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History written on its banks | The fishery after logging
The fishery today
In-stream habitat restoration bolsters fish populations
Fishing and floating the Wolf
A large stream with whitewater, big trout, room to cast, and relative solitude: That's the Wolf River, one of Wisconsin's favorite wild gems for fishing and water recreation. The upper Wolf in particular offers thrills for anglers ready to challenge wily brown trout.
The idea of creating a fishery area on the upper Wolf – a river that has begun to naturally recover, but still bears scars from intensive logging that cleared Wisconsin's northern forests in the late 1800s – was first considered by the Wisconsin Conservation Commission in the 1950s and '60s. In June 1966, the Upper Wolf River Fishery Area (UWRFA) was established to provide fishing and other recreational opportunities on a large trout river with long, undeveloped stretches. Management aims to maintain and restore the waterway's scenic and aesthetic qualities.
To date, the Department of Natural Resources has purchased 9,173 acres from willing sellers within the area's boundaries at a cost of $6,619,101. More than 50 buildings have been sold for salvage or removed and the sites were restored with native vegetation. When it is complete, the UWRFA will encompass 14,178 acres, including river frontage on 93 miles of stream.
History written on its banks
No mention of the Wolf would be complete without recognizing the people who lived from it and on its banks first. The Menominee consider the main stem of the Wolf River sacred and their stewardship of the river continues today. The tribe manages the Wolf River in Menominee County, and the river there has Federal Wild and Scenic River status.
European settlement of eastern Langlade County and southern Forest County began in the mid-1800s, the start of Wisconsin's logging and lumber boom. One J. Gilmore was sent up the Wolf River to look into the feasibility of improving the Wolf for log drives and to estimate the cost. At the point where the Langlade and Menominee county lines join, Gilmore found the river full of large boulders and overgrown with cedar trees. Thinking the river ran underground, he reported back in Shawano that logs could never be floated down the Wolf River. The spot is still known as "Gilmore's Mistake" to this day.
The Wolf River Improvement Company was formed in 1870 and a series of 15 dams was built to float logs downstream through the rocky rapids to sawmills on the lower Wolf. Major dams were built at Post Lake, Lily, the Larzelere Dam at Langlade, and the Gardner Dam above Garfield Rapids in Langlade County. Fallen trees were cut from the banks and large boulders four to eight feet in diameter were dynamited to open a channel for driving logs.
Twenty years of log drives down the Wolf River changed the physical dimensions of the stream channel. The loggers first cut tracts of timber nearest the stream. Logs were rolled on traverses and sleighs, and dragged to the river by horses and oxen. This was the era of cutover and get out. As a consequence, the Wolf became flatter, wider, shallower and warmer. The thousands of acres in the watershed cleared of virgin forest could no longer hold water and soil, causing larger floods, erosion and sedimentation in the channel. Gone were the cool shaded banks, fallen trees and overhead cover, boulder hiding spots and many of the fish native to the Wolf River and its tributaries.
The fishery after logging
In 1894, angler Dr. Alfred Hinde of Chicago described a fishing trip on the West Branch of the Wolf River: "Found fishing rough, fighting brush, mosquitoes, etc. Stream hard to wade, too deep at some places. Had to use worms; fly-fishing impractical. First day 95 trout...334 trout in 3½ days for 3 men, largest 1½ pounds."
The good doctor was fortunate to have fished the Wolf at the time he did. The river's once-abundant trout populations declined in the decades following the logging rush. Water in the river's wide, shallow flat stretches warmed above the tolerance level of cold-water species, and few places offered secure overhead cover for fish to set up housekeeping.
The shallows were also a problem in winter. Fish need deep pools and springs to take refuge from anchor and frazzle ice, which form in shallow stretches during sub-zero weather. Anchor ice forms on streambed rocks and other materials when the ground gets substantially colder than the water flowing over them. Frazzle ice is a milky-looking mix of water and ice that forms in rapids and riffles due to turbulence on really cold days. The sharp, needle-like crystals can cut gills and kill fish that can't get out of their way. Without deep-water hideouts, fish can't avoid the huge, slushy underwater ice clouds or the ice jams that can occur during freeze-up and again in the early spring.
During the 1950s several small habitat enhancement projects were constructed in the Wolf River near cold-water feeder streams and groundwater sources. A dragline was used to dig pools and construct islands. The intent was to provide thermal refuge for trout and other cold-water species during temperature extremes. The pools have maintained their depth and the constructed islands and current deflectors are covered with a mixture of grasses and woody vegetation.
The fishery today
The Wolf has major cold-water tributaries with good populations of trout today. The Hunting River, Ninemile Creek, Spring Creek and the Lily River are the major feeder streams in Langlade County. Within the UWRFA, there are 135 seeps, springs and unnamed feeder streams that come from the west side of the Wolf River and another 65 that feed from the east side. These small feeders range from tiny trickles to streams with significant flows of 2-3 cubic feet per second of cold, alkaline spring water. Many contain brook trout fingerlings.
