Wisconsin's Winter Walleye Waters
September 30, 2010
You have to put time on the ice to catch walleyes. And your time would be best spent at these locations.
By Ted Peck
No matter where you live in Wisconsin, there is good walleye fishing within an hour's drive away - with 'eye chasers usually facing the pleasant dilemma of multiple fisheries to choose from. Exactly where and how to set the tip-ups once you choose a lake opens a whole different spectrum of options. That's what makes the sight of a tip-up flag popping up even more gratifying.
The visual thrills of a tip-up going off with the sight of a slowly turning windlass when you sneak up to investigate contribute greatly to winter enjoyment here in the Land of Cheese. The ultimate winter thrill is sitting in a state of swivel-headed attention watching two "hot" boards and feeling the visceral thrill of a real head-shaker garwoofling your Jigging Rapala.
Following is a look at some waters where this can happen at any given moment on any winter day. Therein lies the kicker. The fish eventually have to eat. With metabolism slowed in the cold water, this feeding window may only last a half-hour - usually at dawn or dusk.
Some fisheries, like Green Bay, have essentially no winter night-bite for walleyes. But on the Madison Chain you're better off jerkin' perch until the sun is long gone from the horizon before going after walleyes. And on a vast shallow basin like Lake Koshkonong, the bite can happen at 2 p.m. on a sunny afternoon if the nomadic walleyes that call these waters home happen to cruise by.
Of course, the rapidly falling barometer that signals an approaching snowstorm is a great time to be out on the ice anyplace in our state. But other than this very special time, the devil is truly in the details. And that means time on the ice. So get the gear together and hit the hardwater.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
GREEN BAY A rich forage base and careful fisheries management have returned the walleye population of Wisconsin's spiritual namesake to a state of grandeur not seen for almost 20 years. Walleyes can be found relating to little humps and points out from the shoreline along both sides of the bay from the Fox River clear up to the Michigan border.
If we get a good, hard winter it's tough to beat the Fox River at De Pere for trophy walleyes right at dusk. Prime time held true to form here last winter. But getting out after them required an outboard rather than an auger.
There are a couple of excellent spots on the west side of Green Bay between Oconto and Marinette that receive almost no winter pressure and become downright phenomenal with runoff entering the system. Think rivers - like the Oconto, Pensaukee and Peshtigo - and then think closest available reefs. There are fish there now, but rarely a shack or even a sled to mark the spot.
It's easier to target the bay's east side at the base of the Door Peninsula out from Sturgeon Bay. A five-mile-long finger called Larsen's Reef has at least a dozen little spots-on-the-spot where walleyes congregate in amazing numbers. Several of these little anomalies are plugged in as coordinates in my portable GPS - which is as important as a fish locator when fishing Green Bay. Getting out to the fish is only half the battle. You have to find your way home. And Green Bay under whiteout conditions is a very scary place once your limit is flopping on the ice.
Hiring a guide the first time out is a very good idea. Gary Nault is a good one in the Sturgeon Bay area. His phone number is (920) 743-1100. The Door County Chamber of Commerce is a great source of information for other guides and lodging, (920) 743-4456 or 1-800-527-3529.
LAKE KOSHKONONG This 10,400-acre wide spot on Rock River straddling the Jefferson/Rock county line in south-central Wisconsin is another walleye-management success story that should see the best marble-eye fishing in many years this winter.
The walleye population crashed in this shallow basin lake in the 1980s due to over-harvest of trophy fish and drought conditions. The Great Flood of '93 had a profound benefit to the walleye population here, introducing the first of several astounding year-classes of fish into the system. Thousands of advanced fingerlings from the Bark River hatchery facility - a reclaimed sewage treatment plant - augmented the natural population that has continued to prosper over the past decade.
With growth rates at or above average in these fertile waters and good survival of 8-, 9- and 10-year-old fish, this should be the year of the trophy on Koshkonong. Local folks are speaking in hushed tones of 28- to 29-inch walleyes that were coming out of the lake on a regular basis all summer long. And that's the sad part. Catching walleyes in Koshkonong is a simple matter of dragging spinner rigs and crawlers in the summer and setting boards over at least 5 feet of water away from the crowds in the winter. As a result, it looks like deja vu of the winter of '86 when the "I got mine" philosophy of keeping trophy 'eyes was prevalent. Immediate introduction of a slot limit to protect big fish might prevent over-harvest history from repeating itself.
As noted earlier, walleyes here are exceptionally nomadic since there is little in the way of structure to hold their interest. Just get away from the crowds, set a shiner on a No. 8 treble hook at about 5 feet, use a hole cover to block sunlight, and get ready to yell "tip-up."
For more information or lodging, contact: UCatch Em Bait & Tackle, (608) 754-7976; and Riverfront Resort, (920) 563-2757.
