The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is a daily topic in cafes and taverns across this state. We all have opinions about ways they could do a better job of managing natural resources, often from a personal perspective that places our favorite fish or hunting pursuit above everything else in nature’s grand design.
Truth is, our DNR does amazing work with an impossible task. Wisconsin is not two farm ponds and a small woodlot. We have two Great Lakes, rivers great and small, flowages, impoundments and more lakes than you can fish effectively in a lifetime.
Choosing just three dozen waters when they’re likely to be at their very best presents a similar challenge. We’re hopeful you’ll find it easy to fault and ridicule our choices. The luxury of so many angling options close to home is not common in many of these United States.
We also have the Packers.
Life in the Land of Cheese may not be perfect, but we certainly have more than our share of the good life. Following are some promising angling opportunities just down the road from you in the great state of Wisconsin.
The old river channel is a major key to fish location in this sprawling flowage of the hard-working Wisconsin River. Flats and humps just off the channel draw many species year ’round.
Probably most of the ’eyes you’ll ice on any given day will be fat 3- to 7-pounders, which fall within the protected slot limit and must be released. The good news is there are both tremendous numbers of eater-sized walleyes and an honest shot at a 10-pound-plus trophy swimming in the system now.
Don’t be surprised if tip-ups, tip-downs and jigging attempts intended for walleyes trigger other species. Petenwell is home to a solid population of honest slab crappies, stubborn catfish, white bass, muskies and sturgeon that are liable to find your hook on any given winter day.
Most who fish with guide Justin Kohn think he’s weaving a fish tale when he talks about “The General,” a 6-foot sturgeon that shows up about every third time Kohn sets up on a certain hump. Truth is, the fish is bigger than that. Kohn’s phone number is (920) 229-3494.
Lake Onalaska Panfish
This shallow flowage on the north side of La Crosse has one of the most consistent winter panfish bites of any water in the southern half of the state. Catching a limit of bluegills in a couple of hours is seldom a problem. If you’re looking for quality ’gills, jumbo perch or respectable crappies you may have to fish a little longer.
Most winter anglers drive out on the ice from one of several points on the lake. Perhaps the best access is out from the yacht club on the north end of French Island. By mid-February, many spots have less than 3 feet of water under the thick ice, with dredge holes in certain areas considerably deeper.
The lake around Red Sails holds plenty of pike, some of substantial dimension. A combination of tip-ups rigged for northerns and jig sticks set up for panfish are a recipe for getting young anglers forever hooked on winter fishing.
Fox River At DePere
There simply is no better place or time than the Fox River between Voyageur Park and the DePere dam in the spring for catching a wallhanger walleye in the state of Wisconsin.
This is no secret in our fishing-crazy state. It is almost possible to walk from boat to boat and cross the river there on any weekend in March and April, with occupants of almost every watercraft holding an honest shot at a trophy fish.
Those who are frequent visitors there know there are several tricks to tangling with both more and bigger walleyes. They are the ones who fish only during the week and who come prepared to fish all night long.
You won’t see these folks using fire-tiger Husky Jerk Rapalas and ThunderSticks. They know all it takes to hook up is a 1/4-ounce orange fluorescent jighead with a 4-inch chartreuse twistertail fished in a steady cast-and-retrieve.
If these guys talk at all, they might tell you they are “crankbait fishing.” A stiff but sensitive rod and baitcaster spooled with 50-pound super-braid line is no detriment to fooling fish in the dark, and a snag always holds the potential for retrieving the aforementioned lures that others have lost. My personal best night yielded nine lures and three walleyes over 28 inches, which were released.
Closed season on inland lakes and the itch to get out in the boat fishing brings a flotilla of boats and anglers to several major Wisconsin rivers in April. It is common to see more than 100 boats within a mile below every lock-and-dam system on Old Man River at this time of year.
The average peak of spawning activity is within a week of April 20 every year, according to DNR fisheries personnel. True, thousands of walleyes move upstream to within a mile of the dam to spawn every year. But thousands more drop their eggs several miles downstream — and the daily limit on walleyes and saugers is an aggregate bag of just six fish.
Mid-April is a good time to fish at night below a Mississippi River dam. During daylight hours from ice-out in early March until it’s time to get serious about turkey hunting, you’ll see my Lund several miles below a dam on this water at least four days a week.
Forty years of fishing this river has revealed the wisdom of probing steep dropoffs and breaklines for pre-spawn fish. Favorite weapons are a floating jighead with a minnow on a three-way rig, hair jigs, especially purple or green-jigheads with plastic like a 4-inch ringworm and an assortment of blade baits and jigging spoons.
The most consistent key to success is finding the active depth on any given day. Catch a couple of decent fish at 19 feet in one spot and you’ll likely find some at the same depth with similar habitat parameters elsewhere.
For best Wisconsin fishing options for May, June, July and August can be found on page two