Our Best Bets For Winter Walleyes

Up in the northwoods, the gang at the Snowshoe Bar doesn't understand why anyone would ice-fish for anything but walleyes. If you think like they do, drill a few holes on these waters this season. (Janaury 2006)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

To all you muskie nuts out there, here's a little question from the gang at the Snowshoe Bar: How's the fishin'? Oh, sorry. They forgot you can chase the Esox king only about half the year! Maybe you should count your blessings. There are six months when you can return home without needing to make excuses for not catching any fish. Further, you should be happy the folks from Illinois don't want the yellowfin tuna as our state fish -- you can't catch them either! The only reason Esox masquinongy has the state-fish designation is for the profound tourism impact those big "toothers" bring to Wisconsin.

Walleye anglers can chase our favorite fish year-round. Nor do we have any qualms about dropping the smaller ones in hot grease when we get in from the lake. And there's a beautiful transition zone right out in front of the Snowshoe Bar. We can see our tip-ups through the window. Every evening about dark outside the saloon, the flags will start poppin' right down the line. An hour later, we'll take time out from euchre and shakin' dice to have some light-battered walleye filets right out of the fryer.

What do you suppose a guy wearing a "Muskies: Everything Else Is Just Bait" hat will dine on if he feels like eatin' fish tonight? That's right-- tuna fish sandwiches! We serious walleye chasers realize the importance of catch-and-release. Bigger 'eyes are always gently returned to the water. A couple of old boys at the Snowshoe argue hard for smallmouth bass as our state fish. We're all on the same page regarding release of muskies, smallmouths and bigger walleyes. It's funny how the smallmouth fanatics don't bring up the state-fish issue when the nightly news comes on at the Snowshoe. We know they aren't pondering the war, gas prices or the economy. The first basket of fresh walleye filets is cooling on a paper towel. Smells like winter in Wisconsin!

Here's a look at some of the best places in our state to get your head straightened out over the next couple of months.

LAKE KOSHKONONG

There haven't been this many big walleyes swimming in this shallow 10,400-acre southern Wisconsin lake since the winter of 1987. The concept of catch-and-release for walleyes hadn't caught on back then. A lot of big female 'eyes never got returned to the lake. My, how things have changed for the better!

Hopefully, anglers who fish this Jefferson-Rock County border water on a regular basis will remember how long it took to get good numbers of 24- to 28-inch marble-eyes back in the lake. Maybe the positive trend that is seeing geometric progression over the past couple of years will continue.

Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Don Bush said Koshkonong is in a better state of ecological balance than he can ever remember. At least five adult year-classes of walleyes will be popping flags here this winter.

Going after these fish is almost too easy. Time of day isn't real important. The lake has a maximum depth of just 6 feet. All you need to do is find at least 5 feet of water and set rosy reds or fatheads under your boards about 3 feet down. Two major keys to success are getting away from the crowds and taking care to cover the hole in an attempt to keep out un-natural light. With little structure to relate to, Koshkonong walleyes are always on the move.

Anglers are permitted three lines apiece. Set your tip-ups in a triangular pattern about 50 feet apart. Before actually fishing, punch a bunch of holes in all directions so you can move boards stealthily in the same direction the walleyes appear to be moving.

The statewide five-fish/15-inch limit is in place. Releasing fish over 20 inches is the only way to ensure we can have this much fun next year!

Contact: U-Catch-em Bait, (608) 754-7976.

LAC VIEUX DESERT

This 4,300-acre boundary water with Michigan is at the opposite end of the state from Koshkonong. But these bodies of water have two great similarities -- multiple year-classes of walleyes and stained water.

Because these waters are stained, midday is often the best time to see flags pop. And using that third line for a tip-up rather than a jigging stick shortens your odds for success.

Lac Vieux Desert is certainly in the top five multi-species fisheries in the state. As a result, this lake gets little species-specific fishing pressure for walleyes, especially now in winter.

Unlike Koshkonong, "the Desert" has considerable structure, with walleyes typically relating close to prominent weedlines and offshore structure. There are more humps and bars on the Michigan side of the lake.

A license for either state is valid here, but conventional wisdom asks, why travel several miles in a howling wind when you can sit in the truck near the westside boat ramp and catch fish all day long?

Good topographic maps of Lac Vieux Desert will put you very close to a long ridge that tracks east-west just out from the lake's south shore. If walleyes aren't active on the ridge, set up along the outside weedline on the lake's west side in about 8 to 15 feet of water.

