Interview: Craig Roberts – Wisconsin Fisheries Biologist

Below is an email conversation/interview that I had with Craig Roberts who is located here in Spooner, Wisconsin. Craig is the Fisheries Biologist for Washburn and Burnett Counties here in the northwestern part of the state. I might add that there is more water than you can even possibly imagine; in Burnett County alone there are 804 named lakes and somewhere in the range of 150 miles of river water just waiting to be fished.

Wisconsin DNR LogoBeing a guy from Southern Indiana, there were several questions that I wanted to ask Craig; some frankly …. I have answered myself through the years, mostly from direct conversation with other fly-guys, guides and locals. I thought it would be interesting for those of you living outside of our NW corner to get a professional perspective on the fishing and specifically the small mouth fishing … up here in the north woods.

I have also included an article that I recently found that does some explaining and goes to great lengths to give personal perspective on the ‘overwintering’ or migration of the smallmouth. If, like me, this is a foreign concept … keep this in mind when planning a trip either late or early in the year. Truth is that of this exact moment, first week of June … the small mouth here on the St. Croix have still not moved north into the headwaters of the stream …. at least not in large numbers. I have fished the St. Croix twice, as recently as the first of June … and still have only managed to land two smallmouth in a stretch where I usually would have landed over 20 fish.

Take advantage of this interview … especially if you are planning a trip to our area. Consider several subjects; water levels, water temps, air temps and for sure … the time of year (IE, anytime after mid September). If you have questions you can address those to me or Craig (his info is listed at the end of this article). I feel like he is a great resource and might just be able to help steer you in the right direction to have some success!

Lastly …. don’t be too sensitive to look to hire a guide. I am not in the guide business and frankly, really don’t see myself going in that direction anytime soon as I am pretty busy and quite selfish about my time both fishing and in the fall, hunting all sorts of critters. I did recently list a local guide that I would recommend; Jacobsen Outdoors . Elliot has a great set up and while he is mostly a conventional fisherman …. he can, does and will take fly fisherman on adventures both on the St. Croix and the Namekagon Rivers. If you need someone to guide you or just a shuttle; contact Elliot and tell him that FlyFishingWithJeff sent you.

If our area; specifically the St. Croix or Namekagon Rivers have ever intrigued you … .then don’t hesitate, Do your diligence before coming as it will indeed pay off … and you won’t find SO much water with such a wide variety of fish in many, or any, other places. As always …. leave me a comment below or you can email me at

Question # 1

Jeff: Craig, tell us a little about your job with the Wisconsin DNR and specifically, what is the most enjoyable portion of your day?

Craig Roberts: My job has a diversity of work related to fisheries management. In any given day, I can work on or talk about fishing/fisheries management with anglers, work on fishing regulations, fish stocking, or do field sampling lakes/rivers/streams. I personally enjoy talking about fishing/fish with those who are interested and field sampling the most.

Question # 2

Jeff: Small mouth is my most favorite fish to catch … they live in beautiful places and are a real treat to fight on a fly rod; what aspect of a smallmouth do you think is the most unique or interesting?

Craig Roberts: Smallmouth bass are interesting to me because they pull and fight harder than most other game fish for their size. From a biologist standpoint, they really seem to like rocky or riverine habitats which means they are going to be in rivers, streams, or lakes with good water quality.

Question # 3

Jeff: I have tried my entire fishing career (now going on 40 years) to be as careful with smallmouth as possible as they are a very slow growing resource … what are some facts that you’d like to educate us about smallmouth and their growth, survival, etc.?

Craig Roberts: We recently studied small mouth bass in more detail in the Namekagon River in 2020. Based on that study, it takes about 10 – 11 years for a smallmouth to reach 18 inches in our area. However, the overall survival rate for the river was very good at 76%. So in conclusion, it does take a while for small mouth to reach trophy sizes in Northwest Wisconsin, but with higher survival rates, these fisheries should stay healthy into the future.

Question # 4

Jeff: I am amazed, still, and was all but dumbfounded when I started fishing up here in northern Wisconsin and realized that the smallmouth population actually migrates, and in some cases…for a very long distance. What can you share with us about the migration or the overwintering and return of small mouth in the spring?

Craig Roberts: We (DNR in Spooner) haven’t studied this in great detail. But I can say from personal experiences and some of our data collection in the local rivers and flowages that they do migrate. I think the one that I have seen/experienced is overwintering migrations. Smallmouth bass do seem to seek deeper areas to go to when winter is coming. I would say more specific research in needed on this topic in Northwest Wisconsin.

Jeff: There is an article that I found on just this week on this subject and thought I would include it in the Q/A at this point …. any comment from you on the integrity of the article or facts given?

Craig Roberts: I’ll be honest that I’d rather not comment on articles written by others. Every river system is different even within different parts of Wisconsin and his experiences/background likely vary from mine.

Question # 5

Jeff: Lastly, I suppose I will always be in love with fly fishing for smallmouth; that is one of the main reasons that my wife Vickie and I moved 700 miles from southern Indiana … I have found that the waters in northern Wisconsin and specifically my portion in NW Wisconsin … are nothing short of incredible! What would be your advice for someone wanting to make a trip up here … whether it be their first time or a repeat traveler?

Craig Roberts: If you are new to fishing for small mouth bass, my suggestion would be bring an assortment of baits and try them out. If the smallmouth are active they are generally not bait shy. As far as places to try, I would say just pick any medium to large sized river in our area (most of our rivers have small mouth bass). The next part is logistics of a float trip and where to stay. If folks have specific questions, myself or other DNR fishery biologist are available to help.

Question # 6

Jeff: Can our readers contact you directly if they have additional questions?

Craig Roberts: I would say you can share my contact information for folks interested in fishing in Washburn/Burnett Counties.

Craig Roberts, Fisheries Biologist
Phone: 715-416-0351.

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