Hunting Wisconsin's Trophy Pike
September 30, 2010
From ice-out until deer season, you can catch big northerns in our state. We've saved you some "recon" time by telling you where to launch your attack this year. (March 2006)
Wisconsin's general inland fishing season closes on March 6, 2006, and ice-out usually comes soon after that. However, anglers who want to attack open water for big pike don't have to wait until the first Saturday in May on inland lakes, because fishing for northerns is open all year on some Badger State waters. This includes selected rivers and their backwater lakes, as well as lakes Superior and Michigan and some of their tributaries. Then, after the general inland season opens in May, pike are fair game throughout our state.
Northerns are not wary fish. This observation is supported by the pike's small brain, which accounts for less than one-thousandth of its body weight. Pike are also known to be active all year -- more so than other fish -- which means they are often the only game fish willing to bite, especially in frigid water. Northerns are less affected by cold fronts than are bass, muskies and walleyes. They feed by sight almost exclusively during daylight hours, and thus they grow large on a voracious appetite. These qualities are enough to make many folks to seek northerns, but you can throw in the fact that they're found in just about every water you go fishing on in America's Dairyland.
So if you're one of those people addicted to pike fishing, you can get your fix on these Wisconsin waters this open-water season.
Old Man River is famous for catfishing and walleye fishing, but this big stream has northerns, too. Pike fishing is open all year on the Mississippi, both where it is the boundary with Iowa and with Minnesota. The daily bag limit is five, with no minimum length limit.
According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS) Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center, a long-term resource-monitoring program shows an increase in northern pike in the Mississippi River's Pool No. 8 during the period 1995-2004. You can learn more at www.umesc.usgs.gov/data_library/fisheries/graphical/fish_front.html.
The La Crosse area is an excellent location to hunt for pike after ice-out or all year. There are plenty of boat ramps in the area to access the Mississippi. By the way, when you study your fishing regulations pamphlet, be sure to look in the county section for the county where you'll be fishing. Special regulations are listed there, such as size and bag limits. In addition, immediately after the name of some bodies of water, you will find a fish symbol, which indicates that water is open all year to hook-and-line fishing, except for the species listed.
Fishing for pike just after ice-out is often a bone-chilling experience. Some claim it's the coldest fishing of the year, so don't forget to pack warm clothing. Local bait dealers will be able to advise you what baits are working. When the water is cold, shiners and suckers are good live bait, but don't neglect to try dead smelt.
If you choose to fish with artificials, start with spinners and crankbaits in red, white and chartreuse, and fish them slowly. In many cases, a simple jig-and-minnow will take spring pike better than anything else. It's like walleye fishing, but you use bigger jigs and minnows. After summer arrives, stick with artificial lures, especially the big spinners.
Contact the La Crosse Area Convention & Visitors Bureau for lodging and travel information at 1-800-658-9424 or (608) 782-2366, or you can log on to their Web site at www.explorelacrosse.com.
Three Wisconsin counties -- Ashland, Bayfield and Douglas -- border Lake Superior. Pike fishing is open all year on this Great Lake, but not on tributaries and sloughs connected to it. The Department of Natural Resources is managing for trophies here, so there is a two-fish daily bag limit and the minimum size is 26 inches, according to the 2005-2006 regulations booklet.
Chequamegon Bay is a good place to fish. If you decided to go there early in the spring, call ahead and make sure the ice is out. Of course, this is big water and requires a suitable craft, because it can get rough in a hurry. You'll find good boat ramps near Ashland and Washburn on Chequamegon Bay, and more near Bayfield near the Apostle Islands.
The standard pike hunter's technique at any time of year is to look for weedbeds where the fish can hide and ambush prey. Work spoons and spinnerbaits slowly over the weeds -- and be prepared for a big whack. Fish reaching 20 pounds are not uncommon, and larger fish are caught on occasion.
You can reach the Ashland Chamber of Commerce at (715) 682-2500 or 1-800-284-9484, or log on to their Web site at www.visitashland.com for more information on the area. The Bayfield Chamber of Commerce home page is at www.bayfield.org, or call (715) 779-3335. Numbers for the Superior-Douglas County Chamber of Commerce are (715) 394-7716 or 1-800-942-5313, or you can go online to www.superiorchamber.org.
