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Best Bets for Wisconsin Fishing in 2012

Best Bets for Wisconsin Fishing in 2012
Walleyes remain a major species for Wisconsin anglers to go after, and with catches of fish like these two, it's little wonder. Photo by Ted Peck.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is a daily topic in cafes and taverns across this state. We all have opinions about ways they could do a better job of managing natural resources, often from a personal perspective that places our favorite fish or hunting pursuit above everything else in nature's grand design.

Truth is, our DNR does amazing work with an impossible task. Wisconsin is not two farm ponds and a small woodlot. We have two Great Lakes, rivers great and small, flowages, impoundments and more lakes than you can fish effectively in a lifetime.

Choosing just three dozen waters when they're likely to be at their very best presents a similar challenge. We're hopeful you'll find it easy to fault and ridicule our choices. The luxury of so many angling options close to home is not common in many of these United States.

We also have the Packers.

Life in the Land of Cheese may not be perfect, but we certainly have more than our share of the good life. Following are some promising angling opportunities just down the road from you in the great state of Wisconsin.


Petenwell Walleyes

The old river channel is a major key to fish location in this sprawling flowage of the hard-working Wisconsin River. Flats and humps just off the channel draw many species year 'round.

Probably most of the 'eyes you'll ice on any given day will be fat 3- to 7-pounders, which fall within the protected slot limit and must be released. The good news is there are both tremendous numbers of eater-sized walleyes and an honest shot at a 10-pound-plus trophy swimming in the system now.

Don't be surprised if tip-ups, tip-downs and jigging attempts intended for walleyes trigger other species. Petenwell is home to a solid population of honest slab crappies, stubborn catfish, white bass, muskies and sturgeon that are liable to find your hook on any given winter day.

Most who fish with guide Justin Kohn think he's weaving a fish tale when he talks about "The General," a 6-foot sturgeon that shows up about every third time Kohn sets up on a certain hump. Truth is, the fish is bigger than that. Kohn's phone number is (920) 229-3494.



Lake Onalaska Panfish

This shallow flowage on the north side of La Crosse has one of the most consistent winter panfish bites of any water in the southern half of the state. Catching a limit of bluegills in a couple of hours is seldom a problem. If you're looking for quality 'gills, jumbo perch or respectable crappies you may have to fish a little longer.

Most winter anglers drive out on the ice from one of several points on the lake. Perhaps the best access is out from the yacht club on the north end of French Island. By mid-February, many spots have less than 3 feet of water under the thick ice, with dredge holes in certain areas considerably deeper.

The lake around Red Sails holds plenty of pike, some of substantial dimension. A combination of tip-ups rigged for northerns and jig sticks set up for panfish are a recipe for getting young anglers forever hooked on winter fishing.


Fox River At DePere

There simply is no better place or time than the Fox River between Voyageur Park and the DePere dam in the spring for catching a wallhanger walleye in the state of Wisconsin.

This is no secret in our fishing-crazy state. It is almost possible to walk from boat to boat and cross the river there on any weekend in March and April, with occupants of almost every watercraft holding an honest shot at a trophy fish.

Those who are frequent visitors there know there are several tricks to tangling with both more and bigger walleyes. They are the ones who fish only during the week and who come prepared to fish all night long.

You won't see these folks using fire-tiger Husky Jerk Rapalas and ThunderSticks. They know all it takes to hook up is a 1/4-ounce orange fluorescent jighead with a 4-inch chartreuse twistertail fished in a steady cast-and-retrieve.

If these guys talk at all, they might tell you they are "crankbait fishing." A stiff but sensitive rod and baitcaster spooled with 50-pound super-braid line is no detriment to fooling fish in the dark, and a snag always holds the potential for retrieving the aforementioned lures that others have lost. My personal best night yielded nine lures and three walleyes over 28 inches, which were released.


Mississippi River

Closed season on inland lakes and the itch to get out in the boat fishing brings a flotilla of boats and anglers to several major Wisconsin rivers in April. It is common to see more than 100 boats within a mile below every lock-and-dam system on Old Man River at this time of year.

