There is no better time than now to plan for annual trips and check out new angling venues. Wisconsin is blessed with two Great Lakes, thousands of smaller ones and hundreds of miles of riverine habitat. Here’s a look at some prime fishing waters to hit in the Land of Cheese this year.
Images by Vic Dunaway
Mixed Bag: Petenwell Lake
Contours of the old Wisconsin River channel attract various gamefish year ’round. The subtle current prevents formation of “safe” ice near most productive areas until early January.
Wisconsin allows three lines per angler. Set two tip-ups or tip-downs about 30 feet apart, then tap a third hole for a triangle pattern. Watch for flags while working a jigging spoon.
Target the 9- to 14-foot depth contour. Set a tip-down just under the ice for crappies and pike and a tip-up about a foot off the bottom. Sonar and GPS help find small spots on big ice.
Other Options: Lake Kegonsa Bluegills: Chase bluegills along the deep weed edge in Dane County’s Lake Kegonsa. Lake Koshkonong: Look to low-light tip-up action on this 10,000-acre lake between Thiebeau and Carcajou points.
Yellow Perch: Lake Onalaska
This Mississippi River flowage north of La Crosse still produces fish when other venues across the state eventually shut down. Vehicle access is possible from several different spots. Clusters of vehicles are good clues of where to start looking, but you’ll find the most action away from the pack.
Look for any remaining green weeds, especially elodea. Poke many holes. Set tip-downs baited with rosy reds just off bottom in 5 to 7 feet, then frog around other holes with a No. 3 Puppet Minnow or perch pattern Rattle Spoon until finding active fish.
Come prepared to lose some lures. Whopping big northern pike are cruising these weeds looking for perch, too.
Other Options: Mississippi River Pool 4 Walleyes: Pull firecracker pattern Pulse-R’s on a 3/16-ounce Precision jighead at 0.3 mph upstream on medium spinning outfits with 10-pound mono for massive walleyes. Lake Michigan Brown Trout: Launch at Bender Park and catch browns all winter when winds are favorable in the warm water discharge at Oak Creek.
Walleyes: Fox River
The DePere Dam tailwaters on Fox River attracts large crowds during the walleye run the middle of next month. In the past 20 years, the Fox River ice has gone out to the point where boat access is possible on March 6 — give or take a week — almost every year.
Most walleyes running the 7-mile gauntlet past seven bridges between the dam and the mouth of Green Bay are smaller males. So what! Fifty-fish days aren’t uncommon when there are more ice floes than boats. Catching a wall-hanger is always a possibility as well.
The power plant discharge plume and downstream side of bridges hold fish in March. If possible, fish weekday afternoons. Launch at the ramp across from the power plant where the river meets the south end of Green Bay.
Vertical jig with a sensitive, six-foot graphite rod and reel spooled with superbraid line. “Vertical” means straight up and down, not at a 45-degree angle!
Other Options: Lake DuBay Crappies: Late ice is the time for slabs on Lake DuBay. Mississippi River Perch: Hit Mississippi River Pool 8 just west of Stoddard for the perch bite.
Walleyes: Mississippi River Pool 9
Mississippi River Pool 9 is one of the most diverse, challenging and rewarding riverine fisheries in Wisconsin. Mississippi ’eyes have different presentation preferences on every river pool from Red Wing to Dubuque.
One thread common to all in spring is staging at specific depth contours as waters warm, from deep winter areas to less than 6 feet at spawning time — usually within a week of April 20.
Find fish at a certain contour in one spot, and you’ll likely find ’em at the same contour where similar habitat parameters exist a mile or two downstream. On any April weekend, there might be 100 boats between the power plant boat ramp and Genoa dam less than a mile upstream. The Taylor Tackle “killer” jig is popular and quite effective. Tipping it with a minnow builds confidence for many anglers. But several other tools also work.
Other Options: Wolf River White Bass: Wade-fishing the Wolf for white bass can produce now. Pehstigo River Walleyes: Waders can be valuable when chasing ’eyes below the Peshtigo dam.