The mouth of the Peshtigo River on the bay of Green Bay is famous for its spring northern pike fishing.
It's just a few miles south of Marinette and the Wisconsin-Michigan boundary. Some claim the nickname "gator" was coined for the big pike in this area. The Peshtigo flows through the city of the same name and meanders for miles before reaching Green Bay at what the locals call "Peshtigo Harbor." There's not much there except for two boat launches -- one at the end of Harbor Road and the other off County Highway BB -- and big pike.
Pike fishing is open all year in Green Bay and the Peshtigo River. The Peshtigo is covered under "Special open season for major Green Bay tributaries" in the regulations booklet. There is no size limit, and the daily limit is five fish.
Ice-out comes at different times each year depending on the temperature and amount of snowmelt and rain, but the river is navigable long before the ice is gone from Green Bay -- at least during most springs. As soon as the ice leaves, pike hunters head out and will fish right behind the melting ice on the bay as well as upstream. It's not unusual to have boats in the river while ice-anglers are still on the bay. The next step will be trolling with tip-ups!
The pike move into the Peshtigo before ice-out and often stay around until the end of April or early May. Soaking smelt, suckers and shiners is popular on
the cold days, while the warm spells allow casting artificials. Big spinners are very popular -- with both the pike and the pike anglers.
Depending on river conditions, you can fish in the main river channel or in the backwater sloughs. If you hit it just right, you may be able to sight-fish the pike in the sloughs where they recover after spawning. It's not uncommon to see the large females escorted by several smaller males.
Navigation hazards such as trees are common in the Peshtigo River. Motor with caution, and be aware that the main channel meanders. It's easy to run onto a sandbar or mudbar when the river turns -- and you don't.
There are few developments along the lower Peshtigo River due to the abundant wetlands. Even if the pike fishing isn't too good, you could catch a large salmon, trout or walleye. There's also plenty of wildlife, especially waterfowl, to view during spring in this semi-wilderness setting.
The Peshtigo's pike move into Green Bay when the water warms up, but a few always stay in the river throughout the summer months. In fall, about the time when duck and deer hunting is in full swing, the big gators return. Open-water fishing can be excellent until ice-up.
For travel and lodging information in the Peshtigo area, contact the Peshtigo Chamber of Commerce at (715) 582-0327, or you can log on to www.peshtigochamber.com.
Another Green Bay tributary with the same regulations as the Peshtigo is the Oconto River. Its mouth is 10 miles southwest as the crow flies from Peshtigo Harbor. It's a larger stream than the Peshtigo and has an excellent boat ramp near Green Bay in Breakwater Park. The park road goes to the end of the breakwater, and there's good fishing on the breakwater for shore-anglers. Open-water pike fishing is excellent in this area, trophy fish are caught regularly and it's in a more civilized setting than the Peshtigo River.
All Green Bay tributaries have good fishing in spring and fall, but the pike move into the bay in the summer months. Green Bay has a lot of acres of water, but you'll do best on big pike by hunting for the weedbeds. These are often small weedbeds -- sometimes just a sparse scattering of algae growth -- yet they will still hold the forage species on which pike feed.
If you launch in the Oconto River, concentrate your search between the Oconto River and the Peshtigo River to the north. Both casting and trolling will catch fish if they are in the mood, but trolling covers more water in less time.
To learn more about the Oconto area, call the Oconto Chamber of Commerce at (920) 834-2255 or visit www.ocontocounty.org.
LOWER FOX RIVER
The Lower Fox River below the De Pere dam is another waterway where ice-out comes early. It falls under Lake Michigan fishing regulations, which means there is no closed season on northern pike. The daily limit is five fish, with no minimum size restriction north of Waldo Boulevard in Manitowoc.
This stretch of river is well known for its walleye fishery, but pike move into the river from Green Bay right along with the walleyes. Walleye anglers catch plenty of incidental pike. Three-footers are common and 40-inch fish aren't unheard of. Pike hunters will specifically target them with larger baits and lures in the shallower water.
