Wolf River Fly Fishing
by Jeff Grossman
Wisconsin’s Wolf River is in many ways an enigma. Its history is long, but shrouded in legend and folklore. It is a western-style river in the middle of the Midwest. It is a stunningly beautiful place the early Menomonee called “Maquai o oshi piome” (wolf, his river). In places you can see it as wild as it raged hundreds of years ago. Its trout are equally mysterious, although, like the fly fishers, they are comparative newcomers.
Many people fish the Wolf River, but few people fish it very well. It is not a particularly difficult river, but Wolf River techniques and tactics are not obvious to someone fishing the river for the first time.
The Wolf River rises in the marshes near Crandon, Wisconsin, and grows into the mighty river that empties into Lake Poygan near Oskosh. Its 34 miles of trout water lie entirely within Langlade County, from Pearson to the northern boundary of the Menomonee Nation. Although some of the best water lies in Menomonee county, non-Menomonee are currently prohibited from fishing these waters. The Wild and Scenic River is a 90-minute drive northwest from Green Bay, and 3 1/2 hours north of Milwaukee. The Wolf is classic freestone water flowing through thick forest, with 16 named rapids, long flats, deep pools, and riffles full of mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies, midges, crayfish, and minnows. Probably the most fascinating feature of the river is the huge boulders throughout the river. In fast or deep water, these boulders are favorite lies for trout.
The Wolf River contains browns, brookies, and rainbows that average 10 inches, but fish up to 24 inches are caught every year. All the fish are strong fighters, and can be especially tough to land in heavy water. Historically, browns have dominated the main river, and brookies maintained a foothold near the tributaries. The Department of Natural Resources has reduced its put-and-take stocking of “catchable size” (10-12 inch) brown trout and are now attempting to produce a naturally reproducing rainbow population. Through the 1997 season, rainbows from 12 to 15 inches were being routinely caught, indicating some success so far. A persistent smallmouth population is currently on a downward spiral, and catching a smallie is a comparatively rare event.
Currently, the Wolf cannot produce enough trout to populate the river adequately. The question of whether habitat improvement can ever get the Wolf to be a wild trout river will be answered in the future. The local TU chapter has funded three berms which narrow the river, reversing the damage caused by nineteenth century log drives, which created long, shallow “heat sinks,” which certainly hinder trout populations. Some stretches of the river can be 200 yards wide and six inches deep–not exactly trout water. Narrowing these stretches will not only improve fishing on these stretches, but will improve the river below by providing cooler, aerated water.
A downstream, swinging wet fly or nymph is probably the single most effective tactic on the Wolf. On many very productive rivers, covering the water well is more important than covering a lot of water. This is not the case on the Wolf. The fish can be scattered, and very few lies will be productive every time out. So, fishing to a lot of water is vital for success.
Depending on the conditions, weighted flies, wraps of weight, split shot, or sinking lines may be necessary to present the flies to the feeding level. It is not always necessary to have the flies bouncing bottom, as the fish are usually fairly aggressive and will move to intercept swinging flies. To make this cast, direct the line approximately 45 degrees downstream. Mend upstream or downstream to slow or speed the swing of the flies. A general rule is that when the water is cloudy, the fish seem to prefer a slow swing, where a quicker swing will produce more fish when the water is clear.
The downstream swing will work both as a searching method and during hatches. When searching, make sure to make multiple presentations around the boulders, as these are prime holding lies. When fishing the swinging fly, fish out every cast, as fish will follow the fly through the swing, and will often strike when the fly begins to rise. It can be frustrating to fish the swing, because you will feel a lot of strikes, but sometimes you won’t hook many fish. Generally, it’s better use either a slip strike or no strike, rather than setting the hook by raising the rod.
Pocket picking is very effective. I like to approach pockets from below or across, if possible. The force of the water combined with the depth at which most fish hold means that the trout can be approached quite closely. For most of my pocket picking, I’ll have less than ten feet of line and leader out of the rod tip. My favorite fly combination is a bead head nymph and an elk hair caddis. Just lower the flies into the pocket and drop the leader to the water–the flies will get a perfect drag free float. When the flies begin to be drawn into the fast water, simply raise the rod tip. Often, fish will grab the dry fly as it rises off the surface. Repeat this tactic above, to both sides, and behind every rock and obstruction in mid-stream.