Smallmouth Bass: Green Bay
Smallmouth bass in Green Bay move from deeper water into the gin-clear shallows to spawn about mid-May, offering the perfect storm of time and place to catch your personal best brown bass in the entire state.
Stealth and fluorocarbon line are essential. Clear hologram or dark pumpkin pepper colors, which resemble gobies, work best. Drop-shotting, tube jigs, senkos, turds, topwater baits and essentially any kind of plastic critter with an assortment of tails and tentacles will catch fish. (A green pumpkin pepper Helgie is my favorite.)
This is sight-fishing personified. Dead, flat, calm water is ideal. Polaroid sunglasses are key. Don’t forget the camera and a flexible tape measure. You can only kill a 23-inch smallmouth once. A graphite mount will keep your memory fresh forever.
OTHER OPTIONS: Chetek Chain of Lakes Bluegills: The Chetek chain might hold more honest 10-inch bluegills than any lake statewide. Western Wisconsin Trout: Trout in western Wisconsin’s Coulee streams offer a great escape.
Muskies: Butternut Lake
This lake near Park Falls is loaded with mid-30- to mid-40-inch muskies, is absolutely gorgeous and easy to “read.” Small natural bucktails and topwaters work best on this lightly stained water. Don’t even take Double Cowgirls or giant Jake baits. Think classic No. 4 Mepps spinners and topwater lures like the Rat-L-Trap Stutter-Step.
Target points, rockpiles and outside weed edges — especially near the Narrows. Low-light periods and a rapidly falling barometer before a summer rain are best times to be on the water. The lake’s orientation is such that shade’s a factor beyond mid-day.
Other Options: Teal Lake Muskies: Small fluorescent baits work great here. Lake Michigan Cohos: Coho salmon are near shore and hungry in the southern basin.
Smallmouth Bass: Menominee River
Honest 20-inch smallmouths are eager biters on this root beer-colored Michigan boundary. Lure selection is easy: clear Heddon Tiny Torpedos, No. 5 Mepps Black Fury spinners and dark melon pepper Chompers Salty Sinkers rigged either Texas or wacky style on a No. 4 octopus hook.
The Menominee is a series of cookie-cutter pools punctuated by power dams, with swift, rocky water below each dam and more flowage-like water just above them. Deadfalls and outside weed edges in the flowage portions are great for the Salty Sinker. Lower ends of pools can be safely accessed with some fishing boats, but canoes or kayaks can be better options.
Primitive camping options exist on both sides of the river. The tailwaters of both the White Rapids and Chalk Hills dams offer your best shot for a trophy in a rugged environment.
Other Options: Eau Claire Chain of Lakes Muskies: Night is the time to chase giant muskies in the ultra-clear Eau Claire chain. Big Green Lake Trout: Electronics are invaluable for catching lake trout in Big Green Lake.
Walleyes: Green Bay
A serious deep-V boat with a large gas tank is necessary to safely chase giant walleyes cruising near many reefs and islands where runs of 20 miles or more are required to get to fish. The best time to fish is noon on a sunny day when Green Bay is glassy calm.
This is usually a trolling bite, pulling spinner rigs baited with ’crawlers or clown pattern Deep Husky Jerks and Rogues behind planer boards. Snap-jigging Shiver Minnows and Echotail blade baits, especially “Teddy Cat” pattern, around shallow rocks near steep breaklines can also be effective.
Good electronics are a key of consistent success. A unit with side/bottom scan and GPS with a Lakemaster chip is often essential in finding fish and returning safely. The first waypoint you should enter is the boat launch. Donning raingear before leaving the harbor is always a good idea.
Other Options: Pike Lake Chain Muskies: This chain of lakes near Iron River are underfished trophy muskie waters. Rock River Channel Cats: Sonny’s dip bait fished above snags in moderate current and with hard bottom produces.
