Love fishing and the great outdoors? Two words: Merrill, Wisconsin
BY CHRIS KALAFICE
So you’re looking for a vacation spot, something special, quiet, and away from all of the tourist traps … Well, I have an idea for you, your family, and anyone who loves to fish.
If you love to fish, hike, camp, be one with nature, and see some unbelievable sights, please read on.
My name is Chris Kalafice, and I’m a native of Northcentral Wisconsin and proud to call the greater Merrill area my home. I’m 50 years young and have spent all of my years fishing on rivers, streams, and lakes all over Wisconsin and abroad. But I must say, a lot of my time has been spent fishing from Brokaw to Tomahawk on the Wisconsin River. Whether floating a boat from Merrill’s Riverside Park to the Brokaw boat ramp … making a day of it on our Alumacraft Navigator 175, launching at the boat ramp in Council Grounds State Park and traveling roughly 7 miles upstream and fishing it back down … or probably one of the best kept secrets to fishing—which I’ve done from a very young age and still do today—simply wading the Wisconsin River in search of any active fish, fishing in the Merrill area is nothing short of exhilarating.
I love to fish with my family and friends, and I love to introduce any youth I can to the sport of fishing.
A little history
My grandfather (Gus) and my dad (Jim) got me heavily involved in fishing at a very young age—for musky, walleye, bass, pan fish, trout, and everything in between. Grandpa sat on the Local trout Unlimited Board for decades. This is why we fished the pristine Prairie River for brookies, browns, and rainbow trout. The Prairie River runs from Merrill up into the Gleason-Irma area and has some of the best trout fishing in Wisconsin. With fly fishing, spinners, and live bait options, you have to thoroughly read the Wisconsin trout Regulations on these stretches of water, but trust me—it’s worth it! There is nothing better than a fresh catch of trout on the grill or open pit fire.
In spring, summer, and fall, Grandpa, Dad and I spent a lot of time on the Wisconsin River, throughout the season catching walleyes, small mouth bass, musky, and northerns. During the spring walleye run (decades ago when I was 7-10 years old), we were fishing with floating jig heads and a minnow (bottom fishing) at Riverside Park in Merrill. The poles were stood upright on forked sticks with the line snugged up to see when the fish would bite. All of a sudden my Shakespeare Alpha Rod line went slack and I knew there was a fish on. Grandpa said, “Chrissy, get the fish!” So I carefully grabbed my Shakespeare Alpha Rod & Reel and slowly reeled up the line. (The water was high that spring and literally was at our feet on the bank with three feet of water directly below us.) As I kept reeling to snug up the line, I noticed quickly that this fish was coming right towards us and that it was really close to being at our feet. While looking in the water directly in front of me (through all the foam chunks floating around), I noticed an eye of a huge musky no more than three feet away. When I noticed the musky, the musky noticed me, and I pointed towards him so that my Dad and Grandpa could see him. Finally, I felt the weight of the fish and set the hook. All a sudden, my Shakespeare Rig was screaming line and that musky was heading out of the county! The fight lasted about 4-5 minutes before the big teeth of the musky won the battle. I never found out for sure if that musky actually ate my floating jig head/minnow presentation, or if I had a walleye that hit my presentation that was currently in the musky’s belly. Regardless, I was hooked for life.
Fast forward in my life
My wife, Anne, and I were blessed with our son, Kasey, and our daughter, Kaitlin. Annie and I have done a lot of fishing over the years, and our children have followed in our footsteps. Kasey, now 22, has been the driving force to get me out of my comfort zones and to start fishing Lake Michigan and its tributaries, and that’s been a blast! We’ve taken Kaitlin and Annie out on the “Big Pond” and caught some great fish the last three years. Doing that has propelled our family to fish the Wisconsin River even more. There’s not much pressure when fishing with the Kalafice women: “Dad, we want to catch a lot of Big Fish.” That sometimes means thinking outside the box and getting creative. “Big Fish, Big Presentations—sometimes” is what I always say. “Sometimes, it’s 100% the opposite of this logic.” One has to solve the puzzle on the current bite.
