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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

October 1997

A meander through the Big Chip

The Chippewa Flowage, a watery northern maze of islands and floating bogs, beckons anglers and wildlife watchers in search of the finest nature can offer.

Ray Larsen

Tour the Big Chip | Camping on the flowage
Boating on the flowage | Big Chip wildlife
Fishing statistics | The flowage's future

The Chippewa Flowage: Perhaps no inland body of water in Wisconsin has more history or mystique. Under the water is the homeland of a proud people; in the water may swim the largest musky in the world. We look at the giant pines and try to imagine the stories breezing through their needles; overhead, an eagle shrieks in its boundless domain. We rekindle the cold campfire to brew that first steaming cup of coffee, glance at the boat tied to the log by our island campsite, and anticipate the upcoming try for a legendary world-record musky.

Yes, this is the way it should be. In northern Wisconsin, in the center of Sawyer County, on the lake and land of legends, the Chippewa Flowage.

The "Big Chip," a 15,300-acre impoundment, is Wisconsin's third largest lake. First filled in 1924, this sprawling water body has a highly irregular, wooded and generally undeveloped 233-mile shoreline. It's dotted with approximately 200 enchanting islands.

The flowage is renown for its spectacular natural scenery and excellent fishing. It has a national reputation as a top musky water, and provides some of the finest walleye fishing in Wisconsin. Its seemingly endless maze of islands, points, bays and channels, accented by birch, aspen and pine, offer visitors numerous opportunities for exploration, discovery and a feeling of intimacy with nature. Almost all birds and animals indigenous to northern Wisconsin are found within the area. Visitors rate the scenery, undeveloped wild character, uncrowded atmosphere and fine fishing as the Big Chip's most outstanding attributes.

A tour of the Big Chip

The rolling topography of the Chippewa Flowage is split into two basins by County Highway CC. Starting at the bridge in the center of the flowage, traveling southwest in a clockwise fashion, we find the CC South landing, the most-used public landing on the flowage. Then we travel down the first entrance to Scott Lake, the north shore of which shelters a great blue heron rookery. The big birds are especially lively during spring, when the raucous young demand food. To the west and south, we'd see shallow, secluded James Bay, a good fishing spot when the walleyes are active. Next is a Lac Courte Oreilles public boat landing near the Blueberry Bridge on Highway CC, a popular shore-fishing area. To the north are some private homes, a resort and mobile home park. Further north is the start of Tyner Lake, an old river channel meandering for about a mile to Chief Lake.

Chief Lake's east shore is totally undeveloped, but along its south and west shores, resorts are interspersed with homes and an RV campground. North of Chief Lake is a scenic, secluded island, an ideal wildlife sanctuary. We then pass the resort at the southern end of World's End Road and travel back through Tyner Lake to return to the main body of the flowage's western basin.

Swinging north, we travel through Chicago Bay and Minnesota Bay to the mouth of Crane Creek. We then begin our journey up Crane Creek; watching for beavers and eagles. Spring-fed Crane Lake is so crystalline it could be a Canadian trout lake, but it contains walleye, panfish, and maybe that world-class muskellunge. After cruising back down the Crane Creek channel and entering the flowage proper, we find the Crane Creek Island campsite, a secluded spot maintained by the DNR. About 200 yards east of this campsite is the 20-foot-wide slot that opens into Crystal Lake. This tiny lake is a gem hidden in the vast expanse of the Chippewa Flowage.

We next weave through an array of small islands and pass a public boat landing ringed by majestic pines known as CC North. Continuing east, we look south across the largest open water of the western basin. The high skyline far to the south is an east-to-west ridge, a good landmark for boaters. We pass an open grassy area near one of the longest operating resorts on the flowage. Going south, we return to our starting point for this half of the flowage.

The interior of the western basin has numerous islands and floating bogs. Over time, seeding occurs naturally on the bogs, and some now have trees that are 40 feet tall and a foot in diameter. The bogs shift at the slightest wind; they can block navigation completely between the two halves of the flowage, and close down landings, campsites, or resorts.

We pass under Highway CC, dodging the swooping swallows nesting under the bridge, and enter the eastern basin of the flowage. Going clockwise, we pass the largest private campground on the flowage, with about 120 campsites, plus cabins and RV hookups. This campground is also the location of "Fishing Has No Boundaries" Hayward Chapter, a three-day fishing event each May for anglers with disabilities.