Lake Sturgeon: Select Waters
Lake sturgeon season is short and has a one-per-year limit and tag requirement prior to fishing. These prehistoric giants don’t reach sexual maturity until about age 15; legal fish are often females, which grow larger than males.
Bait presentation and fish location are simple, adding to the species’ vulnerability. Target upstream edges of deeper river holes with a Wolf River rig with a 1- to 2-ounce pyramid sinker on a 6- to 10-inch dropper on one eye of a three-way swivel. On the other, tie a 2- to 3-foot dropper with two anise-scented ’crawlers impaled multiple times on a No. 6 octopus hook.
You’ll need substantial tackle and stamina to land a big lake sturgeon. The fight is not showy, but it is hard. Sturgeon fishing is legal on several rivers and lakes statewide.
Other Options: Lake Winnebago Walleyes: Winnebago is called “Wisconsin’s Walleye Factory” for a reason. Lake Owen Bass: Bass can see a Senko hit from 20 feet below in this clear water.
Muskies: Pewaukee Lake
This popular southeast Wisconsin lake sees incredible fishing pressure in the open-water period. Live bait is a good option after turnover in early October. Pewaukee is essentially two lakes during the fall transition period.
The east end is shallower, with fish hiding in submergent vegetation close to the water’s surface. Cast orange/black double-bladed bucktails over the weeds while holding the boat along the 8- to 12-foot contour, drawing fish out to contemplate a big sucker dragged behind a bobber in the boat’s wake.
On Pewaukee’s west end, ease along the 17- to 22-foot contour throwing a Bulldawg or Suzie Sucker toward shore while pulling the biggest sucker you can find. Most fish caught while casting will be less than 36 inches.
Big, fat girls over 40 inches will usually go for the meat.
Other Options: Chippewa Flowage Muskies: There is less pressure on the Chippewa flowage due to its vastness. Wisconsin Dells: Walleyes will be on fire at the Dells after mid-month.
Northern Pike and muskies: madison chain of Lakes
Both pike and muskies are active on the Madison Chain once the persistent algae bloom and weed growth subside the first week in November. Small bucktails — especially a Mepps Giant Killer with purple bucktail — work well after turnover, defying conventional Esox wisdom.
Remaining green weeds attract toothers throughout the chain. Smaller south-end lakes, Kegonsa and Waubesa, contain little structure. Concentrate on Quam and Colladay Points on Kegonsa. Rockford Heights out from Babcock Park and several natural springs at the south end near Goodland Park usually produce on Waubesa.
Mendota and Monona are larger with much more depth and structure. Main lake points and remaining green weeds are high-percentage spots.
Tiny Wingra next to the zoo probably gives up more muskies per surface acre than other lakes in the chain. It is prone to being crowded, though.
Other Options: Lake Namakagon Muskies: These stained waters offer the best, last chance to dance with a mongo muskie in the northwoods. Yellowstone Lake Crappies: Crappies are accessible to shore fishers when winter is knocking at the door.
Northern Pike: Puckaway Lake
Odds are you won’t best the 38-pound record northern caught here in 1952, but this 5,039-acre shallow basin lake in Green Lake County freezes early and still offers fast action on small- to medium-sized “snot rockets” for folks fishing large redtail chubs, small suckers and dead smelt under tip-ups.
Other than a couple of dredge cuts, Puckaway is essentially a freshwater sea of weeds with good vegetation survival until mid-winter. With little change in depth, it really doesn’t matter where you set boards. Nor do you need to pay attention to pegging the bait at a precise depth.
However, it is important to clear weeds away from holes. Using a quick-strike rig is the best way to fish smelt, ensuring the bait is horizontal when lowering it down the hole. Once a flag pops up, don’t set the hook unless the windlass is spinning, or you’ll catch more salad than pike.
Other Options: Nelson Lake Bluegills: This lake in Wisconsin’s north country offers superb bluegill action now. Spooner Lake Gills: Find the bluegill bite in shallow water through the ice.
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