Wisconsin's Winter Walleye Waters
September 30, 2010
When winter returns to the Land of Cheese, most anglers can envision tasty walleye filets. Here's a look at some of our top waters for catching the main course.
By Ted Peck
Serious winter weather has returned to the Land of Cheese, with tip-ups and jigging sticks replacing long rods for walleye chasers all across Wisconsin. There is an undeniable mystique extending far beyond the Fry Daddy with these myopic critters.
With water temperatures in the low 30s statewide, the active feeding window may only be a few minutes long each day. And with Arctic high-pressure systems dominating weather, "active" is just a sliver past neutral in regard to fish activity levels.
But we chase these fish with passion anyway. Here's a look at some of our top waters for catching walleyes this winter.
If last year's open-water fishing was any indication, this will be the best year to chase winter walleyes since 1987 on this 10,400-acre lake straddling Jefferson and Rock counties.
Koshkonong is essentially a wide spot in southern Wisconsin's Rock River, a vast and essentially faceless basin where walleye location is driven by forage location that in turn is driven to a great extent by wind and changing river levels - at least during the open-water period. But the river is sleeping now. And winds howling at 30 mph won't impact the fish much below the ice, beyond barometric pressure squeezing on the walleyes' air bladders.
So where's Waldo? Still on the move, with less obvious intentions. Tip-ups are your best weapon, with the three allowed by law set in triangle formation about 75 feet apart over 5 feet or more of water - conditions that exist over perhaps 50 percent of the lake.
Time of day isn't that important, but a quiet, natural presentation is. Hole covers or tip-ups that cover the entire hole are essential. Tap maybe 20 holes, then put the ice drill away. Open holes up where you get active flags. But don't use the snowmobile or even heavy feet to run your lines.
River shiners are by far the best bait, but tough to get. Fatheads and rosy reds will work, hooked under the dorsal fin on a No. 8 treble with a split shot pegged a foot or so up the line. With a maximum of maybe 4 feet between the lake's bottom and bottom of the ice, precise depth usually isn't that critical, but hanging the bait about 6 inches off the lake's bottom is still a good idea. If this old standard doesn't work, try just below the ice.
Contact: U-Catch Em Bait, (608) 754-7976.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
This 5,000-acre Walworth County lake has a long-standing reputation for being a challenging fishery. Many anglers avoid it between Memorial Day and Labor Day due to high access fees, limited parking and an astounding influx of Illynesians. A dedicated few venture forth at night during the open-water period, which is when the best action occurs year-round. The same limited group is out there right now quietly icing walleyes on what is undoubtedly the best-kept walleye secret in our state.
For years the Department of Natural Resources shied away from stocking these clear waters because the landed gentry had effectively blocked public access. But a need to find a ready home for over 5,000 adult walleyes averaging 15 inches that came out of Delavan Lake in 1998 was an unexpected boost to Geneva, with these fish now about 24 inches and having little walleyes of their own, according to DNR fisheries technician Rick Daughenbach.
"We supplemented this stocking of adults with 247,000 large fingerlings in 2003, with another quarter-million slated for stocking this year," Daughenbach said. "All of this adds up to a tremendous walleye population that is growing fatter every day on a diet rich with mimic shiners."
Daughenbach said fisheries surveys the past several years have yielded "30- to 32-inch walleyes, with specimens in excess of 13 pounds," and adding, "this lake is just beginning to hit its stride as a walleye factory. The population is better than we've seen in at least 25 years."
The best part is, this playing field is now both hard and level. Access is possible and not crowded at numerous points around the lake, with walleyes cruising the first structural breaklines out from shore all over once the sun goes down.
"Geneva walleye anglers are notorious for being tight-lipped," Daughenbach said. "But even the best-kept secrets leak out. I don't know of a better place to catch a trophy walleye this winter."
Contact: Geneva Lake Bait & Tackle, (262) 245-6150.
Just down the road from Geneva is 2,072-acre Delavan, a remarkable multi-species fishery that was drained, dredged and restocked about 15 years ago. Since this time, every species but walleyes has come on like gangbusters. But the walleyes were little more than perch-sized for many years because there were just too many of them. DNR fisheries biologists gambled and thinned the population like so many finned carrots, with most of the walleyes removed getting dumped in Geneva.
