Overlooked Opening-Day Walleye Lakes

If you are a walleye fanatic, we know what goes through your mind from now until the game-fish season opener. You can put your new philosophies to the test just a few weeks from now on these lakes.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

For a walleye fanatic, it seems like an eternity from the time Wisconsin state statutes say tip-ups and jigpoles must be left at home in March and the first Saturday in May, which everybody not paralyzed from the neck up knows is opening day of the general fishing season.

Opening day comes at a minute after midnight. On some heavily pressured lakes, navigation lights will indicate a flotilla of boats staking out spots for fish when the clock says there is still a fair amount of Friday left. Some people cruise the shoreline looking for those telltale glowing eyes reflecting in a spotlight's glare in a mission not unlike shining deer. Others have taken advantage of flat, clear waters and polarized glasses to see that splash of white on a walleye's tail.

Either method will narrow the learning curve on a lake you're unfamiliar with. Most of a lake's walleye biomass will be cruising in waters less than 10 feet deep when opening day rolls around.

Although electronics and GPS are invaluable for locating rocky-rubble offshore humps, transition zones off of old creek channels and similar hidden ambush points, there is a great deal of potential walleye-holding water you can see from the boat launch -- especially if the launch is near the lake's inlet.

This is one time of year when those folks who believe all the little fish icons on their electronics are fish can play even with more experienced anglers on waters where the fish are relating to the shoreline. The sonar unit is of little value in finding fish with a casting presentation that may be in less than 3 feet of water, and sometimes within inches of the shore.

Wind can concentrate walleyes looking for food on the windward shoreline, especially after several days' blow out of one direction -- usually south or south-southwest this time of year -- as nature tries to shake off the winter blues. This is perfect for stacking fish along the warmer northern exposures of lakes where waters will warm quicker, thus attracting baitfish that pull in predators.

Walleyes are hungry now because there is relatively little food in the water column. Insects may not be out yet. Young-of-year baitfish aren't a factor. Looks like crayfish and anything spring rains push into the water becomes lunch. Maybe this is why orange or crawdad-colored jigheads, stickbaits and shallow-running crankbaits are so effective, even in clear lakes during the first few weeks of the season.

I've always been a big fan of bucktails and plastic tails on jigs for walleyes, especially in spring and fall. There are a bucketful of soft plastic Thumpin' Grubs and Thumpin' Worms in my boat that have already proven effective on waters that open before the general season. More exciting is a Ziploc bag full of orange and black bucktails tied on 1/8-ounce jigheads. A 1/8-ounce jig is plenty heavy for a swimming presentation in lakes less than 10 feet deep. Besides, a bucktail from an orange buck has to have good mojo. Any deer smart enough to dye himself blaze orange to avoid hunters should prove a lucky choice when his flag is tied on a jighead.

Such are the thought processes that bubble through a Wisconsin walleye fanatic's mind before opening day. The following is a look at some great lakes to put your new philosophies to the test just a few short weeks from now.

WAUKESHA COUNTY

This southeastern county has a bunch of top walleye lakes to target on opening day, two of which have fallen off the walleye chasers' radar screens in recent years.

Golden Lake has been stocked for a number of years, with rapid exploitation of the walleye population once it hits that magic 15-inch mark. Biologist Sue Beyler said two dominant year-classes of walleyes are of legal dimensions in this 250-acre lake as we get ready for opening day. Golden has a functional boat ramp.

Access is a little tougher on Keesus Lake, which is listed as navigable water in the DNR's Wisconsin Lakes book. This 237-acre lake has been stocked aggressively for the past four years with walleyes, which Beyler said are now at and beyond the 15-inch minimum length limit. A five-fish daily bag is allowed on both Golden and Keesus lakes.

DeLorme Mapping's Wisconsin Atlas & Gazetteer is an invaluable tool for locating little lakes like Golden and Keesus. You'll know you've arrived at Keesus on opening morning if you see a beat up red GMC extended cab pickup with the tailgate down and an IAFF decal on the back window.

Lac LaBelle, located in the city of Oconomowoc, is one of the best catch-and-release walleye lakes in southern Wisconsin, with only one fish over 20 inches permitted. Target rocky shorelines and main-lake points on these 1,100 acres.

