Wednesday, February 8th, 2023
Wednesday, February 8th, 2023

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Willow Flowage, Oneida County

Willow Flowage maintaining its walleye, panfish reputation

By WON Staff

Acreage counts vary rather sharply for western Oneida County’s popular Willow Flowage, with some assessments listed at 4,217 acres and others reaching to more than 6,000 acres. No matter the acreage, one thing is for sure – the Willow Flowage ranks right up there with the top waters in Wisconsin when it comes to fishing and scenery.

Then, in the fall, the Willow Flowage Scenic Waters Area lends itself to hunting, whether it be for waterfowl, ruffed grouse, deer or bear. With limited development and access, the Willow Flowage Scenic Waters Area surrounds this island-studded reservoir. The property includes 73 miles of shoreline (95% of which is undeveloped), 106 islands and seven boat landings. There are 37 rustic campsites scattered along the shoreline and islands. All campsites are marked and accessible by watercraft.

The Willow Flowage dam was built by the Wisconsin Valley Improvement Company in 1926, creating the lake. The dam is located on the Tomahawk River downstream from its confluence with the Willow River. The dam was built to provide uniform flow in the Wisconsin River. Stumps, submerged timber and shallow rock bars pose potential navigation hazards and caution should be used when boating on the lake.

The Willow Flowage is also home of the state record bowfin (dogfish), which was caught in 1980, but that’s not the main reason anglers put “the Willow” on their list of lakes to fish. No, the  Willow’s walleyes, crappies, bluegills, perch, smallmouth bass and even muskies attract the fishermen.

But, for anyone looking to break the state dogfish record, the Willow is as good a bet as any other body of water. Kevin Kelch’s 1980 fish weighed 13 pounds, 1 ounce, according to the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward.

Local DNR fisheries crew members still do see some big dogfish out there during their spring netting surveys and fall electro-fishing surveys. Anglers catch dogfish from time to time, but so far no one has taken the time to weigh in a big dogfish if they caught one heavier than the current record.

One note on dogfish; they are not a rough fish and even though they might look a little sinister, there is no reason to kill or injure a dogfish before returning it to the water.

The Willow Flowage remains a very popular fishing, camping and hunting destination. The DNR operates a number of remote campsites on the flowage. Many anglers who fish the flowage liken it to being in Canada, what with its rocky shoreline, islands, towering pines and lack of development. The Willow Flowage, the Rainbow Flowage (also in Oneida County) and the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage in Iron County, make up a triumverate of wild reservoirs that will remind anglers of fishing across our northern border.

The Willow has always been known for its walleyes and panfish. Over the past few years, muskies have been added to that list.

The DNR started stocking muskies steadily in the Willow Flowage in 2004. Prior to that, the agency and some private interests had made some fry stocking over the years, but the Willow had never received what might be called “serious” muskie stocking. The Willow has always had some muskies, some of which could have come from natural reproduction, or they were fish that moved down the Tomahawk River from the Minocqua chain of lakes that includes Minocqua, Kawaguesaga, Tomahawk, Little Tomahawk and Mid.

The Willow has been stocked at a low rate of one-quarter fish per acre every other year since 2004 with a goal of maintaining a low-density population with trophy size potential.

The biggest muskie handled in a DNR survey several years ago taped 52.8 inches.

Although the flowage is known for its walleyes and panfish, anglers may well be surprised by the largemouth bass and smallmouth bass fisheries. The smallies, especially, have come on over the last 15 to 20 years and can be found on just about any of the Willow’s abundant rock bars, humps and rock/gravel bars.

It can be difficult for local DNR fish teams to gauge walleye populations since many of the flowage’s walleyes run up into the rivers and streams to spawn. Fyke netting the main body of water still turns up fish, but there is no good way to gauge just how many walleyes leave the flowage to spawn. 

The crew typically nets or shocks up male walleyes running 12 to 16 inches; females 18 to 20 inches. They don’t often see walleyes longer than 25 inches. The team usually finds fairly solid signs of good walleye recruitment by way of strong numbers of young walleyes every fall.

The Willow has a good populations of pike and panfish.

All game fish and panfish species appear healthy when handled by crew members. Panfish growth rates have been described as through the roof.

Willow Flowage

Nearest town………..Hazelhurst

Surface water…………4,217 acres

Maximum depth………….30 feet

Water clarity……….Light brown

Fish species present:

Black crappies, bluegills, rock bass, pumpkinseed sunfish, yellow perch, bullheads, bowfin (dogfish), largemouth, bass, smallmouth bass, northern pike, walleyes, and muskies.

For information:

DNR regional fisheries office (715) 356-5211, the DNR website, or call Kurt’s Island Sports Shop, at (715) 356-4797.

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