WISCONSIN DELLS, Wis. - A 40-foot sandstone outcropping graces the east shore of the river, a mixed hardwood forest cloaks the west.
The watery canyon is filled with a heavy silence.
As our boat drifts past a rocky point, Nick Olson points skyward.
A bald eagle looks down from its roost in a white pine.
“See one almost every trip,” Olson says.
On this summer morning, the white-headed bird is the only other fisher in sight.
“Solitude” and “wildness” are relative terms. The sense of each, in fact, may be heightened the closer you find them to noise and civilization.
I joined Olson for an early summer fishing outing on the Wisconsin River near the Wisconsin Dells.
Though we were only a mile from the neon lights and roller coasters of the popular tourist attractions, the river was tranquil. No man-made structure was in sight.
“Most beautiful stretch of river in the state,” says Olson, 40, a full-time fishing guide from Reedsburg, as he cast toward shore.
Beauty, through the eyes of an angler, extends beyond the view shed and into the water.
The 36-mile stretch of the Wisconsin River from the Dells dam to Lake Wisconsin supports a diverse, quality fishery.
After five minutes of casting top-water baits along a rocky shoal, the morning stillness is broken.
The surface swirls, a fish thrashes. A minute later Olson leads a 17-inch smallmouth bass to a waiting net.
Olson unhooks the fish and turns it back into the dark water.
“I’ve got a contract with these fish,” Olson says with a laugh. “They are very dependable.”
Smallmouth are among the most popular species in this stretch, along with walleye, sauger, northern pike and lake sturgeon.
The areas near the Dells dam and in Lake Wisconsin are easily accessible. But much of the rest of the river in this area is shallow and filled with rocky riffles and sandbars, making it harder for anglers to fish and allowing fish to escape harvest.
Even near the dam, the river this morning is low.
“You wouldn’t believe how many people have ruined their boats on this,” Olson says, looking at a exposed bar.
Though a bane to boat hulls and lower engine units, the rocky structure helps explain the quality of the fishery.
The DNR conducted an angler survey of the river from the Dells dam to Lake Wisconsin.
Of 585 angler-caught smallmouth over 10 inches in length, 29 percent were from 10 to 13 inches, 36 percent were 14 to 15 inches, 26 percent were 16 to 17 inches and 9 percent were longer than 18 inches.
“The fishery contains a good portion of quality-size fish,” wrote Tim Larson in the report.
A tagging study also showed fish caught in a tournament and released moved as far 13 miles upriver in less than 16 days.
The same stretch hosts a good walleye population. Dave Rowe, DNR fisheries supervisor, said Lake Wisconsin and the river are relatively warm and fertile.
“The walleye in that system grow fast,” Rowe said. “There’s good natural reproduction and the size structure is impressive.”
Rowe said DNR crews found 80 walleyes over 28 inches long in a 2012 spring survey.
The river has a slot limit that allows anglers to keep walleyes from 15 to 20 inches long and one longer than 28 inches. Fish from 20 to 28 inches must be released.
As a result, DNR crews this spring found as many 24-inch walleyes as they did 13- inch walleyes.
Rowe said the walleyes in the system reach 15 inches at the end of their second year.
“We are starting to see many more very large fish, fish over 28 inches and 10 or 11 years old,” Rowe said. “And it’s all natural reproduction.”
Olson and I continue to work the shoreline structure. Casting wacky-rigged rubber worms and surface plugs, the smallies are cooperative.
An osprey works the water, too, near the dam.
Olson is a former PGA golf instructor turned fishing guide.
“I like the teaching aspect of both,” Olson says. “But there’s nothing like being on the water.”
Olson guides in central Wisconsin, with a focus on the Wisconsin River from Petenwell Flowage downstream to the Sauk City dam.
In summer, the smallmouth bass and northern pike fishing is especially good on the river.
At 8 a.m. the river’s surface erupts. Small, silver fish skitter in every direction.
“There’s nothing like seeing footballs chasing minnows,” Olson says of the smallmouth feeding spree.
Over the next hour, working shoreline structure just downstream from the Dells dam, Olson and I catch and release 25 smallmouth, four walleye and one largemouth bass.
The bass range from 6 to 19 inches, the walleye 16 to 24.
We see only one other fishing boat on the 2-mile stretch of river between River’s Edge Resort and the Dells dam.
At 10 a.m. a “Duck” tour boat plunges into the river and motors downstream.
The amplified tour guide banter echoes across the water.
Olson keeps time with the dialogue - he’s spent enough time on the river to have it memorized. In a minute the amphibious tourist craft disappears around a cream-colored rock wall.
Quiet returns. A black-crowned night heron alights on a shaded branch as we drift past.
“The river is big enough for all of us,” Olson says. “It’s some kind of resource, that’s for sure.”