The average peak of spawning activity is within a week of April 20 every year, according to DNR fisheries personnel. True, thousands of walleyes move upstream to within a mile of the dam to spawn every year. But thousands more drop their eggs several miles downstream — and the daily limit on walleyes and saugers is an aggregate bag of just six fish.

Mid-April is a good time to fish at night below a Mississippi River dam. During daylight hours from ice-out in early March until it's time to get serious about turkey hunting, you'll see my Lund several miles below a dam on this water at least four days a week.

Forty years of fishing this river has revealed the wisdom of probing steep dropoffs and breaklines for pre-spawn fish. Favorite weapons are a floating jighead with a minnow on a three-way rig, hair jigs, especially purple or green-jigheads with plastic like a 4-inch ringworm and an assortment of blade baits and jigging spoons.

The most consistent key to success is finding the active depth on any given day. Catch a couple of decent fish at 19 feet in one spot and you'll likely find some at the same depth with similar habitat parameters elsewhere.

For best Wisconsin fishing options for May, June, July and August can be found on page two


Cohos At Racine

These tasty 3- to 8-pound salmon follow warming temperatures and baitfish northward along the Wisconsin coastline beginning in late April. Shallower water within a mile of shore warms quicker than it does in the deep blue waters of Lake Michigan.

Active salmon are usually found in the top 15 feet of the water column when these fish show up out from Racine. These fish can be very wary because of the close proximity to shore and clearwater conditions during those times when seas are calm enough to permit safe fishing from a smaller boat.

Periods of low light at dawn, dusk and on cloudy days usually produce the best action. Getting silver/blue stickbaits, trolling spoons and dodger/fly or flasher/fly combinations away from the boat is a critical step in consistently hooking up.

Planer boards and Dipsey Divers are great tools for accomplishing that presentation. If you have a seaworthy boat, trolling rods, Dipsey Divers and planer boards you can be a serious player with less than $100 of terminal tackle.

It's always a good idea to fish with at least one more angler when out on the Great Lakes. Three lines are allowed per person. Cohos tend to congregate in large schools. Having six lines go off with two anglers in the boat gives new meaning to the term "fire drill."


Upper Wisconsin River Muskies

Last June 1, I celebrated my birthday with guide Kurt Schultz on the upper Wisconsin River near Brokaw trying not to catch a muskie. We were successful, catching only smallmouth bass, three of which measured more than 20 inches.

In the couple of hours it took Schultz and me to catch and release 18 scrappy smallmouths, we saw two anglers on the shore tie into a pair of 40-inch muskies that ate crankbaits pitched willy-nilly with the anglers' spincast outfits.

Imagine what somebody with a serious Esox affliction and species-specific gear could accomplish if they were actually trying to catch toothers! The water north of Wausau holds the shortest odds of any fishery in the state for tangling with a legal muskie.

With a maximum depth of perhaps 6 feet over a rocky rubble and boulder-strewn bottom, lure selection is winnowed down to small bucktails and topwater baits. If you have two rods, put a Mepps Black Fury Giant Killer on one and a Cisco Kid Topper on the other. Keep the hooks wet and you will almost certainly move a couple of big fish.

Schultz knows these fish by name, chasing them out of a jet-driven tunnel hull boat. You can reach him at (715) 571-7132.


Pool 9 Bass

Diverse habitat in this Mississippi River pool south of Genoa supports tremendous populations of both largemouth and smallmouth bass that are easy to catch all summer long — if you know where to find them.

Almost all fishing in Old Man River is done beyond the navigational channel marked by red and green buoys. By July most aggressive smallmouths are lurking near rocks along riprapped shoreline or near rocky wing dams just off the channel, which are designed to funnel current.

Bomber A crankbaits, Mepps in-line spinners, Chug Bugs and soft plastics like the Chompers Salty Sinker and Skirted Hula Grub are all popular baits for brown bass.

Largemouths can be found near rocks, too. But probing backwaters and running sloughs around woody deadfalls and weeds is often more productive. One key to bass location is having water at least 4 feet deep running next to weed growth.

