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Slip your boat into the water, take it out far enough to lose sight of the landing, and just look around. In a moment, you are surrounded by a natural treat of wild beauty: tall stands of pine and birch crowd the shoreline, a pair of loons dives in a quiet bay, and high overhead, a bald eagle circles.This is no fleeting moment. This view, these sounds will remain.
The rugged Turtle-Flambeau Flowage near Mercer in Iron County will remain in public ownership and public management. Its scenic beauty will not fall victim to fragmented development along its shores, and its wild character will be preserved for future generations to enjoy.
The Turtle-Flambeau Flowage was created in 1926 when the Chippewa and Flambeau Improvement Company built a dam on the Flambeau River downstream from its confluence with the Turtle River. The dam flooded 16 natural lakes and formed an impoundment of approximately 14,000 acres.The flowage was constructed as a reservoir to augment river flows and sustain hydroelectric plants operated downstream by electric utilities and paper mills. The dam also provided flood protection and created a unique recreational resource.
Many early resorts located around the 16 lakes were flooded and forced to move – some chose higher ground, others left the area. As compensation for property lost when the flowage was built, property owners were offered money or adjacent land. Most chose a cash settlement and the shoreline today remains sparsely developed.
The flowage, in turn, attracted more tourists. What had been good fishing before became even better, and more people came to test the waters. New resorts opened to service the reinvigorated tourist trade.
Over the years these resorts have had many visitors, some of them notorious. John Dillinger frequented the area. Al Capone, the Chicago gangster, fished the flowage many times, especially in the years after his release from prison. Charlie Comiskey, founder of the White Sox baseball team, used Jerome's Hunting and Fishing Club on Trude Lake as a place for rest and relaxation for himself and his team.
In 1990, the Stewardship Fund and gubernatorial support allowed the state to acquire 22,343 acres from Chippewa and Flambeau Improvement Company, including lands submerged by the flowage – about 95 percent of the shoreline and adjacent lands. With additional acquisitions, state ownership now comprises approximately 27,000 acres including over 300 miles of shoreline and 195 islands.
The flowage is managed by the Department of Natural Resources using a master plan developed with citizen advice. Management practices aim to perpetuate the natural character of the shoreline, preserve its scenic qualities and protect its plant and animal communities. Managers strive to preserve the quality and wealth of outdoor recreation on the flowage including fishing, hunting, camping, nature observation, trapping, boating and canoeing.
The Turtle-Flambeau Scenic Waters Area is accessible from seven public boat landings and from private resorts. Springstead Landing, on the south side of the flowage off State Highway 182, offers the best launching facilities and largest parking area. In addition to the six state-run landings, the county park at the northernmost end of the flowage offers a boat ramp and public access on Highway FF, just below Lake of the Falls.
Boating on the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage can be memorable in many ways. You need to exercise caution. The flowage has an abundance of stumps, logs, floating driftwood, and rock bars. This variety makes good fish and wildlife habitat, but it can damage boats, particularly the lower units and props of motors. Water levels continue to be raised or lowered to benefit downstream hydroelectric plants. Even if you think you know your way around, these changing conditions and fluctuating water levels mean you must slow way down to navigate the waters.
Activities like water skiing and jet skiing are definitely not advisable here. A voluntary quiet area has also been set aside on approximately the eastern fifth of the flowage from the narrows near Blair Lake upstream to the property boundary near the confluence of the Bear and Manitowish rivers.
This promotes an atmosphere of quiet solitude for those seeking a wilderness-type experience. Many anglers, canoers, and campers, come to the flowage seeking those reflective moments. We want to preserve that atmosphere. Flowage managers ask that slow-no-wake boating be observed in the quiet area. Boat wakes are unwelcome by anglers and canoers in any situation, but courtesy is especially the byword in the quiet area which we manage as a sort of human refuge for peaceful fishing, canoeing and camping experiences.
The Turtle-Flambeau Scenic Waters Area offers 60 remote campsites accessible by water only. These sites are available year-round on a first-come , first-served basis. There is no camping fee, but camping on the flowage is restricted to designated sites. Each is identified with a site number and is equipped with a steel fire ring and an open air pit toilet. A few sites have picnic tables. Information on campsite locations and rules can be obtained from the Department of Natural Resources Ranger Station at Mercer.
Understanding a few of the ground rules will help you plan your visit. The number of campsites is limited and they often fill up, especially on weekends. Do not plan to arrive at 6 p.m. on a Friday night and expect to find a nearby vacant campsite. You may want to plan a mid-week or off-season vacation if you are thinking of camping on the flowage. It is best to arrive by midday so you have time to scout out several sites. Make an alternative plan in case all sites are full when you arrive. Additional camping opportunities are provided at an Iron County Park located off County Highway FF where the Turtle River enters the flowage.
Some resorts also provide campsites that range from rustic to "full hook-up" facilities. These can be reserved ahead of time.
