As a place to live or have fun, Lake Wissota, a 100-year-old impoundment, is a destination site.
Old newspaper clippings included in Lake Wissota: The Dam Story, a book released this summer by the Chippewa County Historical Society, details efforts to spread the word on the resource, once nicknamed “The Niagara of the Northwest” when the lake was first flooded in 1917.
Today, not a lot of marketing is needed to spread the word about the glories of Lake Wissota.
When Marv Roshell, who served as Lafayette town chairman and represented the area in the state senate for many years, once told the Herald about having difficulty obtaining a loan to buy and build on Lake Wissota in the 1960s. Chippewa Falls banks told him the west hill is where he should be looking.
Attitudes have changed since, as Lake Wissota property is some of the most sought-after in the area.
As recently as the 1980s and early ‘90s, lakefront homes could be found for under $150,000. But values accelerated rapidly until the real estate market crash in 2008.
“The demand is pretty good; we have a lot of buyers for the lake,” said Bruce Hayhoe, Jr. of Woods and Water Realty, a Realtor in the area since 1992. “Pricing is the issue. It really hasn’t come back after the slowdown in 2008.”
That tends to make sellers want to wait until prices are higher. Buying an existing home is an option, but for those wanting to build a dream home, finding a buildable lot can be a challenge. According to Hayhoe, existing developed lots of 70 ft. can be purchased and redeveloped, but a subdivided lot must be 100 ft. under a county-wide regulation. Shoreland lots in the towns of Lafayette and Eagle Point must be at least 30,000 sq. ft. Such a lot would cost from $225,000 to $260,000, Hayhoe said, with lots with useable frontage priced higher than high lots in which a slope drops down to the lake.
“A 70-ft. lot is not worth a whole lot less than a 100-ft. lot,” Hayhoe said.
Many smaller, older homes remain around Lake Wissota, but they are slowly disappearing, torn down and replaced by larger, more expensive homes. That creates some problems.
The older homes are going away and the mansions are coming in,” Lafayette Town Chairman Dave Staber said.
“Water has to have enough room to infiltrate the soil before it hits the lake,” Mary Jo Fleming said. Fleming is president of the Lake Wissota Improvement and Protection Association (LWIPA).
“We’re having a problem with knock-down cabins, then filling the lot,” Staber said. “We’re running into problems with lots being elevated.”
Staber described how he spent a lot of time this year dealing with a neighborhood problem in which a recently elevated lot changed stormwater flow patterns. A neighboring home without a basement ended up with water on the floor during heavy rains and another had water in the basement.
Staber said the county conditional use permit process includes requirements to have an engineered plan for water flow. “The town has a program now, too, and we will start reviewing these plans for proper drainage.”
Staber added that besides new construction on the lake, development just off the lake has an impact, too. “This year, we’ve had three subdivisions that affects the drainage to the lake,” he said.
Looking at activity on Lake Wissota on the 4th of July weekend, or any of the warm, sunny days from spring through early fall may give the impression that Lake Wissota is overrun with pleasure-seekers. People water skiing and wake-boarding, enjoying a cruise on a pontoon, canoeing and kayaking, fishing, and enjoying time at Ray’s Beach or the state park are common sights. But most weekdays, the lake is fairly quiet, and when it is busy, it’s busy in specific spots.
At over 6,000 acres, Lake Wissota is a large body of water. Fleming noted that for its size, Wissota does not have excessive use, but it’s concentrated in certain areas.
“It’s spotty. The small lake, the state park area and the Yellow River area see a lot of use,” Fleming said.
Where the Chippewa River enters the lake by the Lake Wissota Yacht Club is a bottleneck as well.
Also affecting lake usage patterns is the railroad bridge between the small and large lakes. The clearance between surface and bridge is so narrow that many boats, including the newest pontoons, can’t clear. That limits people to the part of the lake where they launched, mostly impacting the small lake.
Fishing remains a big draw on Lake Wissota, which is known as a good muskie and walleye lake, with good smallmouth bass and panfish opportunities as well. Whether Lake Wissota is ascending of descending as a fishery depends on your perspective.
“In the 1970s, Lake Wissota was one of the best kept secrets there was,” said Gale Engel, who has been fishing Lake Wissota since 1970. “I could catch my limit on walleyes every time I went out, all over 15 inches, and it wasn’t unusual to catch 20-inch walleyes. One time out I caught two 24-inch walleyes.”
But by the late 1980s and early 90s, Wissota’s reputation changed dramatically. Walleyes were abundant, but it was hard to find any at the minimum 15-inch limit and large fish seemed rare.
Three major changes were made. After a new dam relicensing, Xcel Energy ended a practice of a big lake spring drawdown that adversely affected habitat. Wissota had been open to game fishing year-round, but the DNR ended that. A walleye slot limit was imposed, requiring the release of fish 14 to 18 inches and a limit of only one over 18 inches. A three-fish limit has been common for many years, connected to native tribes’ spearfishing issues.
“Fishing is not as good now, but there’s still a good number of fish out there,” Engel said.
Engel speculated that more fishermen with better electronics has impacted Wissota – like most Wisconsin waters.
Joseph Gerbyshak, DNR area fish manager, said Lake Wissota is still a healthy fishery.
“Wissota has one of the best natural walleye reproduction rates in the state,” Gerbyshak said. “A lot of Wisconsin lakes have declining reproduction.”
The last DNR fish survey on Wissota was in 2016, which identified 1.3 adult walleyes per acre, up from 1.1 in 2011 but down from 2.1 in 2006, Gerbyshak said. However, the 1996 survey showed 1.7 per acre, he added.
Those are pretty healthy figures, Gerbyshak said. But Wissota walleyes are slow-growing, he added. In 1996, when the small walleye reputation was in full force, the average length was 13.3 inches. In 2016 it was 14.1 inches. Gerbyshak said female walleyes inside the slot limit are about 4.5 years old, and they stay in that slot until age 7. Males hit the slot size at age 5.5 years and stay in it until 9.5 years.
For muskies, Lake Wissota is classified as trophy waters and next year will be managed as such with a minimum 50-inch size limit.
“It’s improving, very much so,” said Ralph Bellore, a walleye fisherman on Wissota since 2006. “The fish are getting bigger, with healthier-looking walleyes.”
A former Herald assistant editor from 1995-2012, Mark Gunderman is a Lake Wissota resident and a member of the Lake Wissota Improvement and Protection Association.