Wisconsin's Powerful Pike Waters

Open-water fishing for northerns starts right after ice-out on many of our waterways. These are some of the best places to catch a trophy pike.

Photo by Tim Lesmeister

Fisheries management personnel of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources are working to improve sportfishing for northern pike. Pike are one of our most popular, abundant and cooperative game fish, but improving the pike fishing statewide is not a simple job because northerns inhabit a wide variety of lakes and rivers. This diversity means each type of water must be managed with a different strategy.

As a rule, when you are looking for powerful pike waters, you select the large, cool and deep lakes with plenty of large forage fish such as suckers and ciscoes. Generally these waters have steep shorelines and few marshy areas for the pike to use for spawning. As a result, the overall pike population is low, even though the northerns might grow to 10 pounds or more.

The lakes you want to avoid when looking for big pike are the "snake" or "hammerhandle" lakes. These are common in northern Wisconsin and are usually small, shallow and weedy. They're known for producing panfish, bass and small pike. The northerns simply don't grow large enough, or fast enough, to interest the serious pike angler. DNR management and manipulation can do little to help these lakes.

Many of our lakes fall between these two habitat extremes. They provide quality pike fishing opportunities, and many of our best northern pike lakes are connected to river systems. Keep in mind that today's fishing regulations are complex, and make sure you check the regulations booklet for specific size and bag limits before you fish any lake or river. Regulations are free at DNR Service Centers or you can download them at www.dnr.wi.gov. Signs are posted at lake and river access points with any special regulations for that specific waterway.

LAKE MENDOTA

Located in Dane County, Lake Mendota is one of Wisconsin's most popular trophy-pike lakes. It's the largest lake in the five-lake Madison Chain, with 9,842 acres and a maximum depth of 82 feet. The DNR set a 40-inch minimum length limit on northerns in Mendota. It is one of four lakes in our state with this size limit. This means catching a 20- to 25-pound pike is a possibility. The bag limit is one fish per day. The 40-inch size limit also applies to the portions of Sixmile Creek, Pheasant Branch Creek and the Yahara River, as well as Cherokee Lake and Warner Park Lagoons. Check the regulations for specific boundaries.

Lake Mendota is managed intensively for northern pike and walleyes. The current restrictive pike size limit took effect in 1998. According to DNR fisheries personnel, all the Madison-area lakes have good pike fishing, but Lake Mendota offers anglers the best chance to catch a 40-inch or better northern in the Madison area, but most of the big fish will run 30 to 39 inches. Due to habitat loss and fishing pressure, natural reproduction cannot sustain the pike population in the Madison Chain. The DNR stocks pike in Mendota, Monona, Waubesa and Kegonsa, either yearly or every other year.

There are many good boat ramps on Lake Mendota to provide access. The fishing can be good throughout the open-water season, but fall is the best time to catch Mendota's trophy pike. In fall the large northerns become active and move into the shallows when the water cools. Recreational boating traffic ends and angling pressure decreases in the fall, too.

If you fish Lake Mendota during summer, try to concentrate on the weekdays when the pleasure boat traffic is lighter than on weekends. Pike like cool water. In the heat of summer they will go deep, especially at midday, so don't be afraid to fish in deep water, 20 feet or more, if necessary.

For information on travel and lodging in the Madison area, contact the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-373-6376 or log on to their Web site at www.visitmadison.com.

GREEN BAY

Even though it is not listed by the DNR as a trophy-pike water, Green Bay is one of your best choices for big pike.

Local fishing club volunteers are assisting DNR personnel with pike management during the current period of low water and poor spawning success. Green Bay also has the advantages of no closed season, no size limit and a wide variety of habitat types to fish.

Trophy-pike fishing is best in spring and fall when the northerns are holding near shore in shallow and accessible locations. There's a lot of water in Green Bay, and the fish are hard to locate after the water warms and they head for deeper, cooler locations.

In past years, fishing the weedbeds on the west shore of Green Bay with large spinnerbaits was a popular summer technique. Some years the beds are scarce to non-existent, and at those times it's best to focus on other types of cover or structure such as troughs, reefs and rockpiles.

Popular fishing locations are near any of Green Bay's west shore tributaries, and these locations have good boat ramps. Nearby towns such as Marinette, Oconto, Peshtigo and the City of Green Bay have lodging and bait shops. Bait dealers can also provide fishing reports.

