Get a jump on the hot Wisconsin fishing that is soon to arrive with these great places.
By Dave Zeug
Winter-weary anglers yearning to jump-start the open-water season in Wisconsin will find a shopping list of opportunities from Bayfield to Bayside.
Although it’s March, lake trout fishing through the ice on Lake Superior is still popular early in the month, but that ends as the ice deteriorates. Shallow-water fishing starts to heat up closer to shore in front of the tributaries of the big lake’s trout streams running into Chequamegon Bay near Ashland and Washburn. Trout and salmon along with whitefish and herring are targeted there.
Anglers do need to keep in mind how unforgiving Lake Superior can be, but any of the local sports shops can give updates on the current condition of the lake’s ice.
As soon as the ice leaves the lake, trolling for trout and salmon begins off the Bayfield and Washburn boat landings. Exceptional fishing can be had during this nearshore fishery in the early open-water season, something veteran anglers eagerly await each year.
The last Saturday in March also marks the traditional end of winter for steelhead addicts when the early trout season on the big lake’s tributaries opens. The infamous Brule River leads the list of destinations.
The Brule is open from its mouth at Lake Superior upstream to State Highway 2 in the village of Brule. The condition of the river on that magical opening morning is dependent on what the past winter was like. If it was a rough one, often there’s still ice covering the river from the mouth upstream to Highway 13, or even farther.
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If that’s the case, the open-water sections are the only options for anglers, but most years there’s plenty all the way to the river’s mouth. Look for a mix of fresh-run steelhead and fall-run rainbows that have wintered over in the river.
Staging areas for the steelhead spawning sites are found below County Highway FF and near Coop Park, just north of the town of Brule. German browns also will be making their way back to the lake after spending the winter in the river’s bigger pools. These fall-run migrants from Lake Superior traditionally follow the river’s retreating ice on the way back to the lake and fantastic fishing can be had as they start to fatten up after a long, dormant winter.
Farther east, Bayfield County streams are another destination for steelhead fishermen. The Flag, Cranberry and Sioux are prime rivers along with the clear waters of Pikes Creek between Washburn and Bayfield. In nearby Ashland County, the White, Marengo and Brunsweiller rivers also provide fishing opportunities for wild lake-run trout this time of year.
By May, shore casting for walleyes and northern pike becomes popular along the Ashland side of Chequamegon Bay and near the coal docks in Washburn. Don’t forget about the great walleye action on the St. Louis River near Superior. The river has rebounded nicely from its days of contaminated water decades ago.
The inland catch-and-release trout season begins on the first Saturday in January and runs until the Friday before the first Saturday in May when the regular season begins. Southwest Wisconsin is the home of our driftless counties — where the ice age wasn’t a factor — such as LaCrosse, Richland and Vernon, among others. These counties host hundreds of miles of trout streams. Anglers aren’t required to use barbless hooks, but only artificial flies and lures are legal to use during this season.
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Iowa County’s Gordon Creek is one of the top spots. The stream has an estimated 330 brown trout per acre and fish over 20 inches, so the chances to play with a trophy are there. Grant County is another, with nearly 300 adult trout per acre in Borah Creek, Rogers Creek and the Big and Little Grant Rivers among others. According to WDNR fisheries biologist Gene Van Dyke, “The entire Coulee Region should provide absolutely outstanding trout fishing for the foreseeable future.”
Farther inland, with the game fish season closed, anglers are taking advantage of late-ice panfish action. Crappies and bluegills are the primary targets, but some lakes offer good perch fishing too. Many favor crappie minnows and wax worms, but the new line of plastics works well, especially as the ice deteriorates.
In northwest Wisconsin, the 1,130-acre Spooner Lake near the city it’s named after, is a last-ice and first-open-water hotspot for panfish. There are two boat landings on the lake, one on the west end and another on the east end near the golf course. Being a shallow lake, it becomes ice free much sooner than other big lakes in the area and offers a great early season bite. Lately, the size structure of the bluegills has been impressive and bigger than average. The crappies run a bit smaller, and the perch, while not abundant, grow to decent sizes.
Dilly Lake near Trego is another good panfish location, as is Lipsie Lake, a few miles to the west. But some of the best panfish action comes on Long Lake. This 3,378-acre lake, located between Spooner and Rice Lake, hosts a variety of game fish and panfish. The upper end of the lake near the narrows is a traditional panfish hotspot. The oxygenated spring runoff water enters the lake and recharges it there, and the panfish follow.