Since this move several years ago, about 25 percent of the adult walleye population is at or above the 18-inch minimum in place, with larger specimens approaching 7 to 8 pounds also in the system.
Best action is at night, setting tip-ups between the Yacht Club and long bar out from Lake Lawn Lodge.
Contact; Delavan Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-624-0052, www.delavanwi.org.
WAUKESHA COUNTY TRIO
DNR fisheries biologist Sue Beyler says Pine, Nagawicka and Oconomowoc lakes in Waukesha County "all offer exceptional walleye fishing through the ice."
According to Beyler, Oconomowoc is a "numbers" lake. Because so many fish are present, she has instituted an 18-inch, three-fish daily limit on these waters.
Lake access is the biggest winter problem in chasing walleyes here. The closest access point is off North Shore Drive, but limited parking opportunities exist.
Both Pine and Nagawicka have the statewide five-fish, 15-inch walleye limit in place, with Pine most likely to give up a trophy, according to Beyler. Nagawicka is 917 acres, with Pine right at 700 and Oconomowoc slightly larger at 767 acres. There are several good access points on both Pine and Oconomowoc, with all three of these natural lakes seeing the best walleye action right now at dawn, dusk and ahead of an
approaching weather system.
A popular local method is setting two tip-ups baited with shiners or fatheads along the outside weed edge and jigging a Swedish Pimple or Jigging Rapala in deeper water while waiting for a flag.
Contact: Dick Smith's Live Bait, (262) 646-2218.
NORTH TWIN LAKE
Vilas County is splattered with walleye lakes, but if bait shop owner and guide George Langley could choose just one, North Twin would get the nod.
"There is an unbelievable population of 15- to 17-inch fish swimming here," Langley said. "So many that you're liable to fill a five-fish, 15-inch limit jigging off of midlake structure in the afternoon before you have a chance to move up on the humps and get serious with tip-ups at dusk."
Better known for producing muskies, a great portion of the walleye biomass in this 2,700-acre lake spends winter months relating to structures a considerable distance away from the shoreline, with a snowmobile the ideal way to get on top of 'em. Langley says that the new Fishing HotSpots map (1-800-500-MAPS) and GPS are good tools in quickly locating fish-holding structure that tops out in less than 12 feet of water.
There are two good access points to get on North Twin, which is located about 20 miles north of Eagle River. Both the Phelps landing and the Lakota landing on the Conover side of the lake will get you to the ice. From this point it is a fair sled ride from either access to get over the fish.
Contact: Eagle Sports, (715) 479-8804, www.eaglesportscenter.com.
The adage "big water equals big fish" holds true on this southern wing of vast Lake Superior, with huge walleyes joining other species of dreadnaught proportions relating to subtle humps and breaks miles away from any structure visible from above the ice.
This is a place where you want to think survival long before rigging up a couple of medium-action jigging sticks with 10-pound-test monofilament and Lindy Ratl'r spoons. Back up the marine radio with a cell phone and your portable GPS with a good old-fashioned compass. Bring food, adequate fuel, spare spark plugs and tools - and a good topographic map with the approximate location of little kinks in the generally smooth basin indicated by GPS coordinates. A dump truck load of walnut-sized gravel is a major structural anomaly on these waters, drawing walleyes from great distances. And there are dozens of humps like this that hold the potential for a genuine walleye trophy on Chequamegon Bay.
But even the most species-specific mindset won't keep you from tangling with other species like lake trout, steelhead, brown trout, splake big northern pike - and even trophy smallmouth bass.
Craig Putchat knows hardwater fishing on Chequamegon Bay better than anybody, operating the Outdoor Allure bait shop and guide service out of the town of Bayfield. Putchat knows the heartbreak of losing a monster on light tackle. So he sallies forth loaded for bear. "Average" walleyes are in the mid-20-inch range, with fish pushing 30 inches certainly a possibility any day Gitcheegumee is willing to let you get out there fishing.
Contact: Capt. Craig Putchat, Outdoor Allure, (715) 373-0551 or www.outdoorallure.com; Bayfield Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-447-4094 or www.bayfield.org.
As a walleye factory, the Wisconsin River system makes it to the medal round with Lake Winnebago and the tributaries of Green Bay. Too bad so many of 'em have that funky paper taste.
