Sunday, January 29th, 2023
Sunday, January 29th, 2023

Breaking News for

Sportsmen Since 1967

Oconto River parcels to gain more public access

Fall is an ideal time to sample Iron County’s picturesque trout streams.

By Greg Seubert

Contributing Writer


Oconto, Wis. — Trout anglers in northeastern Wisconsin will soon have more access to two branches of the Oconto River.


Oconto County recently bought a 251⁄2-acre parcel with 1,000 feet of frontage on the Oconto’s South Branch, while a Florida couple donated a half-acre parcel on the North Branch. The county bought the South Branch parcel in the town of Breed from Donald and Helen Vande Hei, of Seymour. Alan and Kerry Kassander of Clermont, Fla., donated the North Branch parcel.


A Knowles-Stewardship Grant Program grant of $55,405 covered half of the $105,000 price of the South Branch property, located about a mile east of the Oconto/Menominee county line, northwest of Suring.


Another $30,000 came from county forest land acquisition funds. Several groups, including Wisconsin Trout Unlimited, the Oconto County Sportsman’s Alliance and Oconto River Watershed, Marinette County and Green Bay TU chapters, chipped in $35,000.


Oconto County Forestry, Parks and Recreation Department Director Monty Brink said the county plans to harvest a red pine plantation on the parcel.


“Red pine is not the greatest species for wildlife and hunting, but it’s a highly sought-after species for the timber market,” he said. “We saw the opportunity to have another plantation.”


The Vande Heis approached the county about two years ago, according to Brink.


“They saw the conservation value of it. They had the land enrolled in the Managed Forest Law,” he said. “They were conservationists themselves and saw the opportunity with either the DNR or us. The DNR wasn’t interested, so they came to us. Over the course of two years, we applied for grant funding through Knowles-Nelson Stewardship and got enough tax levy dollars to come up with the 50-percent match and was finally able to close this year.”


Wisconsin’s Managed Forest Law program encourages sustainable forestry on private woodlands. Landowners pay reduced property taxes in exchange for following sound forest management.


Brink expects the sale of timber to eventually pay for the cost of the land.


“There’s about 251⁄2 acres of land, plus whatever the river is,” he said. “With the red pine plantation, our estimates of the volume coming out of just that stand alone should pay for itself in two thinning cycles. Our cutting cycles are anywhere from 10 to 15 years apart. The county will recoup its purchase price within 15 years.”


The property is adjacent to the DNR-owned South Branch Oconto River State Fishery Area.


The county’s plans include a small parking lot near the intersection of County Trunk AA and South Branch Road.


“The current process right now is the town right-of-way for South Branch Road used to go north through the property,” Brink said. “They abandoned that and made it a 90 on County AA. We’re in the process of talking to the town and trying to get a lease from the town to develop the old right-of-way as a parking area. Maybe this fall, winter or early next spring, we can get a development in there for parking. Right now, you can park on the town road or the county highway and walk in.”


Besides fishing, the property will be open for snowshoeing, hiking, hunting, trapping, and cross-country skiing, Brink said.


“We’re going to enroll it in the county forest program so it’ll be open to all of those and manage it for timber production,” he said. “On the County AA side, we’ll develop that little parking area to allow people to access the river.”


Greg Sekela, chairman of the county board’s forestry and parks committee, fishes the South Branch often.


“That South Branch has been quality for years and it’s really coming back,” he said. “It kind of went downhill when they stopped stocking for so many years. We’re working with a sportsman’s club and they’re donating more money to develop a parking area. We’ll probably put some picnic tables there and make it nice for people to go to.”


The South Branch Oconto River State Fishery Area is adjacent to the Vande Hei property and includes several parking areas and access points to the river.


“With their parcels, you’re walking in a little bit to get to the river,” Brink said. “This is the closest to the road you can get to access the river.”


The South Branch is managed as a trophy trout stream in Oconto County from the Menominee County line downstream to Hwy. 32. Anglers are restricted to artificial lures and two trout per day (12-inch limit).


The state fishery area doesn’t get a lot of fishing pressure.


“I saw four or five cars opening day in the parking lot off of (Hwy.) 32,” Sekela said. “The second day, there was one car. They caught some nice browns there opening day.”


The river’s fishery includes brook and brown trout, as well as smallmouth bass, suckers, carp and baitfish, according to Sekela.


“Primarily, it’s browns and brookies,” he said. “About three or four years ago, the Lakewood hatchery reopened as a joint venture between the DNR and a private conservation group. They have been stocking about 5,000 fingerlings a year into the South Branch in Menominee County. They have been stocking browns and brooks. It’s pretty wild back in there and you have to use a heavier test line to get through all those alders because those browns – some of those go over 20 inches – they’ll wrap you around those tag alders and you’re done if you can’t horse them out.”


The purchase wouldn’t have happened without the donations from the private groups.


“I want to give a big shout-out to the private groups that helped us,” Sekela said. “They donated $35,000. That’s a lot of money. The county share was $30,000 of taxpayer money. Squeezing that out of the Oconto County Board was quite an accomplishment. We talked them into it because there was some extra land that will produce some timber revenue in the future that will eventually pay for it in the long run.”


The Kassanders first contacted the DNR about the North Branch property, Brink said.


“The landowners have been in Florida for 10 to 15 years and weren’t going to come back to Wisconsin,” he said. “They were looking to donate it. They contacted the DNR and the DNR real estate agent forwarded their email to me, as it was outside of their land project boundaries.”


DNR staff were at the in June 17 to mark the wetlands before the county built a driveway, parking lot and trail.


“We’re going to make a small parking area so people aren’t blocking the road and a walk-in trail down to the river,” Brink said. “I have a county conservation aid grant to fund that parking lot this year. I have to have that completed by June 30 of next year, but my plan is to do it this year, probably this fall.


“On the Kassander parcel, we’re going to make room for one car to park there because it’s a small parcel,” Sekela said. “It’s pretty remote.”


The property is located on Section 4 Lane, also known as Forest Road 2067, just west of Hwy. 32 and Hwy. 64 in the town of Mountain. That stretch of the North Branch has daily bag and size limits of three fish and 8 inches, respectively, for trout. The river has brook, brown and rainbow trout.


Oconto County deals with land purchase offers from time to time, Brink said.


“It probably happens more than people know,” he said. “The locals hear about it, but it doesn’t get statewide recognition. I don’t know why, but they’re coming a little more regularly. We had three land purchase opportunities last month and we’re pursuing one of them. Last year, we had two and didn’t pursue either.


“A lot of it depends on location and funding,” Brink added. “Being in the county forest land program opens us up to grant opportunities. It has to fall within certain criteria to apply for that stewardship money.”


“Having access to lakes and rivers is really tough, especially quality fisheries because everything seems to be overfished when you get on public land,” Sekela said. “We are engaged in doing that. We took two parcels on the Second South Branch right on (County Trunk) W – one’s on the north side and one’s and the south side – and that gives us access. I said, ‘No, we’re not going to sell that, we’re going to provide public access.’


“We also took a parcel in Little Suamico,” he said. “It’s 40 acres of wetlands and swamps, but it’s full of pike habitat and that’s going to be public access as well. We’re doing more than just trout fisheries.”

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