Fishermen today find mostly brown trout in the main channel of the Wolf in Langlade County, which is considered a cool-water fishery that provides good fishing as a result of a long-term stocking program by the department and conservation groups. Brook trout are found near the mouths of cold feeder streams and in the main channel during early spring. The other significant game fish in the upper Wolf River is the smallmouth bass. It is found throughout the Wolf, but does best in boulder-strewn areas and loves woody debris in the water.
The upper Wolf River has a wonderfully diverse and abundant insect population, with 91 species of aquatic insects. Hungry fish munch on major hatches of mayflies, stoneflies and caddis flies; anglers who follow the hatch will enjoy some of the best fly-fishing in the state.
In-stream habitat restoration bolsters fish populations
Wisconsin's trout management program has long focused on habitat improvement and protection. Deepening the channel, restoring pool-riffle sequences, narrowing the channel without removing the floodplain, increasing the meander pattern of streams, restoring streambank cover and in-stream cover are recognized methods of improving habitat for fish.
In 1993 the Wolf River Chapter of Trout Unlimited (TU) and the Department of Natural Resources embarked on a large-scale restoration project upstream from Burnt Point Rapids near Hollister. A quarter-mile stretch of the river was deepened and meandered, and boulders and fallen trees were placed in the channel for cover. Today the islands and current deflectors are covered with well-established grasses, alder and ash trees. One goal of the project was to deflect the majority of the flow to the shaded west bank, where several cold-water feeder streams join the river.
DNR personnel carefully monitored the restoration area. Its success prompted two larger projects, which were completed in 1995 and 1996. The sites selected for habitat management have been adjacent to farm fields in old logging flowage basins, or above significant rapids. It was a practical decision. Historically, the most degraded areas on the Wolf had been above dams and rapids in the old logging flowages. Logs used to jam upstream of the rapids and dams where sediments piled up. The cleared farm fields provided easy access points to bring in heavy dredging equipment without disturbing the forest by constructing trails and roads.
Another project was completed in 1999. DNR fisheries crews, Endangered Resources staff, Menominee tribal environmental staff and TU were concerned that disturbing sediment in the channel might affect nongame fish species and aquatic insect communities. A state threatened species, the pygmy snake tail dragonfly (Ophiogomphus howei), is found in the upper Wolf River. DNR and tribal environmental teams are monitoring these concerns.
Support for in-stream management work on the Wolf River has come from TU, the Fly Fishermen's Federation, paddle sport enthusiasts and others who recognize that the river's channel was altered by past disturbances. Restoration crews follow best management practices. They were careful to steam-clean excavators used in the water and to regularly check the equipment for oil and fuel leaks. They also built downstream sediment traps where the water slowed. They did the restoration work during late summer after major insect hatches were over and workers promptly seeded and mulched exposed soil areas.
Endangered Resources staff have several concerns about in-stream dredging projects on rivers as large as the Wolf. Most in-stream projects to improve fishing conditions are made on smaller rivers and streams. Northern fisheries crews have done projects on other rivers damaged as a consequence of past logging such as the Oconto, Prairie, Plover, east branch of the Eau Claire, the Bois Brule and the Namekagon. Several DNR programs are collectively examining how shifting river channels change conditions for downstream invertebrates. They are also surveying aquatic populations before and after restoration projects to note changes. These surveys will help assess consequences of creating artificial islands.
Islands provide great angler access to adjacent deeper pools, but other things can happen. In one case, dredging equipment hit a pocket of clay that wasn't adequately contained by downstream sediment traps. In some past dredgings, the new islands vegetated with the invasive plants purple loosestrife and reed canary grass that were well established in the area previously.
It's a learning process. Now islands and current deflectors are quickly seeded with annual rye grasses after they are created. Then the islands are planted with native grasses, sedges and aquatic plants purchased from nurseries within the Wolf River watershed. Wild rice beds have been established in slack water areas.
The constructed islands and deflectors remain stable and intact, even after high water flushes through. The majority of the river flow stays in the shaded west channel. The river is about 3-4° F colder in the deepened channels along the shaded banks.
The improvements to the fishery were dramatic. In May 1995, before the project began, DNR fisheries personnel used electrofishing gear to survey 4,000 feet of the Wolf River (including the 1996 project area). The crew captured 11 brown trout, one brook trout and no smallmouth bass. Three years later, an angler caught four brown trout, one brook trout and 32 smallmouth bass within the project area in just two hours of fishing. Admittedly, that's not a very scientific sample, but the deepened channels have proven to be too deep and the currents too fast to sample with traditional fisheries electrofishing gear. Similar projects on smaller rivers like the Hunting and Prairie rivers resulted in 300-600 percent increases in the number of trout larger than 14 inches. It will take longer-term surveys to gauge lasting changes on vegetation and insect life on the Wolf River, but clearly, improved habitat means improved fishing.
High quality water, proper land use in the watershed, restrictive harvest regulations and stocking are all important factors in fisheries management – but if in-stream habitat isn't there, the trout won't be there either. By fine-tuning the methods we use to provide or maintain habitat one reach at a time, the Upper Wolf River Fishery Area will continue to offer great fishing, solitude, fine boating, a place to see nongame species and enjoy other outdoor experiences for years to come.
Peter Segerson, a fisheries technician who works on the Wolf River, is based at DNR's Antigo Service Center.