Green Bay's east shore is popular among trophy-pike seekers, too. The best fishing is found from Little Sturgeon Bay and north of there in places such as Rileys Bay, Sand Bay, Sturgeon Bay and the Sturgeon Bay ship canal. As summer progresses, locations farther north such as Eagle Harbor, Sister Bay and Ellison Bay become the hotspots. However, if you have to pick one location to fish, make it the ship canal, since it is a consistent pike producer all year long.

Pike are often caught by anglers who are fishing for trout, walleyes or muskies, especially when trolling in spring and fall. Local guides and sporting goods stores can put you in contact with these anglers for a current fishing report and hot tips.


In past years, fishing the weedbeds on the west shore of Green Bay with large spinnerbaits was a popular summer technique. Some years the beds are scarce to non-existent, and at those times it's best to focus on other types of cover or structure such as troughs, reefs and rockpiles.
 

For information on guide services, bait dealers, fishing reports and lodging in the Green Bay area, visit one of these Web sites or call the phone number: Green Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, www.titletown.org

, (920) 437-8704; Marinette Area Chamber of Commerce, www.marinettechamber.com, (715) 735-6681; Oconto Area Chamber of Commerce, www.ocontocounty.org; Door County Chamber of Commerce, www.doorcounty.com, (920) 743-4456.

BIG CEDAR LAKE

Big Cedar Lake, with over 900 acres, is located a few miles southwest of West Bend in west-central Washington County. Big Cedar is one of four lakes listed with a 40-inch length limit and a daily bag limit of one fish on northern pike. These regulations are also in effect on Gilbert Lake, a small lake connected to Big Cedar.

This is a long, narrow lake that spans four miles from north to south and makes it difficult to fish when the wind is from the north or south. Big Cedar is also deep, with a maximum depth of 105 feet and a mean depth of 34 feet. It's a popular panfish and largemouth bass lake, and undoubtedly those fish are feeding the large pike that local anglers report catching, or at least seeing following their baits.

Two boat ramps on the north basin provide access, but the ramp on the east side is primitive, only suitable for small boats, and parking is limited to the shoulder of the roadway. The ramp on the west side of the north basin is small but was remodeled a few years ago and should be the better choice for boat launching.

One popular pike fishing method is to drift the flats and cast. Another is trolling. Motor trolling is permitted on Big Cedar. During summer when water temperatures rise, look for the big pike to go deep. There's plenty of deep water, as nearly 50 percent of the lake is over 20 feet deep. Deep-running crankbaits or live-bait fishing are favorite summer pike techniques.

For travel and lodging information, contact the West Bend Area Chamber of Commerce at 1-888 338-8666 or visit their Web site at www.wbchamber.org.

MENOMINEE RIVER

One of Wisconsin's overlooked pike waters is the Menominee River. The river is the boundary between Wisconsin and Michigan and is well known for its smallmouth bass, walleye and muskie fishing. It also grows some big pike, and is the place to go for a primitive or wilderness-like fishing experience. A license from ether state will make you legal to fish here.

You'll find both river stretches and impoundments/flowages on the Menominee River. For big pike, focus your efforts in the flowages near the dams where the water is deeper than in the true river areas. There's plenty of submerged rock and wood here, so casting is a better, and safer, option than trolling. The weeds near small bays and coves are full of small pike. The larger northerns hold in the deeper water near rocks and submerged wood cover. The Menominee River water is stained, and lures with bright metallic finishes work best. White and chartreuse are also popular pike-catching colors.

Look for the best pike fishing from Niagara near Iron Mountain downstream to the mouth of the river at Green Bay. There are plenty of boat ramps, some in Wisconsin and some in Michigan, but you'll need a good map to find them. Local sporting goods stores and bait dealers can give you accurate directions to the best launches.

Mike Mladenik, a guide based in Crivitz, can be contacted at (715) 854-2055, or visit his Web site at www.mikemladenik.com for e-mail information. The site also includes fishing reports and guide service information. Mike can also give you help with lodging accommodations.