We then round Sliver's Point and head north between the mainland and Ghost Island. Kavanagh Bay is nearly obscured by a floating bog. Panfish can be abundant in this area. Heading north, we pass several resorts and the Chief River tributary. In the northeast corner of Musky Bay lies the largest resort on the flowage. A man-dug channel allows us to encircle Darrow Island, proceeding east to Moss Creek Bay – more prime musky water. Hell's Half Acre, a stumpy, shallow area aptly named due to the hazardous travel, is next.

Further east, we travel up the Hay Creek portion of the flowage to the Hay Creek boat landing, passing a magnificent resort along the way and some year-round homes. To the south and east is a large expanse of water with Popple Island marking more well-known walleye and musky water. Moving south, we pass Wiener Island campsite and head through the Hay Creek Narrows – always a good fish producer.

Proceeding east, we round a large peninsula studded with homes and resorts. This takes us into Moore's Bay and one of the main tributaries, the West Fork of the Chippewa. Tannins from decaying vegetation in the tributary streams add a brandy tint to the water. The West Fork is rocky and serpentine; stick to the channel when boating up to County Highway B.

When we reach the rapids, we're at the far reaches of the Chippewa Flowage. Going back down the West Fork, we hug the eastern shore. The lands in this area are within the Chequamegon National Forest and are managed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). We see a white boathouse-cabin along the shore; back in the Roaring '20s, this was a hideout for gangsters. The deep, long bays offer ideal fishing. Here, tucked behind Big Timber Island, we find the "Nursery" – not a tree nursery, but a place for the Big Chip's muskies to grow.

Continuing south, we go through the Cranberry Lake area of the flowage – more good musky water – and then pass the island campsite known as Cedar Swamp. From here we see the long channel leading down to the East Fork of the Chippewa, and the Winter Dam. The East Fork is a rocky and hazardous area, but good for fishing.

The dam that creates the flowage is a marvel; it's amazing that a small plug like this can hold back such a sprawling mass of water. The dam construction started in 1921 and was finished in 1924. It was originally built by Northern States Power Company for flood control and to provide adequate flow during the winter. A settlement in 1984 provided for hydropower generation with the Lac Courte Oreilles Band (LCO) of the Lake Superior Chippewa; today there is a small electricity plant at the dam that provides income for the LCO.

Fishing below the dam can be excellent at times; many of the muskies adorning the walls of local businesses and homes came from this spot. Like any dam, conditions can be hazardous; obey all cautionary and regulatory signs when fishing here. Continuing north, the bank is steep; we'll notice an opening filling in with vegetation. This is the site of an old farm that was nearly submerged by the creation of the Chippewa Flowage.

Moving back to the basin and traveling another mile brings us to the largest part of the flowage. This area, known as "Post," was the homeland of the Lac Courte Orielles, who have lived near the headwaters of the Chippewa River since the mid-eighteenth century. The creation of the flowage covered the village, including the church and graveyard. The village was reestablished in the area known today as New Post. There are several resorts and residences in this part.

In 1825, 1837, and 1842, many tribes of the Ojibwa Nation, including the Lac Courte Oreilles, entered into sovereign treaties with the United States, ceding vast territories of land and reserving unto themselves significant rights and privileges. Please respect tribal property, rights, and customs when you visit the flowage.

Continuing north up the old Pokegama Lake, we could swing into Moonshine Lake, a massive, 92-foot deep lake. Straight north of us is the largest expanse of open water on the flowage. "Pete's Bar," a world-renowned site for battles between man and musky, is located in the northern part of this open water. To our left is the Gold Coast, an area containing many residences. The Highway CC bridge is next, and the journey around the perimeter of the eastern basin is complete. The interior of this basin contains a multitude of islands, the largest of which is "Big Timber." The southeast portion of this basin is the most wilderness-like of any area on the flowage; the visitor can travel for miles without seeing sign of human presence, except perhaps for a few other musky hunters.

Camping on the Chippewa Flowage

Camping is allowed at no charge on a first-come, first-served basis at 16 island sites accessible by water only. You may camp at any of the existing campsites designated on this map. You MAY NOT establish new campsites. Other experiences from rustic campsites to full hook-up facilities are available at private facilities on the flowage.

