Some guys have it made because they can sit on a bucket all winter long and catch walleyes. If you aren't one of those lucky people, here are the best places to get your string stretched.
By Ted Peck
January is Dickie Urbonya's favorite time to walleye fish. And the more brutal the weather gets, the wider Dickie grins. He usually fishes tip-ups in his stocking feet from the comfort of a Lazy-Boy, watching for a flag through the picture window of his northwoods home.
The dream Dickie lives was a long time in the making. He used to talk about it after work when we were out there in all nature's fury, running tip-ups on the Madison Chain or Lake Koshkonong. He talked about those winter walleyes at work, too - especially when a deep-seated fire kicked us out of quarters in the middle of the night to pull lives and property from the clutches of the Red Devil as firefighters for the City of Beloit.
During his last year on the job we were feeling the exhaustion that only firefighters know, sitting in the middle of the street on big attack lines, pouring water into a commercial fire that had been raging for many hours. Urbonya was smiling. In his mind he was already living the dream he knows today, scarcely a stone's throw from a rock bar that brings walleyes up to feed almost every evening all winter long. When a flag pops, he tugs on an old pair of bunker boots, grabs the pail of shiner minnows and gaff by the door, and is back in the house before you can say "wind chill."
It's hard not to think of Dickie when I'm sitting out there on a bucket, back to the wind, or even from a truck seat or the warmth of a portable shanty with that winter wind snapping at the nylon sheath. Let's be honest. Waiting for a flag or heavy presence to inhale that Swedish Pimple on a jig pole isn't much fun in these toughest of all times to chase walleyes. But when they finally decide to eat, the thrill is tenfold greater than summertime when the fishin' is easy.
The following is a look at your easiest route to getting your string stretched by a walleye this side of Dickie Urbonya's cabin on Lake Chetek.
Now that he is retired from the Beloit Fire Department, the author goes fishing whenever he can. Photo courtesy of Ted Peck
GREEN BAY This vast western wing of Lake Michigan is in a class by itself when it comes to quality winter walleyes in Wisconsin. Folks catch them every night in Fox River below the De Pere Dam at the far south end of the bay, off of Peshtigo Reef a little farther north and on Larsen's Reef at Sturgeon Bay in Door County.
While walleye fishing at Sturgeon Bay is almost as good as the "good old days" a score of years ago, the trophy potential is right off the charts a little farther up the Door Peninsula on reefs out from Fish Creek. The Great Lakes crank out some of North America's biggest walleyes every year, and the action out from Fish Creek is destined to be mentioned in the same sentence with Michigan's Bays de Noc and the Bass Islands over on Lake Erie.
Some of this walleye-holding structure west of Peninsula State Park is easy to find. But the very best spots - like Orv's Reef where rocks come up from nearly a 100 feet deep to the very bottom of the ice - are a little tougher to locate.
Guide Brian Bliske has been on these fish for several years, icing a 15-pounder here last winter and a 16-pounder this past summer in a fanatic quest to topple the 18-pound state walleye record that has stood since 1931. There is no doubt that several myopic monsters on the heavy side of the record are swimming here right now. Catching the "New King" will require paying your dues on the extreme conditions of this northeast Wisconsin ice.
Angling conditions here can be dangerous. Big ice heaves. Huge drifts. The potential for white-out conditions on a blue-sky day. Don't even think about leaving the safety of shore without a GPS, a compass and a cell phone. Always fish with at least one buddy and have two means of transportation back to the mainland. Redundancy in planning can literally mean the difference between life and death.
Contacts: Guide Brian Bliske, (920) 429-0934 or www.lake-link.com/walleyewizard; Thorp House Inn & Cottages, (920) 868-2444 or www.thorphouseinn.com.
LAKE POYGAN The Winnebago Chain in east-central Wisconsin cranks out more walleyes than any other fishery in our state. Although the big lake they call Winnebago has by far the largest walleye population on the chain, the vastness of this lake basin and an abundant forage base combine to create tough fishing conditions during the winter months. You'll find more consistent success a little farther up the chain in shallow Lake Poygan, according to veteran winter walleye chaser Rick Fero.
"The bite on the Winnebago Chain changes every year," Fero says. "Your shortest odds are found in fishing troughs out in Poygan like Horseshoe Hole out in the middle of the lake, another deep trench directly out from the Herbst Bait Shop on the south side and several other southside humps."
