“Hey… g’morning Dad…“
You grumble as you shuffle-step over to the coffee pot to get a bit of java.
“Morning bud“, he replies.
It’s just now 6:00 am, but Dad has been awake since 4:30. There is a crisp breeze coming through the windows. It’s refreshing, but a good reminder to bundle up a bit… it’s going to be chilly on the lake, even though the sun is finally poking up over the pine trees.
The surface is calm.
Well… aside from the occasional strike as a panfish or smallmouth snaps a bug off the top of the water.
Even though Dad gave up coffee some time ago, he graciously prepared a pot so that you could enjoy a cup before the two of you hit the water to begin your annual “exploration phase”. It’s the first day here in Wisconsin after yesterdays 7 hour drive up from the cesspool known as Illinois, and you need to knock the dust off and get out on the lake.
“So, what are you thinking we start with this morning?“, you ask as you noisily slurp the piping hot liquid while sucking in air, attempting to avoid burning your tongue (unsuccessfully)… even though you already know what his answer will be…
“Deep weed edges“, he replies. “I grabbed half a pound of leeches before the bait shop closed yesterday, so we might as well use them. Dan said that fishing has been tough this year due to the heat… these leeches aren’t going to last long, and after this batch he’s saving what he can get his hands on for the guides.“
You quickly look up from your coffee.
“No more leeches after this batch? That could make things… interesting… I mean leeches have been our most productive method for years now.“
“Yup. I grabbed a few crawlers though, so we’re good.“
This is good, however… crawlers are challenging to use. Panfish magnets. While they may usually perform better than plastic, the amount of time you have to spend re-rigging fresh bait on your jigs makes it almost a wash.
“I think I’ll opt for plastics“, you say out loud as you consider your options. Putting worms back on a jig every 2 or 3 casts does not appeal to you at the moment, especially considering your first cup of coffee isn’t even gone yet.
“Suit yourself – let’s get out there.“
The two of you grab your gear and head towards stairs that lead from the back deck down to the water where the Smoker Craft is tied up. She’s still covered, which means the interior will be free from dew. With a few quick movements you pull the cover off, toss your poles & tackle in the back, and Dad fires up the 90 HP Merc.
One shot is all it takes.
The 2-stroke motor vibrates back and forth, filling the air with that familiar smell of gas & oil as you as you idle next to the dock looking at the depth finder, mentally charting a path.
Without saying a word, you push the front end of the boat away from the dock and out into the channel, while Dad kicks the motor into gear.
The sun is a bit higher now, but as you look out ahead you can see that there is a rolling fog rising and moving across the still-calm water.
As you putter out of the channel and into the deeper water, you realize something else…
It’s finally time.
After 50 weeks of waiting in Illinois – the two of you will fish Wisconsin again, just as you have in years past.
Dad drops the throttle and the motor pushes you back into your seat, and as the boat gets on plane your excitement builds at the thought of setting into a monster smallmouth, pike, or even a good walleye.
It’s been too long… and it’s time to get to work.
The Manitowish Chain O Lakes near Minocqua, Wisconsin
I’ve been visiting the Manitowish Chain O Lakes ever since I was a boy. My grandfather bought a little green house in the channel between Rest and Stone Lake, and we would visit for several weeks every year because… well… Grandpa didn’t charge us rent.
That meant it was a vacation we could afford.
When I was a wee lad, I only had the patience to fish from the dock. There were visible weeds and a ton of perch, bluegill and pumpkinseed ready and willing to smack a crawler. Fat rock bass as well. All were aggressive and more than enough to keep my extremely short attention span entertained before our daily dip in the lake.
As I got older though, I wanted to catch bigger fish… like what Dad was catching… but it would be some 20+ years before I would really develop the patience and knowledge necessary to complete this task.
My family became extremely attached to the chain, and we continued to visit until I left for college. Grandpa sold his house around this time as the market was primed. He made a tidy sum, but as the years passed, we would look back at all of the photos and talk about what we would give for “just one more visit“.
Well, 7 or 8 years later, the family tradition was brought back like a phoenix from the ashes, and it continues to this day.
Shortly after we started going back to the chain, I actually proposed to my wife in a boat on Island Lake.
For some reason she said yes… and she’s been exploring the chain with me every summer since – even continuing to fish while pregnant.
Speaking of exploration, the chain itself is awesome, and it’s made up of a series of 10 lakes. If you are like me, you’ll appreciate the beautiful mix of both complexity and accessibility. Lots of structure both shallow and deep, lots of fish-holding areas, and lots to explore.
Lakes include (in no particular order) Rest Lake (809 acres), Stone Lake (139 acres), Fawn Lake (74 acres), Clear Lake (555 acres), Spider Lake (272 acres), Island Lake (1023 acres), Manitowish Lake (496 acres), Little Star Lake (245 acres), Wild Rice Lake (379 acres), and Alder Lake (274 acres).
Common species include musky, pike, smallmouth & largemouth bass, walleye, perch, bluegill, rock bass, crappie and more.
The chain is located in Manitowish Waters in Vilas County, Wisconsin, United States. While it is indeed known for its fishing, the Little Bohemia Lodge on Little Star Lake is where John Dillinger had his famous shootout (naturally, the movie Public Enemies was filmed there).
The lakes are fed by the Manitowish River, which drains into the Chippewa River basin and ultimately the Upper Mississippi River.
Fishing the Lakes this Year:
I am writing this article less than 24 hours after returning home from the Manitowish Chain O Lakes for the year, and it is very fresh in all of our minds. The fishing this year was TOUGH, but also EXTREMELY REWARDING. My wife caught some great fish, as did several of my sons – and of course… Dad landed the biggest fish.
What’s different though is that this year we taped a lot of the action, and you can see for yourself much of what we love about the chain by starting with the video below, then clicking over to this YouTube channel.
I post weekly videos fishing both Wisconsin and Illinois – bank fishing, kayak fishing, jon boat fishing – you name it – and soon we’ll be adding several trips to Arkansas as we get ready to move south. I have to do some recon later this year and we’ll be taping some fishing on Bull Shoals.
Help Preserve Everything About This Place
There’s so much more to say… but for now, let me leave you with this: if you get the chance to fish this chain, do so. Take care of it. Clean it. Don’t bring invasive species in on your boat, or in your livewell. Release fish that don’t fall within the slot limit, or that are too big to put on the table. Instead, release those big boys and girls back into the fishery to breed, so that our children may enjoy this special place like we do.
Leave it nicer than you found it… and maybe I’ll see you on the water.
Godspeed & tight lines!
Next: Have You Ever Caught CRAPPIE This Way? Don’t tell your buddies…
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