Walleyes become the preferred fish after the general season opens, with a good post-spawn bite occurring in shallow water. Several boat landings are scattered around the lake and offer good access.
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A bit farther south near Chetek lies the Chetek Chain of Lakes. The chain is made up of Chetek, Prairie, Pokegama, Ojaski, Moose Ear, and Ten Mile lakes. The lakes vary in size and depth, but 1,545-acre Prairie Lake, the largest lake of the chain, and 494-acre Pokegama Lake are considered good bets for walleyes and panfish. Both lakes have easy access points. Chetek and Prairie lakes also are known for their walleye fishery. Besides its abundant supply of panfish, this fertile chain of lakes is known for its vibrant northern pike and bass fisheries.
A sleeper lake in Barron County is Bear Lake near the Washburn County line between Shell Lake and Rice Lake. This 1,348-acre lake is known for its bluegills and crappies, with some big northerns coming out of the lake’s west end near the wild rice beds. As in most of the lakes in the area, there’s also a vibrant largemouth bass fishery.
Northeast of Bear Lake near Rhinelander is the well-known Rainbow Flowage, and farther north in Iron County, the Turtle Flambeau Flowage. At nearly 13,000 acres, the Turtle Flambeau, near Park Falls and Mercer, is big water with some submerged hazards, but those dark waters produce fish. Panfish are common throughout the year but later in May when the game fish season opens, walleyes become the primary target.
Anglers who want to experience a remote, almost Canadian-type setting will do well fishing there, where camping options are available too. Northern pike are present, along with muskies, and both compliment the walleye population. Unlike most lakes in the north, these lakes don’t support as large a largemouth bass population as some other waters, but smallmouth bass fill that niche.
Running along the western edge of Wisconsin, the Mississippi River, home of more than 119 species of fish, is another early angling destination. The river’s Pool 7 near La Crosse is a good example of that. Although there is a continuous open season there, early spring fishing, often in March or even before if conditions allow it, are known to produce great walleye and sauger action. Lake Onalaska, an 8,400-acre section of the Mississippi River with seven boat landings offers a variety of fishing opportunities. Most of the walleye fishing is done along the edge of the strongest current where it’s easier for walleyes to hold and feed.
As the water warms, panfish and perch can be found in the shallows as they stage for spawning. Warming waters found in the backwater bays are magnets for northern pike, and every year stories of big pike are heard.
Farther downstream in Crawford and La Crosse counties, anglers work the waters of Pool 8 where anglers gather near Genoa and La Crosse. As in its neighbor to the north, Pool 8 warms early in the year and hosts fish such as largemouth bass and panfish gathering for the upcoming spawning cycle. Wing dams near the main channel also are fish magnets, especially on the backsides of them. Big smallmouth bass, some pushing 20 inches and better, are found around these wing dams.
Besides all the lakes in Wisconsin, there are miles of good, lightly fished rivers for those wanting a different angling experience.
In the northwest corner of the state, the Namekagon, upper St. Croix and Totagatic rivers provide wild and scenic float trips. These rivers make up the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, offering more than 200 miles of pristine river systems and endless fishing opportunities.
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One of the most common species anglers will encounter on a float trip on any of the three rivers is the smallmouth bass. With the spring runoff, these bronzebacks move upstream from the lower, deeper downstream stretches of the St. Croix to spend the summer in the shallower water. Days of catching double-digit smallmouths can be expected, and a few walleyes usually get caught as well. Don’t be surprised if you tangle with a muskie in the over-40-inch range, and if you hook a sturgeon, you won’t be the first.
On the far eastern side of the state, Lake Michigan and its tributaries provide endless opportunities. Unlike some of the other waters mentioned, this fishery is near population centers, but there’s room for all.
March and April are prime times to catch steelhead in the lake’s tributaries, with the spawning run occurring then. Anglers can catch coho salmon and staging trout from shore this time of year, too. The Jones Island area near Milwaukee always produces good catches of trout and salmon as do the Racine Harbor and Cupertino Pier in Milwaukee. The best part of Lake Michigan and its tributaries is the continuous fishing season they offer, and so the season begins whenever you’re willing to brave whatever the weather throws at you.