Ted Peck: Bronco's Wisconsin River rodeo
The Wisconsin River has been called “the hardest working river in America” because massive dams built to rein in the power of the copper-stained waters have produced power in the heartland for decades.
Most think of our namesake river as a benign and sleepy stream when they visit the water just an hour west of Janesville, where the forever flow eases over shallow sandbar flats from Sauk City to its eventual confluence with the Mississippi just south of Prairie du Chien.
The water is even quieter in slow-moving flowages such as Lake Wisconsin, Castle Rock and Petenwell upstream. But north of Wausau, the sleepy Wisconsin is an untamed animal teeming with fish and great potential for adventure.
A few folks discover the potential for ravishing this bounty from kayaks and canoes. But the river insists they move along after just a cast or two at a back-eddy or pool that holds unlimited possibilities.
The only way to ride this critter effectively is from a jet-drive tunnel boat. Guide Kurt “Bronco” Schultz has such a watercraft and has worn the big silver buckle of rodeo champ here for almost a decade.
Schultz has angling skills far beyond his 34 years. He is on this water almost daily when winter cedes control of Wisconsin's north country. More than 200 muskies pose for photos with Schultz against this wild country backdrop every season.
Huge smallmouth bass might see Bronco's smiling face several times a summer, experiencing reverent release after an exhilarating, frenetic tango. Big smallmouth are notorious homebodies, establishing dominance in small niches of the grand flow that they guard tenaciously, eating or driving off any interloper that is smaller or less aggressive.
The bronzebacks yield to the muskies that are the apex of the underwater food chain. Muskies patrol neighborhoods. Smallmouths reign over much smaller fiefdoms.
Schultz is emperor of the whole shebang, knocking on the front door with a gift hiding a hook and leaving pretenders to the throne with a sore jaw to contemplate the encounter.
He knows where these fish live—within feet or sometimes inches—and the exact temptation it takes to coax them into dancing. This knowledge and a jet-drive-powered dance floor place his services in high demand.
We weren't even able to hook up once for a trip last year.
Last week, we spent a couple of memorable days relishing piscatory combat in Bronco's personal rodeo. We never saw another human being out on the water.
The weather was perfect for realizing the joys of being alive in Wisconsin. This translates into diminished potential for catching muskies, so we opted for the continuing education of smallmouth bass.
Every smallmouth we boated was of legal dimensions. The average size was north of 18 inches, with the biggest gal measuring up at just over 21. Twenty inches is considered a trophy fish amongst the smallmouth fraternity.
Chequamegon Bay and Door County are considered the best trophy smallmouth waters in the state. With more surface acres and easier access, these venues deserve homage.
There are no cheering crowds or boats with envious anglers to congratulate angling achievement on the upper Wisconsin River. Only Bronco Schultz waiting patiently with a big Frabill net and confident smile on some of the wildest water in the Midwest.
Ted Peck, a certified Merchant Marine captain, is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at email@example.com.