Some of the most unique wilderness fishing opportunities in the Lower 48 aren’t in the West—they’re in the country’s heartland.
[By Robert John Pales]
I have been enamored with wild, unspoiled places ever since my first visit to Yellowstone National Park after I graduated college. Since that epiphanic trip 20 years ago, I have hiked deep into the Bob Marshall Wilderness to chase westslope cutthroat, trekked across the misty peaks of the Wind River Range to stalk golden trout, and paddled deep into the Boundary Waters in search of surface-oriented smallmouths.
But lately, rather than travel hundreds or thousands of miles, most of my current extended fishing trips center around canoe-accessible lakes and stretches of river a few hours away from my home in Northwest Indiana—it’s an off-the-grid, amazing system of lakes, trails, and campsites others ignore in favor of more famous (and more pressured) waters. I enjoy the fishing just as much as the adventure that goes along with it.
Mention fly fishing and wilderness in the same sentence, and most people immediately envision the Rocky Mountains or Alaska. When I mention backcountry and the Midwest together, it receives a chuckle and an occasional snide remark regarding farms and flatlanders.
While the two seem paradoxical, I maintain wilderness is not just a location, but also a state of being, and that backcountry fly fishing doesn’t always have to require a three-hour floatplane flight or a two-day hike. There is no designated number of miles you need to be from anywhere to be surrounded by wilderness and wild fish.
In fact, one of my favorite smallmouth lakes is in the Ottawa National Forest. It sits among virgin timberwith ospreys on the wing, eagles perched on treetops, and busy beavers. It’s a 45-minute walk that requires a compass, a love of bushwhacking, and a die-hard companion willing to haul a canoe a mile in and out, off trail. There has never been a trace of another traveler—not a makeshift fire pit or a monofilament tangle—and the country seems untouched since the dawn of time. The reason I go through so much work? The smallmouths are large and uninhibited, and I have them all to myself. It’s a feeling that keeps me seeking out nameless places others ignore in favor of more iconic destinations.
Backcountry is anywhere you find it, and if you can embrace the philosophy that no wilderness is too small, here are six heartland locations that offer a rustic fly fishing experience in remote settings ideally suited for the “flatlander,” DIY adventurer on a budget.
The Ottawa State Forest, Sylvania Wilderness, and Craig Lake State Park, Michigan
Northern Michigan’s Ottawa National Forest is a noteworthy fly fishing destination anglers often pass over for waters downstate. But at just shy of one million acres, it covers most of the western Upper Peninsula and includes both designated and dispersed camping, so finding your own “nook” isn’t a problem.
One of the Ottawa’s other main draws is anglers can pursue several warm- or coldwater game fish species, or even build a trip (or portion of a trip) around chasing multiple fish. For starters, the Ontonagon River system offers over 100 miles of brook, brown, steelhead, and salmon fishing, with the Middle and East Branch possessing both Blue Ribbon trout stream and Wild and Scenic River designations. East of Watersmeet, the Paint River system, another Wild and Scenic River, has countless miles of designated blue ribbon trout and smallmouth bass water for those willing to brave overgrown two-track logging roads turned hiking trails. Hundreds of small- to medium-sized lakes are a short hike from the parking areas or trailheads where you’ll find fishing for bass, pike, and muskies, and most any coldwater stream in the region will have brook trout. You could spend a lifetime exploring and not even scratch the surface.
Worth noting is that the Ottawa has several majestic waterfalls that are not only spectacular to behold, but also serve as natural upstream barriers for lake-run fish. Many, like the Middle Branch of the Ontonagon and Jumbo River, already contain trout, but steelhead, salmon, and big browns run in the mix during the right season, and are worth pursuing. You can also find steelhead at the mouths of the Black, Presque Isle, and Carp Rivers, all of which require a hike in to get there. There is also the chance of hooking into an elusive coaster brook trout, a strain all but extinct save for a few guarded and remote spawning locations.