Other anglers are a great "bird dog" the first couple times out. A crowd foregathered will tell you where the walleyes are, or at least where they've been in the recent past. Since there isn't much in the way of structure in the shallow marshy habitat of Poygan, fish are always on the move. Consistent success means you being mobile as well. Don't take the time to set tip-ups. Punch a bunch of holes and start jigging, throwing a "dumb line" down on a rig like the Arctic Warrior tip-up, which allows you to rig a jig pole in tip-up fashion. Swedish Pimples and Jigging Rapalas are the weapons of choice, but the new Lindy Ratl'r spoon is gaining a quiet following here.
Contacts: Dutch's Trading Post, (920) 922-0311; Lang's Landing, (920) 582-7501.
LAC VIEUX DESERT This 4,300-acre boundary water with Michigan is Vilas County's largest lake. Mention "The Desert" to people, and muskies rather than walleyes are the first thing that comes to their minds.
Northwoods guiding legend George Langley calls Lac Vieux Desert, "the most underrated walleye water in the northwoods," primarily because few people go after the multiple year-classes of legal walleyes that swim here.
Although fishing licenses from either Michigan or Wisconsin are valid on the ice here, Langley concentrates his hardwater efforts on the Wisconsin side of the lake.
"There is a long ridge that runs east-west off of the south shore that is pretty easy to find," Langley says, "and since the water here is so stained, walleyes are liable to bite all day lo
ng, even in the depths of winter."
If walleyes aren't active on the southside ridge, Langley targets deep weed edges out from the lake's western shore, focusing on 8 to 15 feet of water. This weedline runs pretty much all along the shoreline, with the best access at the state campgrounds off of West Shore Road about halfway up the lake.
More obvious walleye structure like points and humps off of islands can be found primarily in Michigan waters on the northeast corner of the lake. The only reason more anglers don't target Cow and Duck islands at midlake and the walleye structure across the stateline is a simple matter of access. Why travel 30 minutes in minus-20-degree windchills when you can walk out from the boat ramp on the west side and find fish?
Although a jigging stick is a way to occupy your hands while waiting for a tip-up to go off, you'll probably catch more fish by setting the three lines allowed by law on tip-ups and fumbling with a GameBoy while waiting for a bite. It generally takes less time for several folks fishing together to find active walleyes, covering the ice with tip-ups set up in a series of triangles that straddle that magic 8- to 15-foot zone on the weedline or on offshore structure. Shiners and medium sucker minnows are the baits of choice for Lac Vieux Desert walleyes.
Contacts: Eagle River Chamber of Commerce, (715) 479-8575; Eagle Sports, (715) 479-8804 or www.eaglesportscenter.com.
LAKE KOSHKONONG Boards are also the best way to target winter walleyes on Lake Koshkonong, a sprawling shallow basin lake straddling the Rock-Jefferson county line in south-central Wisconsin.
This wide spot of Rock River has a maximum depth of only about 6 feet when the lake is at normal pool. During winter months these waters are often drawn down even farther, effectively minimizing places fish can find comfort.
Crowds are the key to winter walleye location on Koshkonong. Stay a good 100 yards from the polka-fest out there on the ice where there is at least a couple feet of water under the hole, and the odds are that fish will be nearby.
Generally the best fishing is near midlake somewhere between Thiebeau and Carcajou points. Stealth is more important than time of day on Koshkonong, where Department of Natural Resources biologist Don Bush says at least five year-classes of fish in excess of the 15-inch minimum are swimming.
There are multiple access points around the lake. My favorite is on the east end off of Blackhawk Island, mainly because Rose at the Riverfront Resort makes the best bowl of chili in southern Wisconsin.
Contact: Riverfront Resort, (920) 563-2757; U-Catch 'Em Bait, (608) 754-7976.
LAKE NAGAWICKA This Waukesha County lake just northeast of Koshkonong also has multiple year-classes of walleyes waiting to eat your bait. But unlike Kosh, this 917-acre natural lake has a wealth of habitat to attract fish year-round.
Since we're looking at essentially a lowlight bite right now, your best option lies in poking a bunch of holes along the deep weed edge out to a transition zone on generally flat bottom at about 20 feet where 'eyes spend most of the day. Work toward shore as evening progresses. But don't camp too long at in-between holes. When fish decided to move, they go from deep to shallow in just a few minutes. Probably the best area to target right now is the large flat out from Nagawaukee County Park, with another option found on the rock bar out from the island on the lake's west end.
A good plan is setting two tip-ups close to the weed edge and working a third line with a No. 7 blue/chrome Jigging Rapala tipped with a fathead minnow on the bottom treble hook.
