That’s not why I’m out there on the lake. So we leave them alone. They have to be 40” in most waters to keep one and one is the limit on all waters.

So here’s the deal. As you can  see, I can rattle on for pages, even a book on my love of fishing and my experiences on the lake. There’s much to tell but I’ll stop here. I realize that this is not everyone’s cup of tea. Then there are thousands of sportsman like me who can jabber about fishing on into the night. I don’t take offense if this subject does not interest you. Give me some feedback in the comments. I’m curious how many fisherman are out there reading my blogs.