Of particular note in the Ottawa is the Sylvania Wilderness Area, an 18,000-acre primitive area with more than two dozen lakes of varying size surrounded by undeveloped forests. Think of it as Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on a miniature scale. Largemouths, smallmouths, pike, and lake trout prowl Sylvania’s waters, though smallmouths are the prevalent game fish. With strict catch-and-release, artificial-only regulations, the bass average 16 to 18 inches long, though it is not uncommon to catch fish over 20. Shore fishing is possible, but a canoe or kayak allows you to cover the most water. Permits to camp and park your vehicle are required.
Crooked, Long, and Loon Lakes have both reserved and “first come, first served” campsites and are excellent base camps, with the latter two containing the largest fish in the tract. Deer Island Lake can be electric in the evenings—when conditions are right, you’ll will be hard-pressed to find a place with more hefty smallmouths willing to decimate a popper. Since it is marsh country, the mosquitoes and blackflies are just as relentless as the bass, so plan accordingly.
One convenient aspect of Sylvania is its size—short portages make it possible to explore several lakes in one day, especially if you need options when afternoon winds turn the big lakes into a froth. Moreover, the small waters are overrun with small bass and are a great place for children.
Finally, with its granite bluffs and wailing loons, Craig Lake State Park resembles Canadian waters more than the Midwest. It also has a colorful history. Fred Miller of the Miller Brewing family fame purchased the land in the early 1950s before perishing in a plane crash in 1954. A logging company bought the land but the state acquired it 12 years later and designated it a state park. It is the least visited state park in Michigan and requires a vehicle with high clearance to navigate the seven-mile-long two-track road leading to the parking area. Rustic camping is allowed throughout the park, though there are two primitive log cabins on Craig Lake built by Miller himself, and two yurts, available for reservation. (Visit www.michigandnr.com for more information.)
Craig Lake State Park offers fishing for largemouths, smallmouths, northerns, muskies, and walleyes, while Clair Lake anglers can expect both smallmouths and muskies. Crooked Lake requires a long, uneven portage but has good numbers of northern pike, muskies, and largemouths waiting in the reeds and adjacent drop-offs. Lake Keewaydin and Nelligan, Teddy, and Thomas Lakes also have similar combinations of game fish. Strict catch-and-release regulations for bass, pike, and muskies coupled with the sheer remoteness of the area means visitors willing to put in the time and paddling have a solid chance at hooking a real trophy.
The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, Wisconsin
The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in Wisconsin has a variety of trip options, fish species, designated and dispersed camping, and good odds of finding one of the Midwest’s most sought-after game fish—the muskie.
The Nicolet portion spans 660,000 acres across northeastern Wisconsin and conveniently borders Michigan’s Ottawa, making both destinations easy to reach on one trip. In the northern half, the Brule River and its tributaries boast fine fishing for native brook and wild brown trout with hike-in and canoe-accessible fishing opportunities abounding. In the southern half, there is plenty of intimate, small-stream brook trout fishing in the Oconto River’s headwaters. Surrounding it all are dozens of small- to medium-sized lakes that hold bass, pike, and muskies accessible throughout the system via dirt road, hiking trails, or inlet/outlet streams. Keep in mind large trout streams warm significantly when summer heats up, and fish seek cooler waters. In those situations, focus on small tributaries or fish early for trout, and pursue bass later in the day. There are also numerous spring ponds holding both brook and brown trout conveniently located near other waters and worthy of attention.
The Chequamegon portion includes 860,000 acres and contains DIY options similar to those in the Nicolet. Trout enthusiasts outside the national forest boundaries will be interested in the Namekegon River, which hosts some of the largest wild freestone brown trout east of the Mississippi. Also, the Bois Brule hosts both spring and fall runs of wild steelhead with resident brook and brown trout mixed in. If your travel plans allow it, take time to explore the Flambeau and Chippewa Rivers outside the national forest boundaries—both are nationally renowned muskie fisheries.