Jun 30, 2016

Community profile: Shawano County

By: Ross Bielema

The Wolf River, one of America’s designated National Wild and Scenic Rivers, and Shawano Lake, a paradise for boaters, waterskiers, anglers and beachgoers alike, form the epicenter of Shawano County’s recreational mecca. All life on earth depends on water, and hunters, anglers, boaters, ATV riders, hikers, snowmobilers and cross-country skiers all gravitate toward the beauty and bounty of these watersheds.

In minutes, Shawano County visitors can take the literal plunge in Class I to Class IV rapids on the upper portions of the Wolf, or relax on calm waters provided on the 6,215-acre Shawano Lake. The natural world beckons to all who visit this little slice of sportsmen’s heaven. Bring your shotgun, your deer rifle, your ATV and all the fishing gear you can carry, because they’ll all get plenty of use up here in the region bounded by the tall pines of the Menominee Indian Reservation, the cornfields and woods of Waupaca County and the legendary football legacy of Green Bay. Whether you come for fall grouse, pheasants, ducks, big bucks and walleye, winter predators and through-the-ice panfish and pike, spring turkeys or summer bass and catfish, you’ll never run out of fins, feathers and fur to chase.

Grab a quick bite to eat at one of the county’s many country cafes and restaurants (Friday fish fries are legendary, of course) or hit the Sunday flea market at the Shawano Fairgrounds for some deals and steals on old fishing, hunting and camping gear before venturing into the vast public acreages awaiting exploration. Try your luck at nearby casinos, including Menominee Casino Resort just over the county line in Keshena, North Star Mohican Casino near Bowler, and Ho-Chunk Gaming in Wittenberg.

Danny Steffens, a former tournament fisherman with the FLW and National Walleye Tour, grew up in the woods and waters of Shawano County, spending weekends with his family and friends at a cottage on Cloverleaf Lakes. “I pretty much cut my teeth in Shawano County,” Steffens, 57, a maintenance supervisor at Brakebush Brothers in Westfield who now resides in Green Lake. “I learned so much there. I would call it my childhood. There was nothing better than Shawano County. Nothing.” Steffens, a walleye expert who used to run a guide service and once knocked the legendary tournament angler Gary Parsons out of first place on Lake Erie, provided a virtual tour of the county’s many fishing and hunting spots. The real draw, Steffens explained, is that you can fish for walleye, largemouth and smallmouth bass, trout and even muskies, all within a few miles of each other. Few areas of the state can say the same. “It is all right there in your grasp,” he said. “I became a well-balanced fisherman because of these opportunities.”

Shawano Lake

Shawano Lake is the crown jewel of Shawano County’s recreational adventures. The spacious lake offers 9.65 square miles of fishing, boating, waterskiing, swimming and ice fishing in winter. The lake is up to 42 feet deep (average depth is 9 feet) and is home to walleye, perch, bluegills, crappies, northern pike, muskies, black bass, catfish and more. Rusty crayfish, zebra mussels, Eurasian milfoil and other invasive species have found their way into Shawano Lake. Boaters using the lake should check their watercraft for attached exotics that could be spread to other waterways without care.

The lake’s relatively sandy bottom (88% sand, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources) with the remainder mostly muck means that visibility in the water is low.

For links to a contour map and other Shawano Lake information, visit: http://dnr.wi.gov/lakes/lakepages/LakeDetail.aspx?wbic=322800&page=facts

The Shawano Lake shoreline, as well as many other area waterways, offer an impressive selection of private rental cabins and campgrounds. Accommodation amenities available include electrical hook-ups, water and a dump station for RV campers, plus public shelters, picnic tables and BBQ grills for the perfect shoreline picnic. Playgrounds will keep the kids entertained for hours. For a complete list of campgrounds, cottage rentals, and other accommodations, contact the Shawano Country Chamber of Commerce, 715-524-2139 or visit their website: www.ShawanoCountry.com.

Wolf River

The scenic Wolf River stretches 225 miles from Pine Lake in Forest County to Lake Poygan and Lake Butte des Morts near Oshkosh. The northern 24 miles is nationally designated as a Scenic River, one of just two in Wisconsin (the St. Croix River is the other). Not far from Shawano County’s border, you can ride a raft on wild rapids, courtesy of Mother Nature and the mighty Wolf.