LAKE WINNEBAGO Lake Winnebago is by far Wisconsin's leading walleye factory. Although 10-pounders are rare, several dominant year-classes of fish in the 23- to 27-inch range are present. These are quality fish, always on the move in pursuit of shad. Although some of them will eventually show up under the permanent shacks over well-known humps and reefs, there is a good chance you'll get tired of playing cards before the first flag pops.
The key to success on Winnebago is mobility. Several anglers with ATVs or snowmobiles, power augers and walkie-talkies can usually find fish in a couple of hours. The crew I run with on Winnie all carry Fishing HotSpots maps - with their own codes for different areas. We spread out, tapping holes around ice heaves that usually indicate changes in bottom contour and to previously established GPS coordinates that have produced fish in the past. Bottom contour changes are often migration routes for this walleye population that is always on the move.
Changes in water clarity under the ice is another key to fish location. If the water look
s good and we see fish signatures on the electronics after tapping a pilot hole, several more holes are drilled in triangular fashion about 75 yards apart. It's a good idea to drill a couple more holes for rapid frogging to productive areas.
Four-inch Milwaukee shiners are the stock in trade for winter 'eyes on Winnie when using tip-ups. Just set them about 18 inches off the bottom on a No. 8-10 treble hook under the dorsal fin with a split shot pegged about a foot up the line. Winnebago's walleye schools have the attention span of a 4-year-old. Wind-activated tip-ups are a plus here, with erratic jigging of a Swedish Pimple or Lindy Ratl'r spoon on a jigging rod always part of the equation.
Dutch's Trading Post in Fond du Lac can put you in the right direction to active fish, (920) 922-0311. For lodging information, call the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-876-5250.
SHAWANO LAKE If you see a Shawano Lake walleye hanging on the wall of a resort or dining establishment, odds are this fish came through the ice rather than during the open-water period.
The key to catching walleyes in this 6,000-acre northeast Wisconsin lake is the weeds, especially deep weeds. Except for that magic time before a snow and both first and last ice periods, walleye behavior in Shawano is classic - a brief flurry of activity around dawn and another bite about dusk lasting until maybe 9 p.m.
Well-maintained roads on Shawano Lake can put you within walking distance of deep weedbeds. Hiking that extra hundred yards can make a tremendous difference. Key on main-lake points, then use your electronics to locate open areas in the weeds and inside turns that fish tend to migrate along, targeting the 12- to 15-foot contour. In past years, golden shiners have been the most productive walleye bait.
For more info, contact: Shawano Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-235-8528; or Hook, Line & Sinker bait shop, (715) 854-2073.
CHEQUAMEGON BAY Green Bay and Lake Winnebago can be intimidating, but this vast bay on the south side of the big lake they call Gitcheegumee is look-through-your-fingers scary when weather is moving in. Serious preparation and caution are given consideration before heading out across the northern tip of our state.
Beyond the basic ice-fishing gear you want to take a GPS unit and a compass, a marine radio, a cell phone and two maps - one of which should be the new Fishing HotSpots map with GPS coordinates. Also take two cameras, simply because there is a real possibility that you will tangle with the biggest walleye of your life and will have to deal with the dilemma of releasing the fish or making a trip to the taxidermist.
On an acre-by-acre basis, the walleye population on Chequamegon Bay is low. And the amount of acreage that is over fish-holding humps, saddles and subtle reefs is limited, too. You'll need a GPS and a willingness to run to consistently get on fish.
The first number you should punch in on the GPS is the point where you access the lake. There are plenty of places to get out in both Ashland and Washburn. And lights of the two cities are clearly visible to each other on a clear night. But clear visibility can change to whiteout conditions in mere minutes on Chequamegon Bay.
Although walleye action here is typically the lowlight bite, guide Craig Putchat says getting out to promising humps and punching a bunch of holes while it's still light out is important. "Big walleyes didn't get that way by being less than cautious," says Putchat, "and the sound of an ice drill grinding through the ice is not a natural thing."
Big minnows are another major component in a trophy hunt on these waters. Putchat likes minnows 4 to 6 inches long for his tip-ups, and he jigs a big Crippled Herring or No. 7 blue/white Jigging Rapala on his third line.
"Catching a 4- or even a 6-pound walleye is fun," Putchat says. "There are some real pigs coming up on the humps of Chequamegon Bay every evening."
For guide service, call Craig Putchat at (715) 373-0551. Lodging info is available from the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, (715) 682-2500.
PETENWELL FLOWAGE Our namesake river and the flowages it passes through on the way to the mighty Mississippi are a major source of winter recreation for walleye anglers. The 23,000-acre Petenwell Flowage could be the best place to head out on the ice.
Like other flowages, Petenwell is pretty much shallow water, having a maximum depth of 43 feet. Like other Wisconsin River flowages, the key to icing 'eyes is directly related to the old river channel that snakes its way south. Depending on the barometric pressure and available forage base, the walleyes in this largest Wisconsin River flowage will either be hanging on inside turns of the river channel or up cruising the adjacent flats.
