2017 Wisconsin Fishing Forecast
January 26, 2017
Few old folks look back on their lives and think, "I wish I would have worked more." That sentiment was the furthest thing from my mind when I started doing the annual fishing calendar for this outdoor magazine more than 20 years ago.
Back then I was still working as a professional firefighter for the City of Beloit and could only get out on the water about 120 days a year, most of the time either guiding or looking for story ideas for this magazine.
In 2015 I got out on the water (or ice) 179 times, and am on track for a similar number as my benevolent editor is badgering me to complete this assignment.
This work gets in the way of my other work — fishing. There are a few trips mentioned in this article I didn't get to last year. Again, my editor has convinced me to work even harder in the Badger State in 2017, but with a St. Croix Legend Extreme jig stick instead of a pen.
Don't be surprised if you see an old GMC work truck parked at the launch when you show up to check out one of these hotspots. Cheeseheads face the dilemma of being blessed with so much good water and so little time to do what's really important in life.
JANUARY - Petenwell Crappies
It isn't uncommon to ice a half-dozen species when fishing tip-downs near the old river channel of this Wisconsin River flowage from early January until late February when current makes the ice there less safe.
Crappies attack from below so fishing at least 18 inches off the bottom when seeking them is always a good idea. When fishing "Pete" or Castle Rock flowage just downstream, targeting the area 18 to 24 inches above the bottom is a solid strategy during the hardwater period.
Wisconsin rules allow three lines per angler. Set two tip-downs baited with rosey reds and jig a Northland Puppet Minnow or Buckshot Rattle Spoon on the third line. You might want to use an 8-inch auger — snaking an honest 14-inch crappie through a smaller hole can be challenging.
FEBRUARY - Lake Onalaska Panfish
The mid-winter period usually means slow fishing with brief windows of activity all across the state. This situation holds true on backwaters of the Mississippi River too, but fish tend to shake off the winter blues a little earlier along the Miss than they do on inland lakes.
I work as a fulltime fishing guide there, primarily on Pool 9. When the bite gets tough on my home ice, there are strong possibilities of catching at least a few fish an hour north on Lake Onalaska — more often than not, a bucketful.
Onalaska essentially is a big, shallow, weed-choked basin. The key is fishing weed edges and pockets of open water close to the weeds, setting tip-downs on two lines and hole-hopping with a small jig on a 48-inch pole while waiting for a flag to pop.
Perch are a favorite target, but crappies and 'gills are typically part of the daily bag. Don't be surprised if a hefty largemouth or mongo pike shows up and breaks both your line and your heart.
MARCH - Trempeleau Walleyes
A fleet of boats blankets the water below the Mississippi River dam at Red Wing almost all winter long, as the River remains fairly open there due to close proximity to a power plant.
Dam tailwaters and boat launch access just downstream at Trempeleau often are free of ice, too, because of the river's course — with only a fraction of the boat numbers found at Red Wing.
For my nickel, Capt. Lee Fluekiger is the best walleye hook on this pool — although his son, Capt. Jarrad Fluekiger often puts on a clinic for both of us, dragging a B-Fish-N tackle Moxie Tail on a light jig with the trolling motor.
Capt. Lee spends most of his time wielding the landing net when Jarrad is in the boat. One of these days Jarrad may discover why Lee is often smiling. Consistent success "pulling" for walleyes on the Mississippi requires mastery of a half-dozen variables. Lee smiles because Jarrad paid attention to what is truly important in life when he was growing up.
APRIL - Mississippi River Saugers
Walleyes typically spawn April 15-20 on the Mississippi. Saugers, the walleye's smaller kin, have already completed that task and slapped on the feedbag in an aggressive bite several miles below the lock-and-dam systems in running sloughs with sand bottoms.
The most effective way to catch these fish is by "pulling" three-way swivel rigs in either the Dubuque or Wolf River configuration. My favorite weapon is an Echotail blade bait in Teddy Cat pattern on a foot-long dropper beneath the three-way, with a floating jighead sporting either purple hair or plastic on a dropper about twice that long tied to the other eye of the swivel.
Doubles are not uncommon. There is no minimum size limit on saugers there. On a good day you can fill a six-fish limit with 13- to 16-inch fish in about an hour.
MAY - Southern Door Smallies
Shoreline rocks and any kind of structure in shallow inlets like Sand Bay are smallmouth bass magnets around opening day when bronzebacks come out of the deeper water of Green Bay to spawn.
If you've never caught a trophy smallmouth, this is the time and place to realize your dream. Topwater lures like the ChugBug in clear pattern, No. 4 Mepps Black Fury, and copper pattern Super Vibrax in-line spinners, and plastics in the dark green melon-pepper pattern that imitates gobies — an invasive and obnoxious baitfish — are proven tools for putting a bend in your rod.
Although many prime spots are in sheltered areas, this is big water. You'll need a seaworthy boat. The water also is ultra-clear, making a light-action spinning rod spooled with 6-pound-test fluorocarbon line a solid weapon. Don't forget Polaroid sunglasses — and a camera.
JUNE - Butternut Muskies
Of all Wisconsin's tremendous muskie waters, two of my all-time favorites are lakes Kentuck, near Eagle River, and Butternut, just a couple of miles north of Park Falls. You probably won't hook into the fish of dreams on either of these lakes, but both hold tremendous potential for rocking your world with respectable 34- to 44-inch toothers, if you're on the water when conditions are favorable for muskie activity.
