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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Turtle-Flambeau Flowage Proves Wisconsin Can Do Great Things

When Mercer-area friends, family and fishing guides advise visitors to “fish the wood” on the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage, they really aren’t being specific about where best to try your luck.

When it comes to submerged wood on the TFF, your anchors and fishing hooks are seldom far from snags. For example, when fishing just a fraction of this Iron County paradise for perch, crappies, walleyes, bluegills, muskies and smallmouth bass Aug. 5-8 with my wife, we accomplished a feat I never intended. That is, our two anchors snagged more sunken logs, waterlogged limbs, and decaying stumps and roots than I’ve previously hooked in over 60 years of fishing.

I like that in a fishing hole.

And no, I’m not exaggerating. Even so, we somehow lost neither our bow nor stern anchors, and I never clunked a submerged stump or treetop with our boat’s hull or engine. But yes, I bounced the engine’s skeg across a rocky flat while cornering too sharply into a bay. I admit the gaffe only because Penny and four nearby anglers witnessed it Aug. 7 at dusk. Despite the stomach-turning impact, the collision barely harmed the propeller.

I’m not complaining, either. When it comes to healthy fish and wildlife, the more rocks, wood and native plants, the better. An unintended benefit of abundant natural obstacles is fewer pesky watercraft and party boats. In fact, the information brochure for the Turtle-Flambeau Scenic Waters Area warns: “Water skiing and personal watercraft are not advised.”

All such features shape the scenery and recreation that certify the TFSWA as “one of Wisconsin’s crown jewels,” to quote former Gov. Tommy G. Thompson. When Tommy announced the state’s plan in July 1990 to buy the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage for perpetual public use, he even invoked Shakespeare, calling this collective of 195 islands, 335 miles of shorelines, 3,700 acres of wetlands, 8,500 acres of forests, and 14,000 acres of water “a nature lover’s Juliet.”

Sure, the governor probably didn’t craft that Juliet line himself and give it to his speechwriters. But he liked it enough to borrow and share, and trusted his listeners to embrace the comparison. That’s commendable. We seldom hear literary references from today’s lawmakers, who too often voice crude self-pity and grievance.

No matter how governors or ordinary folks describe the TFSWA, visitors insist they can’t convey its beauty and natural resources with mere words. Through its finery, however, we can see our capacity to work with nature to craft practical beauty, even when our basic motivation is profit.

Retired history professor Mike Hittle of Lawrence University sums that up in the title of his 2018 book, “An Accidental Jewel: Wisconsin’s Turtle-Flambeau Flowage.” Hittle notes many people don’t know the flowage didn’t exist 100 years ago. We won’t even mark its centennial for another three years. And at its 1926 creation, many folks insisted it was “the greatest destruction of nature’s beauty in the state.”

As Hittle notes, the Chippewa and Flambeau Improvement Co. didn’t build their dam at the confluence of the Turtle and Flambeau rivers to promote or conserve the area’s natural wonders. The dam’s purpose was to create a storage reservoir for waters engineers could strategically release to generate power farther downstream.

Since then, “the flowage and human interactions with it evolved to the point where is has taken its place among Wisconsin’s most treasured waters – even while it fulfills is originally intended purpose.”

Accident or not, anglers, hunters, trappers, canoeists, kayakers and campers wouldn’t be enjoying the TFSWA as much today if Wisconsin lawmakers of the 1980s and early ’90s practiced the partisan politics we now endure like ulcers. Gov. Thompson, a Republican, could spend $9.42 million to buy the flowage for all of us because of rivals like Rep. Spencer Black, a Democrat. Because of Black’s bipartisan efforts to create the nonpartisan Warren Knowles-Gaylord Nelson Stewardship Fund, we had $23.1 million available for such purposes when closing the deal in July 1991. That funding allowed Wisconsin to snag all that natural wonder for just under $400 per acre.

Imagine that, the GOP working with Dems to benefit the taxpaying voters they’re sworn to serve, not rule. Yes, kids, such an era existed in your parents’ lifetime, not just during your grandparents’ youth.

Such wonders can be hard to envision, given what representative democracy has become this century. It’s kind of like a scene Hittle describes in his book’s introduction, where he asked Mercer high schoolers in 2012 to imagine how the flowage looked 100 years earlier. Standing there on the TFF’s shoreline, looking out on its island-dotted vastness, the puzzled students didn’t answer.

After rephrasing his question and fielding cautious replies, Hittle realized the problem. He wrote: “In these young people’s minds, the flowage has always been there; it was as much a part of the Iron County landscape as the cluster of natural lakes around Mercer itself. … It should come as no surprise that the students knew of the flowage but not of its past. (They were) so enthralled by its ‘natural’ character that they could not imagine the flowage and its environs were the products of human initiatives.”

Likewise, young people today can’t envision a time when lawmakers worked together for the public’s good and infinite future. Yes, we all had our differences with Rep. Black, governors Thompson and Knowles, and Nelson as both governor and U.S. senator. Still, we trusted them to use our state and federal taxes to create gems like the TFSWA and even bigger programs.

Today’s lawmakers need to spend more time fishing and paddling, preferably from the same boat or canoe. If they’re lucky, they’ll be forced to navigate waters like the Turtle-Flambeau’s, which are “guarded by the stumpy remains of virgin pines, hemlock, spruce and birch.” Maybe then they can return ashore to craft legacies that make us all proud decades later.

As the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage proves, humans are capable of great accidents.

The sun sets after a day of fishing on the massive Turtle-Flambeau Flowage in north-central Wisconsin south of Mercer. — Patrick Durkin photo

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