Steffens spent many boyhood hours fishing on the Wolf, and you can too. Springtime means white bass and walleye here, while summer fishing leans toward smallmouth and largemouth bass, channel and flathead catfish, panfish and for the bow-and-arrow archer, carp, gar and other rough fish.

The nation’s largest population of lake sturgeon, the sacred fish called Nama’o by the native Menominee, depend on the Wolf River for breeding. They migrate north each spring from Lake Winnebago up the Wolf. Watch along the rocks in spring when the water begins to warm and you’ll see a commotion that draws crowds. Lake sturgeon spawning in the shallows draw people from surrounding states, and the volunteer Sturgeon Guards stand watch around the clock to ensure that no poachers disturb their amorous behavior. Their migration culminates at the Shawano Dam where spectators can view the ancient ones up close.

At Shawano Dam, biologists have netted and tagged lake sturgeon up to 250 pounds. Biologists use special radio tags to track the movements of these prehistoric fish, with special reading devices placed along the route recording each time specific tagged fish pass by.

Local Menominee Indians still consider the sturgeon sacred, and celebrate the big fish in dances, stories and an annual Sturgeon Feast. A Wisconsin Historical Society book explains how the sturgeon was nearly extirpated but came back because of combined efforts by Sturgeon For Tomorrow and other conservation groups: http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/whspress/books/book.asp?book_id=343.

Scientists from all over the world have come to study lake sturgeon in the Wolf and downstream in Lake Winnebago, where the total population stands at about 60,000 fish, the largest population on earth.

Bird life is abundant on the Wolf.  Birdwatchers, hikers and waterfowl hunters alike enjoy the sights of migrating and resident birds. Sandhill cranes are common, and bald eagles continue to expand their populations, frequently nesting near the Wolf and its backwater areas. Ospreys, a more elusive water predator, are occasionally seen as well, and also nest there.    

North Branch Embarrass River Fishery Area

The North Branch Embarrass River Fishery Area is a state-owned fishing spot where the angler will find largemouth and smallmouth bass, panfish, walleye, catfish and many other species. Portions of the scenic Embarrass are ideal for canoeing, kayaking, floating and birdwatching.

Navarino Wildlife Area

The state-owned Navarino Wildlife Area, located 10 miles south of Shawano, is a 15,000-acre paradise that includes sandy uplands, marsh, swamp conifers, bogs, bottomland hardwoods, pine plantation and aspen-oak forests. It stretches across southern Shawano and northeast Waupaca counties through the townships of Navarino, Waukechon, Lessor, Hartland and Matteson. The West Branch of the Shioc River and the Wolf River run through the property. This property is the most developed within the Lower Wolf River Bottomlands Natural Resources Area. Sportsmen using the area will find parking lots on McDonald, South Townline, Lessor-Navarino, Birch and Hwy. 156, Hwy. K, Two Creek, Wildlife and Swamp roads. The Navarino Nature Center is located on the property and provides picnic areas, restrooms, a parking lot, a nature center, a shelter and a cabin for education programs. There are hiking, snowshoe and groomed ski trails here. A canoe launch is available at the end of River Road and a boat launch is found at Hwy. 156 on the Wolf River.

Steffens fondly recalled hunting white-tailed deer in the Navarino marshes with his brother and father. When Wisconsin’s legendary gun season begins, each year, on the first Saturday before Thanksgiving, the smart, big-tined bucks head for the thickest cover they can, and that includes the swamps. Steffens recalled one hunt in particular. While his father waited on the perimeter, he and his brother donned chest waders and plowed into the swamp. They’d walk slowly through the water, listening for splashes and watching for the foggy breath of deer ahead. Their slug-equipped shotguns would fire, and they’d mark their successful shots with long strips of orange fabric to find the downed deer later. When he and his brother emerged from the swamp, his dad asked how they had done. They had dropped six deer for the group. Then the work began, returning to the marked areas to float the deer out via the property’s many streams.  

I’ve taken deer at Navarino myself. The vast property is intimidating at first, but with a good portable GPS unit or compass, exploring there is a big adventure close to home.

