Winneconne, where the Wolf River runs through it — The old “draw-bridge” is gone, the new bridge arches a bit higher, longer.
And, in an attempt to hold on to a widely know legendary tradition, a couple of fishing platforms are now under construction.
Winneconne, February, 2019: There’s the sound of pile-driving in the air. Rhythmic. Almost relentless.
Even in this harsh winter, with ice forming/melting/repeat, winds raging and snow flying, you can see busy crews of construction workers, their neon-yellow vests daffodil-alive in the dead of winter.
They’re out there on barges on the east side of the Wolf River setting up forms and spilling out concrete. They’re along its banks, transferring supplies, discussing the next facet of the project. They’re on the village’s roads, driving trucks with load after load of equipment and all that stuff that will come together to give us a nice place to fish.
Some fairly notable highway bridges span the Fox and Wolf Rivers; many smaller ones take us over their tributaries. But none is as well known, as often talked about, and as faithfully fished from, as what was commonly called The Winneconne Bridge.
But… it’s gone.
Officially named the Merrill T. White Bridge, it was a bascule bridge – also referred to as a drawbridge – and about 85 years old. Boaters who navigated that section of the Wolf River in tall vessels had to signal the bridge-tender up in his little house, wait for vehicular traffic to clear and the gates to go down, then wait for the bridge’s two mid-sections to swing up.
Vehicles on the bridge waited, too, and traffic often got backed up that bridge. All that waiting during busy summers also got old.
But one tradition stayed strong: The surface of the old Winneconne bridge was a favorite destination for local fisher-folks and out-of-state anglers. During the spring and fall walleye, they’d be out there on its span in cold dark nights and crisp predawn mornings to earn a spot.
And that often meant waiting for a turn in a favored spot, then standing shoulder to shoulder.
Things sure have changed. Open to traffic since Oct. 2018, the new fixed-span bridge is about 10 feet wider than the old one. It has curving approaches, a bike lane, one wider sidewalk, also for snowmobilers, and two viewing bump-outs. At its highest arc, the bottom concrete girder rises about 23 feet above the standard low-water elevation of the river – roughly the same height as the top of the old bridge’s tender hut.
It can accommodate the passage of the Fin ‘n’ Feather’s Showboat, one of Winneconne’s many visitor attractions, as well as other craft on the Fox/Wolf waterways. It won’t need to open. We won’t need to wait.
The Village’s $5.9 million dollar utility and sewer improvement projects, which were coordinated with the work on the bridge, also are nearly finished.
According to Bill Bertrand, WI DOT Project Manager for the State Highway 116 Wolf Bridge and Approaches, “It’s gone very well and it’s pretty much been on schedule. We recognize there’s been some inconvenience – with changing detours, noise, and other factors. There’s also been very good cooperation with the Village. And the residents have been patient and understanding.”
Construction for the first four facets of the $11-million bridge project began on September 11, 2017 and finished in October 2018. The planning, and calls for public input go back to 2005. At meetings of DOT representatives, village officials, stakeholders and other citizens, they explored and explained the reasons for the project, its cost, design options, and progress. Land acquisitions, aesthetic considerations, costs, changing traffic patterns and those deeply respected fishing traditions also were discussed.
Yes, fishing. While no fishing is allowed from the new bridge, according to Bertrand, the two fishing platforms – the last of the five major phases of the project – were included in the design so the essence of that tradition could continue. Lunda Construction Company started work on this phase in Oct. 2018; plans call for it to be completed in September 2019.
The fishing platforms will be permanent piers about 22 feet wide and 220 feet long stretching out from the west and east shores. Set in roughly the same location as the old bridge, they’re being constructed parallel to the new bridge, and about 10 feet from its north side.
Between the platforms, a 265-foot gap – about 88 yards – will serve as access to the navigation channel. No boats, powered or paddled, will be allowed under the platforms, which will be approximately 6.5 feet above the ordinary high water mark.
The platforms will be accessible only by foot. The east-side (North First Avenue) access area will include a cul de sac with parking for 8 or 9 vehicles, as well as a drop-off place for people and/or gear. Two boardwalks, one coming from the north (Fin ‘n’ Feather); the other near the former site of The Other Place, are planned for the west side.
Each platform will have a canopy at its river-end. The railings will have depressions to provide lower-level access for physically challenged and young anglers.
For the 2019 spring spawning run, anglers will fish from the shores and in boats. Construction won’t stop, but there are restrictions on in-stream work between mid-March and June 1. The goal is to get as much of the underwater done during winter and ease the project’s impact on fish and other wildlife.
Regarding the crews building the platform, Bertrand said, “The bridge contractor employs some very tough individuals. They’re accustomed to working in challenging conditions.”
All that, just to fish? Well, anyone who’s fished on the Winneconne’s bridge can understand the motivation to provide something that comes as close to that experience as possible. And that’s what the platforms were designed to do – reach out from tradition.
Fishing on the bridge is a hearty, fascinating, many-faceted tradition that goes back to the days of long bamboo poles reaching out over the railings from the hands of anglers dressed in suits and ties. And, there were more humble bridges and eager anglers even before that.
What’s the fuss about? If you haven’t heard a fish story from a bridge-angler, go ahead and ask around in Winneconne during the spring run. He might be from Chicago and comes up there every year, like his grandfather did. She might be a middle-schooler, who doesn’t mind the cold and loves to try for big ol’ “‘eye.”
You’ll hear tales of huge sturgeon ripping through a line of lines, lots of walleye over many nights, tangled lines, slipping around on minnows, and of the weather’s nasty surprises, more keenly felt up there on that bridge.
Listen, ask, and you may get a sense of the camaraderie the grew between local and out-of-town anglers over the years. And get a sense for the challenges, the only-in-Winneconne mystic of it all.
The platforms won’t be the same, but they’ll come close. Bertrand said, “When this is all finished, will definitely be a benefit to the Winneconne area. Having a fixed bridge means the east and west sides of the community are more accessible, and better united, in a way. The fishing platforms will be unique in the whole state. I don’t think any other locale has anything like it. At the end of this project, the village will have some very nice amenities for tourists and residents.”
The Village of Winneconne is worth a visit any time of year. Come September, there will be another draw.
And you may hear an echo of the relentless pile drivers; feel the pride of those who worked through a very rough winter… and even catch a walleye to two.
Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WI DOT) refers to this project as the WIS 116 (Main St.) reconstruction and Wolf River Bridge replacement in downtown Winneconne, Wisconsin.
The previous bridge had a span of about 750 feet over the section of the 250-miles-long Wolf River where it conducted WIS 116 and joins the east and west sides of the Village of Winneconne.
That crossing is vital to residents of the Village, and its surrounding region, as well as to its visitors, businesses, emergency response and the ever-growing amount of through traffic.
The nearest Wolf River-system crossings are the US 41 bridge over Lake Butte des Morts, 9.5 miles southeast; and the US 10 bridge near Fremont, about 20 miles northwest.
The layout and functions of that section of Wolf River country and the communities beyond it encompass significant variations — from rural to urban, from rivers and lakes to farm fields and uplands, from a quiet, near-up-north experience to that of some good-sized cities.
The WIS 116 bridge in Winneconne is the region’s new lifeline and its unifier. And, in about seven months, it also will have fishing platforms like no other in the state.