Muskie Fishing “Up North” and High Water on the Wisconsin River

by Free Speech on August 20, 2010

Lodi, WI~

Lodi Valley News serving Lodi, WI & the Lake Wisconsin area with local information since Earth Day 2008.

Russ Smith and Casey Cole of Madison with a nice muskie.

Russ Smith and Casey Cole of Madison with a nice muskie.

I had a phone call last week from my good friend and Northern Wisconsin muskie guide, Russ Smith, asking me if I had any “free-time” to drive up to Vilas County and fish muskies for a day or two with him. Russ is a legendary guide and muskie bait manufacturer (Smity Bait Company) who has been a good friend for over 30 years. The problem that we normally face is that we both have little “free time” because if Russ isn’t guiding, he’s making muskie baits. The same can be said for the amount of free time that I have this time of the year with guiding, fishing, writing, and filming filling my time.

I usually never get the chance to fish with Russ until the fall of the year when our schedules slow down and the muskie season is getting close to ending for the year. But after talking with “Smity,” I found out that the poor economy has greatly affected all businesses in much of “tourist belt” in northern Wisconsin. Russ said that the guiding business was down anywhere from 20 to 30 % and he added that some fishing guides were down even more. Another example is Boulder Junction guide Tom Swanson, who is normally booked 6 or 7 days a week during the peak of the summer’s fishing season. This year, Swanson is fishing only 3 or 4 days a week. These economic woes are carrying over to most if not all businesses in Vilas County and most of the northern part of the state. This time of the summer, most motels, restaurants, and other businesses are packed with the sidewalks in Woodruff, Minocqua, and Boulder Junction full of vacationers getting away before Labor Day and the beginning of school year.

This year things are different in the Northland with businesses for sale, closed, or void of customers. The large chain motel that my fishing partner, Bob Zownir, and I stayed at had only 5 vehicles in the parking lot when we arose at 5:00 am to go fishing with Smity. The national chain motel across the street from where we stayed in Minocqua had a couple of cars and two tour buses of senior vacationers parked early Friday morning. Normally, motels would be packed with anglers, vacationers, and families getting away one more time before school starts and the weather cools. But to put it bluntly, these tourist-friendly towns of the North were empty and starving for business! I’ve been going to the Vilas County area for decades and have never seen things like they are now. If you have a chance try to get up North during September and October for some good fishing and the awesome fall colors.

Another of the reasons why Bob and I ventured north was because the hot and steaming weather had most local water too warm to fish for muskies. Local lakes and even the Wisconsin River had water temperatures of 80-82 degrees. The Capital City Chapter of Muskies, Inc. has cancelled their “on the water” meetings and highly recommended that muskie anglers wait till the water cools back into the low to mid 70’s before fishing for muskies. The acids that build up inside a big muskie that you’ve just fought for 5 or 10 minutes make it near impossible for a big fish to survive in this extremely warm water when stressed. I highly recommend that all anglers refrain from muskie fishing till things cool down in the southern part of the state. A 45” inch muskie is close to twenty years old and all serious muskie fishers practice catch and release, so why take the chance of killing a fish that has lived this long?

The weather we encountered in Vilas County wasn’t much different, but it was a little cooler with air temperatures in the low 80’s and water temperatures in the low 70’s. The ten degrees difference in water temperature makes a big difference in fish survival. The “secret” lake we fished between Boulder Junction and Presque Isle had only one boat in the parking lot when we launched and later in the day we saw one other boat. Russ, Bob, and I had to wait for a brief rain shower before launching Russ’ boat, so we went out for breakfast. Again, there were only a few customers eating when every eatery should be packed on an early Friday morning in the summer! The three of us fished hard the entire day without any breaks. We casted bucktails, shallow running crankbaits, and top-water baits in every style, brand, and color. But, we failed to get a muskie in the boat. Bob had two fish “blow-up” on top-water baits and fail to get hooked-up, Russ had one fish on that came unhooked after a brief tussle, and I threw every muskie bait at my disposal to no avail! We had a few chances and on another day we might have had a couple of fish in the net, but not this day. Today’s scorecard read fish three and angler’s zero, but there are other things that must be taken into consideration. The weather cooled and the rain stopped allowing us to fish all day in a beautiful setting on a Northwood’s lake that we had to ourselves if you don’t count the eagles, loons, and duck’s getting ready for their fall migration.

We tried every bait and more this day in Vilas County

We tried every bait and more this day in Vilas County

The muskie fishing in our area of southern Wisconsin is very good with 45 to 50 inch muskies coming from the Madison Chain regularly not to mention the quality fish that come from Lake Redstone, Governor Dodge State Park, Lake Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin River. But, there is “something” about Northern Wisconsin and the large number of lakes within a small area, the wildlife, and the seclusion. There’s something magical about being the only boat on a scenic lake that can only be found in the Northwoods. It’s not about the fishing because we have that here and in much of the state, but the beauty, serenity, and peacefulness is something that is unique to this region of Wisconsin.

The Lower Wisconsin Riverway gives one many of the same feelings and you can find much of the same beauty and serenity on most weekdays. But, the Wisconsin River has been at a high water stage for all of July and now the heavy rains and high water have continued into August. I mentioned the poor economic conditions in the northern part of the state for most businesses and especially those in the tourist trade where owners count on making a majority of their money in the few months of summer. This morning, August 16, the water flow on the Wisconsin River at the Prairie du Sac Dam was over 19,000 cubic feet per second (c.f.s.). This is a high flow anytime of the year and particularly in August when the Wisconsin River is usually low with a flow rate of 3-4,000 cubic feet per second. When the river’s flow is 10,000 c.f.s. and over there are no sandbars for camping and the river can be very dangerous. This high water on the river has ruined much of the summer business for canoe and kayak liveries and all the business that trickles down from these visitors to the river. When I returned this weekend, the parking lot on Highway Y where Blackhawk River Runs is located on the Wisconsin River was empty of cars and the doors of the livery were locked! The sour economy is affecting most businesses that depend on tourist trade for their income and this summer season is rapidly coming to an end.

Hopefully, this fall will be better and I hope you patronize local businesses and stay in the great outdoors in Wisconsin instead of going to other states. Everything one could want is here and the Wisconsin economy needs your help this year. You may always contact me at

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