Get Ready for Wisconsin Walleyes; Target These Waters
March 20, 2018
The new season for Wisconsin walleyes will be upon us before we know it. Here are some excellent places to open it.
Muskies may be Wisconsin's state fish, but DNR surveys say walleyes are our favorite fish to catch.
When the general season opens early both of those species will be cruising in shallow water regardless of whether their home is a lake, flowage or river — from heavily populated southern counties to waters in the cool, blue north.
Right now the walleye fraternity is focusing on rivers, which aren't subject to closed season restrictions as spring spawning activity pushes marble-eyes upstream to carry on the family name under cover of darkness in shallow, quiet waters over a rocky rubble bottom.
Most years the timing of this riverine spawning run is predictable within a few days, beginning on the Rock and lower Wisconsin rivers about April 1, progressing to the mid-sections of the Wisconsin River and Lake Winnebago system about 10 days later, and then on to the Mississippi River and Green Bay tributaries like the Fox, Peshtigo and Menominee rivers, about the 20th of the month.
When the first Saturday in May rolls around, a large segment of the Walleye Circus moves to inland lakes to kick off the opener. This migration suits those who like to fish major rivers and waters like Green Bay and Lake Winnebago just fine.
With some anglers, fishing a certain lake on "the opener" is a tradition, regardless of fish populations and other issues at historic destinations. Other folks make their destination decision a couple of days or maybe hours before hooking up the boat and heading to the launch ramp.
Every angler yearns for the tug of a heavy walleye on the end of their line. Weather conditions, fishing pressure, watercraft capabilities and personal fishing skills are all part of the equation. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that the walleyes get a vote, too. The only things you can really control are your attitude — and maybe the boat.
Both of those factors improve with time spent on the water. Time is the major driver of your fishing success this year. Here's a look at the best waters to confirm the fact there is no such thing as a "tangle free" landing net.
Most of the 175 days I spend on the water in an average year are spent working as a full-time fishing guide on Ol' Man River. Although a river is constantly changing, walleyes and other fish fall into fairly predictable patterns as we fish our way through another year.
High water that will reach at least moderate flood levels is a fact of life on the Mississippi. Flood conditions can occur at any time, typically lasting a month or more — sometimes more than once in a calendar year.
Many years, high water driven by runoff from snowmelt can be a major factor in fish location and lure presentation in May.
Robert Blosser: Go-To Search Bait for Walleyes
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There are some years when river levels recede to normal summer levels by May 1. If that's the case, then pulling three-way rigs with a stickbait and jig is very effective in sand-based running sloughs in 7 to 13 feet of water, with saugers and walleyes showing up in near equal numbers.
Last year the Mississippi and most of its tributaries were running belly-full well into June. With those conditions, walleyes follow their forage base into deeper, slower-running sloughs and backwaters where current is not a factor.
Electronics are of little value, with walleyes typically hanging in the weeds where water is less than 8 feet deep. Under those conditions, search lures like Rat-L-Traps can be extremely effective, with "oxbow" by far the most effective color pattern.
Under those conditions, countless walleyes are caught on spinnerbaits and chatterbaits intended for bass. Last year clients caught many upper 20-inch 'eyes throwing a Trap over the top of submergent vegetation.
On the Mississippi — and all other rivers and flowages — the predator/prey relationship is the biggest key in catching fish. With rising water, walleyes follow their prey to quieter sloughs and backwaters with little current. When water levels recede, baitfish head back downstream toward greater flow, with walleyes in hot pursuit.
For years this giant lake has been regarded as Wisconsin's premier "walleye factory." Last year, fishing was better than most folks had ever seen for both numbers and for bigger fish, with every indication that walleye fishing will be even better there in 2018.
There are essentially two high-percentage presentations for success on Winnebago walleyes: Trolling or anchoring up on one of many humps or weed edges and pitching a 1/8-ounce jig with one rod while watching slip-bobbers baited with leeches on two other lines.
Wind is a major factor in walleye location and activity on Winnebago. Trolling a mudline caused by wind on the windward side of the lake with No. 5 Berkley Flicker Shads, Salmo Hornets or spinner rigs is almost a surefire path to multiple hookups — once you find the fish.
There is much more to trolling than simply dragging baits behind the boat. Planer boards are a must, with lures pegged 15 to 40 feet behind the planer boards. Trolling speed and good electronics are major keys to success.
A Lakemaster or Navionics chip will reveal precise location and contours for anchoring up, and provide the opportunity for creating a trail map that can be replicated on subsequent trolling passes.
A long anchor rope or trolling motor with a "spot lock" feature is part of the fish-catching equation when anchoring up on a hump or weed patch. Wind is a good thing on Lake Winnebago. When there is a good "walleye chop" on this almost always wind-blown lake, you can find walleyes in less than 2 feet of water (between the swells).
