Exploring The Flambeau & Namakagon Rivers in Northern Wisconsin
Aldo Leopold was worried about the future of the Flambeau River.
In A Sand County Almanac, he explains how his father “used to describe all choice camps, fishing water, and woods as ‘nearly as good as the Flambeau.’” The father’s reverence is reflected in the son’s description of his own canoe trip on the wild river years later.
The essay ends, however, with an uncertainty about the future – as a political battle was still raging in 1947 over preserving the free-flowing Flambeau River versus developing it for hydropower.
The good news is that the impoundment of the Flambeau did not unfold as Leopold feared. The lower Flambeau is mostly “flowage” behind two dams above Ladysmith, but the North and South Forks of the Flambeau above the fork (or confluence) remain wild, and wildly popular for canoeing and fishing.
I wanted to visit the Flambeau to experience the river Leopold had described, and see what had happened in the nearly 70 years since he penned the essay. In March, I called the Flambeau River State Forest Headquarters to get assistance planning my trip. Curtiss Lindner and Judy Freeman helped me get my bearings, and then put me in touch with Ron Weber, who had taught high school science for 20 years, including A Sand County Almanac.
Ron was an enthusiastic Leopold fan like me. And he was very excited about my Storied Waters tour.
To my surprise and pleasure, Ron offered to personally show me the Flambeau, and maybe even paddle a section if the weather and water cooperated. He also asked if I had ever read any stories by one of his favorite authors: Gordon MacQuarrie. I had not.
“Well,” he said, “you need to get ahold of his Sporting Treasury book and read ‘Now, In June.’ It’s about trout fishing on the Namakagon River, not far from the Flambeau. My family has a camp near there. You can come stay with me and I’ll take you to the spot where the story takes place.”
I downloaded the book from Kindle and read the story. I loved it. More on MacQuarrie and the Namakagon in a minute.
On Friday afternoon, I met Ron at his Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) office in Ladysmith. He is a tall, lanky man, about my age, with a ready smile and long, easy stride.
He had told me earlier in the week that the Flambeau was running very high, so canoeing and fishing it were probably not a preferred plan. He would show me around, and then take me up to his camp to fish for trout on the Namakagon River, which was a more fishable flow.
Ron took me first to Little Falls and Slough Gundy on the South Fork of the Flambeau. This is a funny coincidence because I often fish at Slewgundy on the Dead Diamond River in the Dartmouth Grant.
Little Falls was roaring with tea-colored water. I could see and feel the wild river that Leopold admired, although this was likely not the section where he paddled in his story.
We decided to make some hopeful casts for smallmouth bass in the strong eddy above the falls near Slough Gundy. We had no luck, but it was worth the shot.
Next stop was the State Forest HQ on the North Fork in Winter, Wisconsin, where we met Dianne Stowell who talked with us about the beautiful canoe campsites along the river in the State Forest. She also told me about the wildlife in the forest, including elk, which were reintroduced to the area in the 1990s. Her husband is the elk biologist on the Forest.
I knew that there are wolves in this part of Wisconsin, but had no idea that elk (Cervus canadensis) were again wandering the woods. Dianne had recent photos of several elk in the Flambeau valley. I am sure that Leopold would be thrilled to know that a major species like elk was again part of this impressive wild ecosystem.
Ron and I decided to leave the Flambeau and Dr. Leopold behind (although we continued to talk about him for the next day or so) and try to get to the Namakagon River to fish before dusk.
Gordon MacQuarrie was a Wisconsin writer, a contemporary of Corey Ford, who is not well known by people east of the Great Lakes. MacQuarrie’s best known stories feature the semi-fictional and humorous Old Duck Hunters Association, which is quite similar to Ford’s Lower Forty Shooting, Angling and Inside Straight Club. MacQuarrie also dazzles with his fishing tales.