The common thread of the old river channel that passes through every flowage from Merrill to the Mississippi River south of Prairie du Chien is the primary key to walleye location and behavior under the ice. Every day is a new adventure on the Wisconsin River flowages, with weather driving walleye activity levels. Some days the fish might be holding close to the old channel. Other days - after a few days of stable weather - they might be fanning out across a stumpy flat.
Unlike other winter walleye waters, there is no advantage to being on the ice during periods of low light. Because these waters are discolored, the bite is often better at midmorning and again at midafternoon. And you can forget about the night bite altogether.
Petenwell is the biggest flowage of them all, covering over 23,000 acres - almost too much ice to cover effectively in a year, let alone a day trip. Find the old river channel and the walleyes won't be far away.
Usually you can get a pretty good idea with a pair of binoculars from the road. Just look for the cars. Before you drive out there, remember you are dealing with a river system. Stay away from necked-down areas and bridges - at least with a vehicle.
Where does the adventure begin? With a little binocular recon mission from either Adams or Juneau county parks located on either side of this sprawling flowage. Grab the boards. The walleyes are waiting.
Contact: Adams County Chamber of Commerce, (608) 339-6997; Juneau County Chamber of Commerce, (608) 847-7838.
Hardwater anglers have been waiting for this season for years. If open-water action this past fall is any indication, this will be the winter of the trophy walleye. DNR fisheries survey statistics indicate at least six solid year-classes of walleyes in the Winnebago system, with one of the largest year-classes in recent memory still showing good representation with 6- to 8-pound fish.
Angler success on Winnebago has always been tied to the forage base, which is primarily shad. In years where shad are abundant, the walleyes grow fat and sassy, and not too eager to eat something with a hook in it. Conversely, those years when the shad population is down result in tremendous fishing. This is the winter when it is all coming together. The walleyes are fat, but no longer sassy, and a legion of hardwater anglers are waiting for them.
Winnebago is a city of ice shanties this time of year. No need for a GPS in finding prominent offshore structures - just look for the shacks. While there is great comfort to be found in "permanent" shanties in the knowledge that walleyes will eventually come your way, the real key in catching fish is going after the walleyes rather than waiting for them to come to you. This is best accomplished by snowmobile, ATV or 4-wd vehicle. Depending on snowcover, a snowmobile may be your best mode of travel. Binoculars, radio communications, a GPS and a Fishing Hotspots map - with your own coded numbers to indicate certain spots amongst your angling party - are all part of the package.
Permanent shanties are good reference points, often placed on prime spots like the top of a hump. But walleyes have to come and go to get there, making migration routes your best bet for setting tip-ups, especially wind-driven tip-ups.
These fish are always on the move. You must adopt a similar philosophy to keep the flags popping. Like a crew of railroad gandydancers, one of your crew should be poking holes, another setting boards, and another coming behind with the gaff and a pail of Milwaukee shiners - the winter stock in trade for Winnie 'eyes.
Water clarity is a clue to fish location. The walleyes don't like it too cloudy. Set tip-ups about 18 inches off the bottom, which doesn't change much as you work across the basin.
Wait for a flag by jigging a Swedish Pimple or Lindy Ratl'r spoon. Sometimes you get lucky on the jig pole. And it's one less board to move when the time comes to go. Sound like a lot of work? It is if you haven't been on the ice for a few days. But if you've been dogging a school of fish that are active, it shouldn't take more than an hour to find 'em and assess their mood. Once you do, it's time to break out the grill and brats. No need for a cooler to keep the meat and beverages cold. If you take a football along, don't use the tip-ups as out-of-bounds markers. These fish are always on the move, but you don't want to be the cause of their movement.
Contact: Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-876-5250; Dutch's Trading Post, (920) 922-0311.
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So much water, so little time. But a little time is all you really need. All of these waters we told you about offer great potential for a winter walleye safari. But chances are there is good walleye water just down the road from where you live.
Fishing will be tough for the next month or so, with a very short activity window. If you can get on the ice for that magic hour or so, you'll ice just as many 'eyes as folks who are out there all day.
There is something special about a walleye flopping on the ice. Victory over the Forces of Nature at their toughest? Maybe. Anticipation of a fine meal? Oh, yeah!
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