Contact: Dick Smith's Live Bait, (262) 646-2218 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
LAKE MENDOTA This crown jewel of the Madison Chain is one of the most heavily studied waters in the Midwest. The 9,800 acres found in this natural lake typically freeze over about Jan. 1, offering hot action on midlake humps and reefs during periods of low light at first ice.
A few upper-20-inch walleyes come through the ice here every winter, typically at first and last ice, with the standard mess of fish just under the 18-inch legal length in effect here.
Time of day plays a major role in midwinter walleye success here. Unless there is a major front moving in, the "walleye window" is less than an hour at dawn and dusk. There is some action for generally sub-legal fish all winter long along the deep weed edges off of main-lake points and on the lake's west end out from the beach. It's a long walk out to where the good fishin' is, almost exactly in the middle of the lake.
The City of Madison limits vehicles to 750 pounds, and requires approved flotation on snowmobiles and ATV's.
Contact: D&S Tackle & Bait, (608) 241-4225; guide Ron Barefield, (608) 838-8756.
GRINDSTONE LAKEIt's hard not for a Sawyer County walleye chaser to feel like a blind dog in a meat market with so many walleye lakes just a short hop from Hayward. One of the best is 3,111-acre Grindstone, where a two-daily limit and slot that protects all fish between 14 and 18 inches is having a profound effect.
Although there are several access points, your best is off of County K not far from Highway 70, according to Derek Knutson, who will be old enough to guide here for pay this time next year.
"The lake gives up several 10-pounders every winter," Knutson says. His personal best is a fat 31-incher, which hit a medium sucker under a tip-up on Center Bar two winters ago.
According to the DNR there are at least three solid year-classes of walleyes in excess of the slot limit restriction here, where it often takes less time to catch a limit fish than it does to get set up if you're on the ice during prime time.
Center Bar is the most popular spot for 'eye chasers this time of year. But Knutson says he often vectors to Kentucky Bar about 200 yards to the northwest when looking for a trophy fish.
Contact: Pastika's Sporting Goods, (715) 634-4466.
TAINTER & MENOMIN LAKES Thousands of cars on Interstate 94 pass over hungry walleyes every day in these two drainage lakes of the Red Cedar River in Dunn County, with few folks stopping to tap a hole.
According to the folks at Ken's Archery & Bait in Menomonie, the best action comes off of Elk Point and Clay Bar up in 1,752-acre Tainter Lake at first and last ice, with fishing in the river between Tainter and Menomin "a virtually untapped resource" due to concern over river currents.
If this winter turns into anything like the last one, the area out from the I-94 bridge pilings where the Red Cedar necks down at the entrance to Lake Menomin will be a great place to target walleyes again this winter. Plus there are several deep holes at outside turns between the two lakes worth exploring.
When probing the deep weed edges in the lakes, a tip-up is probably your best bet. But when fishing in the river, a jigging stick with a Swedish Pimple or Jigging Rapala at the business end is the only way to go.
Contact: Ken's Archery & Bait, (715) 235-3134.
WISCONSIN RIVER FLOWAGES Flowages of our namesake river are less than a two-hour drive from anywhere in America's Dairyland. New size restrictions that are now in effect on much of this fishery are already having a positive effect, with the average size of fish seeing a steady increase.
The serious nature of last winter enabled hearty souls to sneak out in the tailwaters of several flowage dams, the most notable being the tailwaters below the Prairie du Sac Dam at the downstream end of Lake Wisconsin.
It doesn't matter whether you are fishing Lake Wisconsin, Castle Rock, Petenwell, the Big Eau Pleine Reservoir or Lake DuBay up above Stevens Point, walleye action this time of year is in close proximity to the old river channel. A combination of tip-ups and a jigging rod is the best way to go.
Of all the flowages, Petenwell offers the most consistent winter walleye action. It is also the biggest flowage in the system at over 23,000 acres. Since these waters are generally stained, walleyes can bite just about all day long. However, there is practically no night bite for walleyes worthy of note.
The other major downside of harvesting fish from these waters is the taste, which is a lot like paper mill. But the fish are close to home no matter where you live and generally willing to eat. And catching 'em certainly beats taking the couch potato route this winter.
Contacts: Juneau County Chamber of Commerce, (608) 847-7838; Adams County Chamber of Commerce, (608) 339-6997; Mi Place, (608) 635-4020; Owen's Live Bait (608) 742-1357.
* * * There. Now there's no reason why you can't get your string stretched by a walleye or two this winter. You just have to get out after 'em.
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