For anglers, the north woods of Wisconsin are a mythical place. It is a land were tough men and women lived a rough-hewn life of lumber camps and mining towns only two generations ago; a place where railroads were the only link to civilization and moose, bear and wolves outnumbered people.
Best of all was the legendary fishing found in the countless glacial lakes. There, enormous muskellunge snacked on full-grown ducks and the walleye were fat as overstuffed pillows.
Things have changed a little bit. The lumber industry is largely mechanized and employs far fewer workers, the mines are mostly gone, paved roads replaced railroads and the moose, bear and wolves are a bit less abundant. What hasn’t changed is the fishing!
We made that happy discovery recently while exploring the northern tip of Wisconsin with several other outdoor writers on a trip sponsored by the Mercer, Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce.
Mercer is literally one of the last pieces of “civilization” on U.S 51 before you reach Lake Superior. The town boasts 1400 souls and a two-block “downtown” area of historic brick buildings from the heyday of the lumbering era. The town is located in Iron County, one of the least-populated in the state.
With an economy that is almost totally dependent on lumber and tourism, the area is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream. Even better, the town is just far enough off the beaten path that visitors are still considered part of the extended family rather than a barely-tolerated cash cow.
The city boasts 214 lakes, including part of the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage, a 13,000-acre impoundment known for world-class walleye fishing.
Every type of northern fishing is well represented. Trophy walleye roam Turtle-Flambeau while abundant largemouth and smallmouth bass prowl shallow lakes alongside northern pike, trophy musky, perch, bluegill and crappie. Though angling pressure is moderate to heavy, there is so much water that even lakes ringed with cabins withstand the onslaught well.
With such an abundance of fishing, the biggest difficulty facing anglers is where to wet a line. One good starting point would be Nancy, the owner at Turtle River Trading Company in downtown Mercer. She can fill you in on the latest info or recommend one of the handful of local guides. We went out with Erv Keller, (715) 609-2349, and on a poor fishing day still managed to boat both walleye and musky.
Aside from Turtle-Flambeau, most area lakes are smaller and launch facilities range from almost non-existent to one-lane concrete ramps. Kayak and canoe fishing is extremely popular and provides a perfect way to fish the smaller lakes.
Lodging is abundant yet somewhat hidden. As you first enter town on US 51 you will find the Great Northern Hotel, the largest in the area with 80 rooms. The Great Northern is older but has been remodeled, is clean and worked well as our base of operation. It also boasts a bar/restaurant on site that features a wonderful view and much better food than you might expect.
The hotel sits on the shore of 36-acre San Domigo Lake. The lake is crammed so full of chunky largemouth bass and platter-sized crappie that most of our time was spent pestering the fish from a borrowed Hobie kayak.
There are a few other small mom-and-pop hotels but the majority of lodging belongs to fish camps and resorts at the end of winding sand roads. These facilities range from top-notch to “a more-or-less waterproof roof” so make sure you understand the level of service and accommodation before reaching for your wallet. Prices overall were very reasonable, especially for a tourism destination, and gasoline was the same price as in central Indiana.
Due to the somewhat hidden nature of most lodging, we strongly suggested you have reservations before arriving. For background information, we’d suggest you start with a visit to the Mercer Chamber of Commerce website at http://www.mercercc.com. If you have further questions, Executive Director Tina Brunell at be reached at (715) 476-2389. She’s a walking encyclopedia of Mercer information and will be happy to offer suggestions based on your interests.
There are several bait and tackle shops but only one supermarket. For dinner, we highly recommend the Heart of North Bar in downtown, along with the Cranberry Inn just outside town. Both offer rustic north woods ambience and impressive cooking.
Aside from fishing, there is an abundance of other activities around Mercer. There are 250 miles of marked ATV trails that run throughout the city and county; mountain bikes and “four wheelers” are a very common sight. Waterfalls are also abundant and there are many campgrounds, hiking trails and public recreation areas. A half-hour north is Lake Superior, itself a destination.
If you’re still planning an out-of state fishing vacation this summer, consider Mercer, Wisconsin. You won’t be disappointed.
photos by author