When camping at state sites, please follow these simple rules:

  • Pack out your trash. Garbage and recycling containers are available at the boat landings.
  • Be considerate of other campers. Keep noise to a minimum; leave the campsite as you found it.
  • Build fires in established fire rings only.
  • Do not cut standing or dead trees for firewood. Even dead trees provide nesting and feeding sites for certain wildlife. If camper firewood is not already at the campsite, please contact resorts, campgrounds, or other local concessionaires in the area.

There is a 10-day limit on camping at all state campsites within the Chippewa Flowage. The DNR regularly checks campsites and visitors may not leave unattended camping equipment to "save" a site.

Boating on the Big Chip

The flowage's stumps, logs, floating bogs, and rock bars provide good fish and wildlife habitat, but make boating hazardous in some places. Boaters should always exercise caution, especially in unfamiliar territory.

Wisconsin's boating regulations are strictly enforced, especially "speed that is no greater than reasonable or prudent." Remember, most people come to the flowage to enjoy a peaceful, "back to nature" environment.

The four DNR-administered boat landings are being upgraded. Boarding docks are being installed to ease access for all users, including those with disabilities.

Wildlife on the flowage

The waters and the surrounding lands of the flowage offer a variety of wildlife habitat. Animals that use both water and forest habitats to find food, nest sites, or shelter do especially well along the many miles of undeveloped mainland and island shoreline.

Great blue herons, mallards, wood ducks, and hooded mergansers are common. The bald eagle, common loon, and turkey vulture are also frequently spotted. Large numbers of waterfowl use the flowage during spring and fall migration. Over 130 species of birds have been observed on the flowage or in the nearby forests.

Many mammals also find a home here. Deer, beaver, otter, mink, and raccoon are fairly common and occasionally a black bear is reported. Most of the animals found on the flowage can be observed at close range if they are approached slowly and quietly, especially with a boat. Be particularly careful not to disturb nesting birds or animals with small young.

A flowage with a future

The Wisconsin DNR, USFS, and LCO are formulating a plan to guide the future of the Chippewa Flowage. The proposed Joint Management Plan focuses on protecting the unique natural character of the flowage, and maintaining the high quality of its natural resources and recreational opportunities. For instance, the first ice-fishing season for sport anglers in more than 50 years will open the flowage for limited bluegill and perch fishing starting December 1st.

Citizens played a valued, vital role in the plan's development by making comments and reviewing management alternatives. A volunteer citizen advisory committee continues to assist the DNR, forest service and tribe on flowage issues. Resort interests (through the Lake Chippewa Association) and the Chippewa Flowage Area Property Owners Association are also instrumental partners in flowage plans and management. Next August, area resorts and communities will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Chippewa Flowage. Come visit these magnificent waters and join the festivities.

For additional information on the Chippewa Flowage, contact:

DNR Hayward Ranger Station
10220N State Road 27
Hayward, WI 54843

Phone: (715) 634-2688

The fishery

The Chippewa Flowage offers diverse angling opportunities for a variety of species:

walleyemuskyrock basssturgeon
crappienorthern pikebullheadscatfish
perchbasspumpkinseed ---
bluegillminnowsredhorse ---
suckerscarp --- ---

Note: A sport ice-fishing season for bluegill and perch opens this winter on the flowage for the first time in more than 50 years.

Checking the flowage's creel

The results of the 1990-92 DNR creel census on the Chippewa Flowage predict the following:

SpeciesHours to CatchAverage Size
northern pike622"

These figures are long-term averages. Actual results will vary by year, season, angler, weather, food conditions, and fish population cycles. However, these figures are good benchmarks. Flowage catch rates and sizes are considerably better than statewide and regional averages.

The world record musky, at 69 lb. 11 oz., was caught here by Louis Spray in the 1940s. High rates of voluntary catch-and-release fishing on the flowage has created an outstanding fishery for musky in the 20-30 lb. class. The musky fishery is supported by successful natural reproduction and supplemental stocking.

First-time musky anglers should do some research before setting out: Talk to resort owners, guides, residents and other anglers to find out what the fish are hitting, where they're generally located, at what depth, and so on.

Ray Larsen is the Chippewa Flowage manager.