When the water is high, there’s very little surface activity and the fish are usually in the deep pools. Conventional tactics usually aren’t very effective, so it’s time to go to the heavy metal. Big, heavily weighted stonefly nymphs are my personal favorite, but any big, quick sinking fly will be effective. In addition, high density or lead core lines can help cut through the fast water. It’s not uncommon for me to fish with two or three twists of lead on my leader, a Brooks Stone, and a lead core line. When using a combination like this, it’s important to keep casts short and under control. Spooking fish will not be your chief concern–getting the fly to the fish is!
Finding fish is always important, but the Wolf’s fish aren’t where most fishermen would expect. In most rivers, banks hold the majority of fish, but, in the Wolf, they hold very few trout. The edges usually are slow, shallow hiding places for minnows, crawfish, and frogs, and can occasionally be nighttime hunting grounds, but rarely will trout venture there during the day. Instead, fish will concentrate toward the middle of the river, where the water is deeper, and the current brings them a steady food supply.
In the deep, tea-colored water, fish are hard to spot. You’ll almost never be able to see a whole trout. Instead, try to see flashes (as the fish turns or opens its mouth), shadows (on the bottom), or parts of fish (head, tail, or fin) sticking out from hiding places around the rocks. Most of the time, you’ll just fish the places you know should hold the fish.
The Wolf’s abundant hatches tend to make the angler focus on hatch-matching. Much of the time, though, there will be little insect activity, and attractor patterns can be deadly. Wolf River trout are quite willing to take dry flies whenever the river drops below about 450 cubic feet per second. Ideal dry fly fishing usually occurs between 250 and 400 cfs. Low riding dry flies are the most effective, in sizes 8-12 for early season fishing and 12-16 later in the year. A couple of my favorite patterns are the Elk Hair Caddis (tied with an orange body) and a Gary LaFontaine pattern, the Orange Double Wing. Orange is a very important color for the Wolf River, especially in early morning and in the evening. The river will almost seem to glow in the orange light of evening, and orange color in flies becomes a very important triggering characteristic.
On overcast or rainy days, the value of flies like Cap’s Hair Wing Adams becomes apparent. A gray or brown colored dry fly is a very consistent producer even on days with no apparent hatches. The Wolf River has a lot of predators–osprey, bald eagles, and otters–which make the trout wary in the bright sun. When the weather turns nasty, the fish become more willing to feed steadily on the surface.
Flexibility is a must. Rarely do the same tactics and flies work as effectively from one day to the next. A section that features hot action on dry flies one day may require nymphs or streamers the following day, or possibly even be so slow that it is necessary to move to a totally different place. Different approaches include: fishing at a different level (dry, wet, or bottom bouncing), changing size or color of flies, fishing a different water type (riffles, pools, flats, and pocket water), or giving a fly more or less movement.
Avoiding floaters (rafts, canoes, and kayaks) is as important to catching fish as the ability to cast. To find solitude on the river, it’s necessary to understand when and where the traffic is the heaviest. A vast majority of floaters come during the summer months, and are especially active on holiday weekends. On weekdays, they are generally not a problem.
If you do want to fish on a summer weekend, it is still possible to find solitude. The major launching points are the Irrigation Hole, the Highway 64 bridge in Langlade, and “Herb’s Landing” above Garfield Rapids. If you stay well downstream of these points in the morning, or fish above the Irrigation Hole at any time, you will be able to fish in relative peace. The major take-outs are the Hwy. 64 bridge and the Hwy. M bridge. As the first rafts approach, driving upstream past the advancing crowds will again put you in quiet waters. Kayaks and canoes are fairly common throughout the river, but usually are quiet and give you plenty of space. Rafters are folks out for a day of fun, so you should not expect them to know stream etiquette. They often cannot control the raft very well, so it’s important to be aware and move out of their way.