Lake Nagawicka in the town of Delafield is slightly smaller at 917 acres, with at least five year-classes of walleyes present -- including potential for a trophy. Probably your best bet during early season is targeting the north "kettle" end of this natural lake. Don't overlook the steep dropoff along the east shoreline.

Dick Smith's Live Bait is a great contact for all Waukesha County waters. The phone number is (262) 646-2218.

THE SOUTHEAST CORNER

There are several lakes just north of the Illinois border that are worth checking out if you live in far southeast Wisconsin.

Eagle Lake in Racine County is on the rebound, with over 50,000 walleye fingerlings stocked here the past two years. It's been about five years since this 515-acre lake produced easy fishin' for "eaters." Two out of three fish you're likely to boat here will be just shy of legal dimensions.

DNR biologist Doug Welch stocks Tichigan and Wind lakes in Racine County, and Silver Lake in Kenosha County with walleyes on a regular basis. Fish in all of these lakes have seen at least a couple of hooks by the time they are big enough to keep. Those who spend time on the water at any of these waters will hook up on a regular basis.

Folks with less time to spend scouting would be better off probing Lake Geneva at night when longline trolling stickbaits can be effective, with a shot at a genuine trophy. Or you can simply head to Delavan, the best all-around lake fishery in the southern part of our state.

Several years ago biologist Welch transferred a number of Delavan's weenie walleyes to Geneva, where growth rates are exceptional on a forag

e base of mimic shiners. The process was akin to weeding little carrots out of a garden. Walleyes remaining in Delavan took off like gangbusters, with fall surveys indicating fish up to 23 inches, and an impressive 27 percent of the harvest in excess of the 18-inch minimum size limit. A three-fish daily walleye bag is in place on Delavan. Delavan should continue to be an outstanding lake for the foreseeable future because of the three-fish, 18-inch limit and aggressive stocking efforts by the DNR. Last year, 1.2 million fry and 100,709 fingerlings were introduced, with similar plans for 2005.

Contact: Geneva Lake Bait & Tackle, (262) 245-6150.

MADISON CHAIN

The natural lakes within view of the capitol dome in Madison continue to produce good catches of walleyes because of careful management practices. Lake Mendota is the largest lake in this chain, with an 18-inch size limit in place. DNR surveys indicate Mendota has the greatest numbers of walleyes and size structure, with an evening spotlight cruise the best way to locate fish before opening day (hint: turn on the light right by the Tenney Park locks).

Lake Kegonsa at the lower end of the chain near Stoughton produced quite a few walleyes near the 15-inch legal size last year, with a great year-class ready for the frying pan come opening day. The key to catching walleyes in this soup-bowl basin lake is targeting openings in the weed edge with a 1/16-ounce weedless jighead tipped with a jumbo leech, or working the hump out from Quam and Colladay points with a live-baited Lindy Rig. The hump out from Christie's is a good place to anchor up before midnight prior to opening day, with a lighted slip-bobber and leech solid medicine for a fish fry. Other traditional opening weekend hotspots are the long bar and weed edge north of the boat launch at Babcock Park known as Rockford Heights, and the weed edge south of the slide at the Bible Camp. If I had just one lure to throw here, it would be a No. 5 jointed ShadRap worked in a steady retrieve just ticking submergent weedtops.

Contact: Ron Barefield's Fishing Adventures guide service, (608) 838-8756; Madison Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-373-6376 or www.visitmadison.com.

LAC VIEUX DESERT

If veteran guide George Langley could choose just one lake in Wisconsin's northwoods where there is more water than land, 2,900-acre Lac Vieux Desert on the Michigan border would be the place. The "Desert" ranks right at the top as both a bass and muskie producer, with nice panfish as well. And then, there's those walleyes.

Opening weekend, submergent cabbage weeds in Rice and Thunder bays hold good populations of walleyes, with Duck Point and a series of offshore humps on the south end of the lake also worth probing.

There is a good boat launch on Thunder Bay, with another great big boat access on the Michigan side in Misery Bay. Fish the "Desert" more than once and you'll see virtue in purchasing a Michigan license.