The water in Butternut is like coffee: clear but almost black. You rarely see a muskie coming after a lure unless the lake is glassy calm and a topwater lure is being tracked by a malevolent wake.
It's also an easy lake to fish, with distinct weed edges, transition zones and many offshore cribs. The 36-inch size limit makes this the ideal venue to achieve a Wisconsin rite of passage: catching your first legal muskie.
JULY - Lake Michigan Kings
A charter fishing trip for salmonids on Lake Michigan is on the annual "must do" list for many Wisconsin fishers. Racine, Sheboygan and Algoma have my vote as the best ports to fish out of when in pursuit of chinook salmon during the mid-summer period.
Chinooks are often called "kings" or "screamers" for good reason. Bigger chinooks are amazing combatants. These fish are not as acrobatic as big rainbow trout, stubborn as lake trout in deep water, or tasty as coho salmon on the grill — but they still provide excellent eating, provided you can whup 'em. On a typical trip, multi-species catches are common.
Most charter captains take out up to six anglers for 4 to 6 hours at a cost of less than $100/person, factoring in beverages, snacks and a decent tip for the first mate. A Great Lakes salmon stamp/license is required. Most captains have them available on the boat.
Fish cleaning is included in the cost of the trip. On a good day it takes two men and a small boy to lift the heavy live box out of the boat and drag it to the cleaning station.
With salmon going for $9 per pound, catching a king and then eating like one is a frugal possibility.
AUGUST - Lake Owen Bronzebacks
This breathtaking lake 22 miles north of Hayward boasts the best water quality of any lake in the state. Lake Owen is teeming with bass — both smallmouth and largemouth.
Largemouths are deemed invasive there. This is one of the rare places where the DNR wants anglers to remove largemouths from the lake.
Water clarity is amazing. Stealthy tactics like drop-shotting with ultralight tackle and fluorocarbon line or using small, see-through topwater lures during low-light periods are proven ways to consistently hook up.
Owen is a place where you can see trees on the bottom in 20 feet of water, twitch a topwater lure, and see big smallmouth bass rocket from the depths, go airborne and smash the lure on their way back down to cover!
SEPTEMBER - Dells Sturgeon
Wisconsin's lake sturgeon season is only a couple of weeks long, with extremely restrictive harvest regulations in place to protect these fish, which may be more than 100 years old. A free tag must be in your possession before even attempting to go after them.
There are only a handful of locations across the state where pursuit of this prehistoric monster is permitted, adding to the challenge of this very special quest. The upstream edge of deep holes beneath age-old rock formations on Wisconsin's namesake river are the best places to anchor up and challenge these fish, with action best from dusk until dawn.
Combat is not spectacular. It is grueling. Most fish that accept your invitation to tussle weigh 15 to 30 pounds. But tangling with a sturgeon weighing more than 100 pounds is possible. Are you sure you want to fight?
OCTOBER - Lake Namekagon Muskies
This sprawling North Country lake is just a stone's throw from Lake Owen, but the water there is as stained as Owen is clear. Namekagon has a solid population of muskies with the real potential of tangling with a fish in excess of 50 inches, which you aren't likely to see coming until it eats your bait.
Many of these fish are encountered accidentally by anglers in pursuit of crappies or walleyes — favored foods of these alpha predators.
Because the water is considerably stained, the midday period under a bright autumn sun is the best time to seriously pursue our designated state fish. "Pretending" to fish for crappies or walleyes with a muskie rod rigged and ready to cast a "throwback" lure when a muskie makes its presence known is a high-percentage method for hooking up.
Namekagon has several areas where mid-lake structure can hide mere inches below the surface where you wouldn't expect to find it. This structure often attracts prey species, but can wreak havoc on outboard motor lower units. Navigate with caution.
NOVEMBER - Pewaukee Muskies
Statistically, Pewaukee rates among the top Wisconsin muskie waters. One stat worthy of note is fishing pressure. Any muskie at least 30 inches long has seen the entire inventory of Rollie & Helen's muskie shop — probably more than once.
Come November the shallow east end of Pewaukee is very close to icing over. Your best chance at success is the deeper west end of the lake, dragging the biggest available suckers on a quick-strike rig close behind the boat.
Muskies will be cruising in essentially two habitats — in the shallows, probably close to any remaining green weeds, and offshore along the first deep-water breakline, especially off of points.
With winter knocking at the door it's time to leave the bucktail rod at home, break out the pool cue and throw "big wood," or a bait like the Bulldawg — a big one, not a puppy.
Casting big jerkbaits or glidebaits into the shallows while easing along the shoreline in deeper water will often cause fish to follow artificials into deeper water where that big, live sucker may prove too hard to resist.
DECEMBER - Chetek Chain Panfish
This 7-mile-long chain of lakes in Northwest Wisconsin may be the best overall place to chase big bluegills, crappies and perch in the entire state — year 'round.
Some of the best action comes during the early ice period. But there is no need to wait until next Christmas to catch a limit there. Although the bite is best early and late in the day or when the sky is threatening snow, you can expect brief flurries of fish activity all day long even when Wisconsin is under the influence of an arctic high-pressure system.
The key to consistent success is drilling holes close to woody structure that is found throughout the chain in the form of stumps, natural deadfalls and many manmade cribs.
Local anglers have the hotspots dialed in to within inches. Angling etiquette dictates setting up at least 50 feet away from somebody sitting on a bucket — but that distance from the structure will take you right out of the ball game.
Bucketeers traveling from other points in the state often can locate structure by grinding holes where others have poked a number of them in close proximity a day or two before.