Places to try and species to chase
One of my favorite times of year to get out and chase fish is summer. It’s beautiful outside, and I can throw on an old pair of shoes, shorts, and shirt and go. (Bring bug repellent or long sleeves if fishing deep into the evening.) I love to wade into the Wisconsin River and fish. Kasey and I have done it for years now, and Dad has officially passed the torch on to Kasey to be my companion of choice in this endeavor. At 81 years old, Dad has given up the wading-in-the-river fishing technique, but he still fishes with me a lot from shore. And Dad really enjoys hearing all of our stories.
This past summer (2023), Kasey brought his girlfriend, Claire, home with him, because she wanted to try some river fishing with us. So off we went to Riverside Park in Merrill. We walked up the trail towards the bridge and hopped into the river, and we waded up towards the dam on the south side. The fishing was phenomenal, and Claire caught many smallmouth bass that displayed their jumping abilities with aerial shows. During that one afternoon of fishing (three hours) Claire caught six or seven small mouth bass and personally moved three different muskies. One of those muskies was a mid to high 40” fish that literally struck and missed her bait less than three feet away. Did Claire scream? Well … The reason I mention this story is because this was Claire’s first time fishing a river system, and she had great success. A word of caution: When wading in any river system, it’s important to be very careful of current and depths, and a life jacket is recommended. But there are miles of accessible shorelines to fish and it’s a lot of fun to do, so whether you fish from the shore or wade out into the river, get out there and get after it!
Local areas to fish
Locally, there are many areas to fish. Grandfather and Grandmother Dams off of Highway 107 North out of Merrill, Alexander Dam in Council Grounds State Park, and the Merrill Hydro Dam in downtown Merrill are just a few. These locations offer some fantastic shore fishing opportunities. Huge smallmouth bass ranging in size from 18”-22” and larger can be found. Walleyes of all sizes are common, with slot fish numbers growing. Get a few keeper walleyes for a grilled meal and you can’t beat that. Northerns are normally pretty plentiful, and the larger ones are great grilling fare, as well. Actually, northerns filleted out (five fillets, back straps cut in 2” chunks) and wrapped in bacon with an olive oil and butter baste with lemon pepper seasoning is better than any 5-star gourmet restaurant presentation. Once you try it, you will truly understand what I’m talking about.
“The Fish Of All Fish” In northern Wisconsin is the musky. The span of the Wisconsin River from Merrill to Brokaw is widely known as some of the best musky fishing in the state of Wisconsin. Your chance to catch a 50”+ fish is very high. To fish this stretch, I highly recommend a local guide to take you out in his boat. Kurt Schultz of Kurt’s Guiding Service [Call 715.571.7132 or go to Kurtsguiding.net] is awesome. Kurt knows this stretch of water better than many, and your chances of seeing one of these giants soar when you’re with him. Kurt has the right boat, knows the layout of the river, and has many secrets about how to fish this particular trophy stretch of water for musky, walleye, and smallies. Kurt has guided this river for 25 years, and his fishing logs and knowledge are second to none! Give him a call and tell him Chris Kalafice sent you.
So many options, so many fish!
Another option is to kayak or canoe this stretch. Plan to spend a full day canvassing the area as you fish it down. Pack a lunch, drinks, snacks, and sunscreen, and enjoy the float down. It’s breathtaking! I’ve done this many times over the years and it’s an experience you’ll never forget.
You can also fish this area and others mentioned above either wading or from shore. We’ve done this a lot all of the ways. I remember last fall when Kaitlin was home from college. She wanted to catch her first musky—no pressure at all on Dad. We decided to fish by Alexander Dam in Council Grounds State Park from the shore. We were also fishing for walleyes, small mouth bass (smallies), and anything that would bite.
Throughout the spring, summer, and fall, many a species can be caught—including trout, huge bluegill, crappies and perch. As luck would have it, Kaitlin hooked into a really nice smallie, and as she was battling with the bronzeback, a musky hit and ate the smallie! The jig head that was in the smallie actually pulled out and hooked the musky in the mouth. After about a 12-minute battle, Kaitlin was able to hold onto her 42” musky, before releasing the legal musky to swim another day for someone else to catch.
