The Queen of the Manitowish: The Fishing Grounds of Island Lake

Welcome to Discovering the Northwoods from the Manitowish Waters Historical Society. We will take you on a journey through our local history with the help of primary source documentation. To learn more about this rich history or about the historical society – check out our website at for blog posts, show notes, our YouTube Channel, and a full transcription of this episode!

As with many historical works from this era, there are phrases, terms, and descriptions that are inappropriate to our modern sensibilities. The Manitowish Waters Historical Society in no way condones these offensive remarks or passages but chooses to read this publication in its entirety for educational purposes and accurate historic context.

We would like to introduce The Queen of the Manitowish: The Fishing Grounds of Island Lake by E.C. Potter. The original source was published in the Outers Recreation Special Fishing Number in August of 1918. This episode is read by me, Brenna Reilley.


Editor’s Note – This is the last, for the present, of a series of descriptions of the fishing grounds in the Manitowish Waters, a short distance east of Manitowish, Wisconsin. We had hoped to continue them indefinitely, but the war has upset our plans in this matter as in many other, we shall resume the publication of these articles at the earliest possible moment. The previous chapters were: In April issue, Rest Lake; in May, Dam, Sturgeon, and Benson Lakes; in June, Spider Lake, and in July, Stone, Mud, and Clear Lakes. Illustrated with map and photographs by the author.

In every assemblage, there is a favorite, and in the Manitowish Chain chief in fishing excellence and primal beauty is Island Lake, situated just eat from Spider Lake, which might well be termed the Queen of the Manitowish. The one thing in which fish of all kinds seem to take a special delight in going upstream, though why they’re not all in the highest bay is something else again. Island Lake is usually considered the head of the Manitowish Chain, although the waters of several other lakes flow into in through the Manitowish River and Rice Creek. From a standpoint of excellent success in pursuit of the musky, as well as bass and pike, in a particularly picturesque region, Island Lake is easily the leader. It is about three miles long by two miles wide, on a sand and gravel bed, with clean shores, very little swamp, clear, cool, water and in which are numerous weed beds and sandy points, ideal spawning and feeding grounds. In it are several islands, on one of which is the Island Lake Resort, under the proprietorship of Abe La Fave, who probably knows more about catching muskies than all the rest of us put together—and says less.

LaFave’s Island Lake Resorts Brochure, circa 1920. Catalog Number 2018.2.248.

The best way to Island Lake, as to the entire Manitowish Chain, is to go in from the town of Manitowish, by auto to the Spider Lake Resort, where the Island Lake Resort people will meet you with the launch. The entire trip from the town of Manitowish will take but about an hour. If you make your headquarters on Spider Lake the way to Island Lake is merely through a very short channel on the east shore, but in going through it, be particular to keep close to the left (north) shore, as there are a number of larger rocks in the center and along the south shore. In times of low water, these show above the surface, but during normal water conditions they are just sufficiently submerged to be hidden, and to strike them is pretty dangerous for the motor.

Let us commence our shoreline description at the channel leading to Spider Lake from the northwest shore. Proceeding south along the west shore you will find weed beds and vegetable growth on a bed of sand, gravel, and rocks, rather shallow water in some parts – a good place to troll for pike or muskies if your tackle is reasonably weedless. Shortly you come to a bay, the large southwest one, which has established an enviable reputation as the favorite haunts of big muskies. This is one of the spots it pays to work pretty well. Muskies, and more especially the big ones, are lazy and somewhat temperamental. It is a well-known fact among old guides that you can troll past them and they won’t pay any attention, yet if you keep it up a little while you’ll get a strike. It seems to be a little on the principle of teasing the cat. Maybe she won’t notice you at first, then gets annoyed and hisses at you, and finally scratches you. The natural impulse of the muskellunge seems to be to fight everyone that comes along. They have often been known to strike a canoe paddle or an oar, especially if they are the copper-tipped kind. One should troll around this bay three or four times. And if you catch one try crisscrossing around over the ground for the other—usually where you find one you’ll find another, there’s generally a pair together.

