In Wisconsin a game code violation will almost always result in a ticket from the warden. That is especially true if the violator is a licensed guide and U.S. Coast Guard certified merchant mariner.
March Madness is no excuse for failure to carry a throwable PFD in the boat. But when coupled with honesty and certain circumstances, this temporary insanity plea might get you off with a warning.
Several years ago the warden pulled up to the ramp as I was securing my boat for the drive home on the first warm day in March. He checked my fishing license and livewell, taking note that I was still wearing my PFD. He also took note of four other wearable PFDs, which were readily accessible in the boat — ample flotation for somebody boating solo.
“Where is your throwable PFD?” he asked. My jaw dropped. “In my ice-fishing tent,” I answered. “With the dilemma of choosing between sitting on the bucket or in the boat March Madness got the better of me.”
He laughed when handing me the warning citation. “Looks like you have some gear issues, too. Most anglers use long rods instead of tip-ups when fishing from a boat.”
Game fish season may be closed on most inland waters after March 1, but on most major rivers and select other waters you can chase walleyes and other game fish species year ’round. On the Mississippi River where I guide there is often a small window in March when you can catch fish from the boat and on the ice at the same time.
Pool 9 has several running sloughs where deep, open-water wintering areas for saugers and walleyes are adjacent to shallow backwater flats where pike and bass cruise beneath the ice.
Wisconsin law allows an angler to use three lines. Setting two “boards” baited with big shiners for pike while dragging a hair jig for saugers is like having your birthday fall on Christmas day.
That wasn’t possible last spring, when the late ice period morphed into an entirely open-water bite in about three days. The year before that we still had winter weather in April, and some folks were actually mulling the prospects of setting tip-ups when opening of the general fishing season arrived on the first Saturday in May.
Most years March weather in Wisconsin falls somewhere between those two extremes. Savvy anglers walk softly and carry a big spud. They also carry a bag of sand in the truck to pull out of an icy boat ramp, and they purchase an extra throwable PFD that never leaves the boat unless needed to serve its purpose.
Here is our annual look at some of Wisconsin’s best waters for catching fish that’ll compliment the green and gold colors of your wool Packers hat.
The flotilla of boats fishing Pool 4 at Red Wing is second only to fleet operations on the Fox River at DePere in the spring. Tailwaters below the dam remain open all winter long, with both size and numbers of walleyes and saugers to tempt anglers launching out of Evert’s Resort.
Open-water access can be as early as mid-February on river pools downstream, but it may be mid-March before anglers are assured they can get the boat in without first punching a hole for it.
Last year folks chased walleyes on the hard water below dams at Dresbach, Genoa and Lynxville until about the first of March. Some used long rods and 1/2- to 5/8-ounce hair jigs tipped with minnows — the preferred weapon when fishing from boats. Other anglers tiptoed out on the ice with short rods, chrome/blue jigging Rapalas and Northland Mimic Minnows.
Once boat ramps open up, those same spots are fishermen magnets, with a fair population of overwintering fish present. However, most quality fish are cruising in similar deep-water haunts several miles downstream.
The easiest overwinter holes to locate are on outside bends of the main river channel where fish typically hold in 25 to 45 feet of water. Side channels and running sloughs also hold fish in similar habitats through March.
One of the best is Hurricane Chute across the river and slightly downstream from the Guttenberg boat launch on Pool 11. Most anglers slide through the Chute on a controlled drift with heavy hair jigs baited with a minnow and trailing a stinger hook.
I believe stingers catch more snags than fish. I also believe minnows are greatly overrated, unless a major cold front is in place. If you must use minnows, try threading the hook in through the mouth and out behind the dorsal fin. You’ll catch just as many fish and lose fewer jigs.
There is a “herd mentality” among Wisconsin anglers chasing walleyes on the Mississippi and other rivers in the spring, with most of the fleet intent on playing “bumper boats” within a half-mile of the nearest dam.
The Mississippi’s current is truly a force of nature. Walleyes know the futility of fighting such a force, wisely skulking away to slack water near faster water. Those who get away from the crowds and fish the fish instead of fishing with other fishermen typically find more consistent success.
The best spring walleye tool on the Mississippi River is a sensitive but stout graphite rod, 10-pound no-stretch superline and a quality hair jig like the Northland Buckshot Jig.
This medium-sized, south-central Wisconsin River has evolved into a tremendous walleye and sauger factory, thanks to decades of hard work by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources fisheries manager Don Bush.
Ten-thousand-acre Lake Koshkonong is ground zero in this fishery, with walleyes cruising under the ice where there is at least 5 feet of water in this shallow, faceless basin until midmonth.
Anglers line the banks below the dam at Indianford directly downstream from the lake long before the ice goes out, with most of them casting 1/4-ounce jigheads tipped with a minnow.
The mile of river along Blackhawk Island where the Rock enters Koshkonong’s east end is a popular spot as soon as boat access at the DNR ramp and several private ramps is possible.
Most anglers fishing this stretch in the spring either vertical jig or pitch jigs tipped with plastics from mid-channel towards the shore. Once Koshkonong opens up, trolling is a popular presentation on the lake. However, trolling is illegal on the river for wha
t the DNR calls “social reasons.”
The shoreline in Fort Atkinson and tailwaters of the Jefferson dam above Lake Koshkonong offer good options for folks fishing from shore. Two tributaries of the Rock River — the Bark and Crawfish Rivers — have limited shoreline fishing opportunities, but both hold an amazing population of walleyes when fish are making their annual spawning migration the last week of March.