Great fishing spots
Baiting your hook
All these areas can be fished with live bait or jig heads and crawlers/minnows, swim baits, surface baits, slip bobbers, crank baits, etc. Over the years I’ve learned the best colors seem to vary due to the weather and cloud cover. Switch it up until you find something that works.
As I reminisce, a good friend who passed too soon comes to mind. Jerry Wery was his name, and he was a mad scientist when it came to walleye fishing. He caught thousands of walleyes over the years in Wisconsin and Canada. Jerry would be out catching walleye after walleye by his house on the Wisconsin River, and then he would go through and change baits (presentations) numerous times to see if they would react differently. His mental log of fishing experiences was incredible, and I would always talk fishing with him when given the chance. I would do this with my Grandpa and Dad, as well, because their fishing knowledge was second to none. Colors, sizes, etc.—make a game plan and have some fun! I like to say, “Solve the puzzle.” Once you do, physically log your information at the end of the day for future reference—then you have a physical reference to read over versus a mental reference that can be forgotten.
Plan your trip to Merrill
Before traveling to Merrill, make a game plan. Call the Merrill Chamber Of Commerce [715.536.9474] and ask about lodging options, local VRBO’S and Air BNB’s, and get answers to any questions you may have. Their staff is great and very accommodating.
There are some great campsites at Council Grounds State Park, and they are family oriented. Plus, you’re literally camping right along the Wisconsin River and some excellent fishing is right within walking distance of your campsite. You can walk down by the dam and some awesome fishing awaits you. Go to the canoe portage and, if the water is low enough, there are rock formations visible. You can wade to them and cast off of them with crank baits, rubber baits, and even surface baits on the hottest days of summer. You can also rent kayaks at Council Grounds Park.
For more primitive camping, Camp New Wood County Park is nestled right along the Wisconsin River a little further north on Hwy 107, northwest of Merrill just south of Grandfather Dam. This keeps you within close distance of Grandfather and Grandmother Dams. There is some phenomenal fishing in this stretch of water from shore and wading. You can hike along the Ice Age Trail and look for promising water to fish. Get your pack filled and your hiking boots laced up and get ready for some beautiful views and sights that you’ll never forget.
If you’re in need of bait, some of the local gas stations carry the basics. But if you really want a specialized place to go, stop at Jokin’ Joe’s Bait & Tackle, 1000 W. Main Street in Merrill, right on the Wisconsin River between the bridges, to get tips from the locals on the best presentations. They have a tremendous selection of everything you will need. Please tell them Chris Kalafice sent you.
Need to grab some coffee and a yummy breakfast sandwich before you head out? Stop at Auntie Ray’s Coffee House (Kaitlin’s favorite place to go before heading out fishing) and you’ll be good to go. If you haven’t packed a lunch, I recommend Chips Burgers and the Bluejay Burger with a half pound of fries and your choice of drink for the guys with an appetite, or the Polka Dotted Pie downtown and the Wisco Big Boy Basket for the guys. They also have a great selection of wraps, salads, and desserts for the entire family. After a day of fishing, if you want to kick back and have some great brews in a unique northwoods atmosphere and enjoy a meal from a food truck, the Sawmill Brewing Company is the place to go. This is also a great time to reminisce about the day and write things down so you don’t forget.
I hope my experiences fishing in Wisconsin’s beautiful outdoors inspire you to choose the Merrill area to host you and your family in the very near future for some great fishing fun. Reach out to the Merrill Chamber Of Commerce at 715.536.9474 and get things planned. If you need any help on the fishing side of things, please email me at email@example.com and put “Fishing Help” in the subject line so I can get back to you right away. And check out Kasey’s Instagram at kalafice_outdoors to see more pictures and how much our family is enjoying living here in the heart of Wisconsin in Lincoln County “Where the Northwoods Start and Your Adventure Begins!”
Come on! It’s time for you to get out and enjoy the outdoors and make some memories of your own right here in the Merrill area. “Tight lines to all!”