Popular Oconto River fishing access area reopens following major renovation
August 5, 2022
Green Bay Press-Gazette
OCONTO – After being closed for two years, a popular Oconto River fishing area is officially open to the public, thanks to an $80,000 project overseen by the Oconto Sportsmen’s Club.
The nearly complete project to improve the shoreline and add a handicap-accessible dock and other amenities was celebrated Tuesday.
“Everybody that goes out there has been extremely excited about it,” said Steve Heimerman, a club member who coordinated the project.
Heimerman thanked major contributors to the project, the largest being the Fox River/Green Bay Natural Resource Damage Assessment, which provided $35,000.
Representatives of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Oneida Nation and the Menominee Tribe are the trustees who administer money from the settlement over PCB pollution of Green Bay for environmental and conservation projects throughout the area, including several others underway in Oconto, Peshtigo and Suamico.
“There isn’t anything better for our trustee money to go forward with than to provide public access to the west shore of Green Bay,” said Charles M. Wooley, USFW’s regional director of the Great Lakes Region based in Bloomington, Minnesota.
“And this is just a great example of providing that public access, but the thing that really touches our heart and warms our soul is the way the community has wrapped their arms around this and come forward together,” he added.
Heimerman said the Sportman's Club began planning for the improvements early last year after the high-water levels in 2019 and 2020, making it “quite unsafe” for people who wanted to cast a line.
“It eroded behind the riprap, created gaps between the shore and the riprap,” he said. “We knew we had to fix this.”
Before moving ahead, the club agreed the site needed to provide access for people in wheelchairs, so they made plans to install a floating dock.
The project also included four picnic areas with tables, grills, and waste receptacles, as well as expansion and improvement of the parking area, including a fence.
Heimerman said then the club set out to find funding. Besides the NRDA grant, Oconto County’s Land & Water Conservation Department provided $23,000 from a state fund it administers, $6,500 came from the Oconto County Healthy Waters Cost Share program, with $500 from the Oconto County Lakes and Waterways Association.
The Sportsmen’s Club itself kicked in $10,000, as well as much of the labor.
“This club had a lot of work parties out here, and every member of the club contributed,” Heimerman said. “There was nobody that didn’t pull some weight to make this happen.”
Construction began in February with the installation of 1,200 feet of riprap from the new dock toward the bay by Peters Concrete, Green Bay.
In May, with help from a building trades class from Oconto High School, four concrete pads were set along the shoreline for picnic areas.
The parking lot, which doubled in size, was completed in June by Hugo Trucking. Heimerman noted that the Sobieski company did the work for about half the expected cost, saving the club several thousand dollars.
Delayed by supply chain issues, the dock finally arrived July 21, and club members worked to assemble it and get it in the water.
Heimerman singled out several club members who led the different aspects of the project, including treasurer Butch Mehlberg for organizing work parties, Cody “Rooster” Bresina for the dock, Tom Wittkopf for coordinating with the high school and constructing picnic tables, and Blaine Perman, who focused on the fire pit.
He also thanked Brady Stodola, a land conservation technician with the county, for working with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and Stodola’s supervisor, department head Ken Dolata, for coordinating the state and county grants as well as administering the funding and payments for the work.
Sportsmen’s Club president Steve Stock also credited Heimerman for his effort in coordinating the project.
“He did put a lot of time in this,” Stock said.
While people could walk down the long drive from the clubhouse to the shoreline to fish, cars were not allowed until July 30.
“We opened the gate on Saturday and had 100 people out here,” Bresina said.
The final touches to complete the project are slated to be done this fall, Heimerman said. Those include improving the path to the dock, seeding the area with grass, and removing dead trees and replacing them with new ones.
Jim Zellmer, deputy division administrator the state DNR, who oversees water projects in the state, called it a great project.
“What a great example of a partnership between public and private (entities),” he said. “A little bit of seed money, all partners coming together, bringing resources to such a worthy project of providing public access to fishing, that we’re always looking for,” Zellmer said.
This was the club’s fifth riprap improvement project on its mile of shoreline since 1982, Heimerman said.
The Oconto Sportsmen’s Club was formed in 1929 and began acquiring parcels along the river in 1950.
“It was easy to get because this was swampland,” he said.
In the first several decades, the site was primarily for hunting ducks and later pheasant. Heimerman said there wasn’t much fishing because of the poor water quality of the river, that only began improving after the DNR orchestrated cleanup activities around 1979 and 1980.
“With the resurgence of the walleye population, this area became an important fishery,” he said. “The bend (about 1,000 feet toward the bay) has always been the deepest water on the lower river, and is a magnet for walleye, bass and perch.”
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