If we have a cold spring and the cabbage weeds aren't a factor, try targeting rockbars on the lake's west side. You can launch a small boat here, but venturing more than a couple hundred yards from the launch is not advisable. Wind is almost always a factor on Lac Vieux Desert. This is a place for a deep-V "walleye" boat -- even if you're chasing muskies. Walleyes are a primary forage base for the muskies. Take along a good supply of crankbaits, especially in fire-tiger and orange hues.

Contact: Eagle Sports Shop, (715) 479-8804 or www.eaglesportscenter.com.

LAKE NOKOMIS

People by the thousands drive right past Tomahawk, a little city on the cusp of the north country, without giving places like Lincoln County's Lake Nokomis a second thought.

This fertile 2,433-acre lake along U.S. Highway 51 has a walleye population that DNR fisheries personnel say is "nothing short of incredible. The reproduction is almost off the charts." At least four year-classes of adult walleyes are present in the system, with a size and numbers limit that is subject to change.

Because Nokomis is so fertile you can expect fish to be in shallow water and very active when the season opens. A good place to look is over the transition zones between soft and firm bottom in from the lake's several tributaries. This is one place where a cast within inches of the shoreline will often produce results, especially if a wind has been blowing out of the same direction for several days.

Because the water is so fertile, fluorescent colors tend to work better. Lures that have rattles provide another edge. Although lipless vibrating crankbaits like the Rat-L-Trap are known more as bass baits, these lures are very effective on Nokomis. Lipless crankbaits track down 4 to 5 feet, which is perfect for these waters.

Guide Bryan Schaeffer says leaving the electronics at home is a good plan when fishing here. "If you can't touch the bottom with your rod tip, you're simply fishing in too much water," he says.

There are several good boat ramps on the lake. The launch off of Highway 8 is little more than a long cast from prime walleye water.

Contact: Chuck's Sports Shop, (715) 453-3101.

BIG YELLOW LAKE

With so many waters in Burnett County to choose from, 2,287-acre Big Yellow Lake sees little pressure beyond what is offered from resort boats and private cabins that ring this essentially oval lake.

The west and southwest shorelines offer the best walleye potential early in the season. With the exception of a small run of shoreline north of South Shore Resort, this is one lake where electronics play a major role in success.

On Big Yellow the key for early-season walleyes seems to be the 8-foot breakline, with a solid tactic using a trolling motor to position the boat along this contour while drifting live bait with a basic split shot pegged 18 inches above a hook.

In a month, the north shore out from the public launch on Lake Avenue Road off of County U will be red hot. For the first several weeks of the season, launching near where Big Yellow flows into Little Yellow Lake on the northwest side and following the 8-foot contour around the lake almost to South Shore Resort is a good game plan.

Although there are no visible islands on Big Yellow, a submerged island almost due south of the launch off of Yellow Lake Lodge Road comes within 3 feet of the surface. This is an excellent spot to target at dawn and dusk. Don't be surprised if you tangle with a critter of the Esox persuasion.

Contact: Burnett County Tourism 1-800-788-3164 or www.burnettcounty.com.

SHAWANO LAKE

Another great multi-species lake, this 6,032-acre fishery in northeastern Wisconsin has a solid walleye population that sees relatively light species-spec

ific pressure. An exception to this rule will be opening weekend when a number of boats will anchor up off of Schumacher Island where manmade rockpiles draw considerable numbers of fish early in the year.

According to the DNR, there are at least four year-classes of walleyes swimming in Shawano, with three adults per surface acre making this a great lake to target on opening weekend. The bigger fish that inhabit these waters are definite wallhangers.

Several shallow reefs on the lake's east end also hold good numbers of walleyes before weed growth becomes a factor. For the most part these reefs top out at about 10 feet. If you don't have a GPS to plug a route into, find these reefs with a sonar and mark the edges with marker buoys for an outstanding slip-bobber opportunity once the sun goes down.

Once Memorial Day arrives, recreational boaters take over the lake during the daylight hours. But fish don't leave the lake. The nighttime is the right time for both slip-bobbering and a longline trolling presentation. Another tactic that works here is casting in-line spinners over submergent weedbeds at night during the warmer months. Don't forget your navigational lights.

Contact: Shawano Chamber of Commerce, (715) 524-2139.

Those are just a few of Wisconsin's overlooked walleye lakes for you to try this spring. Or perhaps you already have your "own lake" for the opener. Either way, start formulating that game plan!

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