Fox Chain O’ Lakes: The Key West of the Midwest

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Located just 50 miles north of Chicago and 55 miles south of Milwaukee is one of the most popular boating and fishing destinations in the United States.

The Fox Chain O’Lakes (or “the Chain” as it’s popularly known) is a network of 15 lakes popular for residents, commuters and vacationers. Weekend crowds in the summer contribute to the area’s nickname: The Key West of the Midwest

Reflection on the Fox River pin
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Important in the development of the Upper Midwest, channels and dams along the Fox River in Illinois provided water for the Illinois and Michigan Canal in the mid-1800s and allowed the canal to cross above the Fox River via aqueduct.

Water travel was supplanted in the early 1900s by rail travel, but the improved waterway quickly became a popular destination for Midwestern boaters and anglers. Many boaters head for the Fox Chain O’Lakes every possible summer weekend.

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The Wisconsin portion of the Fox River

Although the Fox Chain O’Lakes and the Fox Waterway extend across 118 miles of Illinois wetland and prairie, there is another part of the Fox River to the north in Wisconsin. Sometimes confused with the better-known Fox River of northern Wisconsin, which flows into Green Bay, the Wisconsin-Illinois Fox River actually begins near Menomonee Falls, west of Milwaukee.

The Wisconsin portion of the Fox River meanders for 84 miles through lakes, across dams and a 1,132-acre reservoir called Tichigan Lake before it reaches the Illinois state line and widens into the famous Fox Chain O’ Lakes.

Tichigan Lake and the adjacent Fox River offer over 1,200 acres of water and are two of the busiest waterways in southern Wisconsin. The rest of the Wisconsin Fox is a favorite among kayakers and canoeists, with several wildlife refuges and natural areas protecting the shoreline.

The Wisconsin Fox River is a destination in its own right worthy of a look-see. The Wisconsin portion travels through several popular residential lakes in Southern Wisconsin before crossing the state line and entering 1,360-acre Grass Lake.

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The flow of the Fox Chain O’ Lakes

Clouds reflect on the scenic Fox River in Illinois
Fox River, Illinois – eyfoto

Although the Fox River first enters Grass Lake, this isn’t the northernmost lake in the famous chain. The Fox Chain O’Lakes contains 15 lakes, all interconnected, most accessible by boat and all teaming with fish.

Catherine Lake and Channel Lake start the chain from the north. Lake Marie, Bluff Lake, Spring Lake and Petite Lake follow in quick succession – all flowing into Fox Lake, as do Grass Lake and Nippersink Lake.

Nippersink Lake flows in turn into Pistakee Lake, where the Fox River again narrows to a channel. Brandenburg Lake flows into Nippersink Lake, while Redhead Lake and Dunns Lake flow into Pistakee Lake. Long Lake and Duck Lake flow to Fox Lake. Griswold Lake is accessed via channel from the Fox River.

Other small lakes in the area are also accessible by channel with small boats. The smaller lakes are often shallow and primarily residential, while the larger lakes are popular for water skiing, power boating and cruising the main waterway.

Vineyard along Lake Erie
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How is the water level maintained on the Fox River?

The main channel of the Fox River continues to William G Stratton Lock and Dam, which maintains the water levels on the entire lake chain and the Upper Fox River. The lock is open from May to October for boating use.

Below the dam, boaters often sail the Lower Fox River south as far as the Algonquin Dam, an additional 16 miles. Serious sailors often venture the lower portion of the Fox River, but the average weekend visitor usually heads for the Chain O’ Lakes.

The Fox Waterway Agency controls the water levels and has authority over the waterway, providing navigation maps and services to 3.5 million visitors who enjoy the 45-mile waterway each year.

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Recreation on the Chain O’ Lakes

The Fox Chain O’Lakes area offers everything a weekend visitor could want; many vacation lodgings, water-accessible restaurants and marinas dot the shorelines of the biggest lakes.

The 2,794-acre Chain O’ Lakes State Park and adjoining 32,320-acre conservation area give boaters and campers access to 488 miles of shoreline on the Chain. Hiking trails, mountain-bike trails and nature paths offer something for every visitor. The park even offers equestrian campsites and horse-friendly trails.

The area is dotted with rare bogs holding endangered plants and a large number of birds. Fishing is excellent on the Chain, with certain lakes being better known for fishing than for boating. Walleye, white bass, perch, channel catfish, crappie, northern pike and bass can all be caught just a short distance from one of the numerous public boat launch sites.

All boats on the Chain must display a Fox Waterway Agency sticker that must be renewed each year. The fee contributes to the costs of maintaining the lakes and rivers.

The agency’s waterway maps are essential as the maze of waterways and channels can confuse even the most experienced boater. Many of their maps and services are available on their webpage, and some permits can be purchased online.

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Living on the Fox River Chain O’ Lakes

Some lucky Illinois residents have seasonal or year-round homes on the Fox River Chain O’Lakes. Housing in the area is increasingly upscale and much in demand.

Visitors can rent cottages and condos on the water. Some of the larger lakes cater to water-skiers and power-boaters. Many regular visitors arrange to meet friends here regularly for a weekend of water-based fun.

Sailboats, jet skis and power boats all find a place here, with regattas and fishing tournaments holding a spot among the many scheduled activities on the Chain.

Although far more law-abiding than the days when famous gangsters hid out here during Prohibition, people on the Chain still enjoy a good party and know how to have a great time. There’s something for everyone on the Fox River and Chain O Lakes. It should definitely be on your summer boating radar.

View of Torch Lake from A-Ga-Ming Golf Club, Michigan
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