Sometimes you choose which lake to fish and other times life chooses it for you. Either way, as long as you wet a line, you’ll be all right.

Until a recent Monday, I’d never been on Lake Wissota in west-central Wisconsin, and hadn’t heard much about it because it’s a half-state away from home. I do recall, however, that Leonardo DiCaprio mentioned it while talking Kate Winslet off the brink in Titanic, only to have the reference become a movie blooper.

Most local fishermen know Lake Wissota didn’t exist when the great ship sank in 1912. Wissota is a reservoir. The hydroelectric dam that blocks the Chippewa River to create this 6,024-acre lake and its 72-foot maximum depth wasn’t finished until 1917.

Patrick Durkin rows his cedar-strip rowboat on Lake Wissota near Chippewa Falls.
Patrick Durkin rows his cedar-strip rowboat on Lake Wissota near Chippewa Falls.

Family, more than fishing, steered me to Lake Wissota. My youngest daughter, Karsyn, married her college sweetheart, who’s from Chippewa Falls. She and Matthew now live and work in nearby Eau Claire, and they recently became parents. Their baby girl, Bailey Lake Morse, made grandparents of my wife, Penny, and me in late June.

Funny how a grandchild pulls you from your home and routines more regularly than any friendly force you’ll ever know. Compounding that force was our daughter Leah, who flew in from Dallas, her current Navy duty station, to spend a week with her niece.

Since Leah went on active duty in May 2007, we get few chances to hunt and fish together, so I asked if she wanted to try row-trolling on Lake Wissota if I brought my cedar-strip rowboat along. Faster than she could go online for her fishing license, we made plans.

When the fishing day arrived, however, the forecast predicted an 80 percent chance of thunderstorms by 7 a.m. Still, we hooked up the boat, grabbed coffees and breakfast at a convenience store, and drove 20 miles to Lake Wissota’s northern shore. We agreed that if the forecast was wrong, we’d go fishing. If it proved right, we’d spend a couple of hours scouting the lake’s shorelines, and checking its boat landings for future reference.

We stopped first at a landing where the Chippewa River meets Wissota along the Old Abe State Trail. The skies were cloudy, not ominous, but the radar on my iPhone showed lots of green, yellow, and orange farther to the west and northwest, so we didn’t launch.

“It’s closing in,” I said, and then drove south to Lake Wissota State Park, where we again studied the lake and sky, this time from a cliff-top picnic area. With the skies darkening, we conceded we wouldn’t be launching the boat anytime soon, so we grabbed two spinning rods and followed a path to the water below.

After three or four casts, we retreated back up the trail, chased by the storm’s advance rains. We finished our coffees, and ate bananas and breakfast bars as Leah used an atlas and my iPhone maps to navigate us to two boat landings flanking the narrows between the main lake and “Little Lake Wissota” on the reservoir’s southern end. Then she guided us up the western shoreline to a boat landing north of the dam.

The Durkins’ maiden voyage on Lake Wissota allowed them to test the new strip-built trolling skis and oak/walnut mast that match their cedar boat.
The Durkins’ maiden voyage on Lake Wissota allowed them to test the new strip-built trolling skis and oak/walnut mast that match their cedar boat.

All the while, the rain poured and the wind roared. When Bill’s Sport Shop opened at 8 a.m. in downtown Chippewa Falls, we visited briefly with the owner and bought a Fishing Hot Spots map of Lake Wissota. I figured it would give me something to study when returning to Bailey’s home for breakfast. And if the weather improved, maybe we’d have some ideas where to fish for a couple of hours after lunch.

By lunchtime the storm pulled out, leaving scattered clouds and gusting winds in its wake. White-caps sparkled on the main lake when we returned to Wissota, so we rowed southward in the sheltered waters of “Little Lake Wissota.” That’s not it’s official name, because the water south of the narrows is actually just Lake Wissota’s largest bay.

Still, Leah and I have fished far smaller waters with proper names. We decided to row-troll about 1.5 miles down the long bay’s center and turn around at the head of Dalton’s Bay.

We knew our fishing odds weren’t good, given the strong winds, bright afternoon sun, brief time we could fish, and high-pressure system taking hold. But Leah set out five lines, four with small crankbaits for walleyes, and one with a big crankbait for muskies.

It was fun having Leah back in the boat and running lines. She used to run the downriggers, trolling skis, wire lines, copper lines, lead-core lines, Dipsy Diver planers, and lead-ball rigs when we fished salmon on Lake Michigan during her high school and college days. Therefore, she went straight to work with the new strip-built trolling skis and oak/walnut mast I built this summer for the rowboat.

Yes, we could use store-bought plastic planer boards to run our lines out and away from the boat, but that didn’t seem right. I mean, if I bothered to build a cedar-strip boat, so why not match it with strip-built trolling skis?

A strip-built trolling ski plies the waters of Lake Wissota near Chippewa Falls.
A strip-built trolling ski plies the waters of Lake Wissota near Chippewa Falls.

With me rowing and Leah running the lines, we worked the sharp drop-offs along the bay’s southern shoreline. Just as we passed Jake’s Bay, our farthest line on the starboard ski tugged at its release clip, bouncing and bending the lightweight rod in its holder. Leah grabbed the rod, snapped the line free, and assured me she had a fish.

We were mildly surprised a minute later when she pulled a crappie aboard. It had hit a blue/silver bait that runs about six feet deep. Leah said she would eat it for breakfast Tuesday, so I volunteered to clean it.

She slid the crappie onto a stringer, tied it off on an empty oarlock, and reset the line. We agreed it would be great to catch a few more to take home to Dallas or Waupaca, but our wish went unfilled. By the time we rowed back to the boat landing, it was time to pull our lines and head to Eau Claire for an early dinner.

We didn’t complain, though. My new trolling skis worked, Leah and I got to fish, and we were intrigued by this new lake in our lives.

The next time we fish Wissota, we should have more ideas on how and where to increase our odds.

Images courtesy Patrick Durkin

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