Fishing & Boating in the Northwoods

Mercer, WI – Loon Capitol of the World

loon statue

It was a trip I had been meaning to take for several years. And when another had fallen through at the last minute, Heidi and I decided that a trip to Mercer, Wisconsin might be the perfect plan for some peace, quiet and relaxation.

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Route 51 – a Long and Unbroken Route

Even though I had planned on not writing or doing any work while in Mercer – after all, it was supposed to be a true getaway – I somehow knew that I would end up sharing the trip with you.
We headed north out of town on Friday at about 8:30am, hoping to be just behind the typical “getaway day” traffic that always seems to clog the expressways on Fridays. Interstate 90/94 was the usual bumper-to-bumper stuff most of the way up and through Madison. Then it thinned out a bit as we eased onto Route 51 north at Portage.

I was unaware – until Heidi shared the fact with me – that Route 51 is actually an incredibly long and unbroken route (1286 miles). It runs all the way from Hurley, Wisconsin (way in the northern tip of the state) down through the states of Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi to La Place, Louisiana.

Formed in 1926, it has even been the subject of a Bob Dylan song (Highway 51 Blues). There is a lot of information available about it and somehow, I feel another excursion coming. This should be a very long one with lots of stops!

In any case, I had just swapped out my 2-stroke Yamaha 90 outboard for a new 4-stroke version. As I looked in my rear-view mirror at my boat following closely behind me, I was grinning widely with the thought of putting a few break-in hours on it somewhere in the lakes of northern Wisconsin, near Mercer.

Motel Reservation in Merrill

The traffic was suddenly almost non-existent, and the grin widened. Route 51 north of Portage continues as a 4-lane divided road with plenty of open space to enjoy as it wends its way north. This as it meanders through the towns of Westfield, Coloma, Plainfield and eventually Wausau. Just south of Wausau, Route 51 starts to cross the Wisconsin River for the first of about a dozen times before the river bends east and back toward its source at the southwest corner of Lac Vieux Desert, on the border of Michigan and Wisconsin.

We had decided to take our time in getting to Mercer and had made a reservation at a Super 8 Motel in the small town of Merrill, about 15 minutes north of Wausau. (Note: The Super 8 is now the Cobblestone Inn & Suites and there is also a nearby Super 8 in Wausau.) Although we were pretty early, we were greeted with a warm welcome and friendly smile at the front desk by Joan, who by the way, may be one of the most helpful and friendly people I have met while traveling! She was also instrumental in leading us to Cal and Cathy’s Club 64 (about 4 miles west of town) where we enjoyed a huge and tasty dinner.

hotel in mercer wi

Mercer & a Shot in the Dark

After an incredibly quiet and restful night’s sleep, we headed for Iron County and Mercer, Loon Capitol of the World. The drive from Merrill was relatively short (less than 2 hours) and we dropped the boat at our motel (Northern Exposure Nite’s Inn) before doing a quick tour of the town.

Northern Exposure, by the way, was a true shot in the dark because I knew nothing of the area. But what a great shot it was: inexpensive, very clean and quiet. The room appeared to have just been redone in knotty pine. It came complete with a small refrigerator, microwave, and coffeemaker, and was the perfect place for us. It felt like we had our own little cabin in the north woods!

Mercer is very small – only about 1800 residents – but it had a very friendly and comfortable feel to it. There were several places to eat (even a Subway), a few bars, a couple of bait shops and gas stations. It also had a neat specialty shop filled with great souvenirs called The Wampum Shop, and an IGA that came in quite handy when it came to grabbing a few necessary items for lunch and snacks. And Mercer is literally surrounded by lakes!

turtle on echo lake in mercer

Echo Lake

We had arrived on a Sunday afternoon and things seemed very quiet in town. Later we learned that a fairly large Harley Motorcycle contingency was headed in to town the following weekend, so I guess our timing was good. After a visit to one of the bait shops, we were told that there was a small lake in town (Echo Lake) where we could easily launch our boat. We headed over, got the boat in, and took a sort of tourist cruise around the 273-acre lake.

We also made a few casts and picked up a couple of small northern and largemouth bass. The weather started to look threatening, so we headed back to the motel. We fired up a small grill that we had brought with us, and grilled burgers. Then we also uncorked a bottle of wine, poured a glass (Dixie cup actually) and the grin that had placed itself on my face the day before suddenly now stretched from one ear to the other. This was really livin’!!

grilling steaks

Steaks on the Grill for Dinner

Most of the storm blew past us and Monday morning dawned a beauty. We had decided to try Mercer Lake – right in town and easily accessible – today. It was also small by most standards, but I didn’t care, the beauty and serenity was overwhelming and we had much fun in spite of the 20 mph or so winds that blew up starting at about 10:30am. We did manage to catch five different species of fish – all too small to keep – but still fun to catch, especially on a lake we knew nothing about.

But steaks on the grill for dinner, along with a baked potato with sour cream and butter, accompanied by a glass or two of red wine. It was just me and Heidi and the clean, crisp north woods air, and I could have died and gone to heaven. I slept like a baby!

Tuesday was much the same, only this time we tried Long Lake, to the north and east of Mercer. It was a bit bigger – about 470 acres and very pretty – and deeper in parts. We hoped it was hiding a few Muskies. It probably was, but luck was not with us that day. I didn’t mind at all.


Club 51

One of the reasons I had wanted to come to Mercer was to see a close friend of mine that I used to work with. Kurt has a summer home in Mercer, and I had promised to look him up. We picked him up at his cabin and took him out to dinner at a place called Club 51, right on Route 51.

If you are ever in Mercer and want to have a tremendous dinner, you simply must go to Club 51. Heidi ordered what turned out to be the biggest slab of Walleye I had ever seen on a plate. Kurt ordered Chicken and Ribs and I chose the All-You-Can-Eat Ribs. Complete with a great salad bar, this was easily one of the best meals I have had. It was also really reasonably priced.
We all ate, talked, and laughed until my sides hurt. Time almost stood still for a while on a cool August night in northern Wisconsin. I had not felt so relaxed in a long, long time.

Heading Home

Wednesday morning, we had one final meal before heading for home – a great little breakfast on our little grill. As we drove south, I marveled at how easy it can be to relax and have fun. It reminded me of a certain commercial about the cost of doing things. The only important part was this: we had the boat in three different lakes in three days. We ate well, slept well, and spent some quality time with a good friend. It was… priceless!

Mercer was friendly and accommodating and well worth the drive north. I know that there was much more that Mercer had to offer, especially in terms of its quality fishing, hunting and winter sports. It is a place to which I know I will return.

R. Karl



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R. Karl

Angler, Author & Epicure

Fishing since the age of eight.  Seriously writing since the age of 16. Chef and foodie from the age of 22 years… and counting. So much to learn and so little time. I have enjoyed every minute of it all.  Whether on the water (where I like it best), in the kitchen, or at the keyboard, churning out content, I feel like I have found my place.  I am sharing it with you in the hope that some of what I love to do will rub off on you. I hope to see you On the Lake!

R. Karl