Wisconsin's Smallmouth Rivers Offer Fast Action and Fun

By Dan Small - July 1, 2011
If it weren't for the muskie, a good case could be made for the smallmouth bass as the state fish. Smallies are native to more waters than muskies. Pound-for-pound, they fight as hard. And, unlike the toothy king of the Esox clan, smallmouths will hit just about anything just about any time, which makes them a favorite of anglers who count action high on the list of a fish's qualities.
Smallies are perhaps most at home in rivers. A good smallmouth river has some current and lots of instream cover in the form of rocks, rubble, logs and undercut banks. Very fast and very slow stretches harbor fewer bass than do those with a moderate flow.

Bass rivers range in size from the Mississippi to little brooks you can jump from a stranding start. Some are stained bronze, like the fish themselves. Some are crystal clear. The better rivers have a strong, cool summer flow, with plenty of oxygen and an ample supply of forage: crayfish, minnows, insects and other invertebrates.

Here's a look at some of the state's best smallmouth rivers:

Mississippi River: The Mississippi takes a back seat to none when it comes to bronzebacks. From its confluence with the St. Croix at Prescott, down to the Iowa-Illinois border, the Mississippi offers great bass fishing. Wing dams, riprap, pilings and other structure hold bass. If you're new to the river, get a copy of DNR publication FM-745-94, Fishing and Boating on the Mississippi River, for maps, navigation rules, landings and fishing information.

Wisconsin River: From headwaters to mouth, the Wisconsin is arguably the best bass river in the state. In its upper reaches, miles of boulder-strewn flats and riffles, logjams and shaded holes offer great small-boat, light-tackle fishing for smallies, pike and muskies, too.

Midstate, the Wisconsin slows and widens, but power dams, riprap and plenty of wet wood provide structure. From Sauk City downstream, a shifting sand bottom makes new structure every season. There are good access points from Eagle River to the mouth.

For guide service and fishing information, try (headwaters) Todd Koehn, 800-710-8020, or thkoehn@newnorth.net; (central) Chuck Pohlman, 608-643-8199, or sandy1@merr.com; (lower river) Bill Hetzel, 608-986-2310. Give the Lower Wisconsin another week or so to settle down from the recent floods.

St. Croix River: From Gordon in Douglas County to the Mississippi at Prescott, the St. Croix offers over 100 miles of smallmouth water. Wadable at its headwaters, it becomes big water downstream. The St. Croix has more instream cover than most rivers, thus more bass. The stretch from Riverside to Grantsburg is a favorite among float fishermen. With the Namekagon, it forms the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. No further development will be allowed along the river, so fishing should remain excellent indefinitely. For information, call Riverway Headquarters: 715-483-3284.

Namekagon River: From Hayward to the St. Croix, the Namekagon is a great float-fishing river, unspoiled and canoeable from start to finish. Gravel riffles, boulders and deep holes hold smallies, along with walleyes, muskies, catfish and the occasional sturgeon. Canoe campsites along the river allow overnight or extended trips. For maps and information, call St Croix Riverway Headquarters: 715-483-3284. For guide service on the Namekagon and West Fork of the Chippewa, try Hayward Flyfishing Company, 715-634-4500, www.haywardflyfishingcompany.com.

Chippewa River: From Glidden down to Holcombe Flowage, the Chip is canoe or driftboat water, with lots of logs, rocks and cutbanks that hold bass, walleyes and muskies. Below Holcombe, it is big enough for motorboats all the way to the Mississippi. In its upper reaches, the Chip flows for miles through the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, where you'll rarely see another angler. For maps and information, try: (headwaters) Glidden Ranger Station, 715-264-2511; (lower river) James Sport Shop, Ladysmith, 715-532-6016. For guide service on the East Fork, call Anglers All in Ashland, 715-682-5754, www.anglersallwisconsin.com.

Flambeau River: The North Fork is a dynamite bronzeback stream, whose best stretch runs through the Flambeau River State Forest in Price and Sawyer counties. Boulders, riffles and logs hide smallies all along the way. The stretch from the Highway 70 landing west of Park Falls at Nine Mile Creek to State Forest headquarters at the Highway W crossing offers an exciting canoe trip with a few easy rapids and superb bass and muskie fishing. Dams near Ladysmith also hold fish. For information, call (upper river) Forest headquarters, 715-332-5271; (lower river) James Sport Shop, Ladysmith, 715-532-6016. For guide service on the upper river, call Steve Cervenka, 715-339-4261, www.flambeauguide.com.

Menominee River: The Menominee forms the state border with Michigan's Upper Peninsula. From Florence to Marinette, 10 hydro dams slow the river, creating a variety of habitat for bass and other species. In its upper reaches, it is a wilderness canoe river. Near Marinette, it is big water. From headwaters to mouth, it offers great smallmouth action. For guide service, contact Mike Mladenik, 715-854-2055, www.mikemladenik.com.

Fox River: The Lower Fox, from Lake Winnebago to Green Bay, is big water and it's loaded with bass. While Appleton, Kaukauna, Wrightstown, DePere and Green Bay give the river an urban flavor, with plenty of pleasure boats, anglers still have no trouble finding fish. For guide service on the Fox or Wolf rivers, try Troy Peterson, Mr. Bluegill Guide Service, 920-231-5866, www.mrbluegill.com.

Wolf River: Known best for its walleyes and white bass, the Wolf also harbors some nice smallies from Shawano to Butte des Morts. Brushpiles, bend holes and gravel stretches hold bass. For tackle and information, try Critters Sports in Winneconne, 920-582-0471, www.critterssports.com.

Milwaukee River: From West Bend to Milwaukee, the Milwaukee River is a surprisingly good smallmouth stream, with lots of boulders, deep holes and other cover. Access is easy at most bridge crossings and in county parks. The DNR fishing hotline has up-to-date information: 414-382-7920. For guide service, try Eric Haataja, Big Fish Guide Service, 414-546-4627, www.wibigfish.com.

There are plenty of good smallmouth rivers from north to south. The Jump and Red Cedar are standouts in the Northwest. In the Northeast, the Oconto, Brule and Peshtigo offer good bass action.

Tow a boat, pack a canoe or pull on waders and give one of Wisconsin's smallmouth rivers a try this season. They're hard to beat for fast action and fun.

Author Dan Small
Dan Small
Dan Small is host/producer of Outdoor Wisconsin on Public Television and Outdoors Radio. He is also contributing editor of Wisconsin Outdoor News. He has written several thousand articles for national, regional and state-based outdoor publications since 1972. Listen to his syndicated weekly radio show on stations throughout Wisconsin and here on Lake-Link. For more information visit www.dansmalloutdoors.com.