Wisconsin's Top Opening-Day Walleye Lakes

Decisions, decisions. Do you go where you usually go for the season opener or do you try someplace new? Well, if you want to catch walleyes, go to these lakes.

By Ted Peck

No matter where you live in Wisconsin, there is great walleye fishing less than an hour's drive away.

Do you launch a boat just down the road at midnight when May's first Saturday rolls around, or head for more pristine waters "up north" and make a weekend out of it? We're fortunate to live in a state with so many angling options.

Here's a look at some of our top walleye waters to make your choice easier, beginning in the heavily populated southeastern corner of our state.

Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Doug Welch is tasked with managing some of our state's most heavily pressured walleye waters. Tichigan Lake in Racine County and Kenosha County's Silver Lake stand out this year, thanks to supplemental stocking and good recruitment from natural spawn several years ago.

There is no public boat launch on Tichigan itself. But access at the free DNR launch on the Fox River - located off of Bridge Road on the lake's north side - will put you almost within casting distance of eater-sized 'eyes.

The most recent electroshocking survey here turned up an impressive 21 walleyes an hour averaging 13 to 22 inches in length. Welch said the survey was completed in late April at night within a stone's throw of the shoreline. A steady retrieve with a stick bait like the No. 9 Rapala along the north shore right after midnight on the opener should be a quick way to fill a five-fish 15-inch limit.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Similar tactics will work on 464-acre Silver Lake to the south, where, Welch said, "stocking efforts are really paying off."

The DNR only stocked about 7,000 fingerlings in Silver last year because massive stockings in 2000 and 2001 have come on like gangbusters. Access is also better than in years past, thanks to renovation of the free DNR launch facility, located off of County Highway B on the lake's west side. Statewide limits of 15 inches and five fish are in place here as well.

Contact: Jalensky's Sport & Marine in Kenosha, (262) 654-2260, or Racine, (262) 554-1051.

Biologist Welch also manages 2,072-acre Delavan Lake in Walworth County, one of the best examples of good fish management in America's Dairyland. It wasn't that long ago when these popular recreational waters were a muddy carp hole.

Reclamation efforts in the late 1980s quickly showed promising results, with walleyes the lone exception in rapid recovery. By the mid-90s, catching 50 walleyes in a couple of hours here was a no-brainer - but most fish could hide neatly in a hot dog bun. Welch came up with the idea of thinning the population, removing thousands of little walleyes for restocking in other waters nearby. The plan worked, creating a quality walleye fishery.

The bites don't come as often now. But with some effort you'll easily fill the three-fish 18-inch minimum bag limit, including a shot at a real whopper. Welch confirmed that a 32-inch walleye came out of Delavan late last fall that was a product of the 1990 year-class. This fish weighed over 11 pounds. Walleyes don't get much longer than 32 inches, but they do get heavier than 11 pounds. And the sisters of this fish have had a year to pig out and grow heavier.

Walleyes sometimes go against conventional wisdom on Delavan. I took a limit off of a shallow dock not far from Brown's Channel last fall while throwing a 4-inch plastic worm for bass.

On opening day, don't fish too deep. And don't forget to check your navigational lights. Odds are a few of the fat sisters of that 32-inch walleye are cruising somewhere close to the big, long bar out in front of Lake Lawn Lodge right now, just a short run from the boat launch located off of Highway 50 on the lake's north end.

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

Waukesha County offers terrific fishing just a short drive from downtown Milwaukee, with thousands of acres of water and numerous lakes. Walleye success on these waters varies from year to year as folks get on the fish and figure out how to catch them.

According to DNR fisheries biologist Sue Beyler, Oconomowoc Lake, Pine Lake and Lac La Belle offer the best chances at getting your string stretched, with Lac La Belle the best option if you just want the rod in a constant state of bendage. A 20-inch one-fish daily limit has allowed the walleye population in these fertile waters to prosper. You'll catch and release 50 respectable 16- to 19-inch walleyes on the way to boating a trophy, but there are a lot worse ways to spend opening day!

Walleyes are highly educated, especially on 1,100-acre Lac La Belle in the city of Oconomowoc, where few fish over 24 inches ever turn up in DNR surveys.