Leaving this bay you will find a lot of weeds on the first point, with the lake bed depressing rapidly, making an excellent place to cast. This spot usually yields pike of about three to four pounds, but at times the bass will have it. The weeds continue around the point and into the next bay. Along the west shore of the bay is much fallen timber and weeds. At times, you will make good catches of bass here and at others it will be muskies. From here on for quite a way are some excellent grounds for small-mouth bass and pike, especially in the early morning or late evening. There are many good-sized boulders in the water along the shore and the deep water comes close in, making a location unexcelled for bass. About two-thirds of the way across the lake you will come to a small point with a cottage on it, and which is called Priest Point. Just across from this point is a small island known as Camp Island, for the reason that you will invariably find campers here. Passing the point you will come to a small bay on which is an excellent spring. A little further on is another bay, and here you will find some lily pads, something rather infrequent in the Manitowish Chain. This is an excellent place in which to cast for bass, particularly in the early summer or late fall.

A little further on you come to a bay and a channel. This is the entrance of the Manitowish River to Island Lake and is called Boulder Bay, being the entrance to the Boulder Lake Chain. This is known as the North Branch of the Manitowish, there being another similar branch entering at Spider Lake, through Big Rice, Alder, and Manitowish lakes. Now, you might think the fish would all go up to Boulder Lake and adjacent lakes above, but there’s a dam at the old lumber camp near Oxley which stops them.

This Boulder Bay is an unexcelled fishing ground for pike and muskies, although there is such a heavy vegetable growth on the bottom that toward fall it bothers your tackle quite a little. In the center of the bay are several large snags and around these we have always made excellent catches. Owing to the vegetable growth the ordinary baits become most annoying, but here is a good way to eliminate weed trouble. Take a good, free-turning spinner with a blade about the size of a dime. To this attach a long shank pike hook, I use No. 16 hand-tempered hook, then take a good, husky mud minnow or a small, black sucker from four to six inches long, slip the hook in the minnow’s mouth and out through the gills, then stick it under the skin about middle way of the minnow’s back. This won’t kill the minnow and with care you can cast it as well as an artificial bait. After making the cast give the bait time to settle, then when reeling in raise and lower your rod. This will keep the hook from snagging weeds; will give the bait the appearance of a struggling minnow, and with the added attraction of the spinner is one of the most successful you can use. This is also an excellent way to bait for muskies.

This weed bed follows the east shore for quite a way, spreading out to the island and over quite a large. Area. Its edges are very irregular, making them quite difficult to locate and follow when the water is rough, but there is no bay in the chain that I know of that will equal this one for pike and muskies. The current of the Manitowish washes feed into this weed bed and there is a gentle current here, making it especially attractive to the fish. It probably has no equal in the lake. The good grounds continue up the Manitowish River, however, which is navigable for power boats for about three miles. If you want to make a nice little excursion of investigation go on up to Boulder Lake—if you are in the canoe it can be easily done—but one portage is necessary. We have made the trip and at times have found the muskies in this shallow water they seem to prefer the deep holes in the hooked bends of the lower portion of the river.

All along this lower portion of the river, from Boulder Bay up to the end of navigation by power boat, the shores are a mass of fallen timber, and the channel is full of hairpin bends and deep pools in a setting of wild rice. This is an excellent place to practice casting and handling fish and a few days’ fishing here should make one past master of the art. To fish these grounds with the best success requires accuracy of casting and expert handling of your rod and reel after the strike, for there is abundance of logs, roots, drifts, weeds and tops of fallen tree everywhere. Usually this lower portion of the river is literally alive with small muskies averaging from five to ten pounds and larger. One shouldn’t use anything but a single hook here; you’ll ordinarily catch so many that you won’t want to keep any but the very largest, say from ten to twelve pounds and up, and they fight so viciously they tear themselves up very badly on baits with gang hooks on. One should use artificial bait here so you will be sure to hook them in the mouth only. You will get so many strikes it will be lots of fun and they will be much easier to unhook and it will not hurt the small ones will wish to put back.

Aerial Photo of Island Lake, 1957. Catalog Number 2022.001.007.

But to return to our shore description of Island Lake. Leaving Boulder Bay and going north along the east shore you will find it mostly clear except for a few occasional clumps of stumps. At the northeast corner of the lake you will find another channel. This is the entrance of Rice Creek, which is the outlet from Big Lake to Island Lake. All around the mouth of the creek is a good place to cast for bass, pike, and muskies, and your chances are good for nice catches all along Rice Creek. It is not as deep a channel as the Manitowish up from Boulder Bay but good grounds with a thing line of lily pads all along on either side and a vegetable growth on the bottom. Rice Creek is navigable for about tow miles for a power boat—about a mile beyond the big bridge—and here you will find a spring and a good camping location. To get a boat on from here you will have to wade and pull it as the water is too shallow and swift to get through any other way. There is a good trail through from here to Big Lake. Now if you are in the canoe, the thing to do is to cut. A couple of saplings about eight to ten feet long. Just after your pass the trail you. Will come to the. Dividing of the channel. To the right is a slough, and to the left is the beginning of fast waters that lead you to Big. Lake. Turing into this fast current on the left you can lay down the paddles, take up the poles, and get some real practice in putting a canoe through heavy current. The trail is well worn, however, and if you would rather portage it is a comparatively easy one.