How do you find a river channel that's covered with 23,000 acres of ice? Target points on the shoreline. Many anglers head out from the Adams County Park on the flowage's east side and Juneau County Park on the opposite side, with few taking the time to hunt for the river channel edges at midlake. You can see the vehicles from either access point. Just set up along the channel edge. Start probing a respectable distance away from other anglers and you'll find the channel - and probably fish - in no time.
Like other Wisconsin River flowages, this is primarily a tip-up bite. If you really feel the compulsion to jig while waiting for a flag, set three tip-ups baited with golden shiners and initiate a jigging motion with a yo-yo or similar device at least 50 feet from your nearest board. In the final analysis, you'll catch more fish.
Jim Freeman of Freeman's Bait knows more about Petenwell walleyes than just about anybody. You can reach him at (715) 886-3541. For lodging info, call the Adams County Chamber of Commerce, (608) 339-6997, or the Juneau County Chamber of Commerce, (608) 847-7838.
LAKE WISSOTA Chippewa County's Lake Wissota has been a popular western Wisconsin walleye fishery for years, with angling pressure adversely affecting the marble-eye population in the past. But new regulations protecting fish 14 to 18 inches, with one fish over 18 inches allowed, are already having a positive effect, according to Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Joe Kurz. Wissota is a good place to introduce the kids to walleye fishing and teach them the importance of catch-and-release, because there's a good population of willing 13- to 19-inch walleyes present.
Since these waters are somewhat stained, you can find walleyes in a positive feeding mood just about anytime. But there is definite movement toward weed edges in shallower water during lowlight periods. At other times of day, Kurz suggests targeting points topping out in about 18 feet of water with tip-ups and shiners. Walleyes can be found relating to migration areas along the edges of points, or
can be actively feeding on top.
The best access is on the lake's south side, off of County Highway X.
For lodging info, call the Chippewa County Chamber of Commerce, (715) 723-0331.
MILWAUKEE'S BIG THREE The greater metro area of Wisconsin's biggest population center offers some surprisingly good walleye fishing, thanks to intensive management and stocking efforts. Three lakes that are just a short commute from Miller Park offer consistent action on "eater-size" walleyes, with the potential for a quality fish over 8 pounds always a possibility.
Pewaukee Lake, in the village of the same name just west of Milwaukee, has seen intensive walleye stocking efforts ongoing for over 20 years. As is the case elsewhere in the state, the class of '93 was a beauty in these 2,500 acres. And there are still good numbers of these fish swimming here with considerably broad shoulders and nearly trophy size. Pewaukee's walleye population also has some older fish that would weigh in double digits, and several hearty year-classes coming on that are ideal for greasing the skillet.
The crowd of anglers that congregates around the weeds on the lake's east end at first ice is now in the process of moving to the deeper water of the west end out from Taylor's Bay and Rocky Point - where walleyes hang close to a steep breakline at about 12 feet. Toward evening the east side of Walker's Island is a good place to set up for walleyes. Get there before dark to stake out your spot. Because of the close proximity to lake access, you won't be fishing alone. You can also access the lake from Smokey's Bait Shop, which is a great source of information.
Lac La Belle is about half the size of Pewaukee at roughly 1,200 acres, located in the town of Oconomowoc in Waukesha County. The daily bag-limit of one walleye over 20 inches here influences the character of folks in a positive way, with many realizing the value of catch-and-release.
Several rock bars in the northwest basin are prime spots to chase fish early in the season. By now just about every fish which calls this area home has been educated, making 4-pound-test FireLine and a delicate touch the shortest route to a stretched string. The weedline bite is generally productive here all winter long, especially at first and last light. Target the 10- to 12-foot breakline northwest of Kohl's Island on the lake's south side and a similar area directly across the bay from the public access point.
Lake Nagawicka is smallest of Milwaukee's big three at 957 acres. But according to DNR biologist Randy Schumacher, these structure-filled waters represent your best chance at a wallhanger walleye.
Many anglers find success targeting weed edges, with some weedbeds growing as deep as 18 to 20 feet. The key to fishing Nagawicka's weeds lies in focusing on inside and outside turns in the weed edge that usually corresponds with changes in bottom composition. In many cases the end of the weed edge is abrupt, with good hard bottom - and cruising walleyes - on the deep side of the greenery. A good strategy lies in poking a dozen holes along the weed edge, setting two boards baited with suckers, and then hole-jumping with a Jigging Rapala while waiting for a flag.
The east shore out from Nagawaukee County Park is a great place to start fishing this lake. Use your electronics to follow a point that extends well out into the lake here, and then work a Jigging Rapala. Don't overlook the west side of the island on this shoreline, where a rock bar drops away into very deep water, with fish liable to be anywhere along the breakline. The small rockpile off of the north side of the island is tougher to find but also worth a serious look.
For more fishing information on Nagawicka, call Dick Smith's Live Bait & Tackle, (414) 646-2218. On Pewaukee, call Smokey's Bait Shop, (414) 691-0360. Pat's Pro Shop is the best source for Lac La Belle, (414) 567-3467. * * *
See you out on the ice!
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