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Many Wisconsin State Parks have closed along with National Forest recreation areas, leaving many to seek different ways to enjoy the outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Wolf River, which starts in Forest County and runs through the entire length of Langlade County, offers opportunities to enjoy the beauty of the Northwoods while practicing social distancing.
The Wolf River at Gilmore's Mistake in Langlade County. CREDIT JIM SKIBO
Bill Kallner has been fishing the Wolf River for decades. Each time he visits the river he enjoys the beauty and solitude.
“What you may see out there—eagles, otters, bears—it is just phenomenal. The solitude. There are hundreds, thousands, of people who use it every year, you can still find a place all to yourself,” Kallner said. “It is always special.”
The river, as it runs through Langlade County, is accessible because the State of Wisconsin owns roughly 80 percent of the land adjacent to it. There are 14 access points along Highway 55 from just south of Pickerel all the way to the Menominee Indian Reservation. What Kallner and other anglers love about these 25 miles of the Wolf is the wonderful fishing. Native brook trout are plentiful and the DNR plants brown and rainbow trout.
“We have got good fishing throughout the length. From Lily on down. There is good fishing in all of it,” Kallner said.
What makes the Wolf River a great trout stream is its fast-moving cold water. Bill Livingston started fly fishing with his dad on the Wolf 60 years ago.
“Up and down the river between the upper Wolf River fishery and the Menominee Reservation there is probably 20 to 25 quite discernable rapids,” Livingston said. “Below each of those rapids and sometimes above are ideal holding patterns for fish.”
The Wolf River near Hollister Road. CREDIT JIM SKIBO
Kallner and Livingston are fly fishermen, which it means that they must wade into the river and get away from the bank to cast properly. So far this spring they have not yet been in the river. When I spoke with them, the USGS gauge at Langlade was reporting that the water was moving at 1500 cubic feet per second. When the water is moving that fast, they find it difficult to safely wade in the river. They wait until it gets to around 700 cubic feet per second. But Tim Waters has been in the water since the ice broke up several weeks ago. Years of experience and knowledge of the river permits him to do it safely.
“You can’t go to the same places, but you also need to know the river well, so you know the areas that you can go,” Waters said. “The fish are in different places too when the water is this high.”
Waters should know, as he has been fishing the river since the 1970s, and last year alone he logged 181 miles in his waders on the Wolf. He notes that you must be careful and you have to stay out of the fastest parts of the river. This is also one sport, according to Waters, where there are benefits to weighing more.
“Actually, I could use another 50 pounds and that would do me better,” Waters said with a laugh. “I’m about 200 pounds. The heavier you are the better off you are wading right now.”
If you are not as experienced as Waters, fishing from the shore with a traditional rod and reel works great too. Livingston explains.
“But spin fisherman have a little bit of an advantage. They can walk the shore and probably cast out a little bit easier.”
It is just catch and release fishing right now on the Wolf until the opening day of trout season on May 2. Then, one may also be rewarded with a gourmet trout dinner as well for your family. But whether you fish or just sit on a rock and enjoy the scenery, the 25 miles of river make it an ideal place for today’s social distancing. Waters rarely sees anyone on his trips.
“When you are up on the Wolf, you probably won’t even see anybody that day,” he said. “Not just on the river, but at the landing.”
“For me it’s not the trout. I think that was the attraction to begin with. It is not the fly fishing. It is not tying flies or making fly rods, though I enjoy doing those things. What brings me back to the Wolf is the Wolf,” he said.
Even as people in the Northwoods watch their habits change during a pandemic, the river stays the same. Even as life stops, the Wolf keeps flowing. Tim Waters believes it is a special place.
“I think about it when I’m not there. There is an attraction there that is hard to put your finger on. It is a place where you want to be once you have been there a few times.”