If you want to start working the weedline that runs essentially all along the lake's west shore, there's good public access off of West Shore Road, right about at midlake. You may need a snowmobile to get out to structure around Duck or Cow islands, and traveling with a buddy is a good idea. Chances are you'll be the only folks out there.

Having a mix of shiners and medium sucker minnows in the bait pail is also a good idea. On any given day, Lac Vieux Desert walleyes seem to show a definite preference for one bait.

Contacts: Eagle River Chamber of Commerce, (715) 479-8575; Eagle Sports Center, (715) 479-8804 or

www.eaglesports.com.

SHAWANO LAKE

Golden shiners are probably the most productive winter walleye bait on 6,000-acre Shawano Lake in northeast Wisconsin. Like Lac Vieux Desert, this water is on most savvy angler's top-five list as a multi-species lake.

Winter walleyes here relate primarily to weeds, with deep weeds probably your best option.

Shawano has a classic winter walleye pattern, with fish usually active at dawn, dusk and ahead of an approaching weather system. Visib

ility and the nature of walleyes makes a Swedish Pimple, Lindy Ratl'r spoon or Jigging Rapala a good choice while waiting for a flag on your other two lines.

One key to success lies in being more mobile than the walleyes. Run-and-gun until you hit fish with the jigging stick, then set up camp. Come back the next day, and the active fish could be 200 yards from your previous holes.

Ice-fishing is a way of life for folks living near this northwoods lake. There are so many roads on the ice, it's like being in the town of Shawano -- without buildings.

Although it's tempting to simply park and fish, trudging that extra hundred yards and poking holes until you find a transition point on the weedline is certainly worth the effort.

Contacts: Shawano Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-235-8528; Hook, Line & Sinker Bait Shop, (715) 854-2073.

LAKE WINNEBAGO

Ice-road builders on Wisconsin's premier walleye lake could teach city planners a thing or two. Their efforts are a Discovery Channel special just waiting to happen.

Winnebago is one of Wisconsin's largest and most enigmatic walleye waters. Fish are always on the move. But then again, there are certain humps and reefs where the fish seem to show up daily just like clockwork.

Two consistent factors in completing the winter walleye puzzle on Winnie are forage base and water clarity. The fish have a definite affinity for clearer water. Your electronics may say there are walleyes down there, but if they can't see the bait from at least a couple feet away, these fish aren't going to eat.

Shad have always been the primary forage base of Winnebago walleyes. In years where the shad are plentiful, fishing is generally tough. Ice-anglers have the best luck with 4-inch Milwaukee shiners. Those who try suckers, rosy reds, fatheads and other baits eventually come back to the shiners. The only variation seems to be having two baits banging together on a No. 6 treble hook, sometimes resulting in more strikes than dangling a single bait 18 inches off the bottom.

Winnebago is a city of shanties in the winter months, with most of the permanent shacks on prime areas atop structure. This is where you want to fish during typical "prime time." At other times of day, your efforts are better spent moving a couple hundred yards off of the beaten path and setting boards far apart, but close enough to tend properly. Get away from structure and fish the basin, and you'll find that the bottom changes little in depth for many adjacent acres. Just hang those Milwaukee shiners 18 inches off the bottom and kick back, moving up to the tops of reefs about an hour before dusk.

A GPS is a handy tool for tracking day-to-day movements of fish. Once you find a school of 'eyes, you can catch them just about every day -- provided you're out there every day to track the movement of the school.

A dominant year-class of fish is getting real close to 10 pounds. This may be the winter of the whopper on Winnebago!

Contact: Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-876-5250.

LONG LAKE

The old adage of "Big bait, big fish" holds true on this aptly named Washburn County lake near Spooner. Multiple year-classes of walleyes are present in this 3,200-acre lake, with the fish growing fat and sassy on a rich forage base of ciscoes.

DNR surveys indicate walleye growth from fry stage to 16 inches in just four years because there are so many ciscoes in the lake. Bigger walleyes prefer bigger ciscoes, with good year-class representation of 24-to 28-inch fish and a few monsters over 32 inches.

Electronics are a major key in hooking up with the bigger walleyes that typically suspend below schools of ciscoes offshore in the midlake basin. This is one of Wisconsin's best lakes for hunting trophy walleyes. Leave the tip-ups at home. Bring just one capable rod, an auger and your electronics out on the ice. A big No. 7 chrome/blue Jigging Rapala or a Crippled Herring spoon tipped with a substantial minnow best approximates the forage base that monster walleyes prefer.

