Reckless boaters pushing fishermen off Wolf River

Dan Hansen

Contributing Writer

Fremont, Wis. – The annual walleye and white bass spawning runs
have, for decades, drawn thousands of anglers to the Wolf River.
However, many veteran Wolf River anglers now stay away because they
fear for their safety.

Matt Harp, president of the Lake Poygan Sportsmen’s Club, said
boat traffic has become increasingly congested, resulting in a
reduced margin for operator error, which creates a threat to
safety.

“Speeds of watercraft have increased to dangerous levels, which
also poses a threat to the safety of all those using the river,”
Harp said. “Also, bow waves generated by many of the craft have
caused, and continue to cause, significant erosion of the river
banks and the destruction of fish and wildlife habitat along the
entire river.”

Dan Rudebeck, the club’s habitat restoration coordinator,
contends the increase in traffic, boat size, and speed, especially
south of Fremont, during the past 20 years has made things more
hazardous for fishermen and others.

“It has gotten to the point,” Rudebeck said, “that small boats,
including 14-foot fishing boats, canoes, and other small craft, are
not safe on this part of the river on weekends and holidays.
Something needs to be done to correct the situation.”

Rudebeck also has noted a drop in the number of anglers on the
river.

“Family fishing outings are likely to be unpleasant at best when
anglers are faced with high-speed craft passing close to them and
with high wakes that toss the average fishing boat like a leaf in a
windstorm,” he said.

“I’m nearly 63, and my balance and reaction time have begun to
show the effects of aging,” Rudebeck said. “A friend, who is 80,
was knocked off his boat seat by a wake this spring. He ended up on
the bottom of the boat on his knees, and another angler had to come
to assist him in getting back up and safely seated. I hate to think
that I may someday have to quit fishing the river because someone’s
boat wake might cost me my life.”

Barrie Lutze, of Waupaca, has fished and boated on the Wolf
River for more than 35 years.

“I’ve had numerous encounters with boats traveling at high
speeds that came dangerously close to me while I was fishing,”
Lutze said. “One of the worst incidents was last fall, as I was
drifting at Templeton Bayou, a no-wake area. A 21-foot Rinker made
such a wake that it just about knocked me out of the boat. When I
looked back to try to get the number, I saw their wake had swamped
a 14-foot boat with two elderly men. They had to bail water.”

Phyllis Neuschafer, who lives on the river south of Fremont,
used to take her young sons to the dock to fish and swim. “However,
this is now impossible as the boats come so fast and close of the
dock,” she said. “My husband and a friend witnessed a speeding boat
capsize a fishing boat. They saved the two fishermen, but the
speeding boat went on its way.”

Gary “Chico” Chikowski and his wife, Julie, have owned a boat
landing and bait shop at Orihula for 10 years. Both have witnessed
smaller boats nearly being overturned by larger craft.

They said they support the rights of the wake-boarders, skiers,
and the owners of larger crafts. But the think there are more
appropriate bodies of water nearby – Partridge Lake and Lake
Poygan, Butte des Morts, and Winnebago – that can support these
activities without endangering smaller craft.

“The scariest boats are the large off-shore I/Os that we call
cigarette boats,” Rudebeck said. “I have seen them weave through
smaller boats that were fishing the hole above the Rat River. This
is illegal, of course, but try to get a number in that situation.
We only used to see a couple of these big boys during a summer, but
now they’re on the river every weekend and many weekday
evenings.”

Jeff Knorr, DNR conservation warden, has documented many boats
traveling at high speeds, including one this summer taking a corner
near Boom Island at more than 60 mph.

Knorr also has investigated recent crashes. One occurred in late
September when a 42-foot Fountain with twin 500-hp engines was
traveling over 50 mph around a blind curve.

“The operator lost control when turning sharply, the boat went
airborne, flipped, and landed upside down partially on shore,” he
reported. “Three occupants were ejected with just the operator
receiving a laceration to his back. It will take a barge with a
crane to move it.”

While some place blame for these conditions solely on boaters,
Rudebeck acknowledges that most are courteous and aware of their
responsibility. “But there are some who cause problems, and they
need to be reined in,” he said.

Also causing problems, according to Rudebeck and others, are the
many fishing tournaments that draw contestants from all over the
state. These boats, while not as large as the recreational
watercraft, are equipped with engines up to 300 hp and hit speeds
of 70 mph.

“I have been on the river when these anglers take off from
wherever the tournament of the day is located, and have had boats
pass within 6 feet or less of me while traveling at very high
speeds,” Rudebeck said. “This type of behavior demonstrates no
respect whatsoever for my safety, and I would hate to think of what
could happen if one of these boats was to collide with a family in
a small boat out on the river for a weekend fishing trip.”

Is there a way to ensure the safety of the family in a 14-foot
fishing boat, while still keeping the Wolf River open to cruisers,
ski boats, and other large craft?

Some call for more boater education and more enforcement of
current laws and local no-wake ordinances. Others see a need for
new laws, including a speed limit, such as the one proposed by the
Waupaca County Legislative, Safety and Judicial Committee.

Rudebeck suggests the solution may be similar to that employed
on a 7-mile stretch of the St. Croix River in northwestern
Wisconsin.

“The U.S. government declared that stretch a ‘scenic river’ and
put it under federal protection,” he said. “The no-wake restriction
became a 24/7/365 rule, and a moratorium on building along the
shore was also put in place.”

He said predictions that the action would spell disaster for
businesses along the river missed the mark.

“A few years later, traffic on the river had increased and
businesses were thriving,” he noted. “Many people who had formerly
been discouraged from coming to the river by the bad behavior of
uncontrolled users now found it to be a congenial place to pass a
day or a weekend.

“Everybody won,” Rudebeck said, “because the situation became
fair for all. The river won, too, because the destruction that had
been taking place prior to regulation was halted.”

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