The best way to hook up is with an orange/chartreuse 1/8-ounce short-shank jighead tipped with a half nightcrawler — with a size 8 treble hook tied on a 3-inch dropper line.
Hungry drum are almost always occupying the same niche as walleyes on Winnebago. These "sheepshead" are notorious bait thieves. The hookup ratio is typically 5 drum to 1 walleye. When the bite is on, the action can be almost a fish on every cast. There are worse scenarios in life than fighting 30 fish in an hour to catch a five-walleye limit.
This lazy wing of Lake Michigan is firmly established as one of the best trophy walleye fisheries in North America. Right now, double-digit walleyes are spawning in multiple tributaries on both sides of the bay.
Like other waters mentioned so far, there is no closed season on Green Bay. Between now and the opener, walleyes in all tributaries will slide back downstream to the first main-lake reefs and humps they encounter.
This is almost exclusively a stickbait/planer-board bite. The new Rapala Deep Scatter Rap in either chrome/blue or fire tiger is a killer lure. Call the taxidermist to make an appointment, then go troll the 12- to 14-foot contour from Oconto to Peshtigo Point.
- Quick Tip: Cover humps in the summer with crankbaits. The first bait runs halfway between the surface and the top of the structure. The second splits that distance, and the third ticks the crown. Work the base of the structure with the deepest runner of the lot before leaving.
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This 10,400-acre southern Wisconsin flowage is another fishery without seasonal restrictions. Koshkonong is a nearly structureless, extremely shallow, stained water basin in which the dominant year-class of walleyes is now of legal length.
Troll the 5-foot contour at 2.2 to 2.7 mph with size 5 Flicker Shads pegged 15 feet behind planer boards, especially along this flowage's eastern basin right now.
THE MADISON CHAIN
Fishing pressure on these natural lakes around the capitol dome has always been heavy. In recent years, it has been extreme, especially on the weekends. Your best bet for hooking up comes after the sun goes down, casting Rat-L-Traps and size 13 Rapalas over gravel bottom along the 4- to 8-foot contour — like the ones just north of Babcock Park on Lake Waubesa, and out from the Tenney Park locks a little farther up the chain.
The toughest part of catching walleyes in Lac La Belle or Pine Lake is finding enough open space between boats to make a long cast with a light jig. Even with astonishing pressure, both of those urban lakes continue to produce extremely good walleye fishing,
Lac La Belle is essentially a catch-and-release lake, with a one-fish, 28-inch minimum bag limit in place. A three-fish, 18-inch minimum is in place on Pine Lake, with an excellent chance of catching dinner, especially when fishing leeches under slip-bobbers at dawn and dusk.
From any point in Wisconsin, you're never more than an hour's drive away from worthwhile walleye water. Wisconsin has been blessed with such abundant natural resources that we have attracted fishing tourists from neighboring states for generations.
Two-thirds of the state's population lives in the southern third of the state. A Northwoods cabin on a quiet lake is a universal dream. Many have realized that dream and will make the traditional opening weekend trek north to open up the cabin and kick off another fishing year.
The truth is, it has been decades since any lake in northern Wisconsin has sustained a walleye population with either size or numbers of fish that compares with the action found on waters mentioned thus far in this article — most of which are not subject to seasonal restrictions.
There are several reasons why that is an inconvenient truth. Some folks are quick to blame Native American treaty issues. The 15,000-acre Chippewa Flowage clearly refutes that contention. The "Chip" has been a walleye destination since it was impounded back in 1923 — and pounded by anglers once word of good fishing leaked out.
Until a couple of years ago, the Chip was regarded as a "cigar factory" when it comes to walleyes. But intensive stocking and smart management by the Lac Courte Oreilles band and the DNR have created a fishery that is now better than it's ever been. Like almost every other top walleye fishery in Wisconsin, the Chip is not subject to seasonal restrictions.
Northern waters, like Long Lake near Spooner, and boundary lakes like Namekagon, are traditional walleye producers. But once fishing gets good, we show up and pound it back down within a year.
Wisconsin has several climatic zones, gaining a good week on spring as you travel south latitudinally. Fishing will be good north of highway 10 by June 1 — in waters where "undiscovered" walleyes swim.
But for at least another month popular southern Wisconsin lakes like Delavan, Geneva and Big Green will offer better walleye action. Smaller lakes like Yellowstone and Redstone are both worth a look. Both of those waters hold a few eye-popping walleyes. Better go get yours soon, because now the word is out.
I believe opening day is an anachronistic concept. There is no need for a closed season with the precise science of fisheries management we have today.
One thing is for sure: Any time you catch a walleye, you hold the future of fishing in your hands.