Wisconsin's Best Fall Fishing

Wisconsin's Best Fall Fishing

Surveys indicate that over 90 percent of all fishing trips take place between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day. This means most of you are missing the boat on the hottest angling action of the year! (September 2007)

Evansville's Kyle Allen, McFarland's Ron Barefield and the author caught this mixed bag of jumbo perch, walleyes and saugers about a mile below Mississippi River Lock & Dam No. 9 at Genoa.
Photo by Ted Peck.

Candy, my wonderful wife of 36 years, calls September "spider time" because of my attempts to keep a hairy leg on the pulse of so many different outdoor activities in the fall. Dove hunting will probably be a major focus until well after Labor Day. In another month, ducks, deer and pheasants will also vie for my attention, and it will feel good to pick up the bow and shotgun again.

These sentiments are shared by a legion of Wisconsin's outdoorsy folks, many of who put the fishin' boat away in a heated rush to the woods and fields when hunting season rolls around -- while leaving half-eaten sandwiches and mummified minnows behind until spring.

Several surveys indicate that over 90 percent of all fishing trips take place between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day. This frees up the numerous legs of those of us with tarantula tendencies to sample what could be the very best angling action of the year -- without battling boatloads of people.

North-country lakes will be very close to turnover before many hunting options blossom down south. Once waters in the southern part of the state begin turnover, it will be time to head north again for the annual "blast and cast" to chase diving ducks and muskies.

October and November tend to present perpetual dilemmas, with weather a major drive in when, where and how to either hunt or fish. There will be time this autumn to hunt the rut, to cash in on the "little flight" that always seems to whistle south around my wife's Nov. 2 birthday and to be in the marsh for the "big push" around Thanksgiving. There will also be time for doves, pheasants and grouse.

And time for fishing.

The following is a look at piscatory pursuits deserving "annual trip" designations in addition to all the great hunting options in Wisconsin's "outdoor web."

RACINE SALMON

Everyone of voting age remembers where he or she was on 9/11. I was casting a crankbait where the Root River dumps into Lake Michigan at Racine. A 29-pound king salmon and the horrendous events occurring elsewhere that day are two things I will never forget for the rest of my life.

Water temperature is the trump card that determines when hook-jawed chinook salmon will move inland in earnest. But chasing kings around the anniversary of 9/11 -- both at the Racine Harbor mouth with crankbaits and spoons, and inland at places like Esterbrook Park with a 12-weight fly rod and a purple egg-sucking leech fly -- has the genuine potential to create memories for a lifetime.

You will need a Great Lakes salmon stamp in addition to your fishing license. Waders are a good idea if you decide to follow the salmon inland, as are polarized sunglasses and dark clothing. Sight-fishing for 3-foot-long salmon in skinny water is an indescribable thrill!

Contacts: Jalensky's Sport & Marine, (262) 654-2260, or online at www.fishmeister.com.

MENOMINEE RIVER

This northeast Wisconsin boundary water with Upper Michigan is a very special place.

You can find a real duke's mixture of fish -- including salmonids and walleyes -- from the Menominee River's confluence with Lake Michigan in Marinette upstream to the Hattie Street dam. This water and the next pool upstream from Hattie Street see considerable pressure until Labor Day, and then most folks forget this water even exists. The first inland pool is easy to navigate with a deep-V boat. Continue inland, though, and a shallow-draft watercraft is the best way to go.

These inland pools of the Menominee are outstanding places to welcome autumn. There is a "cookie-cutter" quality of inland pools that are separated by power dams. The lower end of each pool is typically slow-moving, flowage-type water. The first half-mile or so below each dam is very riverine in character.

Smallmouth bass are probably the most sought-after game fish. Tube jigs, crankbaits and in-line spinners like the No. 4 Mepps Black Fury all work well. The Menominee is also home to muskies -- some with surprising dimensions -- plus walleyes, northern pike and genuine slab crappies, especially around woody cover in the flowage-type water.

Typically, there is boat access at both the upper and lower ends of each pool. There is also wonderful primitive camping for an ideal autumn weekend.

Contacts: www.fishline.com; MBK Sports, (715) 735-5393.

DOOR COUNTY

It can be difficult to find lodging on weekends in Wisconsin's "Thumb" as we approach peak fall color, with most rooms taken by people who go leaf-looking. But northern Door County has plenty of angling opportunities for walleyes, pike, Great Lakes-strain muskies, jumbo perch and smallmouth bass. This fishing is best experienced by taking a day-trip out of a base camp at Sturgeon Bay.

Walleyes will be the big buzz again this fall in the Sturgeon Bay ship canal and out on Larsen's Reef in Green Bay. Word on the water is the action is almost as good here now as it was back in the early 1970s when anyone who paid his or her dues by long-lining No. 18 blue/white Rapalas at night in October was virtually guaranteed a tussle with a 30-inch walleye.