Wolf River hatches can be awesome events in themselves. The spring hatches, beginning around May 15, can trigger the best fishing of the year. Conditions, however, can be extremely difficult to predict at this time of the year, and the hatches can be delayed or advanced by up to two weeks.
Although the Wolf is technically open for catch-and-release fishing in March and April, conditions usually make fly fishing difficult, if not dangerous. During warm spells, midges begin hatching and trout will feed on them. This is one of the few times that trout will feed in the slow margins of the river.
If the spring run-off ends soon enough, the Hendrickson (Ephemerella subvaria) hatch can provide some excellent fishing. Often, heavy water will prevent the trout from rising, and nymphing is the tactic of choice. Soon after the Hendrickson hatch has started, the Sulphur hatch begins (Ephemerella invaria, rotunda, and dorothea). If conditions permit, this is the finest hatch on the river, and it is relatively easy to be successful, because the trout seem to prefer the duns and are quite aggressive in feeding. Any good mayfly imitation will work, but yellow-orange patterns seem to work best.
While the Sulphur hatch is underway, other important insects are also start hatching. Gray Drakes (Siphlonurus quebecensis), Brown Drakes (Ephemera simulans), Eastern Salmon Flies (Pteronarcys dorsata and pictetii), and Grannom Caddis (Brachycentrus) all qualify as super hatches. Siphlonurus are most important as spinners, which can blanket the river and produce “gulper” feeding by big trout. The Brown Drakes seem to take over the river the week they hatch, and the fish feed very selectively upon them.
Unlike the Western Salmon Fly, which produces some great daytime activity, the eastern fly is generally nocturnal. However, an early morning angler can sometimes catch the end of a stonefly hatch and score big with a nymph swung toward shore.
Caddis hatch almost constantly from May through September, and the most common is the Grannom, which is a steady food source. The LaFontaine Bright Green Emergent Sparkle Pupa is a great imitation, and it also serves as a searching pattern throughout the spring and summer. That pattern and the Deep Sparkle Pupa will cover a variety of situations and keep the number of patterns in your box to a minimum. It isn’t uncommon to see trout only a few feet apart selecting different insects to feed on, so close attention to choosing the correct pattern–and putting it a the right depth–can pay off.
Sulphur Dun Ephemerella invaria, rotunda, dorothea May 15-June 15 #12-#16 Bead-head Hare’s-ear Nymph; #14-#18 yellow/orange Compara-dun or Sparkle Dun; #16-#18 Rusty Spinner
Hendrickson Ephemerella subvaria May 15-June 30 #12-#14 Bead-head Hare’s-ear Nymph; #12-#14 light gray Compara-dun, Sparkle Dun, or Parachute Adams; Cap’s Hair-wing (clipped on bottom as a spinner imitation)
March Brown/Gray Fox Stenonema vicarium May 15-June 30 #10-#14 Bead-head Hare’s-ear Nymph; #10-#14 Parachute Adams or Cap’s Hair-wing
Gray Drake Siphlonurus quebecensis May 25-July 25 #12-#14 Bead-head Hare’s-ear Nymph; #8-#10 Parachute Adams or Cap’s Hair-wing (clipped on bottom as a spinner imitation)
Brown Drake Ephemera simulans June 1-June 30 #10-#12 dark brown Baby Bunny Leech; #10 dark brown Compara-dun, Sparkle Dun, or Cap’s Hair-wing; brown Clear-wing Spinner (hackled and unhackled)
Yellow Drake Anthopotamus myops, verticus June 15-July 15 #10-#12 Baby Bunny Leech; #10 The Mess; #10 gray/yellow Compara-dun or Sparkle Dun
Mahogany Dun Isonychia bicolor June 15-July 15 #10-#12 brown Bead-head Twist Nymph; #10 The Mess; #10 dark brown Compara-dun, Cap’s Hair-wing, or Sparkle Dun
Hexagenia Hexagenia atrocaudata August 1-August 21 #10 Gary Borger Strip Nymph; #10 yellow and cream The Mess; #10 light green/light gray Cap’s Hair-wing, Compara-dun, or Sparkle Dun