"The fact that we seldom see trophies here tells me that fish are removed from the system once they reach legal size," Beyler said. "It's a good bet that every walleye in this lake has been caught and released several times on the way to the 'big adios' "

For best results, target water less than 8 feet deep with a search lure like the new jointed Shad Rap in fire-tiger pattern, working the points and rocky shoreline. Don't overlook developing weed edges. When you hook up, slow down and go after them with a jig-and-minnow. You'll probably run out of bait before you run out of walleyes. Similar tactics work on nearby Pine and Oconomowoc this time of year.

Oconomowoc Lake, just a short hop away, has an 18-inch three-fish daily bag limit in place, with good natural reproduction supplemented by stockings that have been done since the mid-'90s on a regular basis every other year. It's easy to find fish in just a couple of hours' fishing time in Oconomowoc, which is just over half the size of Lac La Belle.

Pine Lake in the northwest part of the county has the most liberal harvest guidelines of all, with the statewide five-fish 15-inch bag in place. However, Beyler said that these waters offer your best shot at a trophy fish.

"There are some big walleyes swimming in Pine Lake," she said. "There are also good numbers of eater-sized walleyes."

Larger specimens in this heavily pressured water have learned the valu

e of feeding almost exclusively at night, where you will find them relating to shallow flats and points almost on the shoreline at 12:01 a.m. on opening day.

All of these Waukesha County lakes have good boat launch facilities.

Contact: Dick Smith's Live Bait & Tackle, (262) 646-2218.

A good number of walleyes in Lake Kegonsa at the lower end of the Madison Chain in Dane County will reach the 15-inch minimum this year.

Kegonsa is by far the easiest lake in the chain to figure out - essentially a big doughnut with a rock bar in the middle. Walleyes congregate off of this rock bar (and off of Sugarbush Point) when the sun goes down, with a slip-bobber and minnow a favorite way to catch them all summer long.

The parking lot at Babcock Park on U.S. Highway 51 just up the road on Lake Waubesa will be full at midnight the first Friday of May as 'eye chasers launch and make the short run out to the main lake around the little island to chase walleyes off of Rockford Heights and south by the big slide at the Bible Camp.

There will be plenty of cars at Goodland Park on the south end, too, with anglers targeting the 10-foot breakline along the south shore where weeds tend to develop first.

Thanks to GPS, a subtle hump out from the Green Lantern on the lake's west side is easy to find at night, with walleyes moving up out of deep water nearby to chase minnows on the rocks here after dark.

No. 13 Rapalas and ThunderSticks are favored weapons of those who fish the night bite here seriously, with some "hooks" anchoring up on premier locations several hours before the appointed time to wait. If you're in the right spot, it's easy to fill a five-fish 15-inch limit in an hour or so, with a 3-pounder being a "whopper" on these extremely fertile waters.

Lake Mendota has bigger walleyes thanks to an 18-inch three-fish limit. The first boat to work the little hump out from Second Point will have an excellent shot at boating a 28-inch-plus fish or two.

At 9,800 acres, this natural lake has plenty of places for walleyes to hide in, with lake points an obvious place to begin probing. A Fishing HotSpots (1-800-500-MAPS) map will put you close to the lake's numerous humps and bars, some of which are easier to find than others.

As summer progresses, this heavily used recreational lake sees a good weed bite develop where you can find success even at midday by pitching a half night crawler or leech into pockets on the outside edge of the weeds on a 1/16-ounce black jighead.

Like the other lakes mentioned so far in this article, lakes in the Madison Chain are close to home for many people. But every one of these lakes will produce quality walleyes, especially during lowlight periods on this side of Memorial Day.

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

Most anglers drive right past Upper Post Lake in Langlade County while headed for Minocqua and beyond, missing out on an easy limit of eater-sized walleyes in this 758-acre lake located about four miles east of Elko.

The famous Wolf River feeds these slightly stained waters, entering on the lake's north side. Guide Jason Gaurkee says current from this lake's entry point is a great place to target spring walleyes that are chasing baitfish in transition zones where the lake bottom changes from hard to soft.

Although Upper Post has good natural reproduction, it is supplemented with annual walleye stocking. Like many lakes in this part of the state, bag limits are subject to change. But for the past several years, a three-walleye 15-inch minimum has been in effect.

Upper Post is served with a good public ramp located off of County Highway K on Post Lake Road.

Contact: Jason Gaurkee, (715) 623-7150; www.lakecatch.com.

Like Upper Post Lake, the three-fish 15-inch limit that has been in effect on this 2,433-acre lake in Lincoln County near Tomahawk is subject to change. But if changes are made they may become more liberal because these waters are seeing "reproduction which is nothing short of incredible," according to DNR biologist Dave Seibel.

Nokomis is a very fertile lake with a maximum depth of 33 feet and an average depth of about 10 feet. But right now you want to think much, much shallower when targeting the walleye population here. Because this lake is so fertile and water temperatures are still relatively cool, walleyes are comfortable in just a couple of feet of water, even on a sunny day.

Nokomis has several tributaries, with the shoreline nearby a great spot to focus on with a No. 13 orange/gold Rapala or similar stick bait in obnoxious hues. Fish tend to relate to the transition zone here, too, holding over firm bottom with softer bottom nearby.

"Most people simply fish too deep on Nokomis," guide Brian Schaeffer says. "If you want to catch walleyes, use a steady retrieve over waters where your rod tip will touch bottom. And when you find fish, don't be in a big hurry to move on down the shoreline. They are where you find 'em for a reason."

Nokomis has several good boat launches, with perhaps the closest point to good fishing near the ramp off of Highway 8.

Contacts: Guide Bryan Schaeffer, (715) 453-6388; Chuck's Sports Shop, (715) 453-3101.

By far the best multi-species lake in northeastern Wisconsin, 6,032-acre Shawano Lake sees relatively light pressure on its growing walleye population.

Most of the walleye action on opening day will likely center around Schumacher Island, where tons of man-placed rock has enhanced natural spawning in these waters. Shortly after this habitat was introduced the lake experienced two massive year-classes of fish in the early 1990s, some of which are still swimming in the lake today - definitely worthy of display above the fireplace. The offspring of these year-classes are respectable 18- to 20-inch walleyes, which make up a great deal of the four-adult-fish-per-acre walleye population found here.

Before weed growth becomes a factor, target some of the shallow reefs along the lake's east end that top out at about 10 feet by long-line trolling deep-running minnow-imitating lures. Once fish are located, switch over to a jig-and-minnow presentation, or a minnow under a slip-bobber during periods of low light.

Shawano sees considerable recreational use once summer arrives, with the number of resorts definitely catering to clientele that is less than serious about walleye fishing. If your plans include being one of

these happy campers, try trolling steep breaklines with a crawler harness and No. 5 Lindy Hatchet Spinner Blade once the sun goes down.

There is a misconception that walleye fishing slows here in the summertime. Truth is, anglers who pursue Stizostedium vitreum during the warmer months on these waters don't say much about it - with little indication that 'eyes are even swimming here except for the considerable laughter and thrashing of nets at night.

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

The key to fishing this popular chain of lakes in the northwoods lies in targeting areas where the "links" come together - the channels that connect Scattering Rice, Eagle, Catfish and Cranberry lakes.

These channels are major spawning areas for walleyes, with considerable current found therein moving considerable forage past walleyes that wait in ambush beneath any available woody cover, including cribs, docks, brushpiles and logs.

Pulling walleyes out of this cover requires some special tactics. Tom Schwanke's Timber Jig is unsurpassed for getting down into tangles and finding fish rather than snags. Brightly colored jigs seem to work best, especially orange and chartreuse. And you don't need much weight - 1/16-ounce is just about right when tipped with a minnow or orange/pumpkinseed Berkley Power Jigworm.

Although a sensitive graphite rod may be an advantage, you may be better off using a 7-foot rod capable of moving fish out of heavy cover quickly, relying on high-visibility line as a strike indicator. The technique that works so well on these waters early in the season is a cross between pitching and flipping, requiring a definite "touch" in which strikes are anticipated more than felt.

Once you put it all together, hooking into 25 to 30 walleyes in a few hours is generally no problem. The rub is, most of these fish will fall within the protected 14- to 18-inch slot size. The bag allows three walleyes - two below the slot and one above. Catching anything over 24 inches is unusual. But you can usually garner a pair of 13 1/2-inchers to grease the skillet.

Contact: Eagle Sports, (715) 479-8804.

* * *
Wisconsin's walleyes are finally being regarded as sportfish rather than just good table fare, with the DNR showing considerable wisdom in protecting prime breeding-sized fish. Restrictive-harvest guidelines ensure the future of this resource.

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