Daylight hours are best spent chasing smallmouth bass or pike in the ship canal or on down the shoreline on the Green Bay side in Little Sturgeon Bay, Sand Bay and points south. Weedbeds bordering the deep water of the ship canal hold pike and the occasional muskie of biblical proportions. A magnum black spinnerbait with twin orange blades is a proven weapon in the canal.

There is also a good fall bite for both salmonids and perch. Fishing for multiple species is seldom "hot" all the time, but some critter in the food chain will be on an amazing rip. Be flexible, and bring everything from downriggers and Dipsey Divers to dew worms and Dardevles.

Contact: Door County Chamber of Commerce, (920) 743-4456.

FOX RIVER

For the second spring in a row, the walleye run on Fox River at D

e Pere was less than stellar for most anglers, but the fleet showed up just the same. The best time to tangle with Fox 'eyes of substantial dimensions is usually at night. This remains true during the fall bite from mid-September through late October when a steady retrieve with a 4-inch chartreuse fliptail behind a 1/4-ounce jighead provide almost sure-thing action once the sun goes down.

Perch are a little tougher to pattern on the Miss, but when you find them, filling a 25-fish limit usually only takes a couple of hours. Most of these perch are about 9 to 10 inches, with a couple of honest 12-inch jumbos in the typical bag.

Hooking up with muskies has predictably lower odds, but the best chance you will ever have for tangling with a Great Lakes-strain "toother" could be next month by trolling big crankbaits out from the Fort Howard paper plant.

This is essentially a catch-and-release fishery for all species because of excessive pollution levels. Since you are going let them go anyway, doesn't it make sense to venture here with a plan for tangling with the biggest fish in the Fox River? If you agree with this philosophy, proceed directly to the warmwater discharge where the Fox dumps into Green Bay. This is my favorite place in the entire state to get my string stretched by a broad-shouldered fish. It could be a pike, salmon or walleye, or it may be a giant catfish or even a carp. Regardless of the species encountered, you will be challenged, and you will take home a memory to last you through the winter.

Contact: Green Bay Chamber of Commerce, (920) 494-9507 or 1-888-867-3342.

WISCONSIN RIVER

Our namesake river system has a wealth of both flowage and riverine opportunities -- enough to provide even the most ardent anglers with a shot at new waters for the entire open-water period.

A walleye slot limit in place for the past several years has had a profoundly positive effect on the entire Wisconsin River fishery. It produces quality walleyes from Tomahawk to the tailwaters of the Prairie du Sac dam. There are more mid-20-inch fish swimming in these waters now than anyone can ever remember. But Madison, we have a problem.

There is a major flaw in fisheries management that needs immediate attention here: Many of these mid-20-inch fish are saugers. Department of Natural Resources fisheries manager Tim Larson said the sauger is "probably genetically incapable" of growing to the 28-inch size where harvest is permitted. "But 24 inches is certainly possible, and even being seen in the system now," he added. "A sauger much larger than this would certainly be a new state record."

So far, the official DNR position is to leave this rule unchanged because the general public can't tell the difference between saugers and walleyes. But common sense says that DNR employees called "wardens" have both the ways and means to shorten the learning curve of those struggling with species identification. Seems to me that being able to tout a new Wisconsin state-record sauger would be a positive for all concerned. If you just want to get your heart broken, go fish Lake Wisconsin, where several "illegal" state sauger records swim right now -- as do some huge crappies.

Petenwell and Castle Rock flowages upstream are better known for producing walleyes, and the 'eye fishing here is certainly at or beyond a 20-year high.

Some of the lesser-known flowages in this system offer muskie fishing rivaling waters with more established reputations. Lake Mohawksin near Tomahawk and Lake DuBay near Stevens Point are two of these overlooked toother waters. Don't overlook the more riverine sections of these flowages either. If you really want the key to autumn's muskie fishing treasure chest, target those waters between Tomahawk and the Wisconsin River's birthplace: Lac Vieux Desert.

Contacts: Wisconsin Rapids Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1-800-554-4484, or www.visitwisrapids.com; Petenwell Flowage, (715) 886-4064; Castle Rock Flowage, (608) 847-4475; Lake Wisconsin, (608) 838-8756.

LAC VIEUX DESERT

It should come as no surprise that the headwaters of the Wisconsin River offer perhaps the best multi-species angling opportunities in our entire state, and the fall bite explodes after passage of autumn's second major cold front.

There is significant weed die-off in September, making any remaining green weeds profound fish magnets on Lac Vieux Desert, especially on sunny autumn afternoons following turnover. You will find walleyes chasing baitfish, and muskies chasing walleyes -- and some of the muskies are of frightful dimensions. With more "seasonal" autumn weather, probe deeper hard-bottomed spots like the two deep pockets found in Thunder Bay, or transition zones like the rocky humps along the south shore.