Here is a taste of MacQuarrie’s writing:
“I’m for filling frying-pans, you understand. But only now and then. More often I’m for picking out a trout so smart he thinks of running for the legislature.”
“Trout waters can be very personal places. The best trout streams are the ones you grow up with and then grow old with… and you think maybe before you die you will even understand a little about them.”
MacQuarrie’s “Now, In June” takes place near the tiny town of Cable, by a bridge that Ron and I crossed to scramble down the bank into the river. As we watched from the bridge, trout were rising steadily in the foam line to a steady hatch of mayflies and the occasional caddis. The sky was darkening more from an approaching thunderstorm than from the setting sun.
We sloshed through the weeds along shore and waded carefully to the head of the pool above the bridge. I picked a spot near the base of two small islands, which created triple channels that merged together with multiple seams in the current. Fish were working in every seam.
It didn’t take long before I had my first Namakagon brown. Not big, but brightly colored. And soon enough, I had three more, all about 12 inches and on a single #12 Adams dry fly, before the thunder rolled ominously enough that we decided we should try to avoid electrocution, and get ourselves some dinner.
At the tavern near Ron’s camp on Namakagon Lake, I ordered the Friday fish fry of local walleye. While we were waiting for our meals, Ron’s nephew Gary came in with two friends – Dan & Chris – who were up for the weekend to fish for muskies and northern pike on lake, and replace the well-worn carpeting in the camp with new flooring. The five of us had a cozy time squeezed in while the work was underway, but graciously my hosts gave me my own bedroom, so I slept like a rock.
After coffee on Saturday morning, Ron and I went out in his boat to try casting on the lake, hoping to tempt any one of a half dozen game fish to our fly: muskies up to 50 inches are in the lake, northern pike over 30 inches, smallmouth up to four or five pounds, crappies, walleyes, and bluegills. With all that competing fish-flesh, we had to get something, right?
Wrong. No luck for us, but it was fun trying. Later in the day, Gary and the boys hooked a few northerns, but apparently the lake water is still fairly cold, so the fish are less active. C’est la vie.
After a quick lunch, Ron took me out to find brook trout in 18 Mile Creek in the Porcupine Lake Wilderness Area of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. On the short drive there, we crossed the Great Divide, which separates water that flows to the Mississippi from land that drains to the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence River and the north Atlantic.
18 mile creek is a tiny tannin-stained stream, only five to ten feet wide in some places, that runs through mature forest. Casting was impossible, so we just flicked our flies out into the current and let our line run downstream.
No more than 50 yards from the road, I caught a beauty of a brook trout, just 5
inches long, on an elk hair caddis fished wet. This was a fun change of pace that yielded another half dozen brookies (and one chub) for the two of us. After two weeks of catching brown trout, it was a joy to see some small wild brook trout again.
Back to the camp we went for a quick dinner of brats (yes, this is Wisconsin!) and hot sausage cooked on the grill, before we motored back to the Namakagon for the evening hatch. Mr. MacQuarrie’s spirit was again alive and well, keeping us company as we geared up by the bridge. We started higher up stream, where Ron caught a couple, before I moved back to the same pool as the night before.
The fish were pickier tonight, scorning my fly most of the time, until a fat 13” brown took me for a fun run around the pool. As dusk grew thicker, I caught one more, while thinking of MacQuarrie’s words.
“I have caught more fish than I deserve to catch. And always and forever, the good ones like this fellow put me on edge, send me hippity-hopping to a boulder or the bank to sit down and gather my wits… It was getting on toward 10 pm, which is the time you quit on trout streams in Wisconsin.”
Ron and I headed back to camp. We sat and chatted for a bit before bed. I was so impressed with Ron’s excitement about my trip, and all he did to show me his piece of Leopold and MacQuarrie country. He was an engaging and thoughtful host.
After a hearty breakfast, I was headed east toward the morning sun, brightened by Ron’s generosity, and such a memorable stop on the Storied Waters tour.