Whatever conditions you prefer for Wisconsin walleyes, we’ll tell you where and how.
By Dan Small
Ask several avid walleye anglers to describe the ideal walleye lake, and chances are good you’ll get some very different answers. So different, in fact, that you might wonder if these guys are talking about the same fish.
“Shallow and weedy, with stained water and lots of wood,” one might say. “Deep and clear, with sharp dropoffs, rock humps and gravel shorelines,” says another. “Flowage! Gotta be a flowage,” others will insist. “Natural lakes are best,” comes another offer.
Fact is, walleyes are adaptive, and so you’ll find them in a wide variety of habitats, from rivers and flowages to natural lakes; from shallow water to deep; from sand and gravel bottoms to weeds and mud; and in both dark and clear waters. Walleye behavior varies depending on the water type, so to catch them consistently, you’ll need to change your tactics according to where you’re fishing.
THE ’EYES HAVE IT
The most noticeable thing about a walleye is its large, bulbous eyes. Like the eyes of many mammalian carnivores, the eye of a walleye has a layer of tissue behind the retina –– the tapetum lucidum (literally “bright tapestry” in Latin) –– that reflects light back through the retina. This is what causes the eyes of cats and dogs to appear to shine when hit by a bright light at night. Because of the reflective layer, walleyes can see well in low-light conditions, which gives them an advantage over prey at night, but also in deep, turbid or choppy water.
In clear lakes, walleyes typically hold in deep water or thick weeds during daylight hours and move into shallow water to feed at night. Nighttime fishing is most productive, but walleyes can be caught during the day. Most walleye tournaments are held during daylight hours, and the top pros have no trouble catching fish, regardless of the time of day, water clarity or weather conditions. Natural lure colors are often more productive than gaudy colors.
In turbid or stained water, walleyes typically can be found in very shallow areas and tend to remain active during the day. They feed more opportunistically and so can sometimes be caught more easily. Walleyes can see well, but not as far as in clear water, and so slow, deliberate presentations often work best there. Bright colors, such as chartreuse, pink, orange and white, are good choices.
Let’s look at three different lake types –– dark and shallow, deep and clear, and a combination of the two –– and see how some top guides catch walleyes under different conditions.
DARK WATER: TURTLE-FLAMBEAU FLOWAGE
At 14,000 acres, the Turtle-Flambeau flowage is bigger than most, but like other northern Wisconsin flowages, its water is the color of strong iced tea, with visibility limited to 4 or 5 feet. Walleyes have not been stocked there since 1994, but they remain abundant, thanks to good natural reproduction. Because of the dark water, walleyes remain active regardless of the time of day.
“Some of my best fishing has come at high noon on sunny, 85-degree summer days,” says guide Mike “Doc” Sabec.
Wherever you find weeds or wood, you’ll find walleyes here, Sabec says, because both hold baitfish and crayfish. Top spots are the flowage’s numerous wood flats in 10 to 12 feet of water. Many of these are not marked on maps, so you’ll have to search for them and then mark the waypoints as you find them. Sabec likes to tip a 1/8-ounce swimming jig with a minnow and slow-walk it through a wood tangle, letting it sit on bottom briefly after it comes off a log.
Isolated vertical stickups and “leaners” also are worth fishing, but these require a special technique.
“Work your jig in a circle around a visible stump,” Sabec says. “Walleyes lie right on bottom next to these trees. If there are several fish, they’ll all be facing the same direction. If you just make one cast, you might be behind them and never know it.”
Sabec moves around a lot, hopping from one stickup or stump flat to another, rather than sit in one spot and jig vertically. He also works the old river channels in 15 to 20 feet of water, especially if there is wood on the edge of the channel.
If the water is flat calm, walleyes lie tight to structure and you have to “hit them on the nose,” Sabec says. On breezy days, he fishes the windward side of points, rocks, logjams and other structure.
“I like at least a 15 mph wind,” he says. “It really stirs things up and gets walleyes feeding.”
For variety, Sabec sometimes trolls small crankbaits over deeper wood flats with moderate success. Flicker Shads and other noisy crankbaits are effective, especially those with some orange in the color pattern, as this imitates a crayfish.
“I don’t know if it’s the color, the noise or the vibration that triggers strikes,” Sabec says. “But sometimes aggressive walleyes will come out of the wood to hit them.”
There are good public landings at the county park on Highway FF, at the end of Fisherman’s Landing Road off Popko Circle, and at Schenebeck’s Point on Flowage Road off Highway 182. Contact: Mike “Doc” Sabec, docsguideservice.com, 715-476-2305.
These same tactics will work on most dark-water lakes and flowages. Top picks include: Gile Flowage, in northern Iron County; Chippewa Flowage, in Sawyer County; Lake DuBay, on the Wisconsin River in Marathon and Portage counties; Petenwell and Castle Rock flowages, on the Wisconsin River in Adams and Juneau counties; and High Falls Flowage, on the Peshtigo River in Marinette County.