One of Wisconsin's overlooked pike waters is the Menominee River. The river is the boundary between Wisconsin and Michigan and is well known for its smallmouth bass, walleye and muskie fishing. It also grows some big pike, and is the place to go for a primitive or wilderness-like fishing experience. A license from ether state will make you legal to fish here.
 

For information on the Niagara and Iron Mountain areas, log on to www.ironmt.com. To get information on the Crivitz area, visit the Crivitz Recreation Association's Web site at www.crivitzrecreation.com, or Marinette County's Web site at www.marinettecounty.com.

WINNEBAGO CHAIN

This chain includes Lake Winnebago, Little Lake Butte des Morts, Lake Butte des Morts, Lake Winneconne and Lake Poygan on the Fox and Wolf River systems. Lake Winnebago is the largest lake with over 137,000 acres, but its maximum depth is only 21 feet. Even at that, it is the deepest lake in the chain.

Winnebago pike anglers focus on the west shore in and around the bays near Oshkosh, such as Asylum Bay and Millers Bay. There are well-maintained boat ramps in the bays north and south of Oshkosh and in the city itself on the Fox River.

The weedbeds in the bays hold panfish, bass and other forage fish, and the pike are nearby. Spinners, crankbaits and flashy spoons are favorite baits for big pike, but occasionally they prefer soft-plastic bass baits. Concentrate your fishing in the early mornings in summer when boat traffic might be heavy during the day. With all this water the fish are scattered and you'll have to do some hunting to find them. Throw a few casts into every patch of weeds you come across and make sure your trolling motor batteries are fully charged.

A three-mile stretch of the Fox River flows through Oshkosh and connects Lake Winnebago and Little Lake Butte des Morts. You can choose to motor from one lake to the next or spend the time to fish the likely pike cover in the river, but the boat traffic in the river often makes fishing impossible during the summer months.

Little Lake Butte des Morts is the smallest in the chain at 1,306 acres with a maximum depth of 18 feet. It's close to the nearly 9,000-acre Lake Butte des Morts, but the larger lake only has a maximum depth of 9 feet. The town of Winneconne separates Lake Butte des Morts from Lake Winneconne, which has 4,507 acres and a maximum depth of 9 feet. Lake Winneconne is really only a bay of Lake Poygan, a 14,102-acre body of water with a maximum depth of 11 feet. As you can see, that's quite a bit of water, but just as with Lake Winnebago, concentrate your pike fishing on the weedy bays where there is food for the pike.

All the lakes in this chain have numerous excellent boat launches on their shores. It is advisable to launch at the lake in which you wish to fish rather than trying to motor through the whole chain.


Winnebago pike anglers focus on the west shore in and around the bays near Oshkosh, such as Asylum Bay and Millers Bay. There are well-maintained boat ramps i

n the bays north and south of Oshkosh and in the city itself on the Fox River.

 

For travel, lodging and recreation information on the Winnebago basin lakes, visit the Oshkosh Convention and Visitor's Bureau's Web site at www.oshkoshcvb.org, or call them toll-free at 1-877-303-9200.

MORE QUALITY PIKE WATERS

At this writing, the Wisconsin DNR has four lakes listed with a 40-inch minimum length on northern pike. Also listed for quality pike fishing are 19 waters with a 32-inch minimum size limit and a restricted bag limit. Only one lake is listed as catch-and-release-only for pike. In addition, inland waters south of U.S. Highway 10 and Lake Michigan waters south of Waldo Boulevard in Manitowoc, and the Winnebago System, have a 26-inch minimum limit. You can get a full list by visiting the DNR's Web site.

Sometimes you can find excellent trophy pike fishing by just asking at bait shops or sporting goods stores as you travel around the state. Check the brag board and see if there are any photos of anglers with large northerns hanging there. Sometimes the fisherman's name is on the photo, or you can ask the shopkeeper.

If you know of any lakes stocked with trout, take a little time and try pike fishing in those lakes. They may not hold many pike, but most anglers will focus on the trout, and any they don't catch make excellent pike food. There might be one huge northern living in a small trout lake you know of.

According to the DNR, the management focus on southern Wisconsin pike waters is working. It is protecting female pike until they spawn at least twice. It is increasing density and recruitment of northern pike populations. It is improving population size structure and increasing the size of angler-caught fish. Indeed, the future of pike fishing in the Badger State looks bright.

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.