Buzzbaits, Sweet Beavers, swim jigs, spinnerbaits and Scum Frogs are all good weapons to coax these fish from their hiding spots.

There are few navigational aids beyond the main channel. Ever-changing river levels can make negotiating running sloughs and backwaters hazardous.


Northern Door Walleyes

Wisconsin DNR biologists say walleyes exceeding Wisconsin's longstanding 18-pound record are swimming near reefs and shoals in northern Door County right now. The best way to pursue a marble-eyed fish of dreams in this vast open water is pulling either stickbaits or crawler harnesses behind planer boards in precise trolling passes.

Ground zero is Chambers and the Strawberry islands where underwater points extend far out into the waters of Green Bay close to smaller submerged islands and several rocky reefs.

Horseshoe Reef is several miles from the closest landmass in the midst of otherwise deep water of Green Bay. That reef tops out just 1 foot below the surface, before dropping away quickly into 40 feet of water.

Schools of large walleyes stage in deeper water, pinning bait against the rocks when they feel like eating. Electronics will help you locate the fish, but catching them requires tweaking the crankbait or spinner rig presentation with varying distances behind planer boards, changes in colors and trolling speed.

You can find the best spots for Wisconsin fishing for September, October, November and December on page three


Pike Chain Muskies

Guide Josh Teigen says September brings two distinct bites for muskies in this chain of gin-clear lakes between Ashland and Superior. Some muskies move shallow as waters cool, making surface lures like the Top Raider and Weagle a good choice. Teigen also likes to throw single-blade bucktails, most notably the Mepp's Giant Killer.

The best time to pursue the topwater option is during periods of low light and on cloudy days. Under bright sky conditions Teigen probes deep weeds and areas around the chain's many fish cribs with Bull Dawgs and big double-bladed bucktails like the Bucher Mag Tinsel Double 10 over 15 to 20 feet of water.

Teigen says Buskey Bay is the lake to target if you're looking for action with many fish in the upper-30-inch range. If you're looking for a big muskie or trophy pike, the weedy waters of Eagle Lake are this guide's top pick, with Hart, Twin and Millicent lakes also worth a serious look. You can reach Josh Teigen at (715) 813-0575.


Chequamegon Smallmouths

This southern wing of Lake Superior is home to some of the biggest smallmouth bass in the state. Cooling water temperatures coax many of them toward offshore humps that top out 8 to 15 feet beneath the surface with much deeper water nearby.

Boat control can be difficult in the choppy water there unless you anchor up. If fish are present, you'll know it after making a dozen casts with clown pattern Husky Jerk Rapalas or small suckers fished on a Lindy rig.

Smallmouths tend to school by size when they go into this autumn pattern. If hooking 18-inch smallmouths on every third cast doesn't excite you, then try another spot where a much smaller school of fish of more than 6 pounds may be cruising — but Grandpa always said leaving active fish to go find fish doesn't make much sense.


Lac Vieux Desert

Any late-season muskie trip on this sprawling Northcountry water should begin and end with some serious fishing in deep water near the dam. This is boundary water, with some of the best fall fishing on the Michigan side of the state line. A Michigan non-resident license is a very good investment.

Big muskies are thinking seriously about feeding then, with winter closing in, but they want to expend the least amount of energy possible when chowing down. A prevailing wind for several days will stack bait — and muskies — on the windblown side of main-lake points.

Dress for winter. This may be your last and most exciting open-water trip of the year.


Chetek Chain Panfish

This northcentral Wisconsin chain of lakes may offer the most consistent winter panfish action of any water in the Northcountry, icing over about the time the firearm deer season comes to a close.

Most of the crappies, bluegills and perch swimming there aren't huge, but then most of the fish you catch will be of keeper size.

"Dead-sticking" a small minnow under a float while jigging a Rat Finkee or Bro Bug on another line usually produces almost constant action once you find the fish. Gold, pink, chartreuse and orange are all hot colors, with soft plastics just as effective as tipping the jig with a wax worm or a couple of spikes.

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