Sidebar: Walleyes for Tomorrow
Founded in 1991, Walleyes for Tomorrow is a project-oriented organization whose goal is to increase the walleye populations in waters where habitat projects are undertaken. In addition to constructing and enhancing spawning habitat, WFT volunteers operate portable fish hatcheries, or so-called “Walleye Wagons,” on lakes throughout Wisconsin. Walleye fry produced in these hatcheries are released into the lakes where the eggs were gathered. To date, WFT hatcheries have produced some 85 million walleye fry at no cost to the state. For information, visit http://walleyesfortomorrow.org.
CLEAR WATER: GENEVA LAKE
A natural lake, Geneva is the second-deepest in the state, and at 5,400 acres, it holds a lot of water. Clear water. Transparent water. On a calm day you can see bottom in 20 feet or more. Structure abounds in the form of dropoffs, deep weeds, and humps.
The lake’s walleye fishery has really taken off in recent years, thanks to efforts by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and Walleyes for Tomorrow (WFT). Last year alone, the DNR stocked 112,000 extended-growth walleye fingerlings in the lake. Over the past five years, WFT volunteers have hatched and stocked some 13 million walleye fry. Anglers are now catching lots of small walleyes, a good indication the stocking programs are working.
Historically, the best walleye action has come at night, when walleyes move up out of deep water onto 14-foot flats to feed. Anglers do well trolling stickbaits and small, tight-wobbling crankbaits at night on these flats. Top spots include Geneva Bay, Williams Bay, along the south shore, and off Fontana. Natural colors that imitate forage species seem to work best, as walleyes have lots of time to size up a bait. Blue/silver and black/silver match emerald shiners pretty closely, and gold or perch-scale patterns are always good choices. For some reason, purple is another hot color. Some anglers go so far as to paint eyes on their baits with fluorescent paint and activate the glow with a portable flash.
The night bite is predictable, but over the past few years, guide Jim Tostrud, of Wildlife Visions Guide Service, has found he can catch walleyes just as well during daylight hours. One strategy that works is to fish live chubs on bottom along the first big break, where the bottom drops from 25 to 40 feet.
Tostrud also takes daytime walleyes by slow-trolling plastics along the break. The trick, he says, is to longline the jigs and move slowly, marking waypoints where you catch fish and returning to those spots on the next pass.
“I discovered this while trolling for crappies,” Tostrud says. “I tandem rig two jigs tipped with plastic grub tails, one behind the other, and troll them slowly with my electric motor. I’ve taken everything from sunfish to pike this way.”
There are public landings in Lake Geneva, Williams Bay and the town of Linn. Parking is limited at these landings, so get there early to get a spot. Contact: Jim Tostrud, wildlifevisions.net, 262-496-5178.
There are a number of clearwater lakes with good populations of walleyes where these methods will work. Among them are: Green Lake, in Green Lake County; Grindstone and Lac Courte Oreilles lakes, in Sawyer County; and Mendota, in Dane County.
CLEAR AND DARK WATER: GREEN BAY
The Bay of Green Bay offers the yin and yang of Wisconsin walleye fishing. The lower bay, from Dycksville south to the city of Green Bay, is shallow and often murky. From Sturgeon Bay north, the bay is deep and clear. As you might expect, walleyes behave differently in these two sections.
Daytime trolling can be productive in the lower bay, and a number of guides offer trips. DIY anglers should not try to bite off too much. Get to know one area well, rather than trying to fish the entire bay. From Dycksville, you can troll up the east shore or head south or across the bay and troll weed edges where you find them. Stickbaits and crawler harnesses will take walleyes. Bright colors are the rule.
In the Sturgeon Bay area, you’ll find walleyes in Sawyer Harbor and around Sherwood Point. Larson’s Reef, which runs from Snake Island northeast toward the Sherwood Point light, is a traditional walleye hotspot. This is a series of rock humps that rise out of 50 to 60 feet of water. Some humps top out within a few feet of the surface. Walleyes hold in the deeper troughs during the day and move up onto the humps during low-light conditions. Jig the deep holes by day and troll crankbaits over structure by night.
Most folks who fish the bay run larger boats and pull trolling boards, which spreads out your lines and lets you cover a broader area. You can run braided line, fluorocarbon or mono behind boards in shallow water, but some anglers use lead-core line with a mono or fluorocarbon leader to get down in deeper water. Big stickbaits, like Husky Jerks, are a good choice. Colors vary, but purple has become popular in recent years.
I have fished the Sherwood Point area with several guides, including Capt. Dale Stroschein, who lives right on the bay and knows it as well as anyone. Stroschein likes to troll the contours at night for big fish, but he trolls by day, too, when the sky is overcast and there’s a chop on the water.
When the water is calm, Stroschein picks up some nice walleyes by “snap-jigging” over shallow water by day. If he marks or catches fish while trolling, he’ll often stop and jig with a 3/8-ounce jighead tipped with a plastic tail. In dirty water, he’ll switch to blade baits because walleyes can key in on the vibration.
There are good public landings in Green Bay, Dycksville, Sand Bay and Sturgeon Bay.
The tactics outlined here offer a good starting point for different water types, but don’t assume you can follow them religiously and always catch fish. To catch walleyes, you first have to find them, so it pays to keep moving until you mark fish, and then prospect with different methods until you start catching them.
Walleyes are schooling fish so when you catch one, there will often be another in the same spot. Keep track of where you catch them, and you’ll be well on your way to some of the best eating our lakes can provide.