The time to hit this urban stream is March or April, or as soon as the ice leaves the Fox. After the water warms up, the pike head downstream to Green Bay and don't return until the water cools in autumn.
For travel and lodging information, contact the Packer Country Visitor and Convention Bureau at (920) 494-9507 or toll-free at 1-888-867-3342, or log on to www.packercountry.com.
Wisconsin's "thumb" is another hotspot for pike anglers who want to be fishing before the general inland season opens in May. It may also be the best destination for trophy northerns in our state. Of course, ice-out doesn't come on a specific date and during a chilly spring, the hardwater often hangs around a long time. It's always best to call ahead to make sure there will be open water when you arrive.
The Door County side of Green Bay doesn't have big tributary streams like the western shore. This means the best pike-fishing areas are shallow bays and in the Sturgeon Bay ship canal. Unlike the west shore of the bay, these areas remain hotspots for a longer period, due to the cool water of Lake Michigan and upper Green Bay. In fact, the ship canal is a popular gator spot all year long. The trophy pike will move to deeper water in summer, but early-morning fishing trips will catch you some good fish here with shallow-water presentations.
Sturgeon Bay is a good place to set up camp, but both sides of the Door Peninsula have excellent fishing. The Sturgeon Bay Visitor and Convention Bureau's official Web site is at www.sturgeonbay.net. You can call (920) 743-6246, or toll-free 1-800-301-6695, for information on travel to the Door County area.
BIG CEDAR & MENDOTA
The DNR lists four Wisconsin lakes -- Big Cedar, Gilbert, Mendota and Twin Valley -- with a 40-inch minimum-length limit on northerns, and 19 lakes with a 32-inch minimum length. These waters are managed to produce a quality fishing opportunity. Two of these lakes are large enough to warrant your fishing efforts.
Big Cedar Lake is Washington County's largest lake, at 932 acres. The maximum depth is 105 feet and its mean depth is 34 feet. The lake lies north and south and can get rough when the wind is blowing along its length. Two boat ramps on the north end provide good access. Long known for panfish and largemouth bass fishing, Big Cedar also has walleyes.
Pikers like to drift and cast the flats or troll on Big Cedar. When water temperatures climb in summer, the pike go deep, and you must adapt. Much of the lake is over 20 feet deep. Deep-running crankbaits, deep-water jigging and live-bait fishing are favorite summer pike techniques.
For travel information on Big Cedar, contact the Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau at (262) 677-5069 or toll-free at 1-888-974-8687. You can also log on to www.visitwashingtoncounty.com.
Dane County's Lake Mendota is our state's top trophy-pike water. It's big, with almost 10,000 acres of surface area. Mendota's maximum depth is 82 feet and its mean depth is 42 feet, so summer pike fishing means deep water because the fish seek out cooler temperatures.
When in Madison, it's best to hire a good guide -- not only for the nightlife but also for the fishing. The best guide on the Madison Chain is Ron Barefield at (608) 838-8756. The Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau can help with arrangements and lo
gistics. Log on to their Web site at www.visitmadison.com, or call (608) 255-2537 or toll-free at 1-800-373-6376.
On the first Saturday in May, pike fishing opens up statewide. But some lakes were already opened up for the season because they never closed in the first place.
Lake Puckaway in Green Lake County is one example where pike fishing is open all year. There is a 32-inch minimum-length requirement and a one-fish daily bag limit. The lake has been a well-known pike producer since way back in 1952, when the 38-pound state record was caught there by J.A. Rahn.
Lake Koshkonong in Dane County is another water where pike fishing is open all year. It's big, with over 10,000 acres, but its mean depth is only 5 feet. Koshkonong is known as a panfish lake, thus providing easy snacks for big pike.
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Many other waters are open to pike fishing all year. You just have to do the research, and the state regulations pamphlet is the place to start.
There's no shortage of fishing options during the open-water season for Badger State trophy-pike hunters. Think rivers in that period between ice-out and opening day in May. If you choose to fish our lakes, fish the shallows when the water is cool, and fish deep after the water warms in summer. Then in autumn, work the shallows once again, right up to ice-up or deer hunting season -- whichever comes first!