The north shore of Island Lake is practically all clear and good one for trolling. There are two weed bed around the northeast side of the island on which the resort is located which offer convenient little opportunities to step in the canoe and fish around a little for pike when you have but an hour or so between times or don’t care to start out for some particular grounds until later. The last time we were there we caught a fourteen-pounder in one of these beds that way. Around all the islands is good pike grounds. It is a good plan every time you are near one of the islands to troll around it for pike.

Island Lake offers the fisherman some advantages not found so frequently in any other lake in the chain. It is unexcelled grounds in which to troll for muskies and excellent spots in both the North Branch of the Manitowish River and Rice Creek to cast on windy days, this is addition to the many excellent locations described, but in which the winds may bother at times. I have fished Island Lake during almost every month of the season and have always found it excellent. Even in its off times, which every lake has, particularly in the light of the mood when fish do more of their feeding at night, and are consequently much less apt to strike in the daytime, Island Lake seems to head the list for good catches, and there is n weather in which you can be out that you can’t find a good, protected location in which to cast. The east and north shores are fine for bathing; they are shallow and the sand is fine and smooth. The Island Lake Resort chargers for this year quoted at $3 per day, $18 per week; boats 50c per day, $3 per week. They have detachable motors for rowboats which you can rent with boat for about $2.50 per day; guide charges average about $3 per day. If going to this resort it is best advised them what morning you will reach Manitowish, so they can be over at the Spider Lake dock when the livery gets you there.

You have often heard the old tradition that fish won’t bite when it thunders. Well, don’t take it too seriously. I know better. Of course, right after a heavy storm when there has been lots of wind, the lake is stirred up and its an inopportune time to fish, but last year while fishing in Boulder Bay a heavy rain came up with much thunder. We had our slicker suits with us and paid no attention to it—just kept right on fishing with success equal to any other time.

A great many musky fishermen like to troll and from this standpoint, I do not know of any chain of lakes in the North Woods that offers better trolling facilities than the Manitowish Chain. Practically the entire chain is navigable for the rowboat with outboard motor and while when it is windy there are some shores that will carry a pretty heavy sea for a small boat, that’s not the time to fish shores anyway. There is much difference of opinion as to the best season for muskies, whether June or September, but all agree that either of these are much better than July or August for during these latter months is the period in which this big game fish sheds its teeth. The latter part of September and the first of October is quite cool in the North Woods. In the mornings and evenings, a leather-lined vest or sweater coat will be a comfortable companion, yes, a necessity, and the water will nip your fingers in reeling in your cast but it is a delightful time of year and an excellent one to fare forth battle with the wolf of the waters. The devotee of bass fishing can well vary his recreation by going after muskies then, when it is getting pretty late for bass. This is the time ideal for trolling and then owing to the many good trolling shores the Manitowish Chain is supreme, you may go up or down the river from one lake to another, camp on a sandy shore and eat your lunch and enjoy an outing unexcelled with many a fight with a husky musky in between.

Postcard of Island Lake by David Bohnett, 1910. Catalog Number 2018.5.88.

The Manitowish, being more cut-over than some of the North Woods region farther east, does not possess all the majestic fall grandeur of the Cisco Chain not so much of its riot of gorgeous color against dark, massed, green backgrounds of tall, proud pines, hemlocks, cedar, balsam, and spruce, but its charming, dreaming Indian summer is equally delightful. While the ideal day for musky fishing is when the sky is overcast and there is just enough wind to put a good rifle on the water, those wondrous, sparling clear days are the most delightful to the outer and here in the Manitowish they are just as marvelous to the nature lover as in the regions of the deeper forest, the same soft lilac veil floats hazily between sapphire sky and sepia-tinted verdure, and if you are one of those with a tinge of sadness in your soul, who feel more deeply the sorrow of passing than the joy of arrival, the infinite primal beauty of this strange, wild, picturesque region will appeal with a magic that is irresistible.

Truly, “it is not all of fishing to fish.”