White Fly Ephoron leukon August 1-August 31 White #12 Baby Bunny Leech; White #12-#14 CDC Emerger; White #10 Compara-dun, Sparkle Dun, or Cap’s Hair-wing
Little Sister Sedge Cheumatopsyche spp. May 15-June 30 #14-#16 bright green Deep Sparkle Pupa and Emergent Sparkle Pupa; #14-#16 Elk-hair Caddis
Green Sedge Rhyacophilia fuscula May 15-June 30 #12-#16 Bead-head Metallic Caddis; #14-#16 bright green Deep Sparkle Pupa and Emergent Sparkle Pupa; #14-#16 Elk-hair Caddis (bright green body, brown wing)
Spotted Sedge Hydropsyche spp. May 15-July 15 #14-#16 brown and yellow Emergent Sparkle Pupa; #14-#16 Elk-hair Caddis (yellow body, brown wing)
Grannom Brachycentrus spp. May 15-July 15 #10-#12 Cased Caddis Larva; #12-#14 bright green Deep Sparkle Pupa and Emergent Sparkle Pupa; #14-#16 Elk-hair Caddis (bright green body, brown wing)
Little Black Sedge Chimarra aterrima, socia June 1-August 15 #16-#18 brown or black Deep Sparkle Pupa and Emergent Sparkle Pupa; #16-#18 black Elk-hair Caddis
Great Brown Autumn Sedge Pycnopsyche lepida August 1-August 31 #4-#6 ginger and Emergent Sparkle Pupa; # 4-#6 Elk-hair Caddis
Eastern Salmon Fly Pteronarcys dorsata, pictetii May 15-June 15 #2-#4 Brooks Stone or Natural Drift Stone; #4-#6 orange Stimulator
Eastern Golden Stone Phasganophora capitata June 15-July 15 #6-#8 Brooks Stone or Natural Drift Stone; #6-#8 light brown Stimulator
Great Brown Acroneuria lycorias July 1-July 21 #6-#8 Brooks Stone or Natural Drift Stone; #6-#8 brown Stimulator
Little Yellow Stone Isoperia spp. July 15-August 30 #14-#16 Brooks Stone or Natural Drift Stone; #14-#16 bright yellow Stimulator
Boldface type indicates the most important Wolf River hatches. Dates are approximate.
The White Wolf
The predominant Fall hatch is the Ephoron leukon, known locally as the White Wolf. It can be a frustrating hatch, because the water temperature can exceed 75 degrees at times, causing the trout to seek cool water and not feed. A sunny August day can raise the water temperature by as much as 15 degrees in some sections, so even a cold night is not a guarantee of good conditions for the hatch. When the conditions are right, the hatch requires very accurate presentation and a good imitation.
Terrestrials can become very important in September and October, but unlike a lot of rivers, grasshoppers are seldom important. Ants and beetles are the primary food for trout in the fall. Streamer fishing is also very effective as the larger fish start to concentrate more on minnows and crayfish. The fishing can remain good from the end of the regular season (September 30) until the end of the extended season on the Wolf, which ends on November 15.
The trout water section of the Wolf parallels Highway 55 from the Menomonee Reservation to Lily. Except as noted, access sites are on the east bank of the river, off Highway 55. Posted land is rare along the river itself, but if in doubt, Wisconsin law allows free wading of all navigable waters. So you’d only be trespassing when walking on shore.
Big Sheen Rapids
Take Highway 55 south from Lily and turn south (right) on Wolf Road. Access is at the Wolf River Landing. There are couple of nice runs upstream, a terrific hole within casting distance of the parking lot, and fun pocket water downstream. This site provides easy access to some very good fishing, and is a very good choice for days when there’s a lot of boat traffic on the river.
Burnt Point Rapids
Take Hollister Road west from Highway 55. This is one spot I will fish every year, and almost every trip. Wonderful pocket water, productive runs, and terrific riffle sections make this my favorite place to bring fly-fishing friends. Two of my biggest Wolf River fish came from this section of water, and it fishes well all the way downstream to the next access. A lot of people make the mistake of fishing the slack water upstream on the east side of the river, which has a good supply of splashy chubs, but the trout are usually concentrated in the pocket water here.