Waterfowl hunters will find mallards wood ducks, pintails, goldeneyes and other ducks (as Steffens and his friends did), plus Canadian geese when exploring the potholes and waterways there. A small canoe or johnboat can make the trek a bit easier. Waterfowl hunters should note that Navarino has a 1,000-acre waterfowl refuge within where duck hunting is not allowed, but deer hunting is.  The Wolf River as well as the Shioc River are teeming with walleye, bass, panfish and catfish, and will provide more solitude at Navarino than at other portions of these popular rivers.

J&H Game Farm

Bird hunters, looking to sharpen their wingshooting skills, or dog trainers, wanting to train their pointers or Labs on real pheasants, will find their paradise 1-1/2 miles west of Navarino (14 miles south of Shawano and 14 miles east of Clintonville) at J&H Game Farm. Jim and Joanne Johnson founded J&H in 1968, explained their daughter Diane Redmann, who now runs the 715-acre pheasant hunting and sporting clays facility with her husband, Steve. Assisting in launching the family business were Jim’s brother, Don, and Joanne’s brother, Bill.

Hunters and dog trainers can hunt a variety of corn and sorghum fields as well as natural brush in 5 to 15-acre parcels. The club releases a total of about 3,000 pheasants a year and offers 10-bird packages for $300 to members. Non-members also may hunt, but they pay $35 per bird.

Because it is a game farm, there are no bag limits and no hunting licenses are needed. Hunters who don’t have a dog can rent one from the club, and members with dogs who want to train their dogs in the off-season can use the club’s fields at no extra charge.

If you prefer shooting clay targets or just want to hone your shooting for the hunt, try one of J&H’s 11 different sporting clay courses that are fully automatic. Redmann explained that there are three different shooting boxes for each course (similar to golf with various tee boxes) to make increasing challenges for different abilities, and the targets can be launched in two different directions per station to keep the courses fresh. Sporting clays mimics a variety of hunting situations, with stations such as springing teal, running rabbits and wobble flurries. Brush and trees surrounding the target launch area make it more difficult to see the birds and get the shot off, just as in real hunting.

The club launches about 1 million clay targets per year, including a variety of local tournaments.

Since 1995, J&H has hosted the Wisconsin Ironman, which pays out about $14,000 annually in cash and merchandise prizes. The 300 competitors also shoot at matches in Medford and Wausau in addition to the event at J&H. This year, J&H’s portion of the event is April 30 to May 1.

Relaxation is the key to fun at the club and nobody ever goes hungry there, even if the pheasants give you the slip. Relax and have a sandwich, soup, homemade cookies and a cold beer in the 2,700-square-foot lodge, which has an open kitchen until 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. There’s also a pro shop for hunting and shooting gear. For more information, go to www.jhgamefarm.com.

Embarrass River ATV Park

For those who want a bit faster pace in their recreation, the Embarrass River ATV Park in Tigerton offers 504 acres and 20 miles of ATV trails to explore. There are 45 campsites that can accommodate tents, RV’s, trailers and groups, with electric hook-ups available. Flush toilets, showers and a dumping station also are provided. The park was created in 1998 and features a motocross-type challenge area, plus 20 miles of trails through a variety of terrain. The outer loop is wide and designed for an easier ride through the forest and rocky terrain. Move to the inside trails that intersect the outer loop for more challenging paths. You can test your machine’s rock-climbing abilities (and your own), get wet as you splash through some water or even plow through mud if you choose. It’s all there. Campers, hikers and ATV enthusiasts alike will find the Embarrass River ATV Park an adventure at every turn. Call 715-535-2169 or 888-947-2288 for more information or to book a reservation. The park is located at 1100 Quad Park Lane, Tigerton.

Wolf River Bottoms

If you are looking for a pristine river area to explore, the Wolf River Bottoms on the Lower Wolf River might be your new place to escape. This 32-1/2-acre site, owned by the state and accessible only by water, contains mature silver maples up to 50 inches in diameter, as well as large swamp oaks and other old-growth floodplain forest species that are needed for the nesting of the state-threatened red-shouldered hawk. Birdwatchers venturing here may also be treated to the sightings of pileated woodpeckers, American redstarts and other avian treats. 

Ross Bielema is a freelance writer from New London and owner of Wolf River Concealed Carry LLC.