There is a 10-day limit on camping at all state campsites within the Turtle-Flambeau Scenic Waters Area. When you set up camp, you must occupy the site the first night of your visit and you may not leave it unoccupied for more than one night thereafter. The DNR regularly checks campsites and visitors may not leave unattended camping equipment to "save" a site. Fires may only be built in fire rings. Visitors are allowed to gather wood that is "dead and down" for cooking and warming fires, however, standing trees may not be cut. Standing dead "snag" trees provide valuable wildlife habitat and they are protected. Power saws may not be used to chunk up wood that has been gathered.
Many of the campsites receive heavy use and firewood is becoming scarce. If you are planning a camping trip, consider bringing firewood with you. Several local businesses sell bundled wood for that purpose. We also ask that campers not try to burn driftwood. Generally driftwood is water-logged and does not burn well, even if it appears dry on the outside. Moreover, driftwood provides valuable fish and wildlife habitat, and adds to the unique character of the flowage; it is rapidly disappearing through natural processes and from illegal harvest. Removal of driftwood from the property is prohibited by law.
Garbage service is not provided at the campsites. All refuse must be carried out with you. Also plan on packing in all your drinking water. The lake water is not considered potable and campsites are not equipped with wells or drinking water taps.
The Turtle-Flambeau Scenic Waters Area offers the opportunity to camp, fish and enjoy the outdoors in a scenic, wilderness setting. The undisturbed wooded shorelines and islands make the flowage unique. If you visit the property , please help us protect that setting by leaving no trace of your visit.
Land bordering the flowage varies from level terrain to steeply rolling hills. The woodlands consist primarily of aspen, northern hardwoods and white birch. Scattered old-growth hemlock and pine provide top-quality nesting habitat for eagles and osprey. Grass openings scattered throughout the forest add habitat diversity and increase the variety and total numbers of wildlife.
The forest surrounding the Turtle-Flambeau Scenic Waters Area is managed to protect fish, wildlife and the flowage's scenic qualities. A 300-foot aesthetic zone buffers the entire shoreline in which no timber harvesting will occur. A number of other areas receive special management to protect unique natural communities. Lands more than 300 feet from the shore which are still visible from the water will be selectively harvested to protect the view within a well-managed forest.Timber harvests in certain areas of the property which are not visible from the flowage may be more extensive to provide wood and create more diverse habitat. For instance, clearcutting aspen promotes regeneration from sprouts. Young, brushy aspen stands benefit grouse, deer and many other wildlife species. Such cuts will only be considered in areas not visible from the water, and will be carefully laid out to provide a "natural" appearing forest.
The Turtle-Flambeau Flowage has the highest density of bald eagle, osprey and common loon breeding pairs in Wisconsin. The flowage is also home to herons, black terns, merlins and an occasional cormorant.
Shorebirds and migratory waterfowl use the flowage as a breeding and staging area as they pass through the state. Nesting waterfowl include mallards, wood ducks, hooded mergansers, ring-necked ducks, and Canada geese.
In addition to the many birds, the flowage is also home to deer, bear, raccoon, fisher, beaver, otter, and other furbearers as well as many species of reptiles and amphibians. On rare occasions, timber wolves and moose are sighted here.
The flowage has many quiet bays and islands to explore. There are ample opportunities to observe and enjoy wildlife in this remote and wild setting. Visitors are asked to approach wildlife slowly and quietly. Be particularly careful not to disturb nesting birds or animals with small young.
For the shoreline visitor, a self-guided auto tour booklet provides interpretive information on habitats and management of lands surrounding the flowage.The Dead Horse Lake Ruffed Grouse Demonstration Area near the northern edge of the property showcases management techniques and principles to promote grouse habitat. The area includes a number of trails where both hunters and hikers are welcome.
The Turtle-Flambeau has earned a reputation for providing the best of Northwoods fishing experiences. The flowage supports a diverse mix of native warmwater fish species including walleye, muskellunge, northern pike, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, lake sturgeon, black crappie, bluegill and rock bass. The flowage is best known for its superb walleye fishery; by far the most abundant game fish caught and kept. The prized fish reproduces naturally here and the waters produce many keepers.
Black crappie provide exceptional panfishing during the early summer months and through the ice. Like all crappie populations, they are cyclical, but when numbers are up, the fishing is tremendous. Muskies provide outstanding trophy angling. Anglers have caught muskies in excess of 50 pounds. Annual stocking supplements the limited natural reproduction. Smallmouth bass provide quality fishing when action is slow for other species. "Smallies" in the flowage are exceptionally heavy fish for their length.
Special regulations aim to further improve the average size of walleye, smallmouth bass and crappie in the flowage. Because of its unique character and outstanding qualities, special size and bag limits will help to assure the flowage's continued status as one of the best fisheries in the state. Consult the Wisconsin fishing regulation pamphlet for complete regulations and watch for special regulations posted at the landings.
For brochures and other information to plan your outing to the Turtle-Flambeau Scenic Waters Area, contact the DNR Ranger Station, 3291 State House Circle, Mercer, WI 54547; (715) 476-2240. Information on area resorts is available from the Mercer Area Chamber of Commerce, Highway 51, Mercer, WI 54547; (715) 476-2389.
Roger L. Jasinski is property manager for the Turtle-Flambeau Scenic Waters Area in Mercer.