The Irrigation Hole access is on the west side of Highway 55, three miles north of Langlade. This is the end of the catch-and-release section. There’s so much great water around this access that it would be impossible to pick my favorite part. The Irrigation Hole itself features some deep water ,and big trout that are easier to spot than catch. Hemlock Rapids is about a 45 minute hike upstream, and gets very little pressure. The flats above and below the Irrigation Hole are almost uncharted territory for fishing, but there are some deep holes waiting for the angler with the patience to learn them. Downstream, the Sherry Rapids area is all but unfished, and has always been productive for me.
Rocky Rips Access
There are two Department of Natural Resources (DNR) accesses on Rocky Rips Road, which is south of Highway 64 and west of Highway 55 in Langlade. I enjoy wading this section any time the water is at a reasonable level. The dry-fly fishing can be unbelievable, even though this section gets more pressure from the locals than some of the other water on the river. Bob Talesak’s Wolf River Fly Shop is on this stretch of rapids. The entire stretch is productive, with enough pocket water to fill days of fishing.
This access is two miles west of Highway 55 on County Highway M. Look for the access sign. This is a launch point for some of the raft trips, but is also available as a fishing access. Upstream is the latest Trout Unlimited berm, which fixes the worst “heat sink” on the river. The fish are just starting to repopulate this section, but it should continue to improve. Fishing is good through Garfield Rapids downstream, and upstream to Spring Creek.
County Highway M Bridge
This access is at the bridge 1/4 mile west of Highway 55 on County Highway M. This is a major take-out point for rafters, so it gets mobbed between 1 P.M. and 6 P.M. on most weekends. This is a great spot for beginners, and very easy to get to. The area right at the bridge gets a lot of pressure from bait fishermen so you’ll do better if you walk upstream or downstream a ways before you begin to fish.
Mike’s Mobile at the corner of Hwy 64 and Hwy 55 sells flies, rods, reels, and some other supplies, and can provide limited river information.
Bob Talesak runs a weekend-only fly shop, located on Rocky Rips Road in Langlade.
Before you go, check the U.S Geological Survey flow gauge on-line.
Wayne Anderson and Gary LaFontaine’s Fly Fishing the Wolf River cassette tape (part of the River Rap Series, #A111. $13.95. 1-406-443-1888) is the single best source of information about the Wolf River. It also contains a pattern list, hatch chart, commentary, and a map.
Jim Humphrey and Bill Shogren’s Wisconsin & Minnesota Trout Streams : A Fly Anglers Guide provides a 10-page description of the Wolf and plenty of information on other local streams.
Cap’s Hair-wing Adams
HOOK: Mustad 94840 #8-18.
THREAD: Black 6/0.
TAIL: Stiff deer hair.
BODY: Same as tail.
WING: Same as tail.
HACKLE: Brown and grizzly.
Cap’s Hair-wing Adams is an excellent fly for the Wolf River. It’s a good attractor fly–especially on overcast days–as well as a general imitation of several of the important mayflies on the river. It’s durable, and fishes well, even when chewed up. Most importantly, it floats like a cork through the heaviest water. Its design was a dual effort by Cap Buettner, a legendary flyfisherman and conservationist, and Ed Haaga, an equally renowned fly tier.
Use thread to build a tapered body on the back 2/3 of the hook. Measure and stack a clump of deer hair about 1 1/2 times the hook length. The deer hair should be pencil-thick on a #10 fly and thinner on smaller flies.
Tie the deer hair on top of the tapered body, wrapping the thread back to the bend of the hook. Use only enough pressure on the thread to compress the hair, not cut it. Take three more wraps near the bend to secure the hair, and add a drop of cement at the tail.
Wrap the thread back to the front of the body, and trim the butts closely. Tie in a hair wing, dividing the wings. Leave a short, stubby bit of material (about 1/8 the length of the wing) when you trim the butts of the wing to suggest the beginning of the thorax.
Tie in one grizzly and one brown hackle, and wrap 3-4 turns with each, finishing with the grizzly in front. Some tiers cover the body with head cement, Dave’s Flexament, or acrylic.