By Andrew Ragas
Bass fishing is becoming more accepted throughout Northern Wisconsin. Anglers who enjoy catching fish appreciate the abundance of smallmouth bass in many of the region’s lakes and rivers. With lots of fish around, this type of an attraction and resource makes certain water bodies dream destinations.
One smallmouth bass destination that’s always at the top of my fishing list is the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage, a 19,000 acre lowland reservoir (at full pool) located outside of Mercer, WI.
This majestic waterway located in the middle of God’s Country is a result of the 1926 construction of a dam to create a reservoir in order to generate needed power for the Flambeau Paper Corporation located 20 miles south on the Flambeau River in Park Falls. The dam created 19,000 acres of fishable water with 212 miles of pristine winding uninhabited shoreline, and 190+ islands. The Turtle Flambeau Flowage encompasses 16 natural lakes, three rivers (Manitowish, Turtle, Flambeau) and several creek arms.
Typically a 40 mile commute for me, this massive lowland reservoir in Iron County enables bass anglers to escape from the mainstream and angling pressure of popular lakes, allowing us to get lost in a wilderness setting that offers a natural, habitat-rich, undisturbed smallmouth bass fishing environment.
An entire season’s worth of adventures onto the flowage would never scratch the surface of all there is to see and experience. There aren’t many houses or resorts, and you won’t see many other boats, or bass anglers fishing.
Smallmouth Fishery Established
Before the year 2000, smallmouth bass were barely present in the system. Native to the Flambeau, Turtle, and Manitowish River watersheds, smallmouths were once a limited supply and never a flowage fishing attraction. But then some things happened and the rules changed.
The Wisconsin DNR spring catch and release seasons (since 1994), coupled with annual Native American walleye treaty harvests, created availability in the biomass for bass. These two events have gradually expanded smallmouth populations and helped create one of the best inland smallmouth bass fisheries in the state.
TFF smallmouths are exceptionally heavy fish for their length and robust in girth. Red in color, they’re an overweight, unique genetic strain of smallmouth that I have encountered nowhere else in the state. Their growth rates are above average, and incredibly fast for this species as fish commonly reach 14 inches in length by year-3. Average length fish run 14 to 18 inches with few ever surpassing the 20 inch mark due to their shorter lifetimes. However, if you catch one around 17 and 18 inches, I guarantee you that it’s going to be a four pounder. Smallmouths surpassing 20 inches roam the vast acreage of the TFF, but are ancient relics and rarities. If encountered, they will be very old fish that are in the 6 to 8 pound range.
Turtle-Flambeau smallmouth bass are very cooperative. I attribute their good behavior and responsiveness to the dark water clarity of the flowage and their shallow oriented habitats. Fish remain active even on the brightest days. Steady daytime fishing is usually the best. This sometimes makes dawn and dusk, and even lowlight conditions a disadvantage.
The best smallmouth fishing of the year takes place from ice-out in early May through the mid June early summer period. Rocks and boulders should be the primary focus.
You should have no problem finding their spawning and feeding grounds. There is no shortage of shallow rocky islands, bars, points, and rock-lined main lake shorelines on the TFF. If fishing during a high water year, flooded shoreline vegetation and wood becomes a factor too. The spring season hits a peak when water temperatures reach 55 degrees, driving majority of the smallmouths into the shallows, where they will spawn early at 60 degrees.
Spring smallmouths on the TFF will be angry and hungry, and catching them requires a lot of bank beating. Because its acreage requires me to cover water and search for fish, smallmouths are often enticed early by suspending jerkbaits such as Rapala X-Raps and Dynamic Lures J-Specs in yellows and oranges, and crankbaits like the Rapala DT-6 and Crankin Rap 05 in red craw colors.
If water levels are high, spinnerbaits such as Freedom Lures, swim jigs, and weedless swimbaits will extract fish from the flooded shallows. Once some consistency is had and more fish are located, I can then focus on other early season favorites such as a minnow imitating soft plastic that includes weightless fluke style minnows (Stankx Bait Company Jerx), and slow swimming the Kalin’s swimming grub. Jigging with craw imitating plastics such as Chompers skirted twin tail, and Stankx DD Tubez becomes an option too.
Combing through all the rock shorelines, rock points, and creek inlets of the Northeast Turtle River arm through Lake Bastine is a good early season milk run. This region warms the fastest, has the darkest water and most current, and is formed by a number of streams and inflowing creeks. This region is accessed by Lake of The Falls – Iron County Park, and Sturgeon Bay landing, and can be traveled quickly by carefully navigating along the contours of the old Turtle River channel. Another favorite early season path is zigzagging through the rock islands beginning at Fisherman’s Landing, working your way down into the Lake Ten area, and then returning clockwise along Big Island into Merkle Lake. Spots located along any old river and creek channel routes or adjacent to lake basins are often the best for smallmouths. Each run will take up to a full day to complete in its entirety. Respect these regions of the flowage for its navigation hazards, all of which are unmarked. Navigate slowly until the river channels and your course becomes established with your maps and GPS charts.
As the season progresses, smallmouths will use mid lake structures such as shallow rock humps (5-10ft) from summer into early fall. Additionally, there are fish movements taking place into the submerged stump fields of Beaver Flats and other isolated remnants into the Manitowish River, located in Murray’s Landing. Rocks and sand content enhance these areas. Pitching and flipping brush guard jigs and live bait rigs, Texas rigged plastics, and slow-rolling spinnerbaits will all take fish.
Throughout summer into early fall, young of year perch hatchlings and other forage species migrate into emergent weedgrowth located in the bays and pockets of the old lake basins. For these several weeks, and unexpected to many bass anglers, a lot of the flowage’s smallmouths will stay shallow all summer long, feeding on this abundant prey, and calling the jungle of cabbage beds, pondweed, eel grass, and reed beds their home. The dark water seems to keep them there. Prominent regions for this type of fishing are the east side of the flowage in Murrays Landing, the old Horseshoe and Townline Lake basins, Baraboo Lake, and Beaver Flats extending southward. We extract a lot of fish from these weedy habitats with topwaters such as Rapala Skitter Walks and X-Rap Pop’s, buzzbaits, spinnerbaits which includes Freedom Lures in yellow perch and gold patterns, swim jigs, and Mepps inline spinners and even musky size bucktails and topwaters.
By early to mid fall, fishing patterns and locations drastically change. Cooling water temperatures lead smallmouths into the deep contours and holes of former lake basins, deep rock humps, and pools of the river channels and its topographical bends. It’s a great time to be casting medium and deep diving crankbaits to search for these fish. Heavy schooling can draw hundreds of bass into areas out of the current flow with immediate access to deep water, and will serve as overwintering habitats. By this time of year, I’ve concluded with my bass fishing, but jigs with live minnows, redtails on Lindy or Carolina rigs, jigging spoons, and drop shot rigs can take fall fish.
Served by six major public boat landings, several campsites, and special bass angling regulations, the Turtle Flambeau Flowage offers anglers immediate access to some of the best inland bass fishing in the entire state. These qualities, which have been greatly influenced by the Wisconsin Valley Improvement Company and Turtle Flambeau Flowage Scenic Waters area, have made it one of the most affordable, timeless, quality and pristine trips a diehard smallmouth bass angler can make. Because of its unique character and outstanding aesthetics, anglers can be assured of the TFF’s continued status as one of the best inland Wisconsin smallmouth fishing destinations.