Don't expect a lot of fish. This is the place to go when looking for one for the wall. Thirty-inch-plus walleyes don't grow to these dimensions by feeding willy-nilly. Once ciscoes are located, fish hard ahead of an approaching weather system or at prime times of dawn and dusk.

The best access is off of County M on the lake's west side.

Contact the Washburn County Tourism office at 1-800-367-3306, or

www.washburncounty.org.

LAKE MENDOTA

First ice is the best time to catch walleyes up to 10 pounds on this 9,600-acre crown jewel of the Madison Chain.

This Dane County fishery is not classic walleye water, but fish are here in both size and numbers. Key on several midlake humps from dusk until about 9 p.m. Travel on Madison lakes is limited to foot, or snowmobiles and ATVs with flotation devices that have been approved by the sheriff's department.

Most years, hardwater that's marginally safe covers the lake about New Year's Day. Four inches is considered safe ice for snow machines. Two inches is considered safe for one person walking. Last winter, the few marginally sane anglers who iced whoppers did so about this time of year, ghosting out on no more than an inch of ice. If you happen to be walking the south shore bike trail tonight, take your binoculars along. I'll be the retired firefighter at midlake off of Second Point wearing an orange deer hunting jacket, Stearns SOSpenders automatic inflatable PFD and a scared bug-eyed look on his face.

Contact: Ron Barefield's Fishing Adventures guide service, (608) 838-8756.

GENEVA & DELAVAN LAKES

These two Walworth County lakes in southeast Wisconsin share a common walleye bond.

About 10 years ago, DNR biologist Doug Welch faced a problem of too many weenie-sized walleyes in rehabilitated Delavan Lake. In a bold move, Welch removed a number of the cookie-cutter 13-inch walleyes from 2,072-acre Delavan and transplanted the stunted fish into several area lakes, including 5,000-acre Geneva.

The results have been spectacular. Both fisheries now have solid populations of respectable, catchable walleyes -- with Geneva holding a shot at a serious trophy from a relic population in place before transplanting efforts were initiated.

There has been good recruitment from the 5,000 adult walleyes the DNR transplanted into Geneva in 1998, which has been supplemented with a half-million large fingerlings over the past two years. Because Geneva is so clear, night is the best time to fish. When most people are sleeping, this is by far the most underrated walleye lake in our state.

Delavan, just down the road, continues to th

rive as a walleye fishery in spite of intense angling pressure. According to Welch, over 26 percent of this lake's biomass is in excess of the 18-inch minimum size limit. A three walleye daily bag is in effect.

Like Geneva, the best action on Delavan comes at night. The long bar out from Lake Lawn Lodge is a good place to start on Delavan. Rainbow Point is the obvious place to target walleyes up to 13 pounds.

Contact: Delavan Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-624-0052 or

www.delavanwi.org.

DOOR COUNTY

Charter captain, commercial fisherman and guide Andy Stuth knows that our next state-record walleye is swimming off of Door County right now.

"Back in July," Stuth said, "we were running nets off of Gill's Rock and pulled up one over 20 pounds. Knowing that fish that big are out there is almost scary."

During the winter months, Stuth concentrates on waters in southern Door County, most notably Larsen's Reef and the Sand Bay area.

"Walleyes for Tomorrow was a great jump-start for the fishery here," Stuth said. "Now there are fish all over the place. Fishing is excellent, and getting better all the time."

Leave the tip-ups at home. This is a jigging-stick operation. Fishing is best at dawn and from sunset to sometimes maybe 10 p.m. The No. 5 or No. 7 blue/chrome Jigging Rapala is a favorite lure, but many locals work a 3-inch lake shiner on an Odd Ball jighead. Orange, yellow and black are popular jighead colors. Quarter-ounce is about the right weight, but you may have to go up or down one size.

Stuth likes to set up over about 30 feet of water between the reef and shore, nailing fish as they move shoreward. "Sometimes they just keep coming," he says. A three-fish daily bag is in place, and "The fact that there is no size limit speaks volumes about our fishery. This should be the best winter in years, especially after Valentine's Day."

Nothing says "I love you" like a 13-pound walleye wrapped in a black plastic garbage bag. Door County sounds like a wonderful romantic getaway for Feb. 14, eh?

Contacts: Door County Chamber of Commerce, (920) 743-4456; guide Andy Stuth, (920) 559-2543.

Meanwhile, back at the Snowshoe Bar, the topic of discussion has changed again. This time it's about whether or not you can filet a yellowfin tuna. Hmmm. Time for another cold one!

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