Don't forget the panfish gear! This boundary water with Michigan is one of our best-kept panfish secrets.

Contact: Eagle Sports, (715) 479-8804, or www.just-musky.com.

CHIPPEWA FLOWAGE

In just a couple of short weeks, autumn will be busting out in all its glory in the northwoods. Of all the destinations deserving "annual" status, the 230 miles of shoreline and 15,000 acres of the Chippewa Flowage certainly holds its own as a fall destination.

Muskies, of course, are the primary targets here. But this isn't a sucker-dragging, ice-busting, sleet-in-your-face type of muskie bite that is required on lakes like Big Round to get those big beasts in a dancing mood. The Chip has just enough stain in the water to make a sunny September day the best conditions for tangling with a toother of substantial dimensions. If a jack-in-the-box was a favorite toy when you were a little kid, the Chip is your kind of place. Topwater baits like the Hawg Wobbler and Tallywacker provide the biggest thrills when teeth and gills scream, "pop goes the weasel" right at boatside. Your partner should throw a fluorescent jerkbait -- like the Grandma in my box that used to have orange paint and black spots on it.

Perhaps adult behavior reverts back to that "pop goes the weasel" thing as a kid. I'm not into turning the crank for hours while waiting for a thrill like most avowed muskie addicts. If something doesn't stretch my string -- or at least make its presence known -- after an hour of intense fishing, it is easy to become sidetracked by taking in the grandeur of the Chip, but with a crappie angler's attitude. Just hang a little orange twistertail or tube about a foot below a little cork by any floating bog while taking a break from muskie fishing, because the Chip is notorious for slab crappies.

Another option is smallmouth bass. Check any creek entry point where there are rocks. Crappies will likely be hanging nearby as well. Smallies tend to school here in the fall. Find the first one with a No. 4 Mepps Black Fury, and then switch to a small topwater or plastic like the Chomper Hula Jig.

Contact: Hayward Lakes Resort Association, 1-800-472-FISH.

MISSISSIPPI RIVER

Tw

enty years of writing articles for Wisconsin Sportsman has taken me to virtually every corner of this resource-rich state. Six years ago, I retired as a professional firefighter from the city of Beloit, with the freedom to set up a new "base camp" virtually anywhere. I chose Pool No. 9 on the Mississippi River because it offers some of the most diverse and challenging water in America's Dairyland.

Salmon don't swim in the Mississippi River, and in over 30 years of fishing here, I've only caught one muskie, and it was a dink. But if you want to talk northern pike, walleyes, saugers, catfish or panfish, our western border water is nothing short of mind-boggling.

Bass fishing for both largemouths and smallmouths is phenomenal until about the end of October. On the best day last fall, two of my guided fishing clients were hooked up every 10 minutes for four hours.

Pike fishing is virtually untapped, with trophy northerns up to and over 40 inches relating to both weeds in the backwaters and rocky wing dams in the main river.

Walleye fishing success is driven to a great extent by weeds. Upriver pools are drawn down every fall for the ducks. When this happens, "salad" comes flowing down the river by the truckload, making fishing difficult. If weeds are not a factor, 100-walleye days are certainly possible.

If weeds are a factor, you always have the option of chasing panfish in the backwaters. One particular fork of a single fallen tree produced nearly 400 slab crappies over a two-week period last October.

Perch are a little tougher to pattern on the Miss, but when you find them, filling a 25-fish limit usually only takes a couple of hours. Most of these perch are about 9 to 10 inches, with a couple of honest 12-inch jumbos in the typical bag.

Catfish? Two days after Christmas last year, I had a dad and his 13-year-old son out on the Miss. In four hours, they caught a stringer of cats almost too heavy for both of them to lift!

Contact: (563) 544-4611.

* * *

The key to finding consistent autumn angling success is listening to the water and fishing for whatever critters seem most eager to cooperate. But you may have noticed that the awesome fall fishing smorgasbord we've just compiled leans more toward rivers than lakes. This is because autumn is a time of seasonal change, with frequent cold fronts being a fact of life. Cold fronts tend to impact fish living in rivers less than their lake-borne kin, hence better fishing on our rivers in the fall.

Time is the biggest bandit we all face as autumn wafts across Wisconsin in all its grandeur. Few of us have the luxury of living at an outdoors destination where there is gainful employment and good schools for the kids. But don't forget that you can be virtually anywhere in Wisconsin with six hours behind the steering wheel.

Take time to savor life when you are out there on the water. The worst day spent fishing in Wisconsin is far better than a good day spent just about anywhere else on Mother Earth.

Find more about Wisconsin fishing and hunting at: WisconsinSportsmanMag.com

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