A (fish) tale of two flowages
Heading north to Willow, Spirit
By Greg Seubert
With more than 6,300 acres of water, 70-plus miles of shoreline and over 100 islands, the Willow Flowage can be an angler’s paradise.
It can also be a major head-scratcher.
That turned out be the case on a recent fishing trip to the flowage, located in western Oneida County about 20 miles northwest of Tomahawk and 15 miles southwest of Minocqua.
I had fished the flowage a couple of times in the past, but my fishing partners for the day, Jed Buelow and Jasmine Parker of Tomahawk, have fished its stained waters several times.
Our plan was to fish the shoreline for bluegills and crappies and also drift over some open water for walleyes and perch.
Not really biting
The fish, on the other hand, had other ideas.
We visited at least five different spots in 4 1/2 hours on the water, but only had a handful of fish to show for our effort. Buelow and Parker used night crawlers and leeches under a slip bobber, while I went with crawlers and one of my favorite lures, the versatile Johnson Beetle Spin.
It didn’t take long for Buelow to land a nice bluegill, while a small walleye fell for my white Beetle Spin a few minutes later.
The Willow is loaded with northern pike and I landed a 20-incher on a crawler. That, however, was it for me.
Buelow and Parker caught a few small perch while drifting in about 15 feet of water, but the walleyes were a no-show.
“It can be a tough bite at times when you get that mayfly hatch going on this time of year,” said Buelow, a Clintonville native. “That might have been a bit of what we ran into. Typically, a good rule of thumb is to start shallow and go deeper like we did today. We did find fish, but unfortunately, they just weren’t stacked up and didn’t seem to be feeding aggressively.”
Ninety-five percent of the Willow’s shoreline is undeveloped, which adds up to plenty of fish habitat. Buelow said anglers new to the flowage shouldn’t stay in one spot very long if the fish aren’t cooperating.
“Just keep moving until you find the fish,” he said. “Try different depths. Don’t be afraid to get out there and try 15 to 20 feet of water. You’re going to find wood out there and that might be holding the fish on some days. Later in the summer, we’ll go back to targeting that 12 to 15 feet of water with wood. Those are the same spots we work in the winter. They work good in the late summer and into the fall.”
The Willow is part of the 30,000-acre state-owned Willow Flowage Scenic Waters Area. The area’s 37 rustic campsites on the flowage include a fire ring, picnic table and outdoor toilet.
The Willow’s numerous bays and islands can make navigation tricky, especially for boaters not familiar with the flowage.
“If you don’t know where you’re going, you better have a GPS,” Buelow said. “I use structures that I’ve been familiar with and that’s kind of how I navigate it, but it can get a little tricky for the most seasoned person, especially when most of the shoreline looks the same. The water level does go up and down and that’s definitely something to keep in mind when you’re boating, but if you’re not going top speed and you watch where you’re going, it’s pretty safe, especially when it’s full.”
The Willow is also a popular ice-fishing destination.
“You’re going to find a large crowd out on Indian Bay fishing for crappies,” Buelow said. “You’re going to have people in other areas targeting perch, bluegills and walleyes. There are definitely a lot of walleye fishermen.”
Most anglers launch their boats from the Willow’s east shore off of County Trunk Y, near the dam on the Tomahawk River. We used one of the two primitive west-shore landings off of Willow Road. Our last spot was near the landing, but Buelow caught the only fish, a small perch.
Spirit River Flowage
We then decided to head to another of Buelow and Parker’s favorite fishing holes, the Spirit River Flowage, a 1,200-acre reservoir on the Spirit River just west of Tomahawk.
The two bodies of water have something in common: they’re both formed by dams operated by Wisconsin Valley Improvement Co. The Wausau-based company also operates several dams on or near the Wisconsin River from the Rainbow Flowage in Oneida County to the Big Eau Pleine Flowage in Marathon County.
WVIC operates public boat landings on the Spirit, including the one we used off of State Highway 86 about five miles west of Tomahawk.
WVIC began drawing water from the flowage several years ago because of problems with the dam and refilled it last year.
“It started maybe seven or eight years ago,” Buelow said. “They found an issue with the dam, so they dropped (the water level) 3 feet. Then, about two or three years ago, they dropped it to 6 feet when they found another issue. Last summer, WVIC stuck a considerable amount of money into fixing the dam and they were able to raise it to full last summer.”
Better fishing at Spirit
The flowage’s fishery includes muskie; northern pike; walleye; largemouth and smallmouth bass; and panfish.
“All your panfish are nice out there and there’s some fantastic walleye fishing,” Buelow said. “It’s stained water, so you can go out there and catch walleyes in the middle of the day. A lot of times, you can find the panfish shallow and that can be a really good bite, too.”
My catch, after about an hour on the water, included two large bluegills that were hanging out a couple feet from shore. Buelow managed to land a large black crappie before it was time to call it a day.
The three of us combined to catch more than a dozen fish, but almost half of them came in the final 15 minutes.
The Spirit doesn’t have the fishing pressure of other Tomahawk area waters, including lakes Mohawksin, Alice and Nokomis.
“I think it’s probably one of the lesser-fished lakes in the area,” Buelow said. “The locals know about it and they fish it quite often.”