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Fish Lake Wildlife Area

Fish Lake Wildlife Area is a 14,000-acre property located in southern Burnett County.



Fish Lake is part of the Northwest Wisconsin Pine Barrens. The barrens extends from northern Polk County to southern Bayfield County and covers 1,500 square miles. This large sand plain is a result of a large glacial lake (Glacial Lake Grantsburg) that covered the area after the retreat of the last glacier 12,000 years ago. The southern portion of the barrens, where Fish Lake is located, contains huge sedge marshes. These vast marshes are remnants of the glacial lake.

The sandy uplands of the wildlife area were historically covered by a jack pine savannah or brush prairie. The vegetation consisted of large jack and red pine widely scattered throughout an open expense of prairie grasses and wildflowers and a variety of woody vegetation including sweet fern, hazel, willow, blueberry and oak brush. The plant community was maintained by naturally occurring wildfires that frequently swept through the area.

European settlement, beginning in the mid 1800s, caused many changes to the area. Settlers began farming the sandy uplands, which were easy to clear but produced poor crops. In the late 1800s, they began draining the sedge marshes for framing and commercial cranberry production. These efforts were commercially unsuccessful but upset the ecological balance of the area.

Fire control efforts began in the early 1900s and the number and extent of wildfires gradually declined. In the absence of fire, most of the once common brush prairie grew into oak-jack pine forest. Many of the native wildlife populations declined or completely disappeared as their habitat was lost. In 1912, several thousand acres of sedge marsh were purchased by the Crex Carpet Co. For the next 20 years, this company harvested "wiregrass" (actually a sedge) from the marshes. The sedges were shipped by rail to the factory in St. Paul, where they were used to manufacture "grass rugs" and furniture. The company went bankrupt in 1933, and all their land holdings went to the ownership of Burnett County. The foundations of a large camp (Camp 5) are still evident in the center of the property.

During the depression and drought years of the 1930s, further wetland drainage and agricultural attempts failed. By 1940, two-thirds of the land in this area was tax delinquent. The Fish Lake Wildlife Area began in 1946, when the Wisconsin Conservation Department (now the Department of Natural Resources) began buying these tax delinquent lands for a public hunting ground.

Management objective

Management focuses on restoring the native wetland and brush prairie habitats that existed here prior to settlement. Management began in the early 1950s, when the first dikes were constructed to re-flood the drained marshes. Timber sales and prescribed burning are used to restore the brush prairie habitat.

The wildlife area currently contains 10 flowages that flood 2,322 acres. Numerous potholes, several small runoff ponds and a water transfer ditch have also been constructed. Wetland management includes periodic drawdowns of the flowages. More than 3,000 acres of brush prairie have been restored and are maintained with prescribed burning.

There are 14,124 acres within the boundaries of the wildlife area. More than 13,000 of those acres are in state ownership. There is one natural lake (Fish Lake) located in the northwest corner of the property.

Management plans include additional brush prairie and wetland restoration and acquiring the remaining private lands within the boundaries. About 1,500 acres of forest will be retained and managed for forest wildlife habitat and timber production.

For more information on master planning for this and other wildlife areas around the state, visit the property planning page


The Fish Lake Wildlife Area offers many recreational opportunities:

  • Auto travel;
  • Biking;
  • Birding;
  • Canoeing;
  • Cross-country skiing (no designated trail);
  • Fishing;
  • Hiking (no designated trail);
  • Hunting;
  • Snowmobiling trail;
  • Trapping;
  • Wild edibles/gathering; and
  • Wildlife viewing.
Friends Group

The Friends of Crex was established in 1984. It is a support group for Crex Meadows, Fish Lake and the other properties that comprise the Glacial Lake Grantsburg Wildlife Management Complex. For more information, visit Friends of Crex Inc. [exit DNR].


Download [PDF] a map of this property.

Map D Series: Fish Lake Wildlife Area [PDF]

If you are interested in exploring this property further, you can access an interactive map